Senryu February

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kay, CaptainGaijin, I put the word in bold so you can hurry your way to another site of your choosing. Cuz, here’s another senryu post. I’m talking about senryu in class today so as I was jotting down my thoughts, I thought I’d share some of them with you. No tuition necessary, although donations to the Onigiriman Relief Fund are appreciated.

Last year, we had six senryu salons and I was flattered with the everyone’s participation. There were a total of 56 different participants–a little less than quarter of my subscribers–but only 16 who participate 3 or more times. Oh well, that’s okay. I can’t imagine what I’d have done if all participated at once!

Anyway, after a half year of practice, I think we are getting the hang of this, and it is now time to take a step up, to really get into the meat of what senryu really is: A poetry that attempts to capture through a snapshot a satirical or poignant moment that highlights the foibles of man and the society in which he lives. Let’s take a brief look at the origins of senryu. According to The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001:

Senryu: a Japanese poem structurally similar to the haiku but primarily concerned with human nature. It is usually humorous or satiric. Used loosely, the term means a poem similar to the haiku that does not meet the criteria for haiku.

Okay, I teach at a college that would never be confused for Columbia, but this definition is far too “loose”, even if it admits to it. A senryu is NOT a haiku. The only thing they have in common is the syllable count.

Senryu is said to have come out of haikai–a form of linked verse in which three poets take turns composing poems that are related to only the previous poem. But haikai–originally comical–was “elevated” by Basho as a form that expressed deep human sentiments. There is also the view that the poetry of Basho’s late years was the prescursor if senryu–his poetry manifested the attitude of karumi–lightness–which focused on images of humans and the mundane features of their lives.

The bottom line is that no one is really sure where it “came” from…

But, we do know that its name came from a poet who mastered the form of comic–often irreverent–observations of human life: Karai Senryu (1718-90). Senryu–lit. meaning willow river–was a town official in Edo (modern day Tokyo) and a haikai poet, but more famous as a judge for maekuzuke–literally, attaching to the previous verse. In simple terms, the judge, or other noted haikai poet, would provide a 14 (7-7) syllable verse and participants would attach their 17 (5-7-5) syllable verse to complete it. Normally, the tsukeku–attached poem–had to respond to the judges verse, the maeku (previous verse), in a comical, amusingly unexpected way. This meant that many of the verses relied on puns or made fun of people in everyday life, especially the important people. Prizes were awared to those who were selected by the judge as superior.

In 1765, Senryu’s disciples published a collection of superior verses called Yanagidaru (willow barrel). What makes this collection significant is that it is the oldest extant collection of tsukeku without the maeku. In other words, the tsukeku had to stand by themselves. Interestingly, it was understood that many of the tsukeku could be edited by the judge, and as a result, most of the verses–even though written by many different people–were often associated with the judge…

And a genre was born.

Now, back to the original issue. What is the difference between haiku and senryu? Basically, haiku focuses on the nature, both natural and human, often expressing both the momentary and the eternal. Each verse must make reference to a season with a seasonal word. It must also have a kireji–cutting word–that separates the two essential parts of the poem.

Perhaps the most famous poem by Basho is:

古池やかはず飛び込む水の音

furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
old-pond (emphatic) frog  jumps-in water (attributive) sound

This haiku must have at least a million different translations. But you’ll have to live with mine:

Ah, an old pond
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

Strictly and grammatically speaking, it should read: Ah, an old pond–the sound of water into which a frog jumps. The effect of the relative clause–“into which a frog jumps”–gives the Japanese reader the sense of “the sound water makes when a frog jumps in.” In any event, the poem provides a seasonal word–frog–suggesting spring. It also conveys the eternal–old pond–and the momentary–sound of water. The effect is to express the universality of nature, both at once absolute and ever changing. The contradiction of this image speaks to the world itself, our world where things seem to be absolute, eternal and yet no so.

In contrast, senryu gets rid of nature. And it gets rid of the eternal, focusing only on the moment, usually a very human moment.

Cutting a fart
but it’s not even funny–
one living alone

While funny, this particular anonymous verse reveals the loneliness of the person. If there were others at home with him, cutting the cheese would arouse comment and maybe laughter, but when alone that would not be the case.

The wife is away
so he spends the whole day
looking for things.

A snapshot of the relationship between married couples. Actually, I can really relate to this poem, as I am always asking M where things are, especially in the kitchen.

In any case, the beauty of senryu–to paraphrase Haruo Shirane–is its ability to reveal human weaknesses and failings, and pointing out the contradictions we face in life.

So are you guys ready to write verse that can reveal human weaknesses and failings? Well, if you are particularly sarcastic and cynical–like me–then this should not be a problem. And for those of you cut from gentler, more optimistic cloth, you can at least pretend to be mean and cynical… Hahahahahha.

February’s Topic: forget, or any of its adjective or noun forms.

For some basic pointers–such as syllable count, grammatical structure–read this and this. Remember that I will accept only one senryu and in general the first one only. Be sure to submit your senryu to this post. I will leave a link on my front page. Sorry, participation is limited to subscribers only.

If you want to read previous submission, click on “previous senryu” above for quicker access.

Good luck.

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One Comment on “Senryu February”


  1. Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.
    Douglas Adams- Posters.


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