Modern Senryu

by Alan Pizzarelli

When I first began a serious study of haiku poetry under the tutelage of Professor Harold G. Henderson in 1970, one prerequisite was an understanding and appreciation of its related forms, i.e., renga, haibun, tanka and senryu. Of all these forms, it was senryu which had most captured my interest. In 1972, the following poem of mine was published in the Haiku Society of America minutes:

the fat lady
bends over the tomatoes
a full moon

Upon reading this poem, Henderson pointed out that this poem was, in fact, a senryu since its thrust and emphasis was the woman’s behind in addition to the juxtaposition of the lady’s roundness and the full moon. As I later studied the senryu genre, I learned that it was “a product of the merchant/townsmen culture of the 18th century, which celebrated the self-absorption disallowed elsewhere in Japanese society. It also provided new material for the poets to explore that the haiku (with its emphasis on Nature rather than Man) excluded.” 1 This came shortly after the quality of haiku and haikai deteriorated soon after the death of Basho.

Here are a few examples of this fine old senryu:

The bird set free,
Overjoyed,
Collides with a tree.

Anon. (early 18th century) 2

He shuts his eyes
To look for the wisdom
Inside his own body                                                      

Anon. (early 18th century) 3

Last night,
A lover’s quarrel,
This morning, a real one.

Anon. 4

Today much of the experimentation going on among contemporary haiku poets has displayed a need that goes beyond the limitations of haiku poetry. “Though an attempt at the revival of Old Senryu was made in the latter part of the 19th century, senryu never quite made it up the ladder as a respectable genre of poetry” 5 – until recently.

Unfortunately, it has gone unrecognised by the very poets who write them under the banner of haiku. I feel this is a great injustice to both the senryu genre and the haiku genre. Today, when we hear such terms as “political haiku”, “spiritual haiku”, “psychological haiku” and “metaphysical haiku” we need only to return to R H Blyth’s books on the subject of senryu to find prime examples of what is being called haiku today. For example:

Losing his job
He tries reading
Marx          

Sazanka 6

“Make a profit
On the next sale,” she says,
Haggling over the price.

Anon. (early 18th century) 7

As for the spiritual, any good haiku is indeed spiritual! And when we consider the metaphysical, one only needs to read the definition of the word to understand its irrelevance to haiku as it is “abstract” (as opposed to concrete) and it contains “intellectual imagery” (as opposed to direct observation).

This reminds me of a joke Anita Virgil told me about a man who goes into the tailor’s shop to get his new suit altered. The tailor begins with the sleeves. The man watches in the mirror and notices that one sleeve is shorter than the other. When he tells the tailor about it, the tailor says: “Just shift your shoulder up a bit … there! You see? It fits perfectly now.” But in the process, the man’s jacket has hiked up at the back and is uneven “No problem,” says the tailor. “Just bend your knee a bit and it will straighten out the hemline.” The man does as he is told and sure enough … the hemline seems to even out. The alterations continue. Finally, with his new suit fixed, the man goes out into the street wearing it. As he hobbles down the sidewalk with the gait of a cripple, two women see him. One says: “Oh, look at that poor, poor man!” The other woman eyes him a moment and responds: “Yes, but doesn’t his suit fit perfectly!”

Today, poets are displaying the innovative and wonderful potential of the senryu genre: Alexis Rotella’s

Trying to forget him
stabbing
the potatoes 8

George Swede’s

Unhappy wife
I pedal my bike
through puddles 9

or Marlene Mountain’s

he leans on the gate going staying 10

We can also rediscover some early senryu, whose acceptance was first under the aegis of haiku, such as Anita Virgil’s

After the child’s
funeral –
cake eating! 11

or Jack Kerouac’s

Missing a kick
at the icebox door
It closed anyway. 12

But they will not be recognised as such so long as they are touted as “innovative haiku” rather than approaches toward modern senryu.

Introduction to Senryu

Senryu focuses on people. Men, women, husbands, wives, children and relatives. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind. Even when senryu depict living things such as animals, insects, and plant life, or when they depict inanimate objects, they are portrayed with the emphasis on their human attributes.

Senryu can make use of poetic devices such as simile, personification, and metaphor. It can also employ puns, parody and satire. Unlike haiku, senryu are not reliant on a seasonal or nature reference, but they DO occasionally use them. When they do, it is secondary to the human comedy or drama underlying the poem.

Senryu are not all strictly intended to be humorous. Many senryu express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity.

As a poet, I have always found that one of the best ways to understand a particular poetic form is to read fine examples of the poetry itself. As editor, it is my intention to select the best possible examples of authentic English-language senryu that span the full range of the genre, in an effort to promote a better understanding and appreciation of senryu poetry.

**

Footnotes: 

1: Anita Virgil, The Art of Haiku, p145.

2: R.H. Blyth, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido, 1960), p51.

3: Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (New York, Twayne Publishers Inc., 1970), p183.

4: R.H. Blyth, Op. Cit., p337.

5: Anita Virgil, Op. Cit., p163.

6: R.H. Blyth, Senryu, p181.

7: R.H. Blyth, Op. Cit., p17.

8: The Haiku Anthology ( Cor van den Heuvel, editor, New York, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1986), p196.

9: Ibid. p235.

10: Ibid. p152.

11: Anita Virgil, A Second Flake.

12: The Haiku Anthology, Op. Cit., p113.

Editor’s note: This first part of this article (‘Modern Senryu’) first appeared in The Haiku Canada September 1987 Newsletter, Vol.3, No.1, pp 5-8, while ‘Introduction to Senryu’ first appeared in Simply Haiku, Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1. The two pieces have been merged by the author and appear here with his permission.

Alan Pizzarelli has been writing haiku and senyru for more than four decades and studied under Professor Harold G. Henderson in New York City. Alan has published 13 collections of poetry and his work has been widely anthologized, including in the highly respected collection, The Haiku Anthology. He is a poet and musician living in New Jersey and is co-creator of The Haiku Chronicles, a podcast website.

Advertisements