Should Senryu be Part of English-Language Haiku?

by Jane Reichhold

Thanks to the instant connectedness that the internet brings us, even the most obscure concepts and ideas leap from continent to land mass – heart to mind – within days. The addition of e-mail puts our desks, anywhere on the globe, next to each other. In this new atmosphere of closeness, I would like to ask all the editors of haiku magazines – paper and online – and the officers of haiku groups, as well as writers who love haiku, to reconsider their stand on the issue of senryu. They need to re-evaluate the history and current situation of senryu, and to make clear how we are to go forward in regard to its relationship to haiku.

A simple web search can bring anyone the history of senryu with its origins in the maekuzuke (an informal contest to write a tan renga with two links of 5-7-5 and 7-7 sound units written between two persons). In 1765, the first collection of these capping verses was published as Haifu Yanagidaru by Karai Hachiemon, whose pen-name Senryu meant ‘River Willow’. Over the next 100 years 160 further editions were published until the resulting poems were deemed too raunchy and poor quality to publish. Currently there is an effort to rehabilitate and resurrect senryu by the Japanese. What may not be so easily discovered is how the various writers and publishers of English haiku differ from writers and publishers of Japanese haiku and senryu. I would like to lead you through various divergences and how we have come to the situation where we are now.

In Japan the difference between a haiku and a senryu is very clear. Traditionally a haiku is signed and senryu are not. Japanese haiku has a kigo (season word or reference) and the senryu does not. In modern times this rule has been relaxed to the degree that is beginning to cause a blurring of the boundaries between the two genres in Japanese also. In English-language haiku we blurred that line long ago as we blithely wrote so many of the poems we called haiku without a solid knowledge of season words and how to use them.

The best distinction we could devise was to say haiku were about nature and senryu were about human nature. This argument was dissolved by the understanding and recognition that humans are indeed a part of the natural world and to make this separation was not only foolish, it was invalid. Without argument, we are a part of the natural world. Even from the beginning of English-language haiku, many of the observations were based on understanding human action and reaction. This trend was reinforced by our study of, and experiments in, the related poetry form of renga which contained haiku and haiku-looking poems reflecting humanity and human actions.

Perhaps if we had kept, and popularised, the Japanese terms of hokku (the first stanza of a renga) and haikai (any stanza in a renga) we could have seen more clearly the differences and then had available the proper terms for naming two kinds of haiku. Too soon after the first translations from the Japanese into French, which kept these terms, early English translators adopted Shiki’s invented combination word – haiku – and it seems, in spite of some efforts to untangle the knot, we are stuck with calling our poems haiku. I do not see this as a problem.

For me, the greater difficulty arises when we, with our English-language haiku, try to incorporate the concept of another form called senryu.

Since English-language haiku and English-language senryu have exactly the same form, the same subject matter and most of the time, the same attributes, some people have tried to define the two as Michael Dylan Welch does: 1

I think poems that are haiku or senryu fall into four categories:

  • Serious nature poems (typically with a season word, but to my mind needn’t always have one)
  • Serious human-centered poems
  • Humorous nature poems (rare)
  • Humorous human-centered poems.

Categories 1 and 4 are clearly haiku and senryu, respectively. The poems in categories 2 and 3, however, fall in grey areas, and it is poems in these areas that cause most people problems.

The quandary this puts us in is the fact that no two persons can agree on what is ‘humorous’ and what is serious and how much satire, or humour, or wit causes a poem to cross from one genre to the other. Since the hai of haiku can be translated as joke, or comic or funny there is no reason to find a reason to call some of the haiku as senryu based on humour. I maintain that since humour or comic is part of the name, English-language haiku is capable of incorporating any degree of wit or satire, or indeed any feeling humans experience.

Yet this old idea that one of the two ‘kinds’ of haiku should be called senryu still exists. Even editors who may not agree on this will continue to publish haiku under the double name of haiku-senryu. Often they will admit they cannot tell, or want to decide, the difference between the genres so they avoid the issue or cover their bases by making a new compound word.

Even Michael Dylan Welch tempers his definition with: “The difference between haiku and senryu? To some degree it doesn’t matter, if one’s focus is purely on good poetry, because these labels are the tools of academic analysis, not poetic appreciation.” 2

This comment simply avoids the issue. As publishers of haiku we need to be informed, to inform, and to respond to the situation for several reasons.

  • In Japan senryu are not a part of the haiku scene and are not written by members of the haiku community. They never have been and hopefully never will be.
  • Japan has a ranking system for poetry that is very severe and clear. On the top are tanka poets, then come haiku writers and lastly there are those who write senryu. By trying to be democratic we have opted to include senryu as a part of our haiku poetry. The Japanese clearly do not.
  • In one way the Japanese ranking system did transport itself into English-language haiku in the early days. Then the term ‘senryu’ was a pejorative one for unsuccessful, immature, or haiku that failed in some way. This, thank goodness, is slowly being forgotten to the extent that some people now actually call themselves senryu writers.

I recognise there will probably always be people who enjoy seeing themselves as the rebels, the ones who say they bring more fun or impropriety to haiku. For this, or some other reason, they wish to keep the term of senryu alive and active.

If they decide to do this, I feel they have an obligation to find some way to give their poetry form, called senryu, a visual or typographical marker to distinguish it easily from haiku. Here is the chance, in English, to assist writers so they can clearly indicate that a certain poem is meant to be a senryu and not a haiku, if that is what they want.

Since there seems to be considerable interest in one-line haiku, I would hesitate to try to make the rule that three-line poems are haiku and senryu are one-liners. This idea, at some level, would make sense since many Japanese senryu do not have the kire or kireji – cut or cutting words. This fact makes them, when translated correctly into English, appear as a complete sentence. I feel that one-line haiku are making interesting advances in the form and the way it is read and would regret seeing it relegated into this lesser genre.

Even the idea of having a two-line haiku has grounds for being from the two-line stanzas in renga (linked verse) and in the rarer explorations of parallels in haiku.

One suggestion to consider, since so many modern haiku are now being written in lower case, without caps and very little punctuation, is to require that senryu, written in either one line or three lines begin with a capital letter and end with a period. This would underscore the idea of a senryu as a sentence and bring it more in line with the Greek poetry forms of epigrams and aphorisms. We already have an example of this in the work of Alexis Rotella who, by the founding of the magazine Prune Juice, set herself up as the standard bearer of senryu, is one of the rare writers still using caps and punctuation in her haiku and what she calls senryu.

As Charles Trumball pointed out to me, R. H. Blyth used a system of indentations to indicate senryu. A haiku would be typeset as:

Autumn sun
Red on the leaves
Of the maple.

A senryu would be set as:

The autumn sun
       Is red on the leaves
Of the maple.

But would it not be easier to identify a poem as a senryu if it looked like this?

The autumn sun
is red on the leaves
of the maple.

What I am asking for is that every editor of haiku considers dropping the word ‘senryu’ from his or her category of published poems. We ask that you stop naming our poems in this incorrect manner.

From May 2012, we made the AHAforum a senryu-free site. What the phrase means is that no haiku on the site should be labelled as a senryu by the author or anyone else. This does not mean that the word is banned or that no one can use it. Of course, if there is a discussion on the subject we can use the term.

Another example of this action to remove senryu from the haiku scene is evidenced in the Afterword of the anthology of German haiku, Haiku hier und heute – Haiku here and today. 3 There the editors, Udo Wenzel and Rainer Stolz, after a paragraph with a clear assessment of the present situation of confusion caused by senryu in the haiku community conclude: “Daher wurde diesem Begriffspaar in unserer Auswahl keine Beachtung geschenkt (Therefore these terms are not given any attention in our collection).” Here is a step in the right direction.

It seems especially necessary for the Haiku Society of America (and haiku groups of other countries) to return to being a haiku organisation and leave senryu to the senryu writers. If HSA will not permit tanka into the organisation, what grounds do members have for supporting senryu by continuing the name with a contest? 4

None of the Old Masters of Japan wrote senryu; why do we still drag senryu into our haiku community?

For those of you who wish to support and promote senryu, I feel you have an obligation to consider, with all seriousness, how you can create a form or typographical arrangement that instantly identifies the poem is not a haiku, but is intended to be a senryu. For too long you have hidden under the skirts of haiku writers and caused confusion and misunderstanding.

Besides, none of us can pronounce senryu properly!


Further reading:
Senryu as a Dirty Word by Jane Reichhold.

1: The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu by Michael Dylan Welch.
2: Ibid.
3: Udo Wenzel and Rainer Stolz, editors Haiku hier und heute – Haiku here and today. In German only. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2012. ISBN: 978-3-432-14102-4.
4: The Gerald Brady Award for Senryu.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Modern Haiku 44.1 and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

Jane Reichhold (1937-2016) wrote more than 30 books, mostly on haiku. She was a three-time winner of the Haiku Society of America Merit Book Award, and won two Museum of Literature Awards (Tokyo) for her haiku. She started the AHA publishing company (and now a website) in 1987. Her  translation of all of Matsuo Basho’s haiku, Basho: The Complete Haiku (Kodansha International) was published in 2008 and her second edition of A Dictionary of Haiku in 2013. Jane lived in Gualala, California.