Some Thoughts on Senryu
History of Senryu 1
The originator of senryu was Karai Haciemon (1718-90), who took the pen-name of Karai Senryu (river willow). Born in Edo (Tokyo) he began as a haiku poet but in 1757 became a selector for a maekuzuke competition (a verse-capping game), the results of which were printed on a broadsheet – the first senryu publication. The first anthologies did not record the poets’ names, the anonymity encouraging ordinary people to take part, particularly when their poems were aimed at the country’s elite. Although Senryu did not write many poems himself, he was influential as a maekuzuke selector and editor. The name ‘Karai Senryu’ was handed to each of the men holding his position after him.
crying and crying
while taking the best ones:
sharing the keepsakes
The poetry style became hugely popular, particularly among the ordinary people of Edo, and some 200,000 senryu from the Edo period (1603-1868) survive today. After a period of glory in the Meiwa (1764-72) and An’ei (1772-81) periods, senryu gradually declined in popularity. However, it was revived in the Meiji era principally through the efforts of Sakai Kuraki (1869-1945) and Inoue Kenkabo (1870-1934) and at this time came to be called senryu.
There is a monument to Karai Senryu at the location where he judged the first maekuzuke. It has been said that Senryu judged over 2,300,000 verses in his lifetime. 2
Hino Sojo observed in 1952 that senryu essentially is literature that makes “readers nod in agreement”.
Understanding Senryu by Susumu Takiguchi 3
Humour and light-heartedness were an important attribute of haikai-no-renga as opposed to the more serious waka and renga genres, as the name haikai (comic) implies. The most important opening stanza, or hokku, carried this attribute, which was then ‘bequeathed’ to its offspring, haiku. Basho’s influence to elevate haikai-no-renga into a more serious form of literature meant that the same attribute became something more subtle, nuanced or even hidden. But Basho in his turn came to contemplate a new concept, karumi or lightness, in his last years, which included a sense of humour.
Even after senryu came into being, hokku and haiku retained humour. It is therefore a gross over-simplification and harmful to say senryu is all about humour and haiku is serious. When people talk about senryu they are really talking about a specific sub-division of senryu called jiji-senryu, or current-topic-senryu, which is full of humour, satire, irony, cynicism, banter, witticism etc. The current artificial dichotomy between haiku and senryu is a product of wide-spread pigeonholing by the analysis-crazy, definition-mad and classification-orientated zealots. They have done more harm than good. Senryu was in fact despised and largely dismissed in the West to the same and corresponding extent to which haiku was worshipped and put on a pedestal. It was common to hear someone criticising a haiku by saying, ‘That’s not haiku. It’s senryu’. Some even made a serious proposition that senryu should be abolished or banned.
Erroneous polemics on senryu seem to know no bounds but argy-bargies on the nature and function of senryu (e.g. its definition, differences between it and haiku, its necessary conditions) are, after all is said and done, largely just as futile, boring and being a waste of time as those of haiku. They are necessary, I accept, up to a point but after that the debates become counterproductive. If the author says it is senryu, then it is senryu. Whatever a poem may be, all that matters is that it should be good. We need no discussion on bad poems under any beautiful name.
These are all futile, unnecessary and time- and energy-consuming nonsense. The sooner they are stopped the better. If an author calls his/her work senryu, it is senryu. The only meaningful question is whether that work is good. The world abounds with appalling works under the beautiful name of haiku, senryu or anything else.
through my father’s jacket
skin and bones
the difference between
I am and I was
both by William Scott Galasso
from Rough Cut: Thirty Years of Senryu (Galwin Press, 2019)
Three Characteristics of Senryu by Susumu Takiguchi 4
Okashimi (humour) is one of the three main characteristics of Japanese senryu, the others being karumi (lightness) and ugachi (insightful observation). Okashimi ranges from the coarse and base to the subtle and sophisticated. What seems to happen is that the former is sought but ends up in the latter. Needless to say, the better okashimi, the better senryu.
During the elementary stages of our study of senryu, we try out all kinds of humour. Only then will we be in the position to be able to discern different types of humour and thus to start thinking which ones to include or exclude in our senryu. Okashimi can be classified from different points of view. The following is one such view:
- Crude (low) sense of humour [lavatory jokes, sex, jest, banter]
- Refined (high) sense of humour [subtle, sophisticated or refined witticism]
- Critical (cruel) sense of humour [satire, sarcasm, mockery, derision, caricature, ridicule, irony, tease, poking fun, poignancy]
- Home truths (‘ugachi’) [satire, mockery, pointed criticism, jiji senryu.
The usual characterisation derived from the erroneous distinction between nature (haiku) and human (senryu) is not only a gross over-simplification but also a harmful convention as it misleads us and muddies the water. This is because we humans have many non-humorous elements which would not lend themselves to senryu and therefore anything which talks about these elements cannot possibly be senryu. (We are not using the term ‘humour’ in this study in the sense it was used in the ancient Greek philosophy.)
Another reason is that nature as we know it is herself seldom humorous and on the whole humour belongs, as the term itself has been saying it all along, to us human beings, or more symbolically human nature. What may be funny about nature is the humour we humans read into nature. So, to say that senryu is not about nature but about human beings is really not saying anything at all.
Considering the duality of human tragi-comedy, starving senryu of humour and thus making it ’emaciated’ is as bad as expelling humour from haiku. It would only be to half understand humanity, if at all, and the half thus understood may well be questionable without at the same time understanding the other half.
As has been pointed out, one can make the most of all sorts of literary devices such as play on words, parody, allusion or irony. Many people worry about or just assume senryu as being a form of poetry. ‘You say this is senryu. But is it a poem in the first place?’ is the kind of thing I am referring to. At the elementary stages of learning senryu, this question is unimportant. In fact, it will hinder our progress. We can leave that question till the last.
Here are some examples of okashimi at work. My poem is based on a true story in Japan.
the first gunshot…
three policemen were the first
to scamper away
the president says
the president will investigate
the president . . .
A little test to see how far someone has come in the quest of true senryu is to ask if s/he knows ugachi, if so, whether he/she understands it, and if so, whether s/he can explain it cogently for others to understand.
I used to preside over an online forum called WHCsenryu whose purpose it was to write true senryu through rigorous study and lively exchange of views and opinions. It raised the general level of senryu understanding and the quality of the actual works. But some specific points proved difficult to comprehend – ugachi was the one thing which nobody came anywhere near having the slightest grasp of. After gargantuan efforts to explain it in every possible way, I finally gave up.
Here is another try 5 … Ugachi is a noun form of the verb ugatsu, or to bore a hole, penetrate, cut through or pierce. In addition to its physical sense such as digging a hole into a stone (drips of rainwater can bore a hole even in a stone), it has also come to mean to be inquisitive, to explore, probe, poke and pry, or to dig into. In other words, it means that someone in the know would reveal/expose/lay bare that which is not known widely or at all, often in a subtle way. The reaction of other people would usually be one of surprise and admiration at the cleverness of it all, especially if they realise that it is something they have in fact known all along but never brought to consciousness. If you think of somebody who would keep quiet until everybody else has finished commenting on something and then would mention something which to them is puzzling, far-fetched or too good to be true at first but which dawns on them to be spot on, hitting on the nail, he or she may well be exercising ugachi. Insightful, penetrating (a similar word!), shrewd and astute are some of the English words which come to my mind when thinking about ugachi. If it is coupled with a good sense of humour, it would make a good senryu. One of the most famous Japanese classic senryu having plenty of ugachi is
yakunin no ko wa nigi-nigi wo yoku oboe
of government officials learn
fast how to grab
My own attempt at ugachi:
covid-19 self-isolation …
secretly enjoying freedom
A Senryu Frame of Mind by Susumu Takiguchi 6
Let me take the Japanese tea ceremony as an illustration. In the pre-modern time, those invited to a tea ceremony were asked to leave swords and other items before entering the tea room through an entrance deliberately made small (one could not enter with the swords on). Thus, once inside everybody became equal regardless of their social status and was treated as such. In a similar way, those attempting to write senryu should leave preconceived ideas and definitions of senryu behind. However, it is not easy to do so because unlike swords, the things we need to leave at the door are all held in our mind. If we can apply the Zen practice of ridding oneself of all the unnecessary and harmful thoughts and preconceptions in order to empty one’s mind, it would be ideal.
Senryu Commentary by Susumu Takiguchi 7
only the ink remains
What strikes me first and foremost as distinct when reading this senryu is its cleverness. Not cleverness for cleverness’ sake. Senryu is in a sense about exercising our wit. This work certainly has outwitted others. Of all the factors that make it a clever senryu, the one I particularly wish to mention is that the full nature of the gossip column is depicted in the way converse to the more usual expression. Namely, instead of saying that the gossip column is full of smears, it says that there is nothing in the column which is not a smear except for the ink in which the column is printed. This reverse expression makes the senryu far more eloquent in its depiction of the sordid, false and ribald nature of the gossip column, which in turn is a reflection of us humans.
The word ‘gossip column’ conjures up an image of cheap and dirty newspapers or magazines from the association of ‘gossip’ which is dirty, untrue and cheap. However, in this senryu the ink is not smeared, indicating rather that they are expensive and glossy magazines. They must therefore be full of gossip about celebrities, TV personalities or politicians. Celebrity worship is one of the most depressing faces of our life. All this is a mirror-image of the decadence of modern time which has a rich surface but is filth and cultural poverty beneath it. Such a flash of penetrating satirical insight is called ugachi in Japanese senryu.
As for the basics of this work, it uses senryu-like words and topic (‘gossip’ and ‘smear’), has a sense of humour (okashimi), is light-hearted and yet deep (karumi), has brevity and style, demonstrates a twist (hineri), unexpectedness or surprise (odoroki or igai-sei: one expects to hear about the contents of the gossip but one is told, instead, about the ink), has clever wording (e.g. ‘remains’ indicates that everything else has been proved to be falsity and uncouth filth), displays mockery and satire, and above all ruthlessly reveals the ills of our society. Gossip magazines sell because of the high and enduring demand for them. We feed on what they provide us with. And what they provide us with is fool’s paradise. Therefore, we are enjoying looking at our own absurdities.
I have been following Raisfeld’s senryu for some time and feel strongly that with this senryu she has come to grasp the essence of the form. I can almost feel that inside her there is a kind of satori that has occurred with this senryu. Here, she is no longer comparing senryu with haiku and asking the age-old pointless question of whether or not this is senryu or haiku. There is absolutely no need to take such a circuitous and nugatory approach for her. Once you get it, you get it. The reverse is also the case: unless one grasps what senryu is by instinct or by practice one would never get there.
I have asked her what senryu means to her and am glad I asked that question. Here is her answer:
“As a poetic genre in its own right, senryu is liberating for me. I enjoy exploring its boundaries. Whether it be witticism or penetrating satire, senryu provides me a platform that allows for freedom of expression within a short form, while at the same time allowing the use of poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, puns or parody. The challenge of creating a scenario of human comedy or drama in three short lines is an adventure within the adventure.”
A Selection of Classical Japanese Senryu 8
now the man has a child
he knows all the names
of the local dogs
patching up a row
it returns to normal:
the wife’s voice
sheltering from the rain
the words on the notice
are learned off pat
‘she may only have one eye
but it’s a pretty one,’
says the go-between
letting rip a fart –
it doesn’t make you laugh
when you live alone
as it’s such a sweat
he cooks a whole gallon –
getting out of bed
for a pee, the wife
curses the chessmen
A Selection of WHR Senryu 9
your fourth phone call
canceling our get-together—
I got the message
Elizabeth Fanto (2005)
he pretends to walk
with a limp
Victor P. Gendrano (2005)
the intermittent tickle
of summer grass
Kirsty Karkow (2003)
Susumu Takiguchi says: What to me is false distinction in the West between haiku and senryu would classify this haiku as senryu. The indescribable sense of humour contained in this haiku makes the poem truly and properly a haiku.
A Selection of Modern Japanese Senryu 10
Nō meiku/ kaisha hairenu/ kao ninshō
minus makeup –
the facial recognition
refuses my entry
Ususa de wa/ sumaho ni makenu/ waga saifu
the latest smartphone
or my depleted wallet –
which one is slimmer?
Akikan-bi/ hoka no kan mite/ kakusa shiru
recycling day –
seeing others’ empty cans
makes me feel poorer
1: Mostly from ‘Senryu: Japan’s Short Comic Poetry’ by Masashi Kobayashi, a chapter in Understanding Humor in Japan, ed Jessica Milner Davis (Wayne State University Press, 2006).
2: Wikipedia entry for Karai Senryu, accessed October 24, 2020.
3: This section is composed of excerpts from two book reviews in World Haiku Review Autumn 2020, accessed October 26, 2020.
4: The original form of this essay was first published in the WHR in 2007. Accessed October 24, 2020.
5: These notes were written especially for this article.
6: This paragraph comes from the preamble to the Commentary that follows.
7: This commentary appeared in the WHR 5.1 (2005), accessed October 24, 2020.
8: Poems from The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse translated by Geoffrey Bownas & Anthony Thwaite (Penguin, 1964).
9: As selected by Susumu Takiguchi.
10: From 2018 entries to the Dai Sanjūikkai Sarariiman Senryū Konkūru, 31st Senryu for Salaried Workers Contest. Accessed October 24, 2020.
Editor’s note: This article has been compiled by Haiku NewZ editor Sandra Simpson with the kind help and approval of Susumu Tokiguchi, a Japanese poet, artist, and essayist who has lived in England since 1971. He began to write haiku “seriously” while researching Basho as lecturer in Japanese Language and Civilisation at the University of Aston in Birmingham. His haigo (nom-de-plume) is Ryuseki, which means “stream and stone” (or more mysteriously, “floating stone”).
Susumu is a member of the Japan Classical Haiku Association, the Haiku Society of America, and other haiku organisations. He served as vice-president of the British Haiku Society and in 1998 founded the World Haiku Club. He is acting editor in chief of the World Haiku Review.