haiku or not haiku, that is a senryu

Posted on Monday, December 27, 2010, under

Syllogism 1: Most Japanese don’t write poems / Most Japanese are not familiar with senryu / Most Japanese don’t write senryu.
Syllogism 2: Most Westerners don’t write poems / Most Western poets are unfamiliar with senryu / A small number of Western poets write senryu.
The above premises are most likely true, therefore the syllogisms are most likely sound. But, an important thing of note - thus Syllogism 3:
A number of Western poets have written haiku one time or the other / A haiku and senryu sometimes overlap, and are not easily differentiated / Therefore, a number of Western poets have unwittingly written a senryu, thinking they were writing a haiku.  

Apparently most poems published as haiku are in fact hybrids of haiku and senryu (about 60%, according to Elizabeth St Jacques). So, what is a Senryu? Here is an extract from Hiroaki Sato’s article ‘A Brief Survey of Senryû by Women’:

The 5–7–5-syllable senryû, like the hokku, derives from the longer verse form of renga. Unlike the hokku, however, which normally deals with natural or seasonal phenomena, the senryû is expected to deal with matters of human and social nature, often in a playful, satirical, or knowing manner. The hokku—called haiku today—carries a seasonal reference; the senryû does not have to.

The distinction between the two genres has been tenuous, however, from early on. In recent years the blurring of the differences has become such that Ônishi Yasuyo has said, “If someone asks me how senryû differ from haiku, I tell the inquirer that the only distinction that can be made is by author’s name”—that is, if the author is known to write haiku, the pieces he or she writes are haiku; if the author is known to write senryû, the pieces she or he writes are senryû. Ônishi herself is sometimes listed as a senryû poet, sometimes as a haiku poet.

Modern senryû, which dates from about the time of the haiku reform efforts of Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902), has taken such divergent perspectives as idealism, proletarianism, social realism, and individualism.

It could be thus argued that themes and concerns expressed by a senryu poem are closer to a Western sensibility, to a Western poem, than those expressed by a haiku. Here are some examples of modern senryu written by women, who in recent history have taken charge of the business of senryu composition in Japan.

I plant a cactus
in my eyes
and give up

Miura Ikuyo (born 1912)

I’ll trust this man
for now I take off
my tabi

Usui Kanojo (born 1925)

I close my eyes
I drop into sex
the bottomless swamp

The whole thing
the whole of it slips in
I slip in

Hayashi Fujio (1926–1959)

The bell insect dies
the bell insect’s food

I like humans
I’m being drunk
with humans

Morinaka Emiko (born 1930)

Suppressing yawns
suppressing myself
I remain wife

Every time I weep
I rise to my feet
like a man

Matsuda Kyômi (born 1942)

In Clothes Doubled
my reproductive organ
dies beautifully

The metaphysical elephant
drinks water
from time to time

Ônishi Yasuyo (born 1949)

The night I meet
my younger brother
I’m a Klimt woman

Running down
the giraffe’s neck
the orgasm

Seino Chisato (born 1948)

(source: http://www.modernhaiku.org/essays/senryuWomen.html)

If you feel like trying your hand at writing senryu, remember the 5-7-5 syllabic pattern is largely ignored these days, usually shortened for the sake of cadence. Should you however decide to stick to the traditional formula, bear in mind that to the English ear the rhythm is produced by a stress rather than by a syllable. Therefore, feel the stresses while counting the syllables.

This site gives a brief history of senryu. Did you know, for instance, that senryu means ‘river willow’ which was a pen-name of one Karai Hachiemon (1718-1790), a government official in Tokyo. Another extremely detailed and useful introduction to writing both haiku and senryu by Kathi Lippard Cobb – click here.

I fancied sticking my own senryu to photos. A compromising thing to do, I know. Anyway, here we go. Click on images to see a larger version.

The images come from this fabulous post in French dedicated to Maupassant's 'Horla'.

Happy Senryuing!

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