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Poetry Guide: Senryu

Senryū (川柳, literally 'river willow') is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer syllables in total. However, senryū tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryū are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are serious. Senryū do not need to include a kigo, or season word, like haiku.

The form is named after Edo era haiku poet Senryū Karai (柄井川柳, 1765-1838), whose collection Ifūyanagidaru (誹風柳多留) launched the genre (and hence his name) into the public consciousness. A typical example from the collection:

泥棒を dorobō wo
捕えてみれば toraete mireba
我が子なり wagako nari
The robber,
if I catch,
my own son

This senryu that can also be translated "Catching him / you see the robber / is your son" is not so much a personal experience of the author as an example of a type of situation (provided by a short comment called a maeku or fore-verse, which usually prefaces a number of examples=senryu) and/or a brief=witty rendition of an incident, from history or the arts (plays, songs, tales, poetry, etc.). In this case, there was a historical incident of legendary proportion.

Some senryu skirt the line between haiku and senryu. The following senryu by Shūji Terayama copies the haiku structure faithfully, down to a blatantly obvious kigo, but on closer inspection is absurd in its content:

かくれんぼ kakurenbo
三つ数えて mitsu kazoete
冬になる fuyu ni naru
Hide and seek
Count to three
Winter comes

Terayama, who wrote about playing hide-and-go-seek in the graveyard as a child, thought of himself as the odd-guy out, the one who was always "it" in hide-and-go-seek. Indeed, the original haiku included the theme "oni" (the "it" in Japanese is a demon, though in some parts a very young child forced to play "it" was called a "sea slug" (namako)). To him, seeing a game of hide-and-go seek, or recalling it as it grew cold would be a chilling experience. Terayama might also have recalled opening his eyes and finding himself all alone, feeling the cold more intensely than he did a minute before among other children. Either way, any genuinely personal experience would be haiku and not senryu in the classic sense. If you think Terayama's poem uses a child's game to express in hyperbolic metaphor how, in retrospect, life is short, and nothing more, then this would indeed work as a senryu. Otherwise, it is a bona fide haiku.

Much modern haiku is more similar to senryu than to traditional Japanese haiku. Most English haiku and senryū poets no longer adhere to the 5-7-5 syllable form, which is suitable for the Japanese language, but which may lead English poets to produce over-long and sometimes stilted poems. Many modern haijin (haiku/senryu poets) use the "one deep breath" rule: take a deep breath and you should be able to read the poem aloud.

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