The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu

In 2004, in Ogaki, Japan, I gave a presentation on the difference between haiku and senryu at the second Haiku Pacific Rim conference, complete with a handout of poems that I asked participants to categorize as either haiku or senryu. The poems were all from an issue of Frogpond in which the editor had assigned the poems to one category or the other. I usually disagreed with the editor’s categorizations, at least of the senryu, and this unease was one motive for the presentation. For my 2004 presentation, I adapted the following text, which first appeared in Haijinx 1:1, spring 2001. While I think the stance offered here has some use in a very general way, I now disagree with much of it, especially regarding the four categories quoted from Tom Lynch’s Ph.D. dissertation. To understand why, please see Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Haiku and Senryu But Were Too Busy Writing to Ask.”


Haiku and senryu each have colourful histories in Japan. In Japan, so I’m told, haiku groups don’t write senryu, and senryu groups don’t write haiku. But in the west, a poet who writes haiku will also frequently write senryu, tanka, and others genres of poetry. As a result, Western haiku poets are perhaps more often confronted with the question, what is 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. Nevertheless, for analytic purposes, I think poems that are haiku or senryu fall into four categories:

  1. Serious nature poems (typically with a season word, but to my mind needn’t always have one).
  2. Serious human-centered poems.
  3. Humourous nature poems (rare).
  4. Humourous human-centered poems.
Categories 1 and 4 are clearly haiku and senryu, respectively. The poems in categories 2 and 3, however, fall into grey areas, and it is poems in these areas that cause most people problems.
        Here’s a diagram, derived from Tom Lynch’s Ph.D. dissertation on haiku and Emersonian poetics (University of Oregon, 1989), that outlines the four categories—my source for the four categories introduced above:

 

Natural

Human

Serious

1. Haiku

2. ?????

Humourous

3. ?????

4. Senryu


When a poem falls into the grey areas of categories 2 or 3, and if one insists on categorizing such poems (one may choose not to), then one has to exercise discretion based on the tone or mood of the poem. I tend to think that if a poem is serious, then it is more likely haiku (that is, poems in categories 1 and 2 would be haiku, more likely). Some people think that if a poem is humourous, even if about nature, that it is a senryu, but here I would disagree. I think poems in category 3 also tend to be haiku rather than senryu.
        Of course, final judgment of a poem, if one insists upon it, depends on the poem itself, but I tend to find that most poems in categories 1, 2, and 3 are haiku, although categories 2 and 3 do lean on some aspects of senryu. It may be more accurate to say that all four categories are “haiku,” and that “senryu” is simply a subset of haiku.
        Some people take issue with this latter claim, however, and make very sharp distinctions between haiku and senryu—and I understand that this is particularly the case in Japan, where haiku and senryu are much more vigorously defined and segregated. In the English language, my feeling is that too much emphasis can be placed on making the distinction—to the detriment of pure enjoyment of good poetry. So long as one has one’s priorities set, an exploration of the distinctions can prove interesting, especially if it helps one improve the quality of one’s poetry.
        Another way to explain the relationship is that haiku and senryu are “cousins”: they are not too distantly related, but do have the same grandparents. In other words, some “facial” features are similar, but they are not as closely related as brothers or sisters.
        At the very least, I think humour is underappreciated in both haiku and senryu, as are satire and irony—all good techniques that, if handled skillfully, without veering off into poetry that is merely superficial joking, can make for lively poetry.