Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Haiku and Senryu But Were
Too Busy Writing to Ask
First published in Prune Juice #18, March 2016. Originally written in July and August of 2015. The Haijinx essay referred to in the opening sentence is adapted at “The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu.” +
In the spring of 2001, I published a short essay in Haijinx 1:1 titled “The Difference Between Haiku and Senryu.” It shared the following grid from Tom Lynch’s Ph.D. dissertation on haiku and Emersonian poetics (University of Oregon, 1989):
I wrote in favour of this grid, saying that poems of either the haiku or senryu persuasion fall into one of the grid’s four numbered categories:
Serious nature poems (typically with a season word, but to my mind needn’t always have one).
Serious human-centered poems.
Humourous nature poems (rare).
Humourous human-centered poems.
I suggested that 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, but added that I thought poems in those two grey areas could most often be considered haiku. That’s because the masters of haiku frequently seriously wrote about human subjects (category 2), and that it’s also possible to write haiku about nature in a humourous way (category 3).
Where I now disagree with my earlier point of view is largely regarding Tom Lynch’s grid. It feels helpful on an introductory level, but less so on a specialist level—and may even promote an oversimplified and perhaps even misleading sense of the difference between haiku and senryu. Moreover, when one tries to assess poems with it, it soon feels like it encounters limitations. As I said in my brief essay, poems in categories 2 and 3 are often haiku anyway, so the grid seems to be of limited value other than proposing that humourous poems about humans are nearly always senryu. The grid also takes no account of the use of kigo and kireji, or of tones other than humour. In her haiku book Flower Moon Snow (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1977), Kazue Mizumura refers to kireji as “soul punctuation,” and defines it as “virtually untranslatable emotional shading” (8). It’s that shading, which contributes to the flavouring of haiku, that’s less prevalent, perhaps even entirely absent, in senryu. Senryu aims more at the head than the heart, more at the intellect than the soul (and in this sense, many so-called avant-garde gendai haiku may be more akin to senryu than haiku). Where haiku are subtle, senryu are blunt. Where haiku are shaded, senryu are lurid. Indeed, I now think it’s an error to position humour versus seriousness as one of only two dichotomies dividing senryu from haiku (although these traits are an obvious influence). Likewise, I now think it’s an error to position human content versus nature content as the only other dichotomy dividing senryu from haiku (although again another influence). There’s so much more to it.
In Japan, for starters, the distinction is fundamentally social—one is a member of a haiku group or a senryu group, but seldom both, if ever. Thus whatever one writes is viewed through the rose-coloured glasses of whether the poet usually writes haiku or senryu. And I understand that this is usually done without regard to the traits of the poem itself. But let us leave aside that social distinction as one isolated to the Japanese culture, especially if we are to consider haiku and senryu written in English.
In English, my feeling is that the distinction between haiku and senryu is mainly tonal—and not just humour verses serniousness, because there can be funny haiku and serious senryu. As I’ve written on the “Haiku and Senryu” page of my Graceguts.com website, haiku is a brief genre of poetry that typically captures a moment of sensory perception, often with a seasonal reference (kigo, or season word) and a two-part juxtapositional structure (equivalent to a kireji, or cutting word) that conveys or implies an emotion. Senryu (more accurately presented in English as senryū, with a macron) is similar to haiku except that it tends to be more satirical or ironic in tone, and does not need to include a season word or two-part structure (although some senryu may still include these elements yet still be considered as senryu). Some people think of haiku as focusing on nature, with senryu focusing on people, but this is misleading. Many haiku by the Japanese masters also focus on people (think of Buson’s poem about stepping on his dead wife’s comb), so having human content is not a distinguishing factor. Furthermore, haiku is actually a seasonal poem, not strictly a nature poem (many of the kigo that haiku aim at are in fact not nature-related), although nature often comes along for the ride. Instead, it is usually tone that differentiates haiku and senryu.
So here’s the gist of the matter: Haiku tend to celebrate their subjects (even if dark), whereas senryu tend to have a “victim,” and may or may not be humourous. I don’t mean that they are about a victim as a subject, but that the poem itself victimizes the subject, even if lightly, yet may do so without preaching or holier-than-thou moralizing. Haiku typically treat their subjects reverently, whereas senryu do so irreverently. Haiku try to make a feeling, and senryu try to make a point. And if haiku is a finger pointing to the moon, senryu is a finger poking you—or someone else—in the ribs.
As a consequence of these thoughts, I would retain the serious versus humourous dichotomy from Lynch’s grid (because it encompasses tone), but I would entirely remove the natural versus human dichotomy. I would add cutting word versus no cutting word, season word versus no season word, and make room for other tonal characteristics, such as reverence versus irreverence, and whether the poem is more like a finger pointing to the moon or a finger poking you in the ribs. Perhaps even the degree of objectivity versus subjectivity is a factor as well. These more realistic dichotomies would make for a much more complicated grid, but that, I’m afraid, is the point. The difference between haiku and senryu isn’t as simple as nature/human and serious/funny distinctions. This is also why some folks continue to have trouble with this issue, and why the debate of differentiating between haiku and senryu will continue.
The matter set aside earlier, however, further complicates things. In Japan you will find serious poems with seasonal references and even two-part structures (even if formal kireji are not used). These haiku traits are incidental, though, and the poems are considered senryu because they are written by a so-called “senryu” poet. But more than that, they typically offer, by implication at least, a critique of the human condition. In other words, they are saying “This is what it’s like to be human,” or “This is what it’s like to be a particular kind of human.” So on that point (that they have a victim of sorts), they match my sense of how we in the West might apprehend the difference between haiku and senryu. But on many other counts, the poems in Japanese may seem very similar to haiku. And that’s where the Japanese social construct comes into play—as mentioned, the distinction often boils down to whether the poet usually is a haiku poet or a senryu poet, and then the poem is considered almost exclusively in that framework, which often correlates to whether the poem is presented in a haiku or a senryu context.
Indeed, in Japan, prevailing Japanese social structures settle the question, where one’s work represents the group one is in. We don’t have this social influence for our poetry in the West. We are nearly always left to look at the poem itself, or perhaps consider the poet’s intent, if known—never mind that the poet’s intent might be misguided. Should we therefore conclude, at least in the West, that it’s all much ado about nothing? Is there a sharp divide between the two genres, or is there a continuum between the two, a continuum that extends beyond both of them to embrace other short poetry?
In the West, for both haiku and senryu, the context in which a poem is presented may still make a difference. If a poem happens to have a cut, seasonal reference, and serious subject matter but is presented on a senryu discussion page on Facebook, for example, we may be inclined to consider the poem in terms of senryu. This would be despite the poem’s haiku characteristics. Likewise, if a one-part poem with no seasonal reference with a lighter tone is presented in a haiku context (where senryu are typically avoided or unexpected), we might well consider the poem in terms of haiku rather than senryu. But a third option is also possible, for both types of poems. That would be to suspend the context, to consider the poem on its own terms, regardless of where or how it was shared. Thus we would weigh its characteristics, such as whether it has a cut and season word, and the thrust of its tone—whether reverent or irreverent, and so on. This would at least be an interesting exercise to try with each poem, even while the author’s name (the poem’s “fourth line”) provides geographical, biographical, and other contexts. Poems in a senryu journal such as Prune Juice are already branded as senryu by the authors because of being submitted, and by the editor by being accepted, so I mean to apply this approach to poems in contexts other than this. Yet still we might assess poems in this fashion even from Prune Juice, as long as we do not let this meta-consideration (what kind of poem is it?) interfere with the primary poetic outcome of the poem itself, regardless of genre (what effect does poem have on me?). This exercise might well cast some poems from one category (the context where it was presented) into the other. If nothing else, it shows such poems to fall into that grey area, and not as clearly one or the other as the context alone might imply. I would suggest, in fact, that that grey area between haiku and senryu is not a dichotomy at all, but a continuum, and do away with oversimplified grids entirely.
Of course, it’s not nothing, or poets wouldn’t keep raising the issue or having this debate. Some Western observers have attempted to suggest that senryu should be abandoned entirely. I consider that a naïve stance simply for the reason that senryu exists in Japan—and thrives widely. Senryu exists in English, too, obviously, even if we don’t have the same social structures that impinge upon it as they do in Japan. My feeling is that one can’t go far wrong—if wrong is even possible—as long as one views Western senryu and haiku as being on a continuum rather than being distinctly divided. Seeing that a continuum exists empowers poets to write poems that might lean more in one direction or the other—and take advantage of the traits common to one type of poetry rather than the other, as the situation of the poem itself suggests. And they are free to write without concern as to whether a poem might be one or the other. Instead, they can be content that the poem is somewhere on that continuum. Recognizing the continuum leaves some poems in a grey area, but we can take it to be perfectly fine if someone wishes to see a poem one way or the other. Just as there’s a point when a poem is no longer a haiku, but just a short poem, or not a poem at all, there’s also a point where a poem is a senryu rather than a haiku, or vice versa. We may draw that distinguishing line in very personal or even idiosyncratic places, but as long as we see haiku and senryu as being on a continuum, we can empower ourselves to write the best poems we can, wherever they might fall on that continuum.