Engagement and Detachment
in Haiku and Senryu

From the author’s book, The Nick of Time: Essays on Haiku Aesthetics, Foster City, California: Press Here, 2001, edited by Lee Gurga and Michael Dylan Welch. This essay was originally published in Woodnotes #19, Winter 1993, pages 4–6. See the Press Here page for this book. See additional essays from The Nick of Time on the Further Reading page, and see also the book’s introduction.       +

by Paul O. Williams


Discussion is ongoing about the difference between haiku and senryu. Some deny there is a difference. Others affirm the distinction and define it in different ways, most fairly clear and widely acknowledged.

It is my purpose here to discuss a perhaps more nebulous difference than any commonly brought up. That is, the movement of a haiku is toward engagement, that of a senryu toward detachment.

A haiku makes itself vulnerable. It invites feeling, bursts it open or allows it to flower quietly in implication. It allows poignancy, even the edge of the tragic, to resonate. Even its gladness is often tremulous. Many haiku convey a sense of something hovering, of a tuning fork tapped, the first sharp blooming of a sun above a planet rim. Admiration is often present and the sense of wonder, a desire to see some thing or feeling, large or minuscule, in its truth and often its glory R. H. Blyth translates a poem of Buson’s thus:


Lighting one candle

With another candle;

An evening of spring.


Blyth adds the comment, “. . . the haiku seizes a moment of inexplicable depth. It does not look before and after, but confines itself to the timeless, when life suddenly deepens, and all the universe is present at the lighting of a candle” (R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. 1. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1992, page 114).

Haiku writers give themselves to their subjects, offering their feeling as the way things really are seen with delicate sensibility. They open themselves for judgment. They know often that what they write hangs in the air, with the feeling of meaning, with what has been called mystery. We do not “get it,” though we know something just out of reach is there to get, and this uncertainty, pregnant with possibility, swells with life and so with satisfaction. We see and let it alone, as we let a butterfly alone as it rests on a leaf, not powdering our fingers with its wings and destroying it.

In contrast, as with most humor, senryu manages to dispel feeling with a smile or a laugh. It deals less with ultimates than with the feelings of individual things, and as some balloon of feeling grows in the poem, it pricks it with its wry smile, its observation, its regaining of control over the self through laughter. Senryu writers walk away from their poems once again self-contained. They have mastered their subjects by stepping back, having judged them in some amusing way and preserved the separate, observing self.


my book

on how to get organized

lost in this clutter


Yes, there is wry humor in many haiku, but often a sympathetic smile, often a self-deprecating one. Laughter seldom bursts out of haiku, releasing the reader from its tension. Both kinds of poems come to us with a sense of release, but the release in haiku comes with the atmosphere of further contemplation—having seen so much and knowing there is more. It is a release into the subject, not a release from it. Senryu comes, though, with a sense of finishing a game or puzzle and going on to something else.

Surely there are the usual acknowledged differences—the presence or absence of seasons; the relation of people to nature or the focus on human foibles; the nobility of contemplated being versus the contemplation of specific shortcomings or strangenesses. These are obvious differences, but the motion toward engagement in contrast to the motion toward mastery, detachment, a stepping-back is also present.

If these observations can be acknowledged at all, it must also be acknowledged that there are many haiku that verge on senryu and some senryu that gravitate toward being haiku-like. In fact, there seems a trend in North American haiku today to desire disengagement through humor.

I feel this may well be unfortunate. That is, as a poem gains its disengagement, it loses its tremor of vulnerability, as well as its potential for depth. Wonder is a serious thing:


gulls have settled

from wheeling over the lake—

now stars slowly turn


But if we laugh with the poet, we begin to walk away from the poem. We are not so much invited to contemplate as to be done with it, to check the next thing on our schedule.

Our seriousness invites the mystery that hovers over the best haiku. The neat little knot we tie with our wry remark encourages our withdrawal. Both tendencies have a place in short poems, of course, but the work we come back to for is depth is the more haiku-like, the less dependent on its jokes, wry remarks, witty observations.