Despite the fact that senryu has a long history, little is known about this genre outside Japan. Because of this, there are still a lot of heated discussions among haikai enthusiasts about senryu’s place in haikai poetry, about its distinction from haiku, and about whether one should make this distinction at all. We asked Michael Dylan Welch, who is well known in the international haikai community, to share his views on what’s going on at the moment in the United States, where senryu were introduced a long time ago together with haiku, on current trends and discussions in the haikai community, and how the poets differentiate (or not) between the two genres.
Michael Dylan Welch has been a longtime vice president of the Haiku Society of America, and is cofounder of the American Haiku Archives, cofounder of the Haiku North America conference, and founder of National Haiku Writing Month (NaHaiWriMo). All four organizations also welcome senryu.
With his press, Press Here, he also published the first anthology of English-language senryu, titled Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go (1993). His haiku, senryu, tanka, and longer poems have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies in at least 16 languages. In 2012, a waka translation from one of his books (cotranslated with Emiko Miyashita) appeared on the back of 150,000,000 United States postage stamps. Originally from England, Michael has lived there and in Ghana, Australia, and Canada, and currently lives in the United States with his wife and two children in Sammamish, Washington (the nearby city of Yakima is where the first American senryu are known to have been written, around 1910).
Michael, thank you very much for agreeing to answer our questions. By way of introduction, could you please give our readers a short introduction to the development of senryu in English and the main milestones of this process?
Senryu, of course, is very much bound up with haiku, at least in English. This is different from the scene in Japan where one is either a haiku poet or one is a senryu poet. But in English, one can be both, and this is perfectly acceptable. In most journals, too, these genres have mostly been lumped together. Indeed, I’ve personally always advocated that they not be segregated, as has sometimes been the case with the Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond journal, because the distinction is often unclear, and the editor’s designations so often seem to contradict the way I and other readers might designate the poems. I believe the distinction is largely something that readers can decide for themselves, and the mixing of haiku and senryu together adds more variety to one’s reading, in both tone and content.
It’s in this context that it’s difficult to outline major milestones for senryu in English, because so often senryu has been overshadowed by haiku in all the haiku publications where senryu have appeared. Senryu have been published with haiku since the beginning of most Western haiku journals. There was a senryu magazine, Seer Ox (a pun on Xerox, the photocopier manufacturer), published by Michael McClintock in the 1970s, and I published what I believe to be the first senryu anthology in English, in 1993, called Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go. Alan Pizzarelli published a wonderful collection of senryu pretending to be a senryu magazine in 2001. Occasional other books have been published with a focus purely on senryu, including Lorraine Ellis Harr’s Selected Senryu in 1976, J. C. Brown’s Senryu: Poems of the People in 1991, and James D. Hodgson’s American Senryu in 1992 (and many others more recently). The Brown and Hodgson books struck me as being disconnected from what was regularly published as senryu in the leading haiku/senryu journals in English, though, and should not be counted as milestones, but Harr’s book should be, as should the Seer Ox journal. We currently have Terri L. French’s publication Prune Juice that features senryu and kyoka in English. But of course many dozens of haiku journals have included senryu over the years.
Key books, of course, include R. H. Blyth’s two books on senryu, and two additional ones relating to senryu (1949, 1960, and 1961), but I don’t believe they were read nearly as widely as his haiku books. More recently, Robin D. Gill has produced massive translations with commentary on senryu, but they are intimidating to read. Much more approachable is Makoto Ueda’s Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, published in 1999. This is some serious humour!
The Haiku Society of America has been running its annual Brady senryu contest since 1988, I believe (in contrast, the society’s Henderson contest for haiku began in 1976). The Haiku Poets of Northern California group has had a senryu contest since 1990. There aren’t many other regular contests, if any, that focus just on senryu in English. Senryu has a distinct place in poetic history, but it is all too often relegated to a second-class sort of citizenship in English (as in Japan), but I do think it has earned respect.
In your opinion, how was the emerging English-language senryu influenced on the one hand by the centuries-old Japanese senryu tradition and on the other by an equally old European/American humour and wit?
I’m confident that innate human wit anywhere in the world can influence the writing of senryu—and has done so. Wit and humour are just part of senryu, of course, as there are also serious and satirical senryu. If haiku is a finger pointing at the moon, senryu is a poke in the ribs. If haiku is reverent, senryu is irreverent. If haiku celebrates a subject, senryu victimizes a subject. In all of these ways of thinking of senryu, the tone can vary greatly, although often they are humourous and focused on humans, of course.
It’s hard to say how Japanese senryu has influenced senryu in English. My sense is that the influence is fairly limited, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t felt much of that influence myself. Senryu in Japanese is not often translated into English. Blyth’s books on senryu were not nearly as widely read, it seems to me, as his books on haiku, but senryu appeared with haiku in other books. I think a larger influence might have been the 1973 definition for senryu from the Haiku Society of America, and discussions of senryu in Harold Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku, Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku, William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook (he also worked on the HSA definition), and all three editions of Cor van den Heuvel’s The Haiku Anthology and other early anthologies. But beyond that, I’m at a loss to say where Japanese influences on senryu came from. Senryu, in effect, just seemed to come along for the ride with haiku.
As you mentioned, you were the editor of the first English-language senryu anthology Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go. What made you decide to compile an English-language senryu anthology in 1993?
Thank you for asking about Fig Newtons. It’s hard to believe the book was published twenty years ago already.
My motive certainly wasn’t to be first, if indeed it was the first—although I believe it was. I don’t think I was even aware of that at the time of putting it together. What motivated me was simply the poets around me, and the work I knew well. Senryu is not just humour and wit, but I did focus on that in selecting the 111 poems in the anthology. The poets were all local to me, where I lived at the time in the San Francisco area, so a motive was really just to feature their poems. The book was originally going to be a collection just of my own senryu, but somehow expanded to include several other poets. William Higginson gave the book a very enthusiastic review, and it also won a Merit Book Award from the Haiku Society of America.
Specifically, in his review titled “Senryu Comes Into Its Own,” published in Modern Haiku (XXV:1, Winter–Spring 1994, pages 103–105) [see the book’s introduction], Higginson wrote that “The book, a first anthology of senryu in English, as far as I know, deserves a joyous welcome. Its arrival is a signal event.” He also said that Fig Newtons is “a collection with more range than these few poems [quoted in the review] suggest, and a much higher hit rating than most haiku anthologies these days. We should also bow to the careful editing that groups these poems superficially by subject, while maintaining a clear ear for variety, tone, and pacing.” He concludes by saying “The judges and editors of contests and magazines who previously published some of these senryu as ‘haiku’ should be run out of town. (Not seriously, though I wish they had as clear an idea of the differences between the two as we see here.) But for editor Welch and his cast of California senryu poets, the ticker-tape parade. Meantime, get your own copy of Fig Newtons and ease your mind.” This book was a fun collection to put together, and I think all of the contributors can be proud of their work in the anthology. I wish the book was still in print.
Could you tell us a little bit more about the selection of poems for inclusion in the anthology? What made a good senryu to you? Did your approach change since then?
As I said in the book’s introduction, I chose most poems for their humour or wit, but noted that not all senryu are funny. Confining my choices to the humourous is not so much a statement on what senryu is as it is a way of making a pleasing book. I wanted readers to enjoy it, and perhaps laugh or chuckle. These days, I’d probably make the same choice, because it’s more important to me to make a pleasing collection rather than to make a point that this is senryu and that isn’t. If I’d change anything, it might be to pick poems that have a little more weight. Many of the poems in Fig Newtons had a sort of lightness to them, and made up in humour what they might have lacked in depth and reverberation. But of course they’re not haiku, but senryu, so I think lightness should be celebrated. I mean lightness in terms of being “light verse,” not the lightness that Bashō celebrated with the term karumi, although I do think there are overlaps.
When Frogpond used to segregate senryu from haiku, I found myself frequently disagreeing with the editor’s designations of the senryu (many of them seemed to be haiku to me). On the other hand, I rarely thought poems designated as haiku were really senryu. Perhaps that reflects my own conditioning, if that’s what it is, to think of haiku broadly, thereby embracing some poems as haiku that are really senryu. Others might not be conditioned the same way, and would define haiku less broadly. It’s easy to think of senryu as part of the larger tradition of haiku (or haikai), but of course this isn’t what’s done in Japan—a point we in the West might pay closer attention to.
Could you select a few poems from this anthology that you like most (or those that are most representative of the genre in English) and comment on them, please?
The book contains senryu from six different poets, so it seems fair to select one by each of them. Here’s one by Laura Bell:
all his ten fingers
and thumbs in my mouth
The humour is obvious. No wonder we can’t talk at the dentist—he has all his fingers and thumbs in our mouth! But the Novocain can make it still feel that way even after the dentist is done.
Hole in the ozone
my bald spot . . .
The preceding poem by Garry Gay makes an obvious comparison between the hole in the ozone (a problem we were aware of even in 1993) and the bald spot in the poet’s own hair. Here’s a senryu with a serious edge to it. Just as the poet has not protected his bald spot from sunburn, so too we as humans have not done enough to prevent global warming and the hole in the earth’s ozone layer.
at his favourite deli
the bald man finds a hair
in his soup
This is one of my own poems, and one of my earliest senryu, or at least the earliest one that seemed to succeed well (it placed in a senryu contest). We are all appalled to find a hair in our soup, but perhaps that hair could be one of our own, so we can hardly blame the cook. But if one is completely bald, then yes, we can blame the cook. In this case, the bald man knows that the hair in his soup couldn’t possibly be his. This is funny, I hope, yet also a bit distressing.
50th high school reunion:
lined up to slow dance
with the fortune teller
This poem by vincent tripi reveals the human condition, as I think most of the best senryu do. They are true, and we see ourselves in these poems, as I said in my introduction. Here’s a poem where the poet embraces who he is, or at least who others are.
the tethered goat
I love the inventiveness in this poem by Christopher Herold. We can’t help but laugh, even if we don’t know the formula for determining the area of a circle.
in the next booth—
patient with the ketchup
but not her baby
This poem by Paul O. Williams has a serious overtone, in that it’s sad that a mother would have more patience for ketchup than for her own child. Yet of course we can still laugh, perhaps out of empathy for the overworked mother who is challenged by her baby. Yet perhaps she can learn something from being patient with the ketchup—she has no choice but to be patient with it, so why not extend that acceptance to being patient with her baby, too?
Many excellent senryu poets emerged since Fig Newtons was published. Who among those newer senryu poets do you like most?
To me, senryu is just one of many arrows one might have in one’s poetic quiver. I can’t say I even pay close attention to who the leading senryu poets are, however, because senryu is just part of what many poets write, and seldom something that any poet writing in English focuses on exclusively. Anita Virgil has had a reputation for defining senryu stringently, at least years ago, yet I don’t think of her when I think of current senryu poets. Alan Pizzarelli has a reputation for senryu, and has written some excellent ones, although I think others have also excelled at senryu equally or more, yet haven’t been trumpeted for their senryu as much. Alexis Rotella is similar to Alan in this regard, but this reputation is based mostly in the past. Alexis started Prune Juice in recent years (now edited by Terri L. French), and although she’s no longer editing the journal, I appreciate that she sought to elevate and respect senryu by starting such a publication. In any event, I don’t feel that I’m in a position to highlight any of the “best” English-language senryu poets of recent years, and would surely leave off some excellent poets if I tried, so I’m reluctant to try highlighting recent writers in the genre. Senryu continues to be written by most of the leading poets writing haiku in English, and I know that will continue to be the case. Regardless of the fact that senryu and haiku are segregated more strictly in Japan, in English they are close cousins, and I’m glad to be able to write both.
You are quite right saying that one of the reasons (maybe the main one) that confusion exists between haiku and senryu among poets in the West is that they write in both genres (plus also tanka, renku, haibun, and seemingly everything else Japanese), while in Japan there is a clear segregation and therefore much less confusion.
I’m not sure that writing both haiku and senryu is the main reason confusion exists between the two genres, although that’s surely a contributing factor. In Japan, my understanding is that segregation between genres happens more for cultural and social reasons than for aesthetic or literary reasons. It has everything to do with depth and commitment—and there’s something Westerners can learn from that. Segregation also stems from being part of a defined social group or team. That’s why salarymen work for the same company all their lives. This has been changing in recent years, but still, in Japan, “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down” (出る杭は打たれる / deru kui wa utareru). One moves with the group, does things with the group, and always seeks harmony with one’s group. Japanese culture emphasizes collectivism, not individualism. That’s a social motive, not a literary motive. In the West, we don’t have that social motive, or at least not nearly as much as Japan does, so we see no reason not to work for various companies, so to speak, and to explore all poetic genres. While Westerners could learn something from Japan in working for the same company, or sticking to just one poetic genre—and learn from the depth of knowledge that results—perhaps the Japanese could learn more breadth from the West. My sense is that the ideal lies somewhere in between, which is why I’m glad that Shiki wrote both haiku and tanka.
Japan has a long history of censorship, authoritarianism, and military ruling, which is a breeding ground for satirical forms such as senryu. In the West there is no censorship (at least that is officially admitted), but it looks like there is some sort of internal censorship due to the values of political correctness and public morals. In Japan, political correctness does not seem to exist to the same extent. They simply segregate humourous and serious content. And if a genre is designated to be a place for humour, there are pretty much no taboos and many examples of Japanese senryu are much more biting compared to Western ones. Do you think that a growing obsession with political correctness in the West and especially in the United States is detrimental to humourous and satirical forms such as senryu?
Well, for one thing, political correctness itself can be a target for senryu, even in the West, so maybe it helps senryu rather than hindering it!
Censorship does exist in the West, of course, even in official ways, but Western liberalism surely takes the bite out of some of our senryu. More likely, though, poems that do have such bite might just seem not to be as biting because the surrounding discourse is already biting and uncensored.
On the other hand, the United States is fairly conservative (just compare the number of nude beaches and nudity on television in the United States compared with Europe), and such puritanism is a form of “censorship” driven by public morals, as you say. In the United States, everyone I know rolls their eyes at political correctness, yet of course it still happens. So I’m not sure that political correctness is “growing” in the United States at all. I think it continues to happen (whether it’s growing or not), but there’s also a backlash against it because most people see how stupid much of it is. Indeed, Facebook lives for people to complain about political correctness! What effect this all has on senryu is a complex question, and I doubt there are anything but complex answers—answers I don’t have.
As for Japan “segregating humourous and serious content,” I’m not sure that’s accurate. Quite a few senryu are deadly serious with their satire, and may not be funny at all, in Japanese and English. But of course many senryu are funny, and are meant to be, but I would just say that senryu has a great deal of range beyond the merely humourous. If a senryu doesn’t have a casualty, then what’s it for?
Speaking of censorship, since the Meiji restoration one of the main types of senryu in Japan has become jiji senryu (senryu on current affairs). Most national and local newspapers have columns dedicated to jiji senryu, as with the Yomiuri Shimbun. Why do you think we see relatively few senryu and kyoka on the economy, politics, and current events in the English-speaking world (though there are some here and there in the online forums)?
Well, I think we do see such poems. A lot. Where they have taken root is in popular notions of “haiku.” The general public has the perception that haiku is simply counting syllables, and millions of 5-7-5 ditties dash around on the Internet and social media sites commenting on the economy, politics, global warming, sports teams, and other current events, or offering miniature movie reviews. Most of their authors have no idea that what they’re writing is closer to senryu than haiku—or are more often neither. There are far too many contests for such ditties than I can count, all seeking “haiku,” with nearly all of the results falling far wide of the mark, as haiku certainly, but as senryu, too. So if confusion exists between haiku and senryu, it’s mostly in the general public, much of which probably hasn’t even heard of senryu at all, and therefore unintentionally bastardizes haiku.
So I think culturally the West hasn’t the need to comment on current affairs the way Japanese poets have. Or rather, it’s already being done by a certain segment of Western society that precludes those with a more literary bent from going in that direction more frequently. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that more Westerners could embrace senryu on current affairs, especially with literary intentions. Of course, senryu itself is a populist sort of poetry, so “literary” intentions can go only so far. So maybe Western poets should let loose more often and write nonliterary senryu more often too.
I note, by the way, Stephen T. Ziliak’s essay, “Haiku Economics,” which appeared in the January 2011 issue of Poetry, which many people say is the premier poetry journal in the United States. The author makes no mention of senryu, but that’s really what he’s talking about. Examples of his own poetry, elsewhere, are seldom haiku or senryu, but because of their tone and topicality are closer to senryu (he seems to be unaware of the difference or the continuum). He also presumes haiku should be seventeen syllables in English, further illustrating his lack of knowledge of the literary thrusts of this genre. He quotes Etheridge Knight (and ventures no further in his seemingly limited knowledge of haiku), whose largely uninformed poems are not anthologized except for the occasional minority or historical purpose. I mention this essay to indicate that the economy has been the subject of “haiku” (perhaps senryu, but really just short poems), and this is one example of Western poets letting loose in writing senryu, albeit nonliterary. Another example is Gregory Johnson’s recent collection of “haiku” about global warming, summarizing “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis,” produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the United States.
Another factor, though, is the social pressure of expectations. Let’s say a Western newspaper had a column for poetry commenting satirically on current affairs. If it were a haiku column, the public would, alas, expect 5-7-5. So you have to get them over that hurdle if the poems are not 5-7-5 and if their writers are conscious of other literary targets for haiku. And if it were a senryu column, the public would still be expecting 5-7-5, and then have the double challenge of figuring out senryu as well as haiku, which digs an even deeper hole. The label of “haiku” carries so much misinformation and baggage in the West that nearly all public and mainstream attempts at a literary emphasis in the genre are doomed to failure, not just with the general public but even amid mainstream poetry. Senryu would seem to have an even harder time being understood, at least as a genre. Even very well-known mainstream poets write very bad haiku, and have no idea why they’re so bad, let alone trying to write senryu. This is not to suggest that they aren’t capable, just that they seem not to be aware of what’s what.
One solution, of course, is to abandon labels entirely, or call it simply “poetry.” A newspaper column that sought three-line poems commenting on current affairs could sidestep the hang-up of the label and let readers think for themselves what genre a poem might be (if they care at all). A good poem will hit you in the gut—or the funny bone—regardless of what genre it is, and there’s much to be said for trusting that. Maybe haiku and senryu purists could lighten up a bit and be more accepting of “pseudo-haiku” at least where some of it succeeds as senryu or barbish short poetry.
Yet still we who specialize in these forms feel the underlying tension of seeing where a poet may be misinformed about basic understandings of the genre (haiku or senryu), even while we might be amused by the poems themselves. Our knowledge can too easily block us from enjoyment, rather than deepening our enjoyment. So loosening up could be good, although only to a point—there’s a line where a poem goes too far and is neither haiku or senryu. How far is too far is moot if one seeks purely to enjoy a good poem, but not moot if one wishes to preserve traditions or offer analysis.
You’ve emphasized a few times that senryu can be serious. For example, “quite a few senryu are deadly serious with their satire, and may not be funny at all, in Japanese and English.” What do you mean by “serious” here? It seems that you imply that satire is serious, i.e., not humourous. We all read Alan Pizzarelli’s article “The Serious Side of Senryu,” but it seems that here you mean something different. Isn’t satire by definition humourous as it makes fun of its object or depicts it in a funny way (laughter is more powerful than direct criticism or bashing) and uses humourous devices, such as grotesque, caricature, false confusion, etc.? Would you agree that good senryu are all serious (i.e., the subject matter is serious—it is about things that matter most for people in real life—mostly relationships, death, war, money, politics, etc.) and humourous as they deal with these matters in a humourous (and light) way?
Yes, of course, many senryu (although not all) are serious, to the extent that they aim at serious subjects, although they’re not necessarily all light, either, as the many examples in Pizzarelli’s essay demonstrate. However, what we’re now dipping our toes into is the matter of deciding what’s funny, which surely varies for everyone. What’s funny to me might not strike another reader or writer that way, and vice versa. Or we may see a touch of humour in a poem yet feel a strident underpinning of sadness or melancholy, and thus feel reluctant to brand that poem as funny. Or perhaps we need to define “serious” as the lack of humour. The best way to answer this question, I think, may be to quote a few poems by the Japanese senryu poet Gengorō, born in 1930. Here’s the title poem from his book Distant Frogs (Hokuseido Press, 2003), translated by the Aogiri Group (chiefly, I believe, Taylor Mignon):
guests come (2)
This poem is light, but it seems to have little or no humour. In fact, in English, the poem feels to be very much like a haiku (having two parts with clear and immediate imagery, and with frogs referencing spring). If there’s any humour, it’s perhaps that the frogs stop their croaking because the guests might be loud themselves, but that’s one of several possible interpretations, and not necessarily the overt intention. In any event, such humour, if present, carries with it the tone of human criticism, which is why I would consider this poem a senryu—humans are its target. (I’m reluctant to say, however, that the poem’s target is boisterousness, because the poem merely hints at that. Trusting the reader to go where he or she likes with the poem is one of the reasons I think it succeeds.) Such “serious” senryu are common in Gengorō’s book. I agree, though, that it’s difficult to define what is funny as well as what is serious. I think it was none other than British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who said, “I am never more serious than when I am joking.”
While many of Gengorō’s poems are indeed humourous or satirical, here are a few more that are not, or perhaps only barely so:
sticking to the ceiling
a gecko is eavesdropping
on our conversation (5)
on chairs at the wake
scarab beetles too
are in attendance (6)
from a drawer
a shirt neck’s sticking out
great westering sun (17)
jumping in (24)
returned after cleansing
my polluted lungs
back home (35)
It’s important to emphasize that these poems are considered senryu, although of course they bare strong resemblance to haiku. Isn’t that the point? The two genres are cousins, or maybe even siblings, so of course there’s a family resemblance. Haiku and senryu have many similarities, and while we each may have different ways to distinguish between them (I certainly do), the point is that there isn’t a sharp division but a continuum between the two genres—just as there’s a continuum between the funny and the serious.
Here are some Gengorō poems with mild humour, yet still with serious undertones:
even the bulldog’s eyes
dilate at perfume (8)
newlyweds on honeymoon
exhaust puffed out behind (32)
the buses leave
only trash (36)
what a bummer
an old friend drops by
after quitting the bottle (63)
first bow to the
then take the photo (94)
flirting with mannequins
until the rain blows over (115)
sealed a letter
with my intentions
tagged PS: (137)
talked to her sleep-talking
not knowing ’til midway (146)
the 3-way mirror
conspires to make
me look old (158)
The humour and satire strikes me as stronger in verses such as the following:
obliged to buy
the sales woman
was well endowed (72)
the sliding door
losers too (124)
presented hair tonic
on father’s day (144)
I should point out that Gengorō is not only the director of the League of Senryu Poets in Chiba prefecture, but also a member of the Zasso (Weeds) haiku group. So, although most haiku and senryu (and tanka) poets in Japan tend to focus just on one genre or another, Gengorō, like Shiki, is an example of someone who embraces both haiku and senryu.
In introducing the Gengorō book, Bitō Sanryū, director of the Japan Senryu Pen Club, defines senryu as a form of poetry that records “the subtleties of humans in the world” (vi). The focus is on humans, as opposed to haiku’s focus on seasons, but he makes no mention of humour. Thus it should be no surprise that Gengorō’s poems embrace all the possibilities of human subtlety. That includes the serious as well as the funny and satirical. In his preface to the same book, Taylor Mignon reports that “in senryu the themes and subject matter are as extensive as the objects and phenomena in the world” (xvi). Accordingly, Mignon describes Gengorō’s poems as having light touches of humour, dry wit, and a sense of honesty, presenting “scenes and events objectively with the facts and enough of a scene for us to make our own conclusions” (xviii).
Even though the Gengorō book I’m quoting from was published only as recently as 2003, Sanryū says that, to his knowledge, “this is the first time that a single senryu poet’s works have been translated” and collected in a single book (xii). Obviously, Westerners need more such translations so they can have a better appreciation of senryu as a Japanese literary art, and thus have a better understanding of how to write senryu themselves.
Speaking of Bitō Sanryū, on a trip to Japan in 2000 I picked up a book of Japanese senryu he selected, translated into English, titled Senryu: Haiku Reflections of the Times (Mangajin, 1997). Perhaps you already know this book. It has some interesting tidbits that are worth sharing. It defines senryu as “witty haiku” (hence the book’s subtitle, although another reason for the subtitle might be to help sell the book to Westerners who know haiku but not senryu). The book also says that the Yomiuri Shimbun daily newspaper, from which the book’s 100 senryu were selected, receives the staggering number of “about 1000 entries each day for its ‘Current Events Senryu’ column” (6), of which only five are printed. The book also describes senryu as “poetry of people observing people” and “the literary art of comedy” (7). I’m also particularly intrigued by the comment that “Current events senryu added the spirit of criticism and an awakened sense of the self (a concept newly imported from the West) to the already ironic nature of senryu” (7). The poems in this book seem to be more overtly funny and satirical than Gengorō, to be sure, yet still maintain a serious purpose.
In your essay “Becoming a Haiku Poet,” you speak at some length about the details that are to be taken into account in mastering the craft of haiku writing. In your opinion, are there such points for an aspiring senryu writer?
Well, one difficulty with differentiating senryu from haiku is that many haiku traits also apply to senryu (and even to tanka). A keen perception and perhaps insight into nature or human nature, created through implication and suggestion? Yes, true of senryu and haiku. Primarily objective sensory images? Yes, true of both genres again. No titles, almost no rhyming, and seldom the use of overt metaphor and simile? Again, yes to both. A focus on perceptions and images? Yes, true again. Form? Again, the same reasons that haiku don’t need to be 5-7-5 in English also apply to senryu. Whether a syllable pattern applies in other languages such as Russian or other languages is something only the leading haiku writers, translators, and commentators can say for their own languages. So all of these traits apply to both, albeit with subtle variations, such as greater subjectivity, perhaps, in senryu than in haiku.
The first key difference, of course, is that senryu don’t need to center structurally on a pause or caesura (kire in Japanese, as you know) where we see two elements or parts in juxtaposition. Nor do senryu require the seasonal reference (kigo in Japanese) required of a traditional haiku. But what I would say is that senryu may have these elements; it’s just that they don’t need to aim at them. In one of his books, however, R. H. Blyth wrote about seasons in senryu, which may come as a surprise to many people (and see also Makoto Ueda’s Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, which has a lengthy chapter entitled “Let Us Laugh with the Seasons”).
Two other traits that I think are misleading by which to define senryu are humour and human content. There are funny haiku (the online journal Haijinx was centered on this premise) and serious senryu. And there are plenty of haiku with human content. As for the myth of human content making a poem a senryu, it makes me wince when I hear haiku poets say “Well, that poem has a person in it, so it’s a senryu.” Or “that poem is funny, so it’s a senryu.” No, on both counts. Or not necessarily so. It’s just not that simple. Think of Buson’s haiku about stepping on his dead wife’s comb. His poem has an autumn seasonal reference, but the focus is otherwise purely on humans. I imagine there might be a senryu that’s purely about nature, although I would admit that they’re surely rare. It’s this latter point that demonstrates that human content is perhaps more likely to be senryu, just as humour is more likely to be senryu than are serious poems, but these factors on their own are hardly the deciding factors.
So what targets does one aim for when writing senryu? Well, the same ones that apply to haiku, for starters, without needing to aim at kigo or kireji. But ultimately, perhaps it’s impossible to tell the difference with every single poem. Some poems are on the fence between the two genres. Rather than force such poems down onto the pasture on one side or the other, why not just let them enjoy the view on top of the fence? I’m told that in Japan, if one is known as a “haiku” poet, all your poems are haiku rather than senryu. And if one is known as a “senryu” poet, all your poems are senryu rather than haiku. This would suggest that factors of biography, identity, and poetic expectation come into play, which suggests that the evidence in the poems themselves may not matter as much as what readers outside Japan might think. If pushed to declare whether a particular poem is a haiku or senryu, I could certainly give my opinion, but I’d also be perfectly fine (most of the time) with someone else giving an opposite opinion. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well. I contain multitudes.”
If I may, I’d like to quote from the “Haiku and Senryu” page on my website, where I’ve tried to summarize the differences between these two poetic cousins (pardon some repetition here). Here I end with an emphasis on tone—and to me that is indeed the chief factor differentiating haiku and senryu:
Haiku (俳句) 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 (川柳, 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 a senryu). Some people think of haiku as focusing on nature, with senryu focusing on people, but this is misleading. The fact is that many haiku by the Japanese masters also focus on people, 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. Haiku tend to celebrate their subjects (even if dark), whereas senryu tend to have a “victim,” and may or may not be humourous. 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 in the ribs.
Talking about distinctions, we could not pass up discussing your neon buddha poem series. While the use of a personage in haiku/senryu is very rare (one could also recall Ban’ya Natsuishi’s flying pope), it is an interesting theme. Though you previously called them haiku-like, poems such as the following resemble senryu:
neon buddha wants to be
an absolute monarch
neon buddha says
is still cooking
last day of the year
neon buddha’s resolutions
in invisible ink
Could you shed some more light on this, please?
First, I would like to acknowledge Carlos Colón, whose delightful Haiku Elvis poems have added to this conversation (he has a new book out collecting these poems). They’re all from the point of view of a character that surely everyone can relate to around the world. And they’re frequently funny, as I’m sure is the point. Most of them would seem to be senryu, too. I would also like to acknowledge Scott Metz and others who, like Ban’ya Natsuishi, have written similar series of poems (albeit haiku rather than senryu) with the express purpose of developing a personal mythology. That has been a goal with my neon buddha poems, yet often with self-deprecating humour (the humour and human focus does bring them closer to senryu, I agree).
Second, I’d also like to mention another form of poetry I write a lot—the form of “American Sentences,” Allen Ginsberg’s variation of haiku. I use the form to record things that my young children say (they’re currently ages 8 and 10). Many of these poems (all meant to fit exactly 17 syllables in one line) are funny, and share the trait of humour or at least lightness with many senryu. They also ring with truth, I hope. They’re perhaps not too much different from the text that appears in comic strips—and I see a lot of parallels between the structure of haiku and senryu with the structure of humour. I mention American Sentences because, like Haiku Elvis and the flying pope, there are many other angles to senryu, and I welcome them all.
Now, are my neon buddha poems haiku or senryu, or what are they? I don’t really mind what they are. Mostly I think of them as short poems, and neither haiku or senryu. Yet some do seem to be haiku or senryu—although probably closer to senryu than haiku. I can see the connection to senryu in the first two examples you quote. The deliberate humour and wordplay makes them lean towards senryu rather than haiku. And they have a victim (typically me, to the extent that some of them are about me), so that’s another factor, a tonal one, that pushes them towards senryu. Yet the third poem might be closer to haiku than senryu because of the juxtapositional structure, which the first two poems lack, not to mention the seasonal reference and slightly more serious undertones of meaning. In any event, to me it’s the development of a personal mythology that matters more than whether they’re haiku or senryu (I’ve now written a couple thousand of these poems, so it’s been a particularly inspiring poetic vein for me to mine). Ultimately, I wonder if the definition of senryu (vs. haiku) is that a poem is a senryu if the reader thinks it’s a senryu. This is no copout but a factor to be reckoned with. I recall Hiroaki Sato saying, from a writer’s perspective, that a poem is a haiku if the poet says it’s a haiku.
By the way, for my neon budda poems I prefer to always lowercase “buddha.” I mean no disrespect at all to the Buddha. Rather, I intend it to be respectful—the lowercasing is meant to indicate that I do not mean the Buddha. Likewise, I interpret Ban’ya’s flying pope poems to be a sort of caricature (although, to complicate matters, I’m pretty sure he considers them to be haiku rather than senryu). In Japan the Buddha is commercialized just as much as crucifixes and the baby Jesus in every Catholic gift shop and beyond. Just as some Westerners have stereotypes of what the Buddha is, so too must the Japanese have stereotyped interpretations of the Pope, Jesus, Muhammad, and other Western religious figures. I don’t see the flying pope poems as being disrespectful to this at all, or sacrilegeous, but serving to critique stereotypes of perception. Both the flying pope and my neon buddha would also seem to echo the notion of deliberate disjunction in what Allen Ginsberg conceptualized by the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” (originally from “Howl”)—a deliberate compression of two disparate and unexpected elements, to the point of surrealism, designed to produce what he called an “eyeball kick,” or double-take. You see this sort of disjunction all over Ginsberg’s poetry, and the idea directly influenced my neon buddha poems (or at least the name of the leading character) regardless of whether they’re haiku or senryu or something else. I’ve also written many hydrogen jukebox poems, but haven’t found them nearly as rewarding to write because they are about a thing rather than a person, so they don’t offer nearly as much opportunity for developing a personal mythology as my neon buddha. But I’d consider my hydrogen jukebox poems to be closer to haiku rather than senryu (unlike most of the neon buddha poems) because they’re more serious, surreal, and more often use a two-part structure, although not a season word. +
Given that poets in the West poets write both haiku and senryu and many publications do not make any distinction, what do you think about Jane Reichhold’s article in Modern Haiku, “Should Senryu Be Part of English-language Haiku?” (where you were plentifully quoted)? It insists that senryu should not be part of the English-speaking haiku world: the HSA should not promote senryu as a genre by organising the annual contest and the magazines should accept only haiku (her site is now apparently a senryu-free zone). She went as far as demanding that senryu writers should distinguish themselves by using punctuation or capital letters so that readers can clearly see that they’re dealing with senryu. Do you feel there is a crusade against senryu coming in the United States and that senryu poets are at risk of being considered third-class poets, as Reichhold claims they are in Japan?
The crusade is merely Reichhold’s. Her previous senryu crusades have gone nowhere, so there’s nothing to worry about. Nor are they worth worrying about. Moreover, I pay little attention to Reichhold’s commentary and criticism, because it is so often full of errors and sloppy scholarship (her recent book of Bashō translations has many errors, for example). William J. Higginson’s review of her book Writing and Enjoying Haiku (in Modern Haiku 34:2, Summer 2003) points out how frequent her errors are—and by my own estimation of that book I would say that there’s an error pretty much on every other page. That’s appalling for a professionally published book. And as a writer, Reichhold should be mortified to have written so sloppily, yet she seems to not even be aware of her sloppiness and poor scholarship. Some errors are obvious, and should embarrass her; others are more subtle, but should still embarrass her. Poor choices such as quoting only her own poems and frequent lapses of logic don’t help. Likewise, she makes many missteps in her essay on senryu, starting with the fact that her main quotation of me is not even me at all, but me summarizing part of Tom Lynch’s 1989 doctoral dissertation (I note, too, that she cites no sources—another example of her sloppiness for such an article). My essay could have done a better job of emphasizing at the start that I was summarizing Lynch, but it was Tom Lynch, not me, who defined haiku and senryu as falling into four main categories: serious nature poems; serious human-centered poems; humourous nature poems (although rare); and humourous human-centered poems, the first and fourth of which are clearly haiku and senryu respectively, the other two being grey areas. Most readers, except Reichhold, it seems, would have noticed that I cite Lynch as the source of these ideas (and if she’d read Lynch directly, this would be even more obvious—yet she seemingly hasn’t).
Although the grid presenting these four categories helps to explain why some poems would seem to be clearly haiku or clearly senryu, and why the other two categories fall into a grey area (hybrids, as George Swede calls them), this grid is again Tom Lynch’s, not mine. I did promote this perspective with my essay, but what she doesn’t know is that I now disagree with Tom Lynch in this regard (although she’d know this if she read other comments I’ve made on senryu elsewhere). The essay Reichhold quotes from was published in 2001 (and written quite some time before that), and I’ve evolved my thinking since then. I think it’s an error, as I’ve said already, to position humour vs. seriousness as the only dichotomy dividing senryu from haiku (although these traits are an obvious influence). Likewise, I think it’s an error to position human content vs. nature content as another dichotomy dividing senryu from haiku (although again another influence). These aren’t divides at all, but continuums, to start with. Furthermore, I think the distinctions are much more complicated than that and also involve kigo, kireji, objectivity, subjectivity, and above all, tone. I’ll leave a fuller discussion to a longer essay I plan to write someday on this topic.
There are many reasons why I pay little attention to Reichhold’s commentary and criticism. Japan has both haiku and senryu, so of course we can too—and should. It’s as simple as that. We have no societies for senryu in English, so the Haiku Society of America should continue to have both haiku and senryu contests, just as Modern Haiku and Frogpond should continue to publish both haiku and senryu—and of course any journal can publish whatever the hell it wants, so who is she to tell an independent journal like Modern Haiku what to do? This is as ludicrous, as you summarize, as her “demanding that senryu writers should distinguish themselves by using punctuation or capital letters so that the readers can clearly see that they’re dealing with senryu.” Does she think so little of our worldwide haiku and senryu community to believe that its members can’t tell the difference on their own and need to be told every single time? Such hand-holding is puerile. Moreover, who is she to tell writers and editors how to format these poems? And why on earth should any writer hold up a sign (so to speak) that announces the form the reader is about to read? If I try really hard, I’m smart enough to spot a sonnet when I see one, and don’t need it to use a special font with polka dots and multicoloured lettering to give me an extra clue. She undermines her own limited credibility with such nonsense.
Reichhold also seems to completely miss the reason why tanka isn’t included in HSA activities. She thinks that senryu shouldn’t be included for the same reason that tanka isn’t included. But tanka used to be included, and stopped being included around the time when the Tanka Society of America began in 2000 (I happened to be TSA’s founder and first president, and actively encouraged the HSA, which I was also an officer of, to stop including tanka so that the new organization could define and celebrate its own space). And if she thinks senryu should be excluded, why not also haibun and haiga? She can do what she likes in her own mighty kingdom, but I don’t think anyone else is listening, at least not regarding her prognostications on senryu. She has blinders on. Her essay should embarrass her, and the fact that it surely doesn’t is partly why I believe most leaders in English-language haiku pay her little attention. Beginners, however, are often misled by her, even while she does have some helpful things to say about haiku (I mostly recommend her “Bare Bones School of Haiku,” for example) and she can be very nurturing. But that’s why her writing about haiku is so often insidious. As Higginson put it in his review, it’s a labyrinth—an “incredibly interwoven texture of half-truths, biases, and ignorance that occurs . . . throughout Writing and Enjoying Haiku.” In fact, it’s worth quoting Higginson at a bit of length from his review, particularly about senryu:
Reichhold’s paragraphs frequently mix facts and misunderstandings in a topsy-turvy weave that takes considerable work to clarify, as in this passage on senryu (the asterisk indicates the omission of Reichhold’s spurious pronunciation guide; in five short, clipped syllables, the word is pronounced something like “ma-eh-coo-zoo-kay”):
In Japan, it is clear to anyone that a senryū is a haiku-like verse that lacks a kigo or season word. Because the senryū grew out of the practice of the maekuzuke [*]—a game of poetry in which bar patrons attempted to write a response link to a poet’s hokku based on vulgarity and saloon humor—the genre is yet today seen as much less a high art than haiku. Haiku are signed with the author’s name; senryū are not—for obvious reasons. (40)
To take up the first and last sentences together: Both haiku and senryu appear routinely in popular weekly magazines in Japan with authors’ names. Sections of senryu anthologies from the earliest times have celebrated the seasons, as in the following poem, translated by Makoto Ueda, from his book Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, where it appears in a substantial chapter entitled “Let Us Laugh with the Seasons” (Columbia University Press, 1999, 207):
asleep on the ground
holding a spray of blossoms
an elegant drunkard
And on it goes. Honestly, I pay almost no heed to Jane’s commentary, and felt no need to respond to her essay in Modern Haiku (it could self-destruct on its own—or just be ignored). She’s ranted about senryu before, for decades, I might add, seemingly motivated by a “feminist” viewpoint that the word “senryu” should be avoided because it meant “river willow,” which at one time was a euphemism for a presumably female prostitute (how many people know that, even in Japan?). Never mind that words evolve and change in meaning. By the same reasoning, she should avoid using the word “child” half the time because it originally referred to just one gender rather than both. We can have a lot of fun with the humour and satire common in senryu, so why should any of us deny ourselves this extra poetic opportunity just because some prognosticator thinks it’s a second-class art? Or third-class. So what. Sure, limericks aren’t high art either, but that doesn’t mean I won’t write any. The fact is that a lot of senryu writers are given great respect in Japan—here again I think of the contemporary poet Gengorō, whose senryu are often far from being mere knee-slappers or satirical barbs. It can be high art, just as much as haiku, though perhaps not nearly so often.
In the same article by Reichhold you were quoted saying: “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.” This opinion is shared by many editors and contest organisers, but don’t you think that this approach could be the reason that we have this confusion? A perfectly good fork makes a very lousy spoon and vice versa. By the same token, it is difficult to understand why haiku and senryu should be appreciated in the same manner and by the same criterion of “goodness” (which is very subjective), since they aim at different things, evoke different emotions, and use different poetic devices. Wouldn’t you agree that a very good haiku is actually a very bad senryu and vice versa?
Reichhold also misunderstands me when I say “it doesn’t matter” to differentiate between haiku and senryu. As I say in the very text that she quotes, the distinction doesn’t matter only if one’s focus is purely on good poetry, and I further qualify my statement by saying that labels are tools of academic analysis, not poetic appreciation. How could she quote this and not see the point I’m trying to make? I’m not “avoiding the issue,” as she spuriously claims; rather, I’m putting the issue into context, and setting a higher priority on poetic appreciation (“since feeling is first,” as E. E. Cummings put it). That doesn’t at all mean the distinction doesn’t matter. If you laugh at one poem and cry at another, that’s what matters most. Another reader might read the same two poems and cry at the first and laugh at the next. It’s the fact that one has an emotional reaction at all that matters, not whether one laughs rather than cries, or whether one analyzes the damn rhyme scheme—or thinks that one poem is a senryu and the other a haiku. And the distinctions matter at certain times, which is fine.
Furthermore, immediately after the text she quotes, I shift focus to make the distinction matter in the rest of my essay. That, in fact, is the whole point, and she misses the strawman aspect of my introductory sentences. That’s simply sloppy reading, but unfortunately that’s what I’ve long ago come to expect from her.
In any event, sure, there is a degree of confusion about haiku and senryu among some Western poets. Reichhold may be right on that point, to a certain degree, but she’s far from the first to notice this (if she thinks she is, that’s as misguided as her belief that she invented the “fragment and phrase” theory of haiku—the terms are useful but it’s not her theory at all, being a central notion of kireji and ma that has existed for centuries). But why believe the confusion lies just with senryu, as Reichhold seems to believe? Why not abandon haiku, too, for all the confusion that lies there, too? If anything, Reichhold contributes to the confusion rather than alleviating it. In any case, if there’s confusion about haiku and senryu, the solution isn’t to throw out either baby with the bathwater, yet this is what she has done by making her “AHAforum” a “senryu-free” site and by calling for “senryu” to be dropped as a category in haiku magazines and contests. This is not only unnecessary, but snobby (Higginson used that term). Why deprive oneself of an energetic way to present humour and satire and wit? Or sadness and irony and honest human observation? Next she’ll be telling the entire nation of Japan that it shouldn’t write senryu either, and that all the senryu magazines and clubs and newspaper columns should cease and desist in deference to her almighty opinion. Maybe she should tell them to stop creating manga and anime, too, because they’re such low-class art forms compared with Noh drama and contemporary fiction. Of course we can write both haiku and senryu, regardless of whether senryu is second-class or not. Or even third-class. And it’s also fine if she’d rather have nothing to do with senryu—even though quite a few of her own poems definitely are.
On another point, your question seems to claim that many editors and contest organizers believe that the distinction between haiku and senryu doesn’t matter. But I’m not sure that this is the case. In fact, I would think the opposite is true, even if not loudly trumpeted. Frogpond and Modern Haiku welcome both sorts of poetry, as do many other journals—even though they’re understood to be “haiku” journals (they encompass both, even though this is not what is done in Japan). The HSA and Modern Haiku have awards for both haiku and senryu. For contests and journals where no distinction is made, well, that might be an incorrect assumption—I know Heron’s Nest tries to publish only haiku, not senryu (just as a matter of focus, not as a rejection or disparagement of senryu), but for those journals where they seemingly don’t care, I think the real issue is that they welcome both genres, and choose to let readers decide what’s what, if they want to. That amounts to trusting readers, whereas segregating the two genres would seem to be trying to instruct them, or talk down to them—and not trust them. There’s a time and place for instruction and discussion, but not necessarily when one is sharing original poems. Eliminating one of the genres entirely would be beyond ludicrous—no reason to do so at all. One might consider cutting back on senryu in haiku journals if a “Senryu Society of America” were to be formed for English-language senryu, but I would say there’s no need for such an organization, because it feels perfectly fine for the HSA to encompass both haiku and senryu—as it has now been doing for more than forty years. Perhaps that might change in the future, but Reichhold is seemingly calling for the abolishment of senryu, not for the formation of a new society.
How do you think haiku and senryu are apprehended in different ways? For the most part I think they are appreciated in similar ways, starting with their brevity, imagism, and focus on personal experience. Just as definitions of haiku and senryu overlap, so too do the ways of appreciating them. That’s perfectly fine, it seems to me. We expect a different tone, perhaps, but the truth is that we don’t know until we’ve read the poem what the tone will be, and in fact one of the ways both haiku and senryu succeed is because the tone can surprise us. And the content. Just as it’s important for a joke to have the right emotional climate before it will work, it’s also true for senryu to have the right emotional climate. Yet surely that’s true for haiku, too. For haiku the climate might differ a bit than for senryu, but I believe readers instantly adapt to whatever poem they’re reading (more so than with jokes), and I enjoy the variety of including both in haiku journals. They would be impoverished if they lacked senryu. But haiku journals don’t present just haiku and senryu. Many of them also present concrete poems, compressed and clever word creations (Robert Spiess included a lot of these when he was Modern Haiku editor—an example of my own is “bureaucratrace,” which may be difficult to translate into other languages because of its combination of “bureaucrat” and “rat race”), and other short poems that might be neither haiku or senryu. Yet readers instantly adapt, and this openness to variety helps to place haiku in a larger poetic spectrum (no poem is an island). This variety is fine, even though the poems are aiming at different effects. With my old publication Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, I went a step further by integrating haiku and senryu with other short poems (up to 13 lines), trusting once again that readers would instantly adapt, as indeed they did. They never needed to be told “dude, this is a haiku,” “yo, this is a triolet,” and this is a whatever. My readers were smarter than that. Perhaps Jane Reichhold’s readers are not.