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Senryū, haiku's sibling

Since Sunday, I've been putting up posts about haiku, examining the components of what an actual haiku should contain - three lines, short, a little longer, short (not necessarily 5-7-5, although feel free to use that construct); a kigo, or seasonal word; a "turn" or some sort of surprising insight or revelation; a poem based in nature.

But what if it's not based in nature? What if it's about human conduct or emotion?

Then, my friends, you are writing a senryū.

Senryū adhere to the same line requirements as haiku - three lines, short-longer-short (or, if you prefer 5-7-5) - and are usually written in present tense, as if observing human behavior as it occurs, or human emotion as it arises.

Cynics among us will be glad to know that cynicism and dark humor are hallmarks of the senryū, although not all senryū are meant to be funny (even in a dark way). I prefer to think of it as the Tim Gunn approach to human foibles - stepping back, hand on chin, assessing and commenting, but without participating in the actual situation being described.

The poem can be a first-person observation, such as this one from an anonymous poet, translated by R.H. Blyth in Japanese Life:

I thought he was going to
Give me something, --
But he blew his nose.

Perhaps the speaker thought the guy was going to give them a handkerchief as a love token, but alas - it was not to be? Or this one, which is not humorous:

My child goes
To buy an egg:
My heart gets old.

Ouch. Whether it's egg-buying or kindergarten, what parent can't appreciate the bittersweet pain in this one?

Most often, senryu are third person, close observation, like this one from Bashō:

A man, infirm
With age, slowly sucks
A fish bone.

This one succeeds in reading as funny or sad, depending on one's perspective. Is he trying to get all he can out of life? Is he savoring or struggling? So many possible takes.

Or there's this one, from Boncho:

The maidservants
Trying to take a peep
Knock down the screen!

Whoopsie! A bit risqué, as well as funny, no?

Tomorrow, a bit more about senryu and haiku, and then we will transition into tanka.


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