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Senryū (川柳, literally 'river willow') is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer "on" (not syllables) in total. However, senryū tend to be about human foibles while haiku tend to be about nature, and senryū are often cynical or darkly humorous while haiku are more serious. Unlike haiku, senryū do not include a kireji (cutting word), and do not generally include a kigo, or season word.

Form and content

The form is named after Edo era haiku poet Senryū Karai (柄井川柳, 1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru (誹風柳多留) launched the genre (and hence his name) into the public consciousness. A typical example from the collection:

泥棒を dorobō wo
捕えてみれば toraete mireba
我が子なり wagako nari

The robber,
when I catch,
my own son

This senryu, which can also be translated "Catching him / you see the robber / is your son," is not so much a personal experience of the author as an example of a type of situation (provided by a short comment called a maeku or fore-verse, which usually prefaces a number of examples=senryu) and/or a brief=witty rendition of an incident, from history or the arts (plays, songs, tales, poetry, etc.). In this case, there was a historical incident of legendary proportion.

Some senryu skirt the line between haiku and senryu. The following senryu by Shūji Terayama copies the haiku structure faithfully, down to a blatantly obvious kigo, but on closer inspection is absurd in its content:

かくれんぼ kakurenbo
三つ数えて mittsu kazoete
冬になる fuyu ni naru

Hide and seek
Count to three
Winter comes

Terayama, who wrote about playing hide-and-go-seek in the graveyard as a child, thought of himself as the odd-guy out, the one who was always "it" in hide-and-go-seek. Indeed, the original haiku included the theme "oni" (the "it" in Japanese is a demon, though in some parts a very young child forced to play "it" was called a "sea slug" (namako)). To him, seeing a game of hide-and-go seek, or recalling it as it grew cold would be a chilling experience. Terayama might also have recalled opening his eyes and finding himself all alone, feeling the cold more intensely than he did a minute before among other children. Either way, any genuinely personal experience would be haiku and not senryu in the classic sense. If you think Terayama's poem uses a child's game to express in hyperbolic metaphor how, in retrospect, life is short, and nothing more, then this would indeed work as a senryu. Otherwise, it is a bona fide haiku. There is also the possibility that it is a joke about playing hide and seek, only to realize (winter having arrived during the months spent hiding) that no one wants to find you.

Some modern haiku are more similar to senryu than to traditional Japanese haiku. Most Western haiku and senryū poets no longer adhere to the 5-7-5 form, which, according to many, is suitable for the Japanese language but may lead English poets to produce over-long and sometimes stilted poems.

Manchester poet John Cooper Clarke recited the following self-composed senryu on Irish television in 1986:

To express oneself
in seventeen syllables
is very diffic

However, while amusing, such a poem is actually neither a haiku nor a senryū, but a commentary about haiku and the oversimplified perception that it should have seventeen syllables.

English-language senryu publications

In the 1970s, Michael McClintock edited Seer Ox: American Senryu Magazine. Although there are currently no journals devoted solely to senryu, one can regularly find senryu and related articles in some haiku publications. For example:

  • Simply Haiku journal has a regular senryu column edited by Alan Pizzarelli.
  • World Haiku Review also regularly published senryu.
  • Senryu regularly appear in the pages of Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Tundra, and other leading journals for haiku.

Senryu awards

The Haiku Society of America has the annual Gerald Brady Memorial Awards for best unpublished senryu with a $100 first prize (past winners).

Since about 1990, the Haiku Poets of Northern California has also been running a senryu contest, as part of its San Francisco International Haiku and Senryu Contest, with a first prize of $100 (recent winners).

References and senryu books

  • R. H. Blyth, translator, Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, The Hokuseido Press, ISBN 0837129583 [1949, 230 pp, Incl. B&W sketches & some colored plates]
  • R. H. Blyth, translator, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, The Hokuseido Press, [1960, 630 pp.]
  • R. H. Blyth, translator, Oriental Humour, The Hokuseido Press, [1960, 630 pp.]
  • R. H. Blyth, translator, Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies, The Hokuseido Press, [1961, 312 pp.]
  • Robin D. Gill, compiler and translator, Octopussy, Dry Kidney & Blue Spots – dirty themes from 18-19c Japanese poems, Paraverse Press, 2007. ISBN 9780974261850 [504 pp, 1300 senryu - Blyth mentioned that he could only introduce what the censors allowed; these are the type of senryu that were not allowed]
  • Robin D. Gill, ditto, The Woman Without a Hole – & other risky themes from old Japanese poems [same as above but with different title and ISBN 9780974261881]
  • Lorraine Ellis Harr (tombo), Selected Senryu, J & C Transcripts, 1976 [one of the earliest senryu-only publications of English-language senryu]
  • James D. Hodgson, American Senryu, The Japan Times, 1992 ISBN 4789006611 [U.S. ambassador to Japan from 1974-1977]
  • Howard S. Levy and Junko Ohsawa, One Hundred Senryu Selections, So. Pasadena, CA, Langstaff Publications, 1979 ISBN 0-686-37532-7
  • Alan Pizzarelli, Senryu Magazine. [Note: Although this book looks like a regular journal, it is the effort of Alan Pizzarelli only, done as a parody of haiku journals.)
  • Makoto Ueda, Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, Columbia University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-231-11550-4 cloth ISBN 0-231-11551-2 pbk [273 pp. 400 senryu]
  • Michael Dylan Welch, ed. Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go, Press Here, 1993 [believed to be the first anthology of English-language senryu]


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