While not nearly as known as the Japanese haiku, this poetic form is still incredibly important. There are many English language writers and writers around the world who are interested in exploring what this poetic form entails.
History of the Senryū
The Japanese senryū poem is named for a specific author, Karai Senryū (who was born Karai Hachiemon), who wrote during the Edo period (in the mid-late 1700s in Japan).
Interestingly, the word isn’t directly associated with poetry. Rather than referring to the form, it means “river willow.”
Definition of Senryū Poetry
A senryū is a short haiku-like poem that contains a total of 17 syllables. The first and third lines contain five syllables, while the second line contains seven. Readers who are familiar with the haiku will immediately recognize this syllabic pattern.
These poems, like haiku, have evolved over time as well. This means that today it’s fairly common to find poems that vary from the traditional formal elements associated with senryū.
Senryū vs. Haiku
While identical in the number of syllables per line and the number of lines, haiku, and senryū are different in specific ways.
The latter is far more concerned with human nature, specifically as foibles, than haiku are. Haikus are much better known for dealing with topics like nature and the seasons.
Additionally, senryū are known for being clever, cynical, and often quite stark in their depiction of humanity. While humor is not a necessity, it is far more common in these poems than in haiku.
Haiku is known for using, what is known as, “kigo” or seasonal words, and “kireji” or “cutting words.” This isn’t something you’re going to find in a senryū.
There are also a couple of similarities that are worth noting. Both home types were shaped by famed Edo period poet Matsuo Bashō, who died in 1694. They are both part of what is known as the haikai no renga genre.
What are Senryū Poems About?
The content of a senryū often involves satire or humor and may contain a social or political commentary or reflect on the quirks of human behavior. Unlike haiku, senryū often includes puns, irony, or wordplay, and the tone can range from playful to sarcastic to dark.
Examples of Senryū
There are far fewer examples of senryū in world literature than there are haiku, but here are a few good examples of how the form plays out:
‘A woman showing’ by Yosa Buson
This is a really interesting example of a senryū by famed haiku poet Yosa Buson. The lines read:
A woman showing
a charcoal-seller his face,
in a mirror.
These lines of the poem are lightly humorous and help readers imagine a very simple, clever interaction between two people. In this case, the poet describes an unknown woman showing a “charcoal seller” his face.
The most important detail in this entire poem is the man’s profession. As a charcoal seller, he’s around the messy, dusty charcoal all day. It’s likely that when he looked at his own face in the mirror, it was covered in black dust.
Read more Yosa Buson poems.
‘When I catch’ by Karai Senryū
This poem is by Karai Senryū: the poet after whom this specific poetic form is named. Here is an example of his skill with the form:
When I catch,
my own son
These lines are deeply emotional despite the fact that there are only a few words. Additionally, this poem is less a personal experience the poet dealt with and more for the reader’s amusement. One can imagine the surprise on a father’s face when he catches a robber and realizes it’s his son. The poem could be interpreted in two different ways.
Firstly, the son is breaking and entering, and when the father caught him, his crimes come to light.
Alternatively, one might interpret the poem as meaning that the father thought that there was a robber in his house, but it ended up just being his son walking around at night. Either way, there is a lot to unpack in the three lines.
Other Japanese Poetic Forms
- Tanka: A longer poem consisting of five lines with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern. Tanka often expresses emotions and can cover a wider range of topics than haiku.
- Renga: A collaborative form of poetry where each poet contributes a verse to create a linked series of stanzas. Renga can be hundreds of stanzas long and may follow specific rules for structure and content.
- Haibun: A combination of prose and haiku. Haibun typically begins with a descriptive paragraph or story, followed by one or more haiku that relate to the prose.
- Kyoka: A comic tanka that uses wordplay, puns, and humor. Kyoka often mocks serious poetic themes and can be seen as a precursor to senryū.
- Choka: A long poem that alternates between 5 and 7 syllables per line, with the last stanza consisting of seven lines. Choka was a popular form in ancient Japanese poetry but is now rarely used.
- Sedoka: A pair of linked tanka, with the first consisting of three lines and the second consisting of two. Sedoka were traditionally used for love poetry and often expressed longing or desire.
It’s not clear who exactly invented senryū poems, as they evolved over time from earlier Japanese poetic forms. However, the form is named after the poet Karai Senryū, who was active in the late 18th century and known for his satirical and humorous verse.
While senryū poems may not be as well-known as haiku or other poetic forms, they are still considered an important part of Japanese literary tradition. They offer a unique perspective on human nature and can be a powerful tool for social and political commentary.