Senryu As a Dirty Word
There can never be a clear differentiation between English haiku and senryu because at this stage of development of the genre there is practically none. You can take an apple, cut it in half, call the side with the worm hole senryu and the perfect half haiku, but it is still an apple.
Many persons argue that verses having humor or satire should be called senryu instead of haiku, but the hai of haiku means in Japanese "humorous, joke or funny." In spite of the efforts to make haiku profound (which it certainly can be), the hai still means not only joke or funny, but also "crippled" referring to the use of sentence fragmentation. This factor has been so hidden from us who do not speak Japanese that we think haijin (a writer of haiku) is a term of honor when in reality haijin can mean to a Japanese "a crippled person."
Three hundred years ago when Basho and Onitsure first began separating off the hokku from the rest of renga they were careful to retain the characteristics of the beginning verse to a renga and eager to drop the hai from the complete name of haikai no renga.
What later came to be called senryu, did not evolve out of hokku nor anything near the poetry scene. Currently senryu is not listed in Japanese textbooks on literature as a poetry form with haiku, renga, and tanka – and for a very good reason.
Then as now, Japanese men gathered in tea or sake houses for their exclusively male orientated activities. In Yoshiwara, the red light area of Edo (Tokyo), in the early 1700's began the custom of the maekuzuke (a contest to write a tan renga with two links of 5-7-5 and 7-7 written between two persons) as one of the entertainments amidst drinking and carousing. A local poet would be paid to write a two-line or three-line poem to which the bar patrons would add or cap with their own best verse to compete for fame and laughs. Due to the atmosphere and the mental condition of the men at the time, these links were witty, satirical (usually degrading to women), and explicitly erotic. Senryu is a verse so lewd it is only signed, if at all, with a nom de plume – never the person’s real name.
Karai Hachiemon, whose pen-name Senryu meant "River Willow", (river willows also referred to prostitutes as we would say in English "soiled doves") collected these lascivious winning verses and began to circulate them in cheap booklets as well as writing and teaching the tricks to others. We can think of him as an Edward Lear with chopsticks. In 1765, the first collection was published as Haifu Yanagidaru and over the next one hundred years 160 further editions were published. Being published did not mean the verses were great or even good; the opinion is that they degenerated rapidly into the unprintable.
That we English readers have a mild – and therefore false – impression of senryu, we can thank R.H. Blyth who was such a gentleman and well-known sexual prude that the senryu he translated were either the cleanest possible ones or those with double meanings in which he avoids revealing the seamier version in his translation.
Even these, now called Ko-Senryu [Old Senryu], are an embarrassment to the Japanese and they have made efforts, mainly with a conference in Olympia, Washington, in 1985, and the book, Modern Senryu in English by Shuho Ohno, to create a sanitized version of senryu for English readers. With a new name, Gendai Senryu, contemporary senryu has most of the same rules which are widely accepted for haiku. Mr. Ohno actually states on page 18 of Modern Senryu in English: "There is no distinct boundary [for haiku and senryu] in recent developments as far as the subject matters are concerned." The fact is that the only difference is in the use of a Japanese term of punctuation – somewhat like "wow" – which no other language has or uses.
When, at the turn of the century, Shiki gave us the new name haiku for hokku, the changes which had occurred in what was being written and collected as hokku had been enlarged so that ANY link of a haikai no renga could rightfully be called a haiku if it had the required syllable count. The name haiku, instead of hokku, implies the form's combined aspects of haikai and hokku. Even for Westerners this is still so. Whether links concentrate on nature or human affairs, both have their place in a renga and therefore, since Shiki, their right to be named haiku. I have not seen any senryu published that could not be used as a link in someone's renga.
Again, R.H. Blyth is responsible for this false splitting of haiku into two divisions. For haiku, accepted by Japanese literary history as haiku, which Blyth did not like or understand, he constantly exploits the term senryu to degrade them. Adopting Blyth's attitude, certain experts and editors have set themselves up as judges to determine what is "real haiku" and referring, as he did, to all else as senryu. I strongly believe if a writer calls his/her work haiku, it IS haiku. If someone else does not like it, or it does not fit their standards, this does not give anyone the right to call it by the deprecatory name of erotic doggerel.
In any case, the term senryu should be discontinued because that is not what we are writing. Personally I have never read anything yet in English as degrading as a real Japanese senryu are. None of us would accept or publish such work. Why should we remind ourselves of this questionable practice by the Japanese by using the term?
As Yagi Kametaro wrote in his article on senryu published in 1976, he explains the Japanese attitude as, "senryu has been regarded as inferior and has been neglected by devotees of haiku." He continues with "... haikuists seldom write senryu and Japanese magazines almost never provide a section for senryu." The reason he gives is, "During the Edo Period only our popular literature treated carnal love. Such affairs were popular subjects for senryu and novels, but that kind of writing was full of vulgar expressions and was supposedly frowned on by "refined" people."
The situation can also be compared to one in English. If you wrote a light verse which had a pun or wit or even a sensual reference in it, wouldn't you be insulted if someone else called it a limerick and published it as that? If you wanted to write a limerick and if it was REALLY a "good" (meaning very witty and perverse) I doubt you would want to sign it with your real name. It is still the custom in Japan not to sign senryu; with this thinking it is easier to understand why.
I am making the radical suggestion that we as haiku writers and publishers stop using the expression senryu, that writers no longer be put forced to give some of their work a terminology that has no relevancy. This means that contest sponsors stop setting up two categories for the one form of haiku and the frog-hair splitting over which is which.
If you are a writer, you can object to having your haiku labeled as senryu, you can boycott senryu contests or the parts of contests requiring this mistaken label. You also have a right to request that editors not publish your material under this inaccurate terminology. As a judge of contests you can refuse to cooperate with those who continue this practice.
It's up to you. You write the lines. You should know what to name them, and how to care for them.
Postscript 1999: Since the above was written I have journeyed to Japan and found at least three Senryu Clubs in Tokyo alone. The organizations are conducted exactly like Japanese haiku groups but only rarely are the works published in magazines. In their eyes the main difference between a Japanese haiku and a Japanese senryu is the fact that the senryu always must not use a kigo (season word) i.e., have no reference to an accepted nature-nature image. Since haiku writing was introduced to English writers without an emphasis on the necessity of using a season word, the largest majority of our haiku have been written without them. North Americans especially have tended to write haiku about humans and human activity, a perfectly acceptable practice in renga, the form that gave us haiku, so it seems right that all of our haiku be called haiku and a reason why we need not use the pejorative term of senryu.
Blyth, Robert H. Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1949.
Kametaro, Yagi. Haiku - Messages from Matsuyama. Edited by Oliver Statler. Rochester, MI: Katydid Books, 1991.
Ohno, Shuho. Modern Senryu in English. Seattle, WA: Hokubei International, 1988.
Shiki, Masaoka. Masaoka Shiki. Translated by Janine Beichman. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986.
This article was first published in Haiku Canada Newsletter, in the winter 1991 issue.
Translated into German it was published in Vierteljahresschrift in spring, 1991.
In autumn, 1991, the article was reprinted in Lynx in U.S.A.
The article, slightly revised, appeared in England in spring, 1992, in New Hope International's Special Haiku Issue.
It was published in summer, 1992, in the Romanian Haiku Society's journal of haiku – Albatross.
The article has been slightly revised for The Critical Poet.