Senryū, what is one and would anyone like Zappai?


I know I’ve mentioned the term Senryū in some earlier posts, so now I’ll explain what one is and how it differs from a Haiku. To start off, pretty much any English haiku that doesn’t follow the traditional formula of “5-7-5”, kigo, and kireji is either a Senryū or a Zappai. I’ll explain why:

Senryū (literally ‘river willow’) is a Japanese form of short poetry similar to haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer total morae (or “on“, often translated as syllables in English). 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 (season word).

Senryū is named after Edo period haikai poet Senryū Karai (1718-1790), whose collection Haifūyanagidaru launched the genre 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 senryū, 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) and/or a brief or 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 senryū skirt the line between haiku and senryū. The following senryū 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-seek in the graveyard as a child, thought of himself as the odd one out, the one who was always “it” in hide-and-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-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 senryū 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 senryū. 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.
Related to senryū is Zappai. Zappai is a form of Japanese poetry rooted in haikai. It is related to, but separate from, haiku and senryū. The Haiku Society of America refers to zappai as “miscellaneous amusements in doggerel verse,” although a more accurate definition might be: a form of poetry that “includes all types of seventeen syllable poems that do not have the proper formal or technical characteristics of haiku.”
As you can see, writing pure Haiku can sometimes be confusing (especially in a language other than Japanese). I hope this helps, thank you for reading.

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