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Autumn 2006, vol 4 no 3

Edited by Alan Pizzarelli

The Serious Side of Senryu

Senryu is a short poetic form which focuses on people: men, women, husbands, wives, children, relatives and other relations. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind.

A common misconception about senryu, is that it is exclusively a satirical and or humorous poetic genre. That's a laugh right there, because senryu is much more than a fat lady's big behind. There's another side of senryu, a more serious side that express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity. Senryu that are serious in tone about romance, sex, family, friendship, marriage, and divorce — Senryu that express other moods and human emotions such as love, hate, anger, jealousy, sorrow, sadness, and fear — Senryu that portray the stark reality of the human condition — the facts, fashions, sports, social issues and life-styles of popular culture — Senryu that express passion and fullness of heart.

It all goes back to the earliest senryu that were composed in late 18th century Japan.

In Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses, (Hokuseido 1949) and Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Hokuseido Press, 1960) -- R.H. Blyth's superb English translations of late 18th century to 20th century Japanese senryu provide prime examples of senryu that express the more serious human moods and emotions.:

The doctor killed him,
    But they express their thanks,
Most graciously.


In this senryu, from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu [p. 39], Grief stricken family members express their thanks to the doctor. That they thank him "most graciously", evokes an even deeper sense of sadness..

    Is the age of forty
Of a beautiful woman.


Of this one, Blyth writes: "For ordinary women, forty or thirty is not so different, but for a woman who has been using her beauty to get money, power, love, the beginning of old age is almost the end of existence." The mind-set here, is one of despair.

The step-child,
    All day long
With his nose running.


In this senryu only the child is portrayed. The step-parent is left to the reader's imagination. This not only evokes sympathetic compassion for the child but it also effectively conveys the cruelty of the step-parent who is emotionally distant to the non-biological child.

In the servants' room:
    Tormenting one
Who is too pretty.


In the beautiful woman,
    The wife
Finds some defect.

Senryu [p. 89]

"Cruelty has a human heart, and Jealousy a human face." wrote the poet William Blake. Sadness, despair, cruelty, jealousy — Senryu is all too human.

Here are others examples from Japanese Life and Character in Senryu, which range in mood and topic from money-woes to marital rows:

In this world,
    Tied by parents,
And by money.


The face of her husband
Looking for a job, —
She is tired of it.


The child who fell over
    Goes home
To cry.


Going to desert her child,
    She gives it
All the milk she has.


Losing his job,
    The siren sounds
For others to work.


Laughing loudly
    To forget
My loneliness.


The reason he is a good man
    Is simply because
He is a coward.


And from Senryu: Japanese Satirical Verses by R. H. Blyth , Hokuseido 1949:

Scolding to excess,
    The mother also
Bursts into tears.

A negress
Feels relieved,
Giving birth to a negro.


The day she is in a bad temper
No sound
From the kitchen.

[ p.53]

Today, a growing number of contemporary English language poets are writing senryu that convey a serious tone and that express the wider range of human emotions. Senryu that evoke feelings of pity, sorrow, sympathy, or compassion.

Here are three on the topic of illness:

nothing to hide
the eyes of a child
on chemotherapy

M. Franklyn Teaford

on the late-night movie
as I try to swallow oatmeal
"Madame Curie"

Anita Virgil

hair clumps fill the sink
in my mirror a face
from Auschwitz

Anita Virgil

Others, such as the following selections express loneliness, envy, woe, fear, anger and sadness:

man on a crowded street
hides his loneliness
with a broken cell phone

Bob Brill

The old widower
still sleeping on
his side of the bed

Jesse McGowan

arguing downstairs —
she shuts the windows
in her dollhouse

Carol Raisfeld

the mannequin
i envy its curves

Ariel Lambert

I break apart
a Popsicle and think
of divorce

Anita Krumins

the pastor's daughter
her Sunday dress
the color of bruises

Carol Raisfeld

unable to guess why
he banters with the waiter
so cruelly

Anita Virgil

again he sets
a wine glass at my place
I do not wish to fill

Anita Virgil

years after drowning,
his shampoo still in the shower
washed clean of its label

Chad Lee Robinson

Senryu can portray with startling effectiveness, the drama of human suffering, tragedy, violence and war:

line of refugees
the smallest child carries
a centipede

Ernest Berry

Mission Accomplished —
the mine planter shows off
his prosthetic limbs

Al Pizzarelli

facing south
the old bum speaks
to the vacant air

Steve Dalachinsky
twin towers. 9/14/2001

coming home —
the war continues
inside his head

Carol Raisfeld

Social issues such as abortion, civil rights, crime, discrimination, health, labor, poverty, prostitution and urban life are among the many topics of serious minded senryu:

shopping —
I show my daughter how
to handle a gun

Francis Masat

algebra class
at Columbine —
solving for y

Barry George

Senryu poetry ( note I say poetry, readers) can also evoke more subtle and delicate emotional qualities:

The cracked cup
gets packed
better than the rest. *

Anita Virgil

Some senryu can even express emotions in mere human gestures that are sensitive, charming and charged with meaning:

saying too much
the deaf girl
hides her hands

Matthew Louviere

The grand genre of senryu arises, when as a poetic form it expresses the full range of human emotions from comic to tragic That is the real face and voice of senryu that continues to echo through the centuries.

Alan Pizzarelli


Japanese Life and Character in Senryu. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, copyright © 1960 by R.H. Blyth and Senryu, Japanese Satirical Verses, Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, copyright 1949 by R.H. Blyth

William Blake quote from Appendix to Songs of Innocence and of Experience -- A Divine image.

"on the late-night movie" and "hair clumps fill the sink" from A Long Year, Peaks Press, copyright 2002 by Anita Virgil; by permission of the author.

"I break apart" from This Day's New Face, Haiku Canada Sheet, copyright ©1993 by Anita Krumins; by permission of the author.

"unable to guess why" and "again he sets" from the e-book summer thunder, Peaks Press, copyright © 2004 by Anita Virgil; by permission of the author.

"line of refugees" from Forgotten War, Post Pressed Flaxton, copyright © 2000 by ernest berry.

"the cracked cup", first published in Modern Haiku ,Vol xx no. 2, ed. Robert Spiess, summer 1989.

* This senryu was first published in the summer 1989 issue of Modern Haiku by editor Robert Spiess under the aegis of haiku, despite the fact that Virgil informed him it was a senryu. (He had written he accepted her "haiku" submission.) In 1991 "the cracked cup" rightfully appeared as senryu in her book One Potato, Two Potato Etc. (Peaks Press).

"saying too much" from The Marsh and Other Haiku and Senryu, Modern Haiku Press, Madison, WI, copyright © 2001 by Matthew Louvière.