Monday, January 23, 2017

To the Lighthouse: Senryu (Satirical / Comic Haiku)

                                                                            white house press briefing
                                                                            my parrot yelling out,
                                                                            fake news, very fake news ...                                                           

The vehicle of senryu is an excellent way to express human pathos and the naked and true nature of what a human being is. -- Onishi Yasuyo


Senryu: A Japanese verse of the same length as a haiku, but without the requirement of a “season word” or a cutting word (kireji); making pointed comments on some aspect of human behaviour, and generally regarded by the Japanese as vulgar or at least inferior to haiku
-- excerpted from What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form (2013), written by David Cobb (renowned poet and co-founder of the British Haiku Society), pp. 85-6.

If this Japanese view of senryu as “vulgar or at least inferior to haiku” is true, why do hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Japanese men and women read and write senryu daily? And why was Onishi Yasuyo, Japanese senryu poet, awarded in 1996 one of the most prestigious haiku awards, the Nakaniida Haiku Prize, for her brilliantly-crafted senryu (Poem of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective, Richard Gilbert, p. 224)? In her interview with Richard Gilbert (ibid, pp.223-32), Onishi emphasizes that “the vehicle of senryu is an excellent way to express human pathos and the naked and true nature of what a human being is. In order to express such things, senryu may in fact be an ideal literary form” (ibid., p. 227). Below are some of her senryu included in Gilbert’s book (ibid., pp. 233-4)

from behind
comes the sound of water
comes news of death

where a life starts and becomes
                    september wind

in the deep bosom
of a sniper --
myrtle blossom

hydrangea darkness --
the past gradually withers

For more information about the historical and aesthetic development of senryu in the Japanese context, see “Introduction,” Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of  Premodern Japanese Senryu by Makoto Ueda, pp. 1-40:

Strictly speaking, it is not quite right to call them senryu, because there was no such usage when they were written. Contemporaries knew them as maekuzuke (verse capping), kyoku (mad verse), zareku (playful verse), and by several other names. Senryu as the name of a poetic genre came into existence in the mid-nineteenth century and became well established only in the twentieth century. Today it is common practice in Japan to apply the term to all poems belonging to the genre, regardless of when they were written... a writer of senryu keenly studies various aspects of the human condition and reports his findings in a humorous way, the humor sometimes crossing over to the territory of satire. Senryu differs from haiku in its rhetoric, too, since it seldom uses the common haiku technique known as internal comparison. Whereas a haiku often juxtaposes two disparate objects challenges the reader to make an imaginary connection between them, a typical senryu presents one unique situation and asks the reader to view it in the light of reason or common sense. The reader who does that will usually experience a feeling of superiority, or of incongruity, or of relief, which in turn lead to laughter. It is not without reason that senryu is often translated as "comic verse" or "satirical poetry." ("Preface," pp. vii-viii)


Senryu are not failed haiku or "generally regarded by the Japanese as vulgar or at least inferior to haiku" as David Cobb claims in his book. Historically speaking, sociopolitically conscious senrou could make the ruling class fear or tremble. For example, of Ueda's anthology, the first section aims at people of the ruling warrior class. It's titled "We Are Swordless, but Not Wordless" (pp. 43-63). The following is what Ueda calls "one of the most famous senryu of all time:"

yakunin no ko wa niginigi o yoku oboe

the official’s little son --
how fast he’s learned to open
and close his fist!

The pivotal word is “niginigi.” A derivative of “nigiru,” “to grab” or “to grip,” and a typical example of the baby-talk vocabulary with which the Japanese language abounds, niginigi describes the innocuous way an infant is induced to open and close his palm. You can almost hear a happy child gurgling...You must also know that the senryu refers to one distinctive aspect of the period in which it was composed: the age of Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788). Tanuma, who ruled first as shogunate adviser, then as top administrator, was so tolerant of bribery that his name became almost synonymous with the act. Given this, the description of the innocent act takes on a sinister meaning.
-- excerpted from Timeless jabs at the ordinary by Hiroaki Sato

I think it's politically suitable to conclude today's post about senryu with the following senryu sequence:

American Carnage: New Life in Trumpland

Go Trump graffiti
a stray dog
marking his spot

trumping Trump
my Mexican parrot
lifts up its voice

election night
a scream from the other side
of the fence

Trump victory
the sky bursting
with crows

post-election blues
my sister dressed in black
from head to toe

Thanksgiving dinner
Trump hats and Clinton stickers
left on the doormat

misty night
red states,  blue states
strongertogether

first false dawn
Donald Trump Toppled
on realnews.com

bald eagle's cry
cut off
Inauguration Day

a neon sign
on the White House roof:
Alternative Facts 


Updated, January 22:

Another senryu about this "new life" in Trumpland:

White House press briefing
Donald Trump in a bathrobe
watching RealNews


Note:  For further discussion on David Cobb's What Happens in Haibun: A Critical Study of an Innovative Literary Form, see my review essay (30-page thematic, textual, and perspectival analysis), titled What Happens in [David Cobb’s Conception of] Haibun: A Critical Study for Readers Who Want More, which was first published in Haibun Today, 7:3, September 2013

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