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What is Senryu?


What is Senryu?

Ah, another good question. Reading some recently posted poems and the comments to those poems and considering several past discussions I have had on the subject, I found there is a good deal of confusion about the differences between haiku and senryu. My earlier article titled "What is Haiku" discussed haiku in some detail. In this article, I will provide some explanation of senryu.

Much like I did for my haiku article, I pulled out my "Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary" and looked up the definition of senryu, but I found nothing there. Unlike haiku, where Mr. Webster misled us with a poor definition, he is silent on senryu. That's a good sign, at least I won't have to fight Mr. Webster on this one and you won't have to set any small fires in your house as you burn the pages with the misleading definitions.

from my book
not another page
a small fire

I remember an email conversation from some time ago when someone asked me: “What is the "exact" difference between haiku and senryu? I had to think a while on this, because while I had read and written both haiku and senryu, I had not sent much time considering the precise difference between the two. My most succinct answer to the question took two emails and quotes from three highly qualified sources. The quotes offered three very different definitions.

In 1970, the Haiku Society of America's Definitions Committee quoted in The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higgenson, defined senryu as: "Loosely, a poem similar to haiku which does not meet the criteria for haiku." Ouch! Higgenson, who chose to include the above definition in his book, went on to say: "Although I was a member of that committee, I do not like suggesting that a senryu is a failed haiku." Higgenson realized that, while some senryu result from failed haiku, often the poet will set out to write a senryu. He explains: "...a senryu relies on a point of wit instead of provocation by contrast, as does the haiku."

While the guests order
the table cloth hides his hands --
counting his money

(Clement Hoyt - from "The Haiku Handbook")

In his book, Higgenson offered a description for senryu that was very different from the Haiku Society of America’s: "A humorous or satiric poem dealing with human affairs, usually written in the same form as haiku." While this definition more closely matches my understanding of senryu, I think Cor Van den Heuvel in his The haiku Anthology provided the best definition of senryu. He described the difference between haiku and senryu as: "Senryu is the same as haiku except, instead of dealing with Nature, it is specifically about human nature and human relationships and is often humorous."

Library closing --
the sleeping wino wakes up
holding a shut book

(Sydell Rosenberg - from "The Haiku Handbook")

As I mentioned above, I lean more to van den Heuvel's definition, basically calling a poem about or involving human nature a senryu, while calling a poem about or involving nature a haiku. With respect to the senryu's structure, I basically follow the same precepts as I do in haiku. You may
want to refer to my article titled: "More on Haiku: Not Seventeen".

I have seen people question whether haiku was too short a form to express eroticism. While a short form will limit the extent of the image you can present, I think that if you concentrate upon a specific erotic moment, it can be compressed into something less than 17 syllables. Once it has been compressed, the real question will become: “Is it haiku or senryu?” The nice thing about senryu is that you can emphasize some wonderful aspects of human nature:

her gown
on the floor

While some may argue that this poem is not hot enough, or explicit enough to be considered erotica, I find the image very erotic. The poem, based upon van den Heuvel’s definition, should be considered a senryu, in my opinion an erotic senryu. There are some examples of erotic haiku, where nature is portrayed in an erotic fashion:

beyond the dark
where I disrobe
an iris in bloom

(Katsura Nobuko – from Far Beyond the Field)

Let's keep reading and writing haiku and senryu.


1. Higginson, William J., The Haiku Handbook Kodansha International Ltd., Tokyo, Japan 1985.

2. Ueda, Makoto ed., Far Beyond the Field Haiku by Japanese Women Columbia University Press, New York 2003.

3. Ueda, Makoto ed., Modern Japanese Tanka Columbia University Press, New York 1996

4. van den Heuvel, Cor, The haiku Anthology Expanded Edition W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York 1999.

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