Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ignore Misguided Labels and Just Read the Haiku

Warning! Rant Alert!

I had intended my post tonight to be on the subject of haibun. But I have been completely distracted from that topic by my distress and frustration at encountering again the pervasive and noxious practice of labelling haiku poems as "senryu."

A Happy Discovery

Many readers are probably already aware of the website, which publishes and emails to subscribers a haiku or other brief poem each day. In light of my previous post, about how culturally I can be more moved by haiku by contemporary English writers than the Japanese "greats" Basho, Buson and Issa, I actually was looking for a regular source of such inspiring work and came to Tinywords. Yesterday the poem published was this one, by Stanford M. Forrester:

day moon –
the poem sounded better
last night

(originally published in ko 27.4, autumn-winter 2012)

A Day Moon

I really like that Tinywords has a comments engine, and that they encourage readers to contribute their own responses to the poem of the day, for instance in the form of their own poems, or other reflections and appreciation. As a haiku apprentice I have found it not only stimulating to respond to an external challenge, for instance as provided by their periodic photographic prompts, but I am also full of admiration and even exhilaration at reading the offerings of other poets to the same stimuli.  So many talented haiku poets are writing in English today!

An Unhappy Encounter - The Pervasive Disease of "Senryu" - labelling 

But what upset me so much tonight, and set me ranting, was how frequently those comments contain the judgement that a particular poem was "senryu."

The poem above, by Forrester, out of less than a dozen comments, has twice had reference made to it as "senryu" and others mentioning how "funny" it is, what a "chuckle" it provoked, and so on!

Am I missing something? This looks like haiku to me? Did the author indicate that they wanted their poem judged as a "senryu"?

I think, unless an author indicates they consider the work to be something other than haiku, then good manners means we as readers should respect their poem and treat it as intended - as haiku.

Especially because as soon as people start labelling someone else's work as "senryu" it usually indicates they don't think it is really "good enough" for instance, or "profound enough", to be haiku.

In Japan, of course, no one "seriously" writes senryu today to publish. They were only ever throwaway verses for bawdy company.  As Basho expert and haiku translator Jane Reichhold argues, the translator R H Blyth has popularized a false distinction for English readers, to disparage poems and poets he did not approve of. In English, we have plenty of opportunity for sharing our bawdy verses among friends, however the distinction of "haiku" and supposed "senryu" is artificial, misleading, and frankly insulting to the experience of the poet. It is not one that exists among haiku writers in Japan.

Basho Did Not Write Senryu, and Neither Do I 

Indeed, I can find dozens of poems in the work of Basho, Buson, and especially Issa, quite similar to this poem by Forrester, but which misguided English-speaking readers would probably call "senryu" - before they looked at the name of the author! In fact, that most classic of all genuine haiku, Basho's "Old Pond" frog-poem, would by this disparaging classification system be labelled "senryu", and perhaps passed over with a satisfied smirk by a modern reader mistakenly trained to think there is some sort of distinction to be made.

As soon as you say something is "senryu" you are disparaging it's significance. And therefore you cut yourself off from the opportunity of encountering the depth in simplicity that the haiku author is striving to capture. 

In fact, even as soon as you see someone else has called something senryu, the beginning reader immediately will approach it in a different frame of mind. By such labelling - or rather, by mislabelling - you are depriving yourself and possibly preventing others from sharing the opportunity to properly encounter a poem on its own merits, and deeply entering the poet's experience of some aspect of life or the world

Please, please stop calling poems senryu, unless the poet specifically asks you to!

Admiring this "Day Moon"

I think Forrester's poem is a genuine and profound haiku, well worth lingering over.

For a start, referencing the "moon" connects the work to an entire cultural tradition in Japan. 

Moon and Red Blossom - two of nature's great beauties in one picture

Moon viewing recurs frequently in the work of Basho, Buson, Issa and even Shiki. To the Japanese, the moon is one of the three "great beauties" of the natural world, which every cultivated individual, and even ordinary Japanese, seek to experience at their aesthetic "greatest display" (the others being blooming cherry blossoms, and stars). 

Admiring the Moon

 "Day moon" is therefore a fascinating juxtaposition, and turns this poem into something less general, much more specific. In fact it draws us directly into the poem with a clear sensory experience. All of us have seen the moon in the daytime. It often catches us by surprise, since we normally think of the moon as a night object. We also know it has none of the glory of a full moon at night. Therefore this "day moon" not only provides a precise but surprising sensory image, it also invokes a feeling of something past it's prime, or perhaps an opportunity lost.

The next line, "the poem sounded better," is another sensory, yet interesting verse. It catches a faint echo of the sound of reading a poem (? this poem) aloud. But it also calls up a mix of images of poetry parties, with a group of poets reading out loud their contributions. Specifically I am led to think of the renga parties such as those in which the great haiku poet Basho was so frequently a contributor. 

Basho in his 1682 travel journal "Visit to Kashima Shrine" specifically set out to watch a harvest moon over the shrine, but when he arrived the weather was overcast and rainy. He and the other members of his party wrote several haiku expressing their disappointment, but Basho's is profound and reflective:

the moon swift
the branches still holding
the rain 
(Trans. David Landis Barnhill)
To view the Moon over a shrine - a sight well worth a poetic journey for Basho

Forrester's poem concludes with the brief line: "last night".

Obviously this can be connected to the previous line as a complete phrase: "the poem sounded better last night", and as many reader's comments have indicated, this is an experience well known by haiku poets. We believe we have written a fine poem, until in the "cold light of day" (cold light of a day moon perhaps?) and on further reflection we realize is actually not so great. That reflective, self-critical experience itself is profound, as well as poignantly poetic.

But I think Forrester has another reading intended. By breaking this phrase where the poet has chosen to divide the second and third lines, and read the final "last night" separate from what goes before, then the mood changes subtly. Now the emphasis is focused on "last night". There is a sense of finality, of loss, which resonates with the melancholic sense of the diminished glory captured in the first line.  Here is sabi, that prized Japanese sense of loneliness. And combined with the rustic sense of imperfection, incompleteness that is apparently the poem itself, we have another classic Japanese zen aesthetic - wabi. 

So in this seemingly simple poem, which has been labelled and discounted as "senryu" Forrester has actually combined sophisticated literary and cultural resonances with Japanese aesthetics and a genuine mood of wabi sabi. Truly a haiku poem worthy of Basho himself.

And it serves as an exemplary warning: using the term "senryu" says much more about you, and your own lack of poetic appreciation, but next to nothing about the poem. 

I recommend it should be banned from the vocabulary of all haiku apprentices.

Copyright © 2013 The Haiku Apprentice


  1. On the Tinywords blog last night my expedited version of this rant was responded to by a haiku poet who thought I was misrepresenting the readers who applied the label "senryu" to the poem by Forrester. He pointed out:

    "I think you're imposing yours or others' definition of senryu onto the commenters here. It's doubtful any had the above in mind when deploying the term. True, "senryu" may be used by the misguided as a put down of a haiku, but such is not always the case -- I believe Sonia Sanchez has described senryu as a means to explore the city of the soul, or quite a different use from the way Blythe or the unnamed Japanese you invoke have used the term. The folks below, who may speak for themselves, seem to be using the term as it is frequently invoked here, to describe a poem that hits upon our shared human nature. There us nothing insulting about that, and I don't think an author's permission is necessary to offer such an observation"

    1. I concede I may have gone over the top in my ranting, and I certainly didn't mean to offend any of the earlier commentators.

      It is obvious that the word "senryu" has acquired different meanings in English.

      Some of them simply mean "haiku focused on human affairs", but since they are still "haiku" I think the use of the term senryu adds nothing. Indeed many of the haiku of Basho, Buson and Issa deal with human affairs, and we just call them "haiku".

      Some use the term to mean "light-hearted or humorous haiku" - again something which any reader of anthologies will find among the haiku works of the great masters, and which therefore do not need a different label.

      Others use the term to mean "a failed haiku" which seems to be a judgment disparaging the work of someone.

      I cannot see any benefit of continuing to use a label which in English has no set or agreed definition, and which really adds nothing to the appreciation or enjoyment of the poetry, but which has the potential to confuse readers or offend poets and even worse, discourage new writers.

      And so I still believe as readers we should hesitate to apply too readily any label, and focus our comments on the qualities of work itself, which really ought to stand on its own.

      If an author identifies that they have written something they call a senryu, that is up to them. Though I really wish they wouldn't, for the reasons mentioned above. It doesn't help us appreciate it.

      Obviously, I may be tilting against windmills by arguing against the label "senryu". But I hope at least I can encourage readers to stop and think; to look longer at every haiku poem; to delve more deeply, and hunt out any subtle resonances that the poet may have included. Then we are appreciating poetry - regardless of labels.

  2. Rose Garden
    where children play together
    watch both bloom


Thank you for your interest in my blog. You are clearly a thoughtful and poetic soul!

Constructive comments are always welcome. However, as I am frequently out and about living and being inspired by the Cosmos, I may not immediately be able to moderate comments for 24 hours.

Remember, patience is a poetic virtue!