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Autumn 2005, vol 3 no 3

 

Senryu
by Anita Virgil

. . . how essential it is
that humour perform its double
task, first destructive, of
getting rid of all trace of
sentimentality, hypocrisy, and
self-deception; and second, of
making us rejoice at things.

 

[R. H. Blyth, Japanese Life and Character in Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido, 1960), p. 6]

Precursors of senryu are discernible in the following three links of a haikai no renga entitled "A Winter Shower." It was composed by Basho and some local poets of Nagoya in the year 1684. The links deal with a fashionable town dandy who is enjoying a visit to the Yoshiwara in Edo where his heart is captured by one of the courtesans, "Miss Takao," whose favors so inflame him he could drink himself to death for love.

 

Here comes a lover
Of the snow,* wearing a rare
Wu-style hat.

For his muffler, Miss Takao
Tears off a sleeve of her kimono.

With this dearest one
He could drink up the whole barrel
And make it a coffin!

___________________________________________________________________________________
*In addition to being a seasonal reference, the word "snow" has sexual connotations for the Japanese.
[Makoto Ueda, Matsuo Basho (New York, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1970), p. 89]


Later in the poem, we come to these links, again telling a story of human passions:

 

The oil lamp is feebly burning.
Yet the man cannot stir himself up
To go and put out the light.

Not knowing what to do,
He pulls the sash of her nightwear.

The lovelorn soul
Flying into the shade of the blossoms
It has been pining for.
[ibid., pp. 89-90]

These links within the haikai no renga (renku) contain several things which prepare for the advent of senryu. They often deal with human eroticism. Human activity rather than nature dominates. Most links do not rely on season words or phrases (kigo) though they may contain one: even though the dandy is introduced as "a lover of the snow," season plays a minor role in the vignette as it unfolds. In the stanza above which contains the word "blossoms" [they connote "cherry blossoms" and therefore spring], the poet's skill and playfulness allow him to make a bit free with renku composition rules which require that certain topics be introduced in particular links of the poem. He bends the rule (that would require a shift to spring subjects) by utilizing "blossoms" metaphorically to imply the woman's body. Thus he creates an extraordinarily beautiful link that is really about human passion.

From a later renku entitled "The Summer Moon" which Basho and his disciples authored in 1690, we see these appearing as the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth links:

 


A man, infirm
With age, slowly sucks
A fish bone.
        —Basho

He lets a lover in,
Unlocking the small gate.
        —Kyorai

The maidservants
Trying to take a peep
Knock down the screen!
        —Boncho
            [Ibid., p. 108]

Shifting from the previous stanza's scene of winter, Basho's plays off it with a rather desolate cameo towards the [metaphorically winter] end of life, Kyorai then turns the old man into a gatekeeper of sorts, but Boncho changes mood and pace entirely by the introduction of lower class bawdiness as represented by the peeping maids! This last stanza, of all those quoted, could stand on its own as a senryu. Though one has the feeling something preceded this occurrence, it is not necessary to know what exactly it was for the picture is vivid and one can easily use his imagination—a small story has been created in these few words. Comic relief provided by humans being themselves is part of what the senryu is made of.

Throughout the history of Japanese poetry there exist pendulum swings from preoccupation with "serious" and "formal" poetry to reactive light-hearted, often bawdy parodies of it coming on its heels, so to speak. It would be unrealistic to isolate any one period of time or type of poetry which could serve as the specific predecessor to the senryu—no more than for the haiku. Yet, cumulative like a fugue, both types of poems have evolved over the centuries taking a bit from this, a bit from that, echoing the old, then adding something new, and eventually they acquire a character of their own. I cannot recall when any advance in the arts or anywhere else was ever the result of conformity.

For early waka (tanka) composition we find a humorous counterpart in the kyoka or "comic" waka; aristocratic renga divides along the way into ushin (refined, serious) renga and mushin (unrefined, comic, often bawdy) renga which evolved into the haikai no renga. Its beginnings in bald humor alter by the time Basho is a mature poet to become a far more serious art form. But when the quality of the haiku [then known as hokku] and haika i deteriorated after Basho's death, another type of existing short linked verse gained in popularity. This was a humorous verse called maekuzuke which came into being during the Genroku era. In it, the end link (7, 7) was written first, and the challenge among competing poets was to write a clever capping or beginning stanza for it (5,7,5). Hence this process was known as "front-verse linking."

Basho's own pupils Kikaku, Sono-jo, Raizan and Shiko served as judges for many maekuzuke contests. It is safe to assume their own work was in some measure influenced by it. Certainly Kikaku's was. And Boncho's link about the peeping maids shows its influence.

Here is the classic example of maekuzuke given in the order in which it would have been composed, last link first:

I want to kill him,
   And I don't want to kill him,

which another poet capped in this manner:

Catching the thief
     And looking at him, --
It was my own son!
            [Blyth, op. cit., p.14]

This collaboration, therefore, produced the finished maekuzkuke:

Catching the thief
     And looking at him, --
It was my own son!

I want to kill him,
And I don't want to kill him.

The witty 5-7-5 'front verse" of the maekuzuke is the antecedent of senryu. Once again, in the development of Japanese poetry, we can see that an opening stanza is skimmed off to become in time a different kind of poem, an entity in its own right. It occurred when tanka's 5-7-5 opening portion became the hokku (or "starting verse") for renga. It occurred again as hokku came to be composed independently from renga, ultimately evolving into what we now know as haiku.

The maekuzuke came to us (as did the haiku) from the non-aristocratic ranks of the Japanese people. This fact plays a large role in the characteristics of the poetry, its earthiness, its free use of everyday subject matter and colloquial language, its realism. Its popularity was great among the townspeople. Contests were held and a haiku master of critical ability was appointed to choose winning verses. Many of these were collected in anthologies. One of the foremost selectors of maekuzuke was Karai Hachiemon (1718–1790), whose pen name was Senryu (River Willow.)* His name was adopted after his death to identify this new type of verse.
___________________________________________________________________
*Senryu, it is said, was a follower of the Danrin School of haiku, once so popular in Edo.   


Maekuzuke contests often involved the awarding of prize money. So profitable and popular did maekuzuke become that between 1716 and 1735 the government stepped in to put a stop to it.** Now the military Tokugawa Shogunate, which continued to wield power over Japan, ruled a country still closed off from world trade; Japan was overburdened with economic problems. The shift of wealth from the ruling class to the merchants or townspeople [chonin] was perceived as a threat to the government's stability. Controls were tight in all areas of life and Confucian ideals of restraint and duty were held up to the people to keep them in line. When this poetry arose, it opened up an outlet for the expression of people's natural feelings and concerns and the need for freedom. The volatile, wealthy society operating under this repressive military government which legislated morality and containment, predictably guaranteed that there would be conflict, for their wealth gave them a kind of independent  mindset: they operated in sharp contrast to the conformity that pervaded feudal life.

The Floating World of Transient Pleasures (Ukiyo) provided balm to the wide variety of customers visiting the Yoshiwara which was a complex of buildings comparable to what we would now call a "red light district." Samurai (the warrior class) down on their luck, daimyo (noblemen) in financial straits, successful merchants and artisans, all found entertainment and respite within these walls: plays, wrestling, music, pleasures of the flesh and of the mind fostered the writing of poetry that poked fun at the hypocrisy and rigidities without. One was free to be oneself at the Yoshiwara. Senryu reflected—celebrated—the self-absorption disallowed elsewhere in Japanese society. Avenues opened up offering new material for the poets to explore that haiku (with its emphasis on nature rather than man) tended to exclude.
______________________________________________________________________________________

**In centuries past, when haikai contests became gambling events, similar intervention occurred. Great gatherings of people were viewed by the crisis-ridden government as sources of insurrection.


Let us compare the attitudes of medieval Japan where the downtrodden, the "inundated," passively accepted their fate and continued on

As they begin to rise again
Chrysanthemums faintly smell,
After the flooding rain.
        —Basho
           [Ueda, op. cit., p. 56]

with the new attitudes and preoccupation with individual concerns displayed by the small but influential segment of the populace. Let us examine these senryu from the early 18th century:

Nobody
     Looks back at others
In the winter rain.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., p. 32]


In this world,
     Tied by parents
And by money.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 44]


He shuts his eyes
     To look for the wisdom
Inside his own body.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 59]


"Make a profit
     On the next sale," she says,
Haggling over the price.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid.., p. 17]

Each poem focuses on humans and displays an aspect of the human condition. The poems ring with accurate observation; they are not sentimental nor hypocritical. They do not founder in self-deceptions. Whatever man is, he is. The senryu affirms this by isolating moments of truth concerning human behaviour just as the haiku isolates moments of truth in which nature is somehow linked to human emotion.

The subject matter of senryu (or maekuzuke as it was known into the 19th century), as well as its comical, realistic and satirical bite, had an effect on the haiku poetry of Genroku contemporaries such as Kikaku, Boncho, Onitsura, etc. Here are famous haiku by Yayu and Onitsura which would indicate this:

     Sneezing,
I lost sight
     Of the skylark.
        —Yayu (1701–1783)
           [R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Vol. II, Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1950), p. 202]


     The uguisu,
When it stops singing,
     Is just a green bird.
        —Onitsura (1660–1738)
           [R. H. Blyth, Senryu (Japan, Hokuseido, 1949), p. 6]

By 1765, concurrent with Buson's mature years, the first volume of maekuzuke selected by Karai Hachiemon (pen name Senryu) was published. It was called Yanagidaru and was the first of twenty-four volumes to be published by him. These Old Senryu are among the finest ever collected, for prodigious quantities were written within the next hundred years. Ultimately, one hundred and sixty-seven volumes of Yanagidaru appeared, three of which were edited by Senryu's sons. When one realizes that Old Senryu alone amounted to about 120,000 poems out of which the first Senryu selected 17,000, one gets some idea of the popularity of the genre. Unfortunately, most senryu were poor. But the point is that senryu, despite its uneven quality, was to have a marked influence on the turn haiku would take in the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century—primarily among English-language poets, but now it is being written internationally. And the more that is learned about it, the better it will become.

 As haiku and senryu are both concerned with pointing out significance in seemingly "insignificant" matters which make up our daily existence, it is inevitable that each has something to offer the other and that, on occasion, over-lappings are produced—borderline poems—where absolute distinction between haiku and senryu is difficult to determine. However, if you boil it down to a question of where the emphasis lies within each individual poem, it is easier to grasp the thrust of the poem. The first Yanagidaru contains many haiku-like senryu such as:

Enjoying the cool of the evening
     A mother comes out with her child
Smothered in powder.
        —Anon. senryu (pub. 1765)
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 18]

The humorous note struck is in the quantity of talcum an overzealous mother has dusted upon her cherished little one. It also suffuses this senryu with a focus on human warmth, something the best ones have. "A really good senryu has what is called . . . after-taste, atoaji, what remains, to change the metaphor, echoing in the mind 'long after it is heard no more.'" [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 209]

Is it not difficult to separate the soothing effect both the cool summer evening and the ministrations of a loving parent have? But in this one, motherhood dominates the poem. The more delicate senryu, those presenting gentle humor, often pose a dilemma for the reader since inherent in many haiku is also a kind of humor. But I would venture to say in haiku it is more a cosmic humor, on a broader scale, more distant. About all one can do is try to locate the emphasis of the poem—on the "human" or on the tie-in with "nature" aspects which permeate the poem.

To further complicate the problem, we must realize though senryu do sometimes contain a reference to nature, it [a kigo] is not a requirement as it is in the Japanese haiku. However, it does not follow that if some reference to nature is present in a poem, it is ipso facto a haiku! This is the major stumbling block poets confront even today. The test is always: where does the emphasis of the poem lie? For, since the 1700s, some of the very earliest senryu were written as parodies of haiku and hence, by that fact alone, of necessity they contain a reference to nature. Here is a haiku by Basho:

     A cloud of cherry-blossoms.
A temple bell, --
     Is it Ueno, is it Asakusa?
           [Ibid., p. 447]

And here, even though it has the season phrase [kigo] cherry blossoms, is a senryu which parodies Basho's haiku:

So as not to show
     The public lavatory,
A cloud of cherry blossoms.
        —Kenkabo (18701934)
           [Ibid., p. 446]

And there are also senryu about plants, animals and about inanimate objects, which nonetheless have strong implications for replicating, for holding a mirror up to human behavior as in this pampered little jewel:

The coral
     Sits on a cushion
In the shop.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 461]

Again any reference to nature in senryu comes down to the question of how it is used, e.g.

Looking at Mount Fuji,
     The rice-planting girl
Adjusts her hair.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 41]

Though I did not sow
     Any pumpkin
Among the evening glories . . .
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p.23]

Picking up the grapes
     So gently,
She asks the price.
        —Anon. senryu
            [
Ibid., p. 21]

The first deals with vanity in the face of the grandiose beauty of the mountain; the second with the unexpected; the third combines desire with control and gives us one of the most sensitive and charming souls depicted in senryu.

In determining emphasis, the following two poems provide an important comparison:

     Winter moonlight;
The shadow of the stone pagoda,
     The shadow of the pine-tree.
        —Shiki (1867–1902)
           [Blyth, Haiku, Vol. IV, Autumn-Winter (Japan, Hokuseido, 1952), p. 210]

The winter moon;
     Every shadow
Is handless.
        —Anon. senryu (c. 18th cent.)
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 40]

A look at Shiki's haiku will show it to be a poem permeated with coldness, isolation, transmitting to the reader by the nature of the images a stirring of absolute loneliness. Nowhere in the poem is man dominant. The haiku is suggestive and does not draw any conclusions. It remains open, allowing the reader to arrive at (through the association of images) the soul-state of the poet.

In the anonymous senryu, using the identical components of winter moon and shadows, the emphasis is entirely different. Here, the shadows are of man. The fact that no hands show is the clever feature upon which the senryu writer lights to illustrate coldness. Each individual, hands tucked deep into his or her clothing for warmth, tells clearly that, confronted with bitter cold, all of us—rich and poor alike—behave the same. We are concerned with our survival, and there is no time for moon viewing. This poem exemplifies the finest elements to be found in good senryu: sharp criticism, humor, humanity, stark reality and universal significance. It is a stringent little study of man, a complete statement capturing human behavior with the incisive stroke of caricature. Unlike the haiku which develops out of indirection, the more typical senryu goes for the jugular. Haiku have often been accurately likened to a pebble tossed into still water producing ever-widening rings. The senryu is like a pebble tossed which hits you smack between the eyes!

When the persimmon
     Which he grafted bears,
His teeth have fallen out.
        —Anon. senryu (early 18th cent.)
[
Ibid., p. 49]

As the Yoshiwara plays so important a role in this art form, let us now examine poems which take place in that environment. Here, where everyone lets his hair down, we confront raw realities. Here we will see the senryu bring out the contradictions between what men say and what they do. The tragedies as well as the comedies of life and of a society are interwoven and plucked out for us to look at. We laugh at many senryu, but sometimes tears hide beneath their surface irony or humor:

The courtezan
     Brings up her child, --
"Call me 'sister'!"
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 338]

What else can this professional woman do in order not to lose customers? For, as is said in the famous novel by Saikaku* Five Women Who Loved Love (1686): "Charm fades with childbirth!"
[Donald Keene, ed. Anthology of Japanese Literature (New York, Grove Press, 1955), p. 339]
_________________________________________________________________________
*Saikaku also wrote haikai and maekuzuke.


The geisha
     Was so drunk
She wouldn't listen to him.
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 337]

Instead of performing as she is told, drink has made her behave as she wishes. This is in direct conflict with her client's desires. This senryu immediately brings to my mind the jaded dissolute face of the Lautrec prostitute in his "Absinthe Drinker."

From heaven,
     White frost upon her head, --
She makes 24 mon.*
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 334]
____________________________________________________________________________________________
*Mon is a unit of monetary exchange.


Blyth explains that this senryu is about a low-paid prostitute called a night-hawk who performs her job out in the street on a straw mat. Perhaps the "frost" is only snow, but from the rate received (24 mon) for a single performance, we can assume it is an aging undesirable woman—high class courtesans (sometimes referred to as "castle-breakers") of the Yoshiwara could make as much as three thousand mon for the same thing!

The following requires some insight into the Japanese customs regarding marriage. In a society where marriages are arranged for the purpose of carrying on the family through progeny, the role of the wife can be painful. Individual desire and passion—erotic love—is often found by the Japanese male outside the home. To meet these needs he is free to visit the licensed quarters of prostitution when he chooses, while the wife remains dutifully at home. Theoretically, she has no say in this matter of ancient custom, but human nature being what it is . . .

Last night,
     A lover's quarrel;
This morning, a real one.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 77]

Not only has the woman of his choice, his favorite courtesan, given him trouble, but arriving home probably near dawn, he is confronted by a far worse adversary.

From the world of the theater and make-believe comes this delight:

The stage carpenter
     Tears off the rock,
And blows his nose.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 329]

The range of the senryu is wide. Here are some enduring 18th–19th century poems, poignant to cruel, vulgar to hilarious, but all totally within the spectrum of our humanness:

The step-child,
     All day long
With his nose running.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 99]

The day she is in a bad temper
     No sound
From the kitchen.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p.53]

Now the man has a child
He knows all the names
Of the local dogs.
           [Geoffry Bownas and Anthony Thwaite, trans. The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse (England,
           Penguin Books Ltd., 1964), p. 131]

Letting rip a fart -
It doesn't make you laugh
When you live alone.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 137]

"After you're dead
     Your painting will be worth a lot,"
He says cruelly.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 95]

"What's this for?"
     Says the carpenter
As he saws it off.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., Senryu, p. 52]

Mistakes always leave us with a peculiar burden on the heart:

I thought he was going to
     Give me something, --
But he blew his nose.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 229]

The blind horse
     Opens his mouth
When the straw-coat touches him.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 37]

The following senryu offers a superb tribute to the work of man. The simple pure note it strikes goes beyond social criticism, beyond labor movements. We share the solitariness of the effort, the total absorption and bent-backed hours used up crafting something of beauty for someone else:

The brocade-weaver:
     A single dragon, --
And the day comes to its close.
        —Anon. senryu (18th cent.)
           [Ibid., p. 120]

The next poem crystallizes the sort of beauty and naturalness we find in the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Harunobu, Eisen and Utamaro concerned with portrayal of life in the home: women bathing, dressing, nursing, playing with children. Late in the 19th century it reappears in the aqua-tints and painting of the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, whose love of Japanese prints is the basis for some of her own art.

Washing her hair,
     She calls someone
Under her armpits.
        —Anon. senryu (early 18th cent.)
           [Ibid., p. 37]

My child goes
     To buy an egg:
My heart gets old.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 215]

Will the trepidation ever be any different for a parent allowing his little child to venture forth alone for the first time?

Being so warmly welcomed,
     He missed the chance
Of asking for a loan.
        —Togyo
           [Ibid., p. 239]

This senryu is but one of a preponderance written that show an overriding concern with money. Often it lies just beneath the surface of poems which appear to deal with other matters:

While the mistress is absent,
     The perfume in the bottle
Sinks a little.
        —Ichimu
           [Ibid., p. 299]

How else would a servant afford such luxury? There are all sorts of poems about petty thieveries, duping one's relatives, haggling, paranoia regarding the possession of money, philosophizing over the behavior of those who lack it. Moneymakers in mercantile Edo are everywhere taking advantage of every opportunity.

On the memento
     The ragman
Sets a merciless price.
        —Kimbo
           [Ibid., p. 186]

The laundryman
By his neighbours'
Grubbiness he lives.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Bownas, op. cit., p. 134]

"She may have only one eye
But it's a pretty one,"
Says the go-between.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 134]

The go-between is a marriage broker. Like a realtor, if the house is falling apart, she points out how breezy and cool it is.


When he lends,
     Or when he doesn't lend, --
Treated as an ogre.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, Japanese Life, p. 606]

The understanding of human psychology is acute in every one of these fine senryu. The creatures who populate them live today, lived then, will live in the future for they present what is human in all of us, despite some cultural differences.

Though this next group generally tends to include the poorest quality senryu, it has had a long-range if deleterious effect in unskilled hands and must be mentioned here—those which utilize personification or animism:

The new shoes
     Are frightened
Of the rush hour.
        —Tairo
           [Ibid., p. 290]

The moon told her
     To get up and shut
The skylight.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p. 154]

The flies withdraw from their position,
And the mosquitoes raise their war-cry.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Ibid., p.151]

In the next poem, the darkness is treated as though it were alive—and in the following senryu, one sound takes possession of another like a prisoner:

At a single match,
     The darkness
Flinches.
        —Mannen
           [Blyth, op. cit., Senryu, p. 154]

The talking of the cottage
     Is captured
By the waterfall.
        —Anon. senryu
           [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p.27]

Through their use of personification, hyperbole, metaphor, animism, these recall the conceits and intellectualizations characteristic of the competitive comic linked-verse tradition as it evolved in the 1500–1600s towards the artistically unadorned poetry Basho developed in his later years. Though R. H. Blyth says repeatedly that it is in senryu, not haiku, that we find personification and animism, one must recognize he is occasionally given to glossing over certain details and/or making sweeping generalizations. In this instance, there is ample evidence of them in the early development of haiku: nearly all the frogs in poems written prior to 1686—that is, before Basho's famous

Old pond --
     And a frog- jump-in
          water-sound.
           [Harold G. Henderson, An Introduction to Haiku (Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City, N.Y.
           1958), p. 20]

were handled as anthropomorphically as Walt Disney's animal characters, e.g.:

     Putting his hands together
The frog
     Speaks his verse.
        —Sokan (1465–1553)
           [R. H. Blyth, A History of Haiku, Vol. II (Japan, Hokuseido, 1964), p. 67]

     In the river
The frogs are singing
     A sedoka*
        —Shigeyori
           [Ibid., p. 69]
           _________________________________
           *Sedoka is an early tanka-like poem.


Looking back, we have Teitoku's icicles which "slobber":

This morning, how
     Icicles drip! - Slobbering
          Year of the cow!
        —Teitoku (1571–1653)
           [Henderson, op. cit., p. 12]


His penchant for personification again appears in the following poem:

Lo, ice and water joyfully
Are reconciled to one another.
        —Teitoku
           [Asataro Miyamori, trans. & annotator, An Anthology of Haiku Ancient and Modern (Japan, Chugai
           Printing Co., Ltd. 1932), p. 116]


Later, we see Soin's not-so-smart

Dewdrops, limpid, small -
     and such a lack of judgment shown
          In where they fall!
        —Soin (circa 1660)
           [Henderson, op. cit., p. 13]

That personification was a part of the genesis of haiku stems quite naturally from the presence of it in ancient tanka such as this from the Kokinshu (A.D. 905): "Do the spring-soft showers/ shed tears as they fall gently,/ blooming cherry flowers? . . . " (And I would also posit that the primitive beliefs of early Shinto where everything is 'alive'—rocks, trees, wind, beasts, plants, etc.—play a role in this, too.) Personification depends on psychological projection. Because of this, the poet is superimposing his own feelings or human attributes onto his subject matter, as opposed to seeking out the identity of the specific things, creatures, plants themselves. However, once in a great while, it works and can miraculously distill the essential character of the subject even better than an 'objective' presentation! Hardly any contemporary poets ever accomplish this successfully in haiku, but it comes more easily and, I believe, it is most effectively used in such senryu as this classic:

The tendril of the pea
     Is thinking:
"Where will I go now?"
        —Kinjiro
            [Blyth, op. cit., Japanese Life, p. 287]

By and large, this device has rarely resulted in high-caliber work. Comparison between the senryu cited which do not contain personification, animism, and those that do make this apparent. (This applies more so to haiku.) Of course, personal taste and historic precedent are involved here. And one ought to take into consideration the very long history of this device in Japanese poetry even as one views contemporary work. Some things are hard to let go of! In the Autumn 1997 issue of The Haiku Society of America Newsletter, there was a piece which stated that poetic devices are still being widely used by the Japanese in their haiku—and that practice continues. But what kind of "haiku" does it usually produce? The following is typical:

White peonies
Flushed ever so slightly
With carnal desire
        —Hinoki Kiyo
            [from A Hidden Pond; Anthology of Modern Japanese Haiku, ed. Koko Kato]


The preference of some individuals for just such fanciful interpretations of life versus others' desire to see life captured in the most direct and penetratingly insightful manner can be the only reason for the vast number of haiku written then or now which resort to this 'imaginative' approach. The problem also lies in the capacity of the poet to employ real wit and finesse to come up with something fresh, artful, and still true to his subject matter. I believe it occurs in the poem about the tendril of the pea because there, personification is organic to the subject of the poem: it embodies the quality of the delicate new growth, its tentativeness. A similar example is Onitsura's haiku wherein stones in a mountain stream "make songs." Listen . . . they really do!

What John Ruskin, 19th century art critic, said in his criticism of personification was this. He coined the term 'pathetic fallacy' to describe such personification as "the cruel, crawling foam" which gives a false picture of nature. "The foam is not cruel, nor does it crawl," he pointed out. And he further stated that it is usually found "in the works of poets of the second rank, men who felt strongly but who thought weakly." [Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz, A Reader's Guide to Literary Terms (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1960), pp. 150-151]

The senryu ran its course as the 19th century wore on. Because it was a novel and entertaining venture with few clear guidelines if one is to judge from the thousands upon thousands that were published, quality control was out of the question. Everyone thought they could take a crack at them—to the detriment of the genre. R. H. Blyth said that "No art suffers more than senryu by the inclusion of poor quality verses." [Blyth, op. cit., Senryu, p.56]

Not surprisingly, senryu ultimately degenerated into what were know as "Mad Poems" or kyoku, which were originated by the "Fourth Senryu" whose name was Semmaru. Though an attempt at revival of Old Senryu was made in the latter part of the 19th century, it has taken over a hundred years for senryu to make a comeback as a vital genre of poetry. It had begun to happen already—just as we were moving into the 21st century.

Copyright (c) Anita Virgil 2005


Anita Virgil lives in Forest, Virginia. She is a past president of the Haiku Society of America. She was a member of the three-person HSA Committee on Definitions which included Harold G. Henderson and William J. Higginson. As a member of the Book Committee for A Haiku Path (HSA, Inc. 1994), she edited the two chapters on Definitions.

Books: A 2nd Flake (1974), one potato two potato, etc. (1991, Peaks Press), on my mind, an Interview of Anita Virgil by Vincent Tripi (3rd edition, Press Here, 1993), PILOT (1996, Peaks Press), A Long Year (2002, Peaks Press), and summer thunder (2004, Peaks Press).

Her poetry and essays and book reviews have appeared in all major haiku magazines and anthologies for 35 years. Most recently, she appears in the anthologies Where Dogs Dream (2003, MQP London), Haiku for Lovers (2003, MQP London), Haiku (2003, Alfred A. Knopf Everyman's Library edition). Poems and essays have also appeared on the Internet and in magazines in Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and Serbia/Montenegro. As editor, Anita Virgil is presently completing muddy shoes candy heart , the first collection of the poems of the Serbian poet, Sasa Vazic.  She is also collaborating with Robert D. Wilson on a new book of their poetry entitled Come Dance With Me.

Of her work, Anita writes: I always had and still have a single goal for haiku-that it be poetry, that it sit comfortably in its uniqueness amid the literature of the world. There is no reason for it not to since the best artists speak "to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives: to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain."*


* from Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad.

 [Photograph credit: Jennifer V. Gurchinoff]


Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku