Thursday, October 9, 2014

Carpe Diem "Ask Jane ..." #3 Senryu?

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It's my pleasure to publish our third "Ask Jane ..." episode. In this episode Jane gives an answer on a question by Opie Houston about Senryu. As I forwarded this question I myself had question about senryu, so in this episode Jane will give an answer on both questions.
Enjoy the read.


Dear Jane,
ah! pundit
pouring over my haiku...

Jane, it is nice to see you here. I have a question about the differences between senryu and haiku...
Opie in Houston

Dear Opie,
The problem with giving haiku two names is because both are Japanese words that mean something very different from what the words have come to stand for in English. In Japan, senryu is the name for poems without a kigo or season word but are in every other aspect just the same as haiku. Since we English writers so quickly and continually ignored using the season words, and yet continued to call our works haiku, we have lost that defining meaning in our works.
We have, in our ignorance, given senryu another definition which is not one of the indications of a senryu in Japanese. I think we can thank Robert Spiess for much of the error. In his magazine, Modern Haiku, he would separate all the haiku he accepted into two groups. Those with a reference to humankind and those only about nature. Any mention of a person would throw the haiku into the (much smaller) senryu pile. He did this for years in spite of the considerable evidence that Japanese old masters all had references to humans in their poems.
For many years the haiku scene was infected by English editors who made senryu into a pejorative word by calling any haiku they felt was poorly written or contained the human reference as a senryu. Thank goodness we are over this phase but the ill will continues.
Perhaps this is because senryu were created as a game, mostly played as a pastime in bars in the 1600s in Tokyo. A senryu master would post either a two or three-line haiku. For a few coins the customers would compete by writing a link or response which was judged by its ability to make fun of women, or sex, or both together. There were thousands of these responses published by a man who used the pen name Senryu to hide his identity.  These poems finally became so scurrilous that their publication was halted by the government in the 1700s. For many years afterwards there were Japanese who denied knowing about senryu. Only in the 1900s did some accept the term but claimed they were only interested in the “clean” ones.
Knowing this, I am puzzled that anyone would choose to call their haiku senryu.  Still, some English writers persist and have added the idea that senryu are the jokes - the funny haiku. Since one half of the Japanese word haiku is “hai” and one of the definitions of hai is funny or broken or strange, it seems to me that haiku can comfortably contain any modern haiku on any subject. I feel we do not need an additional division between our haiku, and since the word senryu has such a questionable history, why try to add that to our haiku? In addition, people can rarely agree on which haiku should be tossed onto the senryu pile. Even Kristjaan wrote that he cannot tell them apart and he is right on!

On to Opie’s haiku with his question.
ah! pundit
pouring over my haiku...
This is an excellent haiku and he has competently used a haiku technique to its best advantage. Notice how he uses the verb ‘pouring.’ That is the one word that applies to the ideas of reading and studying AND petrol! That is the genius in this haiku and gives it both its meanings in a very funny way. The poem has a depth and the longer one thinks about it, new meanings come to light – literally in the fire. This IS a haiku and one that gave me a good laugh and I delight in recalling it. Thanks Opie! 

If you need more convincing about senryu, you could read these articles online
or get the book, Writing and Enjoying Haiku.


I hope you all did like this article by Jane Reichhold and I hope it will give you all more insight on that strange English editor based name for haiku, senryu. Let us listen to what Jane said in the above article ... haiku and senryu are the same, so let us use only the name HAIKU for our beloved poems.
Thank you Jane for this clear answer ... and I am looking forward to our next "Ask Jane ..." episode. 

Do you have a question for Jane? Feel free to email your question to our special "Ask Jane ..." email-address:

And maybe ... your question will be answered in the next episode of "Ask Jane ..."


Chèvrefeuille, your host
(pseudonym of Kristjaan Panneman, a Dutch haiku poet)


  1. Wow! Thank you Jane for probably the best article on haiku/senryu I have seen. And thank you for the kind words about my haiku. You are about to cause me a lot of work, because now I have to search out your articles and poems and learn from a master....master....thank you and thanks Kristjaan for making all this possible.....opie

  2. "Opie in Houston"??????????.....Actually, I am Opie Houston in Austin.... common misunderstanding.... Thanks again Kristjaan for all you do......opie

  3. Well, this made my blogging life a little easier. I can call all of it haiku and not differentiate between senryu or haiku.

    It made my submission life a little complicated. I know of a couple of magazines that only publish "senyru." And other magazines that don't want any "senryu" at all. So I still need to keep my work separated. :(

    Love the apple story, very informative and yet funny all in one. Bravo!

  4. Thank you Jane (and Kristjaan) --

    I must echo Lolly here -- for the purpose of my blog, I'll call it all "haiku". :)

    How interesting to find that Senryu was a pen name ... hmmmm! Such a shame --- all the efforts to sanitize the "river willow" poems -- would make for interesting reading ......!

    I imagine it will take years and years for the senryu/haiku definitions to be sorted out in the many magazines and publications -- and even then, so much of the definition will depend upon personal preference.

    Gives a person headaches to think about it thanks for the history-based simplification.