Bill Waters ~~ Haiku

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When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 1)

When it’s a senryu! Although haiku and senryu are closely related, distinguishing between them can be tricky.

In an earlier blog entry, I posted the following poem: cricket lullaby — / cicada soprano / makes her shrill debut. I’ve always thought of it as a haiku, but might it actually be a senryu? Well…that depends on who you ask.

Over the years, I’ve come across a number of simple formulas that would supposedly help a reader tell haiku from senryu. Here are three of them:

  • If it’s serious, it’s haiku. If it’s funny, it’s senryu.
  • If it has no people in it, it’s haiku. If it has people in it, it’s senryu.
  • If it’s about nature, it’s haiku. If it’s about human nature, it’s senryu.

By these tests, “cicada soprano” is senryu (funny), haiku (has no people in it), and both (about nature, but implicitly about human nature too)!

The problem is…

The problem is that the formulas, though well-meaning, frame aspects of haiku and senryu as direct opposites, when in practice those aspects overlap. Either poetic form may display humor (playfully, in haiku; ironically, in senryu); either may have people in them (as a part of nature, in haiku; as apart from nature, in senryu); and either may reference human nature (in a secondary or implied capacity, in haiku; front-and-center, in senryu).

If good fences make good neighbors, then haiku and senryu are difficult neighbors indeed, since the boundaries between the two forms — so concrete when viewed from a distance — are blurry when looked at up close.

Plan B: agree to disagree

Yes, distinguishing between haiku and senryu can be tricky, and even experts on the subject are not in universal agreement about specific distinctions between the two forms. For myself, I’ve chosen to use as a touchstone a broad definition put forward by Michael Dylan Welch, a renowned figure in Japanese short-form poetry, who boils it down to mainly a matter of tone and intent.

[I]t is usually tone that differentiates haiku and senryu. Haiku tend to celebrate their subjects (even if dark), whereas senryu tend to have a ‘victim,’ and may or may not be humourous. Haiku typically treat their subjects reverently, whereas senryu do so irreverently. Haiku try to make a feeling, and senryu try to make a point. And if haiku is a finger pointing to the moon, senryu is a finger poking you in the ribs. (http://bit.ly/1rEjAim)

“Cicada soprano”, therefore, is, by this definition, a senryu. I’m totally convinced of it…I think.

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