Bill Waters ~~ Haiku

Haiku + Tanka, Haibun, Rengay, & More

When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 2)

For many years, I’ve called all of my three-line Japanese-style micropoetry “haiku”, knowing full well that a certain proportion of it must certainly be senryu. When I began this blog, though, I decided to finally step up and start distinguishing between the two forms as an exercise in better understanding senryu and…well, because I think a writer should know what the heck he or she is actually writing.  ;- )

Senryu from the top down

In a previous post, I offered as a touchstone Michael Dylan Welch’s broad definition of senryu, which suggests distinguishing senryu from haiku mainly on the basis of tone and intent. Personally I find this useful because it explains not how to build senryu from the ground up, but how to recognize them when you see them already written. Now when I sift through my “haiku” database I can say, with a measure of confidence, “Nope, that one’s a senryu.”

Senryu from the bottom up

Poems matter; classifying them — despite this blog post — not so much. Still, when you’re sending what you think are senryu to a senryu journal for possible publication, you want to assure yourself that what you’re sending actually are senryu. And if that journal is doing a theme issue on a topic for which you have no senryu on hand, you want to be able to write some.

To Michael Dylan Welch’s definition of senryu I therefore add the following by the outstanding, long-time poet Alan Pizzarelli because it sheds light specifically on the mechanics of senryu.

Senryu is a short poetic genre which focuses on people. Men, women, husbands, wives, children and relatives. It portrays the characteristics of human beings and psychology of the human mind. Even when senryu depict living things such as animals, insects, and plant life, or when they depict inanimate objects, they are portrayed with the emphasis on their human attributes.

The senryu can make use of poetic devices such as simile, personification, and metaphor. It can also employ puns, parody and satire. Unlike haiku, senryu are not reliant on a seasonal or nature reference, but they DO occasionally use them. When they do, it is secondary to the human comedy or drama underlying the poem.

Senryu are not all strictly intended to be humorous. Many senryu express the misfortunes, the hardships and woe of humanity. (

Falling through the cracks

While the definitions articulated by Michael Dylan Welch and Alan Pizzarelli — the one, conceptual; the other, mechanical — complement each other nicely, they nevertheless do not overlap 100 percent. Nothing says they have to, of course, but they leave me with a question: how should I categorize poems that focus on people yet meet the broad criteria for haiku?

For example:

frozen puddle —

school kids lining up

to slide

Based on the poem’s tone, I can view it as a haiku. I can also view it as a senryu in that it offers insight into the psychology of being human. So what’s a poet to do?

Reading between the lines

The answer, I think, is to put aside for now the question of definitions and just enjoy the poem. Haiku and senryu are living poetic forms, and as such they have been evolving over time and across boundaries of country, culture, and language. Is it any surprise, then, that their definitions don’t necessarily agree on every single point?

I’ll keep on researching senryu to fill in the gaps of my understanding because that’s the kind of person I am. But my ultimate goal isn’t to create a comprehensive composite definition; it’s to increase my confidence in my own judgment as a writer and a reader. Ultimately I have to decide for myself what is or is not a senryu, knowing that some people will agree with me and some people won’t.

Please feel free to join the discussion! How do you define senryu?

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2 thoughts on “When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 2)

  1. The fog lifts – thank you Bill.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: When is a haiku not a haiku? (part 1) | Bill Waters ~~ Haiku

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