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Writing

How to Write Senryu Poems: Understanding the Senryu Form

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 5, 2020 • 2 min read

English language poets have long shown interest in Japanese language poetry, yet most people are familiar with only one of country’s poetry forms: the haiku. Japanese haiku poetry has rightfully earned its place in the poetic canon, but today’s readers should not let it overshadow another Japanese form of poetry: the senryu.

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What Is Senryu Poetry?

The senryu is a three-line Japanese poetic form that focuses on human nature, generally with an ironic or darkly comedic edge. A senryu generally consists of 17 total syllables, also known as “morae.” Like a haiku, senryu poems often divide their morae over three lines as follows: Five syllables on the first line, seven syllables on the second line, five syllables on the third line.

Such syllable division is merely a common iteration, not a hard and fast rule. This is something many authors of English-language senryus may not realize. Modern haiku and senryu poetry allow for flexibility in the number of morae and the way they are divided among the lines of a poem.

The Differences Between Senryu and Haiku

Like senryu, haiku is a three-line poetic style originating in Japan. The term “haiku” is credited to Japanese poet and literary critic Masaoka Shiki, who lived in the late Meiji period (which spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The senryu was named for Karai Senryū, a haikai poet who also lived during the Edo period from 1718 to 1790.

There are a few similarities between senryu and haiku:

  • Genre: Both haiku and senryu fall into the haikai no renga genre of Japanese poetry. The genre was shaped by Matsuo Bashō, a legendary poet of the Edo period, who lived from 1644 to 1694.
  • Structure: Haikus and senryus tend to have the same structure; the first line traditionally has five syllables, the second line has seven syllables, and the third line again has five syllables.
  • Variations: Although haiku and senryu are short poems, they may be mixed with prose in a form known as haibun.

In addition to the similarities between haikus and senryus, there are also several differences:

  • Subject matter: Haikus frequently explore nature and the natural world as a topic. Senryus, by contrast, are often concerned with human nature, focusing on the foibles of human nature.
  • Style: While haikus are often stark and ascetic, senryu poems can be puckishly funny. Some are clever, some are a bit cynical, and some are tongue-in-cheek. Although humor is not necessarily embedded in the definition of senryu, the form is, as a general rule, lighter and funnier than your standard haiku.
  • Word choice: A haiku must traditionally include kigo (season words) and a kireji (cutting word). A senryu does not require such words.
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2 Examples of Senryu Poetry

Good senryu follows many of the same principles as good haiku poetry. Examples of Japanese senryu can be found in anthologies like Senryu: Poems of the People by J.C. Brown. The Haiku Society of America keeps the form alive through an annual senryu contest. So do more localized groups, such as the Haiku Poets of Northern California, which supports many forms of Japanese haikai. Here are two examples of senryu, using orthodox verse forms.

We talk for hours
On anything other than
Politics or love

I hate hypocrites,
Know-it-alls, and worst of all,
People who complain

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