It is typical of the misunderstanding that has dogged the steps of hokku in the West that when it first began to appear there, it was sometimes referred to as “epigrams,” when it is not epigrammatical at all.
What is an epigram? Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells us in rhyme:
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
In the West there are comical as well as serious epigrams, and they go back to ancient times. One finds them in the Greek Anthology, that venerable collection of classical verse. Here are some renditions:
First, the satirical:
The sculptor carved Menodotis with love.
It is — how very odd it is —
A noble, speaking likeness. But not of
And Matthew Prior had a much later one:
Sir, I admit your general rule
That every poet is a fool;
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.
And then, leaving satire aside, there is the stunningly noble ancient Greek epigram written on the tomb of the hero Leonidas, over whose remains a carved stone lion was placed:
I am a lion. Stranger pause
As you pass lightly by;
I guard the tomb of one who was
More lion-like than I.
But today I want to talk about the satirical, because when it comes to the definition of an epigram, paradoxically, the “evil twin” of hokku — senryu — fits the description precisely; it is very small and brief, “its body brevity, and wit its soul.”
Afraid of his wife
The husband is afraid not to make money, because his wife will nag him mercilessly.
In spite of its superficial resemblance to hokku, that is obviously a senryu, not a hokku. It has no relation to Nature and the place of humans within Nature, and it has no season. Instead, its whole focus is on revealing the quirks of human nature. And that is what senryu are about.
To the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.
The teacher does not want the students to see that he too finds the lesson boring.
Senryu shows us what people don’t want us to know, showing what humans are really like behind the “image.”
Here is a modified and “updated” rendering of an old one that seems at first more hokku-like:
The plastic flowers
On the table are dusty;
An out-of-the-way motel.
The isolated motel gets few guests, so the “management” does not pay much attention to appearances.
What makes this senryū rather than hokku? It is the look into human nature that it gives us. And of course we would not be using plastic flowers in hokku.
Older than he,
The wife applies her face cream
She is worried that her husband will lose interest and perhaps look elsewhere for romance.
And having raised, with that last verse, the issue of the ravages of time, I shall complete the circle by returning again to an ancient Greek epigram, of which the first three lines are sufficient:
Now that I grow old, alas,
And the light of youth must pass,
Venus, take my looking glass.
Now that she is losing her looks, she no longer wants to look in a mirror.