HA-HA!: A QUICK LOOK AT SENRYU

Panel from the Krazy Kat cartoon of Sunday, Ja...

Every now and then I like to mention hokku’s “evil twin,” senryu.

Unlike hokku, senryu does not express a particular season.  Nor does it express Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  Instead, senryu points out (with a Nelson Muntz-like “Ha, Ha!”) the quirks of human nature.  It pokes fun at everything.  It tells the truth, but it is often an uncomfortable truth.

Hokku is spiritual and contemplative; senryu is earthy and satirical.  It reminds me of the Shadow in Jungian psychology — the dark underside of human consciousness, all those things people ordinarily keep hidden from sight, things which they themselves are unaware of, but which pop up now and then at the most unexpected times and in embarrassing ways.

Here are a few senryu very loosely translated to make them more accessible in English:

Tending baby,
The lullaby of the father
Is a bit off.

This shows us the difference between mothers and fathers.  The father is in strange and unfamiliar territory, but he does the best he can, trying to sing a lullaby but not in full command of the words or music, which he keeps getting wrong.

A child with candy;
“Let’s play! Let’s play!”
The others say.

This is something that continues from childhood onward, even into the sudden interest old people with money find younger people taking in them.  If he had no candy, the others would not play with the child, and without the money, the old person would be ignored.

With his face
Turned to the blackboard,
The teacher yawns.

He would not dare do this facing his students, who might get the all-too-obvious impression that the subject is boring the teacher as well as the students (which, of course, it is!).

The nurse —
She has come to detest
The girlfriend. 

Senryu, like hokku, often require a certain amount of intuition, of “following the dots” to make the whole picture.  In this one, the nurse has been tending a good-looking young fellow, but his girlfriend keeps visiting him, and of course the nurse, who has formed an attachment to the young man, is jealous.

Storming off
In a huff,
He forgot his hat. 

This is very psychological, and senryu often has as its point the experiencing of psychological states.  In this one the fellow got upset and stormed off in anger, but forgot and left his hat behind.  Now he is faced with how to go back and get it without looking foolish, and it is precisely this state of mind that the senryu intends to evoke, and it is that state of mind that is the point of the verse.

Whenever
She goes to the movies,
She dislikes her husband. 

This, again, requires connecting the dots.  When she goes to the movies, the woman sees appealing men on the screen who have all the attractive qualities her husband seems to lack, so she comes home from the films feeling disappointed and cheated.

He talks about heaven
Like he has been there —
The preacher. 

This is the realm of TV evangelists and other ministers who pretend to knowledge they really do not have “deceiving himself as much as his hearers,” as Blyth comments on the Japanese version of this verse.

You can see from these few examples that the purpose of senryu is very different from that of hokku.  Senryu is very “worldly” in the sense in which religious people use the term — attached to the things of this world — while hokku is not.

David

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