NEW BRIDGES AND SPONGING RELATIVES: HUMAN QUIRKS AND SENRYU

You will recall that in addition to hokku, there is another and visually very similar kind of verse called senryu.

How does one tell a senryu from a hokku?  First, senryu does not have a seasonal setting. Second, while hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans as a part of Nature, senryu deals instead with the quirks of human psychology, usually in a satirical way that highlights human foolishness.  I often say that senryu is the “evil twin” of hokku.

Here is an example:

The new bridge opens;
Timidly they dirty it
With their footsteps.

To understand this, one must know that it was written in the pre-automobile era of wooden bridges, not the concrete and asphalt kind we know today.  So the point of the senryu is that it is opening day for a newly-constructed bridge.  The wooden bridge is all fresh and clean and newly-finished wood.  The first people to cross it do so hesitantly, timidly, because they sense there is something not quite right in dirtying the new bridge.  The foolishness of this lies in the fact that bridges are made for walking.

Many of us feel the same odd sense that there is something not quite right in violating what is fresh and new.  For example, I know of someone whose old slippers were completely worn out, but when new ones were delivered, he hesitated to wear them “because they are new.”  It is the story of the wooden bridge all over again.

The point to remember in this is that while hokku deals in subtle states of mind created by experiencing events in Nature, in the context of a particular season, senryu is really only interested in poking fun at the quirks of human psychology.

That is very evident in another old senryu about someone who relies on another for food and shelter:

It is uncomfortable to eat,
And painful not to eat;
The dependent.

There were and are countless family (and some non-family) situations in which this happens.  The brother who has no job and lives in the house of his sister and brother-in-law, for example, feels this when all are sitting around the dinner table.   He is not comfortable in putting all the food he would like to eat on his own plate, and yet when he does not do so, he suffers at the sense of lack.

Writing senryu requires a different kind of mindset than that for writing hokku.  One cannot help feeling that there is always something a little “mean” about the writer of senryu.  Nonetheless, in reading them we frequently recognize the psychological peculiarites of ourselves and our friends, of humans in general.

David

AND I AM MARIE OF ROUMANIA

QUEEN MARIE OF ROUMANIA

Last time, I talked a bit about Walt Whitman’s way of overcoming the repeated disappointments of life. But for some people, the only answer is humor.

That was Dorothy Parker’s approach. Dorothy Parker, you will recall, was a wit popular in the first half of the 20th century, one of the noted members of the Algonquin Round Table literary circle.

Parker offers no solution to life’s disappointments, but she makes it very clear in this clever poem that disappointments are to be expected.

To understand this verse, you need know only three things:

1. A medley is a mix of things, for example, a selected collection of different songs played one after another.

2. Extemporanea is a word you are likely to find nowhere but in this poem. It means things that one comes up with on the spur of the moment, spontaneously, without preparation. It is formed from the more common term extemporaneous.

3. Most important of all, you need to know that in the first half of the 20th century, particularly in the first forty years, there was likely no royal figure in all the world who had the celebrity status of Queen Marie of Roumania (now spelled “Romania”). Unlike the royalty of more wealthy countries, Marie knew how to present an image of a Queen to the public that rivaled that of fairy tales (in fact Marie herself wrote fairy tales). She was not only a writer but also an artist and craftsperson who made sure that her surroundings were as photogenic and “romantic” as possible. You get a good idea of her style from the photo on this page. But aside from all that, she was a remarkable person who insisted on personally and frequently visiting wounded Romanian soldiers in hospitals at the time of the First World War, in spite of the dangers of typhoid fever. If you have never read the account of her life, you should. The Romanian people loved her very much.

Marie also, to great acclaim and notoriety, visited the United States in 1926, and even wrote an unconventional column for American newspapers, giving advice on life — “Queen’s Counsel.”

So to understand this poem, just remember that Queen Marie of Roumania was a very well-known and celebrated  international figure at the time it was written:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania.

(Not So Deep as a Well, 1937)

The point of the poem, of course, is that life, in reality, is neither a glorious cycle of song nor a medley of extemporanea; that love frequently goes wrong; that the statements in the first three lines are just as true as the statement in the last that the writer of the poem is Queen Marie of Roumania; in short, not true at all.

The thing that always strikes me about this witty and light little verse is that I would be extremely unlikely to have come up with a rhyme such as “extemporanea” for “Roumania.” Of course Parker had to virtually coin the word to do it, but it makes sense and it is effective as used.

If you have a few moments for a glimpse into the aesthetic world of Queen Marie, watch this revealing video:

David

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

EPIGRAMS AND SENRYU

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
Menodotis.

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.”

The man
Afraid of his wife
Makes money.

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.

Turning
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
Desperately.

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.

 

David