After the New Year,
A Christmas tree
At every trash bin.

It may look like hokku, having the same outer form — the same “shell,” but it is not.  It is the subject matter that makes it something else, and that something else is senryu.

Senryu, you may recall, is hokku’s “evil twin.”  While hokku are about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, senryu points out and pokes fun at human foibles — all the peculiar quirks of human nature that are both sad and comical.  And though this verse has an obvious season (mention of the New Year), while senryu is not specifically seasonal verse, the content of this one makes it very obviously senryu.




In the previous posting, I wrote that the poetic-aesthetic experience created in the mind on reading a hokku is involuntary; it just happens, because the hokku has created the right conditions for it to happen.

To better understand this, let’s look at a famous old waka by Saigyō:

Even in the mind of a mindless one
Sadness arises,
When the snipe flies up from the marsh
In the autumn dusk.

By “mindless one,” Saigyō means a spiritual person who has calmed the mind through meditation.  He thinks that even in such a person, given the experience of the autumn marsh, sadness must arise on seeing the bird rise up and fly away as day darkens.  Such an experience is involuntary.

It is the combination of the season, the time of day, and the rising and flying off of the bird that creates this particular aesthetic sensation in the mind.  Saigyō is saying that when the conditions are right, the experience will happen of itself in the mind — involuntarily.  That is the principle of hokku.

Writing a good hokku means creating the right conditions for that experience to sprout in the mind.

Incidentally, I mentioned some time ago that hokku has an “evil twin” called senryu.  While hokku is the verse of Nature and sensory experience, senryu, by contrast, is the verse of the quirks of human psychology and behavior.  Where hokku creates a poetic experience in the mind, senryu creates a bitingly humorous glimpse into the worldly human mind, something quite different.  We have already seen how Saigyō explained the rise of a poetic-aesthetic experience in his verse about the snipe.  Now here is how senryu explains Saigyō:

Saigyō sneezed,
And a verse about a snipe
Came out.

It means that Saigyō, sitting in the marsh at evening, suddenly sneezed, which frightened a snipe, causing it to fly up and away, inspiring Saigyō to write his waka.

As  you can see, unlike hokku, senryu tended to be witty and “low-class,” quite a different kind of verse.  Even though the outward form is the same, senryu is about human psychology, not Nature, and unlike hokku, it does not have a required seasonal context.






There is a famous spring hokku by Bashō:

Cherry blossoms (sakura), often simply called ...
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A cloud of blossoms —
Is the bell Ueno?

Through a cloud of blooming cherry trees, the writer hears the sound of a distant, unseen temple bell.  He wonders if it is coming from a temple in Ueno district?  Or perhaps that in Asakusa?
The point of the hokku lies in the “concealing” mass of fresh spring blossoms combined with the unanswered question.

In contrast to that rather “high-class” hokku, there is an anonymous “low-class” senryu.  You will recall that senryu is satirical verse, the “evil twin” of hokku, and no respecter of persons.  So you will not surprised to find that the same expression used elegantly by Bashō — “a cloud of blossoms” (hana no kumo) — is used for a different “concealing”  purpose here:

To hide
The public restroom —
A cloud of blossoms.

There is also another interesting senryu about cherry blossoms, which I translate loosely here:

The clever wife —
She makes him take the child
To view the blossoms.

The point is that the wife does not trust her husband out by himself, so when he casually remarks that he is going to view the cherry blossoms, she uses her wits and makes him take the kid along, to keep the untrustworthy husband out of “not respectable” establishments.

You may recall that in old hokku, the word “blossoms,” when used without a qualifier, was understood to mean cherry blossoms.





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.




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.

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.




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.”

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.

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.





Hokku deals with Nature and the place of humans within and as a part of Nature.  But here are a few old senryū, which deal instead with human quirks and foibles:

When winter comes,
The pawn shop
Is in summer.

One could say the same thing of our modern thrift stores; people get rid of winter things in summer, and summer things in winter.

And something countless people have felt in one way or another:

Too late;
One cannot put a quilt
on a tombstone.

We do not realize how much kinder and more appreciative we should have been to our parents until it is too late.

And another “too late”:

Finding out
She had a crush on me;
Fifty years after.

But this clever fellow thinks ahead:

Here with her mother;
When old,
This is how she’ll look.

If he’s really clever, this will have happened at the girlfriend stage, not the wife stage, on seeing mother and daughter together.  But of course a clever girl will realize the same thing when her blond Adonis is seen next to his bald, chubby father.

And children:

The child who fell
Goes home
To cry.

Of course!  His crying would be pointless without his mother hearing it.  It is the sympathy, the “Oh, you poor thing!  It’s all right” that is the money to be earned from the fall.

And my own variation on an old senryū:

Breaking up with him,
His angel girlfriend
Becomes a devil.

And a slight variation on one that seems appropriate with current social trends:

His older wife,
Applying face cream

Perhaps you have noticed that unlike hokku, senrȳu generally need no specified season.  And while we say that in hokku the poetry is not in the words but in the mind of the reader, in senrȳu poetry is simply thrown overboard.

The language of hokku is simple and ordinary, but respectable, something like a Quaker farmer; but the language of senrȳu goes far beyond that into extreme informality, and we are lucky when it does not descend into outright crudity.

Good hokku are infrequent things not to be sought out and forced; we must just be aware and open and patient until one happens.  But given the shallowness and triviality of modern society, it seems that all one need do is walk down a street to encounter senryū, for example this, which I saw today:

A day spa has opened —
In what used to be
The funeral home.

It is not hard to see how very different senryū are from hokku in spirit.  Where hokku remove the ego, dissolving it into a unity with Nature, senryū drag the ego out by the scruff of the neck and hold it up in public, letting all see how very peculiar, vulgar, and yet strangely humorous it is — and of course what they are really seeing is themselves.