A Brief History of Senryu

By Orrin Préjean

There’s often much talk about the difference between haiku and senryu. Many folks feel there
shouldn’t be a distinction, and I do understand their point; however in the process of thinking
about this specific point, it bears knowing a little bit about the history of both genres.
Both haiku and senryu were born in Edo (Tokyo) and come from specific verses inside of
renga (group linked poetry). What is known as haiku comes from the hokku starting verse of a
renga. The genre was called ‘haikai no renga’ (witty linked verse).
Some definitions associated with the word ‘haikai’ are things like ‘witty or playful, earthy,
or colloquial.’ The renga or ‘linked verse’ was playfully relaxed and did not use the normally
complex rules of writing that usually made up renga. At the time there were two schools of
renga, High and Low.
‘Haikai no renga’ (witty linked verse) was considered the ‘Low’ renga type. It was seen as
very lowbrow until Basho, Onitsura and others in the latter part of the 17th century helped fill it
up with highbrow aesthetics (classical poetic diction etc.)
Basho, Onitsura and others worked hard to separate haikai from maekuzuke (verse
capping), tentori (point scoring), senryu (comic verse), bareku (dirty sexy verse), and other
lowbrow forms (as they considered those forms).
What we know as haiku today is the short form of haikai no (renga no) ku, which refers
to one or more stanzas/verses (ku) of a witty (haikai) linked-poem (renga) sequence. or any of
those stanzas/verses taken out of its original linked poem context.

Haiku is a modern form of world poetry created by Shiki in response to modern Western
poetry. In Japan, haiku is a standalone poem of 17 sound units. The 17 sound units cannot be
reproduced outside of the Japanese language.
To me, haiku seems to be a hokku with an extensive face-lift. I say this because, no
matter who you are,.anyone that has ever heard of haiku has almost immediately spoken of the
poetry form as a nature poem or having something to do with seasons etc. No matter how much
haiku has expanded its content etc it seems as though it cannot shake the baggage that the
defining or one of the defining features of the verse form is that it’s a nature poem. This seems to
be because it’s a part of the genre’s history.
When the verse-form was known as hokku, the inclusion of a phrase, word or image
detailing the ‘when,’ ‘where,’ ‘what’ time of year or season etc. was one of the rules that was used
to ground the renga in a specific moment or time; (whether the poem was reality or imaginary.)
Unfortunately it appears that the inclusion of something seasonal became a calcified rule that is
now part and parcel of the genre.
The senryu also comes from a specific verse within a linked poem, called the hiraku
(ordinary verse). The hiraku was any verse inside a renga that did not have special rules or a
special position attached to it. Hiraku verses were either 17 or 14 sound units. Hiraku verses
could contain any kind of content and always involved humans or human things. In hiraku verses
the use of seasonal words, keywords and grammatical breaks (kireji/kire) were optional. This
would establish what Murata Shugyo, one of the ‘rokudaika’ (6 great master’s of senryu) said
about the genre, when he said: “senryu smell human.”
Senryu took their form after a lowly governmental official ,Karai Hachiemon, started
judging a linking game used by haikai teachers to teach new poets how to link correctly in renga.

The game was called maekuzuke. The haikai master would supply a 5-7-5 verse and the student
would learn to supply a 7-7 verse that would ‘cap’ that 5-7-5 verse. At some point Karai saw that
many of the maeku (5-7-5 verses) were actually good and could stand by themselves without
needing the ‘caps’ (7-7 verses). He began judging and collecting well written maeku verses which
he put in an anthology titled “Haifu Yanagidaru.” (riverwillow wood barrel), witty renga style.
The full meaning suggests something like a riverwillow wood barrel of dry sake, full of pungent
poems, witty linked renga-style, judged by Karai Senryu. Senryu would publish 22 of those
collections during his lifetime and after his death 143 more collections would be published.
In time the quality of senryu would descend to trivial silliness and
raunchiness. According to the translator, Robin D. Gill, senryu were often written in the third
person. Senryu often focused on ‘types,’ and ‘stereotypes.’ The verses sketched the lives of certain
‘regular’ characters in the city of Edo (Doctor, Mother-in-law, Maid, Monk, Samurai, Geisha,
Red-Light District, etc.) The verses would carry various forms of humor but they could also be
poignantly poetical.
With the start of the Meiji period in 1868, a great revitalization to the senryu genre
started. Two couples became the starters of this movement: Sakai and Sobajo Kuraki and Inoue
and Nobuko Kuraki. Both Kenkabo and Kuraki had been disciples of Shiki. When Shiki started
his refurbishment of the hokku into haiku, Kuraki and Kenkabo started to look at senryu. Kuraki
was attracted to all the old senryu in the Yanagidaru anthologies, but Kenkabo despised those old
poems, which most people at this time had begun calling kyoku (mad/crazy poems). Kenkabo
wanted to widen the content of senryu and lift the form up from just puns, dirty themes, and
silliness. Kenkabo started to introduce more social and political commentary into senryu.
Kenkabo was known as an impressive poet. His verses were intelligent and possessed some

warmth; but they were also acidic and biting in their cynicism. He ended up having many
disciples study under him and the reputation of senryu began to be lifted and people began to see
senryu as serious poetry like that of haiku.
During the 1950’s-1970’s the ‘rokudaika’ (6 great senryu masters) worked in their
respective ways to expand the world and content of senryu. The six renovators of senryu were
Aso Jiro, Murata Shugyo, Sugimoto Monta, Kishimoto Suifu, Maeda Jakuro, and Kawakami
Santaro. Under Maeda and Murata, senryu also began becoming more personal. With the arrival
of women in senryu, the genre began to include much more richness, depth and nuance. With the
rise of women senryuists like Kenkabo Nobuko, Tokizane Shinko (who studied under Kawakami
Santaro, who told her to bring all of her femininity into her senryu), and Onishi Yasuyo, senryu
became much more literary and often appeared as compressed lyric tanka.
The world of senryu has many sub-flavors. There are senryu that are geared toward and
written by office workers (salaryman senryu), there’s a type of senryu known as current events
senryu (jiji senryu), or mass communication senryu. Another form came about, called ‘bungei’
(literary) senryu. These senryu are very poetic and are known as ‘life-novels’ or ‘portraits’ of the
poet. One modern senryu poet defined senryu as being made up of two views: ‘portraits’ of others
and ‘portraits’ of self; with ‘bungei senryu’ being focused on ‘self-portraits’, the exploration of the
poet’s inner world (i.e. thoughts, emotions, imaginations, etc).
Eventually senryu was also carried to America by 1st and 2nd Generation Japanese
immigrants and established in Yakima, Washington between 1910 and 1912 by senryu master
Kaho Honda. Senryu was the chosen form of many Japanese-Americans during their unjust
imprisonment in American concentration camps during WW2. The American strand of senryu
doesn’t seem as though it’s been well researched or followed by current writers of English

Language Haikai Poetry, outside of the study and research that has gone on among Japanese-
American scholars.

Shonin, pen name for Orrin Prejean, was born in Port Arthur, TX in 1981. He came to English-
Language haiku around 2006. In 2013 he began writing tanka under the instruction of M. Kei

and had two collections published in 2016 & 17. In the Fall of 2021 he turned his focus
completely to the history and current practices of Senryu. In 2021 he published his first
collection of senryu, titled “October’s Kid” followed by “Dewdrop World.” He also collaborated
with poet BA France to publish another collection of senryu titled, “Retweets.”

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