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HAIKU OR SENRYU?
HOW TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE
 
 

by Elizabeth St Jacques





You are ready to submit your haiku to a competition that has haiku and senryu categories. The problem is, you're not sure which are haiku and which are senryu! Ok, let's try to find out. First, let's take a look at the basics of haiku.

While traditional three-line haiku of 17 syllables (5-7-5) are still acceptable, most modern haiku consist of fewer than 17 syllables and are written in one, two, three and four lines as well as a variety of shapes. Written in the present tense, a haiku focuses on nature, frequently includes or suggests a season word (kigo), and relates a moment of discovery/surprise (the "aha!" moment) with each line offering a distinct image. Also, within the haiku, a pivotal point (a pause) shifts to another image, thereby dividing the poem into two parts. The pivot occurs at the end of the first or second line.

In the past, humor and most particularly, human nature, were excluded from haiku, reserved specifically for senryu. Now, however, both regularly appear in haiku. Understandably, this has caused more than a little confusion. We'll touch on humor later, but right now, let's hear about human nature.

Francine Porad of Seattle, Washington and past President of the Haiku Society of America says, "There are some people who believe any reference to human beings in a haiku turns the poem into a senryu.  I disagree. In my opinion there should be no separation, is no separation between human nature and the world of nature."  Agreed!  Francine adds, "Sometimes a poem fits both (haiku and senryu) categories."

Ahhh, that is the question: how to know when a poem fits one or both categories!  As it turns out, telling the difference isn't so difficult after all.

George Swede of Toronto, Ontario, who co-founded Haiku Canada in 1977 and active in the international haiku community, provides the clearest and most logical answer I have found. After studying haiku types, he came to the conclusion that English-language haiku consist of "three content categories": Nature haiku, Human haiku (senryu), and Human plus nature haiku (hybrids). Examples follow each of George's astute findings:

"Nature haiku have no reference to humans or human artifacts and often have season words or kigo. They are what people typically assume haiku to be and comprise only around 20% of published work (in the best periodicals and anthologies)."
 
 

from wet clay
where no seed will grow
the worm
   – Elizabeth St Jacques

 
glaring like a snake
in the grass   the snake
in the grass
   – George Swede

 
Midsummer dusk:
  after the coo of doves
a softer silence
   – H.F. Noyes

Season words in the above: "seed" refers to Spring; "snake" indicates Summer; and "Midsummer" speaks for itself.

George points out that his poem "has humor, yet it is a haiku and not a senryu. In other words, humor cannot be used to distinguish between haiku and senryu because both types can have humor or not."

You'll also note that "like a snake" is a simile. While similes (and other poetics) are frowned upon by many editors, this one works because of the delightful humor it evokes. Less experienced poets, however, would be well advised to avoid poetics until they gain more haiku experience.

"Human haiku (more often called senryu) include only references to some aspect of human nature (physical or psychological) or to human artifacts. They possess no references to the natural world and thus have no season words. (Human haiku) comprise about 20-25% of published work."
 
 

at the height
of the argument  the old couple
pour each other tea
   – George Swede

 
long commuter ride
a stranger discusses
his incontinence
   – Francine Porad

 
billboard:
the black hole
in her Colgate smile
   – Elizabeth St Jacques

George advises you to notice there are no references "to the natural world (excluding humans, of course). In (his senryu), tea is a human artifact."  Why? Because a person has transformed the tea into a refreshment.

"Human plus nature haiku (or hybrids) include content from the natural as well as the human world (and) often include kigo. They are the most frequently published kind of haiku--around 60%."
 
 

his wife's garden:
certain he has moved
every plant twice 
   – Francine Porad

 
cold wind:
into the strawman's mouth
the quick little mouse
   – Elizabeth St Jacques

 
in the howling wind
under the full moon
the snowman, headless
   – George Swede 

"Garden" and the act of transplanting indicate late Spring or early Summer; "cold wind" and "strawman" suggest Autumn; and "howling wind" and "snowman" imply Winter. George points out that "the snowman is a human artifact" -- as is "strawman" in my haiku. Also note the humor in Francine's haiku.

Of course, when submitting work to editors, most poets don't bother to indicate haiku or senryu, but let the editors decide. Nevertheless, it's to your benefit to learn how to tell the difference between these genres, if only for competitions that demand differentiation.

Now that you know how to do that, it'll be a snap to sort out your haiku and senryu and submit them to the correct categories of poetry competitions. Happy sorting and the best of luck!
 
 

Sources:

George Swede: all poems from his collection, "A Snowman, Headless,"  Fredericton: Fiddlehead Poetry Books, 1979. The ideas re his haiku findings were first published in Modern Haiku, 1992, Vol. XXIII, No. 1, 65-72.

H.F. Noyes: "Midsummer dusk" from his privately printed collection, "Just Floating Here," 1992.

Francine Porad: "long commuter ride" - South by Southeast, 1998; "his wife's garden" - Haiku Zashi Zo, 1986. Quote re senryu is from her March 13, 1999 letter to me.

Elizabeth St Jacques: "from wet clay" from her collection "Dance of Light," Maplebud Press, 1995; "billboard" - Frogpond, Vol. XIX:1, 1996; "cold wind" - HWUP! #36, 1995

Poems and quotes used with the authors' permission. Special thanks to George Swede for sharing his haiku ideas.

(this article was first published in Poet’s Forum, Vol. II:1, 1999)

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