The Joy of Senryu

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Senryu poetry enthusiasts host a joint luncheon meeting at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center on July 2. This year marks the centennial for the introduction of the three-line Japanese poetry to the United States. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)


By RYOKO OHNISHI
RAFU STAFF WRITER

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Endaka de
nao mo furusato
toku nari

(As the yen gets stronger, my hometown gets farther away)

Sune kajiru
kodomo no setake
miageteru

(My son is supported by me financially even though he is now taller than me)

Shotaro Dofuku writes his poem on a piece of tanzaku paper. (RYOKO OHNISHI/Rafu Shimpo)

Haiku is popular but somehow senryu is not well-known in English speaking countries. I wonder why,” said Shotaro Dofuku, a member of the Pioneer Senryu poetry group.

The group meets monthly to share their love of poetry and inspire one another. Dofuku, who refuses to be called a senryu “instructor,” is a retired gardener, an 81-year-old Kagoshima native who came to the United States in 1956 as a refugee. He emphasizes that he is just taking care of the meeting and enjoying his time joking around with others during the ku-kai (poetry meeting).

Senryu was taken from the name of a pioneer poet of Japan, Senryu Karai, who lived in the mid-Edo era during the 18th century. Senryu literally means ‘river willow’ which depicts the flexibility of willow trees that bend with the wind by the river.

Similar in structure to haiku, senryu is a non-rhymed verse having three lines containing 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 again in the last line. There are a total of 17 syllables just like haiku.  Senryu differs from haiku in the subjects of the poems, which often describe human nature, usually in an ironic and satiric manner. The haiku poem has to have a seasonal word (kigo). For example, ume (plum flower), kaeru (frogs) and kaiko (silk cocoons) are used for spring reference; asagao (morning glory) is a reference for summer.  In contrast, a senryu poem does not require the use of a seasonal reference.

Last Friday, a joint luncheon and the ku-kai by two senryu groups, “Pioneer Senryu” and “Rashin Senryu” was held and 28 people created senryu poems at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center (JACCC),  The Pioneer Senryu was formed in 1971 with the purpose of providing a hobby for the seniors. Shiro Kunitsugu was the first instructor.

Rashin is an abbreviation of “Rafu Shimpo” and the group contributes senryu poems to the Rafu Japanese section’s senryu column. The Rafu publishes senryu poems every month and the Japanese section functions as the principle forum for the senryu enthusiasts in Los Angeles. In 2003, the second instructor at Pioneer Senryu who also served for the Rashin, Keiho Yamanaka, a retired gardener, appointed Dofuku to take over the Pioneer Senryu and Sunny Seki for the Rashin Senryu before Yamanaka passed away.

The joint luncheon held twice a year, serves to strengthen the ties and friendship among those in the senryu community. Pioneer Senryu holds ku-kai every first Friday of the month. However, Rashin does not hold regular meetings. For many it was the first time to see a fellow senryu enthusiasts in person since they had seen them on paper.

The Pioneer Senryu was formed in 1971 to provide a hobby for seniors.

The total senryu membership is assumed to be around 80 in Los Angeles. Senryu groups also exist in Sacramento and San Francisco but they are much smaller scale,  according to Dofuku.
During the luncheon, a seki-dai (literally means chair topic =topic of the day) was given. The seki-dai is a poem written based on a specific topic assigned on the site at the monthly meeting. A seki-dai poem needs to: 1) be impromptu; 2) include the topic word; and 3) have at least three poems. The last week’s topic was “mouth (kuchi).”

At the meeting, the seki-dai from last month “takai” (high) were read by Dofuku.  Based on  the volume of the clapping from the audience, Dofuku selected one poem from each senryu poet.

Hakujin to
musubare mago no
takai hana

(My child married a Caucasian and my grandchild has a pronounced nose)

Some of the Seki-dai “mouth” read were:

Eigo dewa
ikioi useru
herazu guchi

(In English my argument loses its force)

Kuchi-utsushi
shita musume ga
kuchi-gotae

(The daughter I feed by mouth now mouths off to me)

According to Sunny Seki, a member of Rashin Senryu, the culture of senryu poetry was brought by immigrants from Japan and this year marks the centennial of the poems here in the United States. In the late 1920s, around the Great Depression period, Senryu poems became popular. “I believe people tried to get through the tough times by creating senryu poems and writing about the irony and bitterness of their lives.” Particularly before the World War II, senryu poetry became popular among Japanese gardeners. “I believe Japanese gardeners pre-war time must have experienced various discriminations and hardships,” said Seki.

In 2007, Seki published a 70-page senryu poetry collection consisting of 200 poems in Japanese and English along with explanations titled “Gardeners’ Pioneer Story” from Southern California Gardeners’ Federation (SCGF).  Seki compiled the senryu poetry from the monthly magazine “Turf & Garden” which includes the poems written by Shoji Nagumo, the organization. “I really want everybody to enjoy the depth of senryu, the joy of senryu,” said Seki.  The gardeners’ senryu are as follows from the Seki’s book:

Fufu shite
kizuita tochi wa
hito no mono

(The land we developed was owned by others)

Ko to mago wo
hakase ni saseta
ron moa

(With my lawn mower, I made my children and grandchildren into doctors)

Niwa no hana
mazu wa meido no
kigen tori

(The first service of the day is to give a bouquet of flowers picked from the yard to the maid)

Do you write poetry? Submit some examples of senryu poetry in English for publication in an upcoming Rafu Shimpo. Submissions can be sent to Ryoko Ohnishi.

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2 Comments

  1. Wow, these are wonderful senryu. Their subtle humor and wise poignancy inspires me. Thank you so much for clearly explaining senryu’s origins and differentiation from haiku.

    I just returned yesterday from visiting my wife’s hometown of Kagoshima and was pleased to read about Dofuku-san hailing from this historic city.

    I hope senryu becomes widely known in this country.

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