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Haiku, Senryū, and the Subtleties In Their Similarities and Differences

If I had a bit more courage and a lot more scholarship, I would have discussed the similarities and differences between a haiku poem and a senryū poem in the introduction of my newly released book of poetry Short Verses & Other Curses: Haiku, Senryū, Tanka & Other Poetic, Artistic, & Photographic Miscellany. However, seeing that I am woefully deficient in both, I will have to enlist someone adequately courageous and scholarly to discuss these subtleties for me.

What little I do think I know about these two popular Japanese poetical forms is that both are diminutive in structure yet powerful in purpose and meaning, with haiku typically involving nature settings and the zen-like moments often evoked by them and senryū typically involving the vagaries – and vulgarities – of the lives that we lead, often by employing humor and sarcasm. But then, what do I really know about it…

I have no answers
I know just that grass will grow
and that leaves will fall

For those of you who appreciate a little more scholarship and authority, here is what Richard Hass, former U.S. Poet Laureate, has to say about haiku in his beautifully edited and translated book The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, & Issa (Essential Poets). (I find no direct mention of senryū in the book; though it seems to me much of his discussion of haiku can also be applied to senryū as well.)

Robert Hass:

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it.

If the first level of a haiku is its location in nature, its second is almost always some implicit Buddhist reflection on nature.

When the hokku [what haiku were originally called] became detached from linked verse, it also cast off the room the tanka provided for drawing a moral (thought not all tanka do moralize, of course) and what was left was the irreducible mysteriousness of the images themselves.

There is so much to consider about these two subtle yet so often at the same time plain-spoken Japanese poetic forms. Considerations such as:

– Zen and its influence
– the influence of China and its poetry
– various poetic techniques found in much of traditional Japanese poetry, to include haiku and senryū, such as kake-kotoba (pivot words) and kireji (cutting words)
– the 5/7/5 structure and its relevance to the Western haiku poet

Hass’ book covers much of the list; however, instead of continuing to discuss about these poetic forms, let’s just experience some of the best of their kind and enjoy them as they are.



Awake at night–
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold

A petal shower
of mountain roses,
and the sound of the rapids

How admirable!
to see lightning and not think
life is fleeting

Spring rain
leaking through the roof,
dripping from a wasps’ nest

Taking a nap,
feet planted
against a cool wall

Winter solitude —
in a world of one color
the sound of wind


Coolness —
the sound of the bell
as it leaves the bell

He’s on the porch,
to escape wife and kids —
how hot it is!

Cover my head
or my feet?
the winter quilt

Flowers offered to the Buddha
come floating
down the winter river


Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish

A dry riverbed
by lightning

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
Killing mosquitos

Visiting graves,
the old dog
leads the way

No talent
and so no sin,
a winter day

From the website HUBPAGES

A horse farts
four or five suffer
on the ferry-boat

the matchmaker
speaks the sober truth
only when drunk

Zen priest
meditation finished
looking for fleas

The face of her husband
looking for a job —
she is tired of it

Richard Wright

The watching faces
as I walk the autumn road,
make me a traveler

An empty sickbed
an indented pillow
in weak winter sun

A falling petal
strikes one floating on the pond
and they both sink

25 thoughts on “Haiku, Senryū, and the Subtleties In Their Similarities and Differences

  1. Thanks for the lesson and the lovely examples. I learned something new today that I may use in my poetic arsenal in the future. Thanks again!

    1. That’s great, tunisialolyn84. I’m happy it’s useful. Thanks for letting me know.

  2. Fun offering! Merry Christmas Kurt and Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you, my friend. Merry Christmas to you and I hope you have a fantastic 2016.

  3. I heartily agree with Hass’ and your assessment of the haiku ending this post as “some of the best of their kind” and was especially moved by the final 2 from Richard Wright.

    Typo: strikes on floating ==> strikes one floating

    1. Thank you for the kind comment and especially the typo feedback. 🙂

  4. Thanks for the link to the fascinating page about Richard Wright. The same website has an informative page about the traditional distinction between haiku and senryu, with a welcome remark that the distinction is not so important nowadays:
    Today many poets and editors do not distinguish between haiku and senryu, and there certainly is a gradual continuum between the haiku about nature and the senryu with more focus on humanity.

    The link is

    1. While I’m no expert I would expect that the growing lack of distinction between the two is more a Western thing than an Asian, particularly Japan, thing.

  5. excellent… my knowledge of the subject just tripled. As an old writer, I’m new to poetry…a sudden discovery more or less… the examples of haiku and senryu is very informative. The petals on the pond have a sweet melancholy. 🙂 And the praying to the Buddha while killing mosquitos–so incongruent.

    1. This makes me happy, Gradmama2011. Thank you for taking the time to leave me such kind feedback.

      1. I’m glad to enjoyed my feedback, Kurt. 🙂

      2. I downloaded your book on my Kindle..enjoy your poems, and will read more of it to be sure! Thanks for making it available, it made a nice Christmas present. 🙂

          1. I like your haiku/senryu work… it actually makes sense. Just kidding…sense is good. 🙂

          2. I’m both happy you like the writing and that it makes sense to you as well. Not always an easy-to-come-by combination in writing. 🙂 I’d appreciate you writing an Amazon review if you find the chance. Many thanks for taking the time to read and for leaving the kind feedback, Gradmama2011.

          3. thanks…I’ll see about the review soon. As for making sense… I admit that haiku often escapes me, I like poetry with a point that I get (:-) and much of it escapes me.

          4. Point/message is important to me, too; though, when it comes to poetry, it may not be as important to me as feeling.

          5. I agree! I just like to have a clue…:-) I get subtle meanings, but sometimes it seems the words themselves drive the poem rather than create that feeling ya get after reading a poem–as the meaning and/or feeling sinks in.

          6. thanks. I prefer writing longer pieces. I’m only recently into poetry, it is very satisfying and rewarding to me.

          7. Therapeutic in its doing…

          8. yes, keeps the mind on track

  6. I remember being in my college classes being ordered to write a haiku on the first day of class and not knowing anything about the craft. I wish I had this blog post on my first day! Wonderful work and examples.

    1. What a cool comment, slugline. Thanks so much for sharing that reminiscence with us.

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