October 25, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 2

An Historian Writes Senryu

by Michael Magliari

I've been writing haiku and senryu on and off now for about 30 years, ever since a good friend of mine in graduate school introduced me to the Japanese short poem form called tanka. As traditionally written, tanka are unrhymed five line poems with a syllable count sequence of 5-7-5-7-7. Haiku evolved from tanka when poets aiming at even greater succinctness dropped the 7-7 couplet at the end.

I enjoy writing haiku and senryu because they force me to break out of my routine and to pay close attention to things that I normally hurry by.

The goal of haiku is to capture the feeling of a deeply perceived and felt moment of understanding or connection to nature and the surrounding natural environment. Customarily, haiku are supposed to contain a kigo (seasonal reference) and an arresting juxtaposition of two different but related images separated by a clear pause when read. Meanwhile, in contrast to haiku, senryu focus strictly on human nature, behavior, and relations. Traditionally, they were supposed to contain a strong dose of humor, but nowadays senryu express the full range of human emotions.

While substantially different in content, senyru and haiku are identical in terms of form. Both are normally three-line poems with syllable sequences of 5-7-5. Since Japanese language sound units—onji—are shorter than English syllables, writers of English-language haiku and senryu now consider 17 syllables to be a maximum limit rather than a fixed goal. In fact, the general rule now seems to be the fewer syllables the better. The drive for greater succinctness over the last 20 years has also led to increasing numbers of one-line haiku and senryu, but I still greatly prefer the classic three-line form.

I enjoy writing haiku and senryu because they force me to break out of my routine and to pay close attention to things that I normally hurry by, ignore, or take for granted during the course of a typical day. I also like them because they're so different from the type of writing I normally do as a historian. In fact, I think the discipline of haiku and senryu helps me to be a much better editor of my historical prose. I'm Italian, so I always tend to use a lot more words than I need. My first drafts of anything are always too long, and my biggest challenge in proofreading my own words is to figure out how to eliminate as many of them as possible. Writing haiku and senryu help a lot with that process because they place such a premium on brevity. It's easy to write haiku and senryu, but it's extremely difficult to write really good ones.

Creekside photos by Beiron Andersson

Creekside photos by Beiron Andersson

The following are some of Magliari’s published senryu:

not one without
a cross to bear

(Published in Modern Haiku, Vol. 43, Summer 2012.)

raking leaves
mocked again
by the wind

(Published in In Pine Shade: Haiku Society of America 2011 Members’ Anthology, Haiku Society of America, 2011.)

4th of July
we flip from the war
to the fireworks

(Published in Frogpond, Vol. 34, Fall 2011.)

Christmas card
so typical of her
the offset stamp

(Published in Frogpond, Vol. 30, Fall 2007.)

watching the game
watching the war
watching the game

(Published in Frogpond, Vol. 28, Spring/Summer 2005. Republished in Haiku 21: An Anthology of Contemporary English-Language Haiku, Modern Haiku Press, 2011.)

office party–
having to make small talk
with that idiot!

(Published in World Haiku Review 3, December 2003. Winner of the R. H. Blyth International Senryu in English Competition Honorable Mention and the 2003 World Haiku Club Honorable Mention.)