Monday, January 23, 2006

One Deep Breath

From the NYTs
Published: January 22, 2006

The Bright Clear Skies of Glorious Spring
Only the politicians
Can doze off.
[signed] The common people

…This short comic poem called a senryou, parallel to a haiku, appeared at the bottom of a page in a Japanese newspaper in 2001. Television cameras had captured lawmakers asleep on their Parliament benches at the height of an economic crisis. The Lenos and Lettermans of another culture might have "built it up into a massive comedy routine," said Jessica Milner Davis, editor of "Understanding Humor in Japan," a book of essays to be published next month by Wayne State University Press. But the Japanese permitted themselves only this tiny sly comment in a clearly signaled form, lest they break the conventions of politeness…

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Some senryu skirt the line between haiku and senryu. The following senryu by Shūji Terayama copies the haiku structure faithfully, down to a blatantly obvious kigo, but on closer inspection is absurd in its content:

Hide and seek
Count to three
Winter comes

Terayama, who wrote about playing hide-and-go-seek in the graveyard as a child, thought of himself as the odd-guy out, the one who was always "it" in hide-and-go-seek. Indeed, the original haiku included the theme "oni" (the "it" in Japanese is a demon, though in some parts a very young child forced to play "it" was called a "sea slug" (namako)). To him, seeing a game of hide-and-go seek, or recalling it as it grew cold would be a chilling experience. Terayama might also have recalled opening his eyes and finding himself all alone, feeling the cold more intensely than he did a minute before among other children. Either way, any genuinely personal experience would be haiku and not senryu in the classic sense. If you think Terayama's poem uses a child's game to express in hyperbolic metaphor how, in retrospect, life is short, and nothing more, then this would indeed work as a senryu. Otherwise, it is a bona fide haiku.

Much modern haiku is more similar to senryu than to traditional Japanese haiku. Most English haiku and senryū poets no longer adhere to the 5-7-5 syllable form, which is suitable for the Japanese language, but which may lead English poets to produce over-long and sometimes stilted poems. Many modern haijin (haiku/senryu poets) use the "one deep breath" rule: take a deep breath and you should be able to read the poem aloud.


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