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Literary Imagination, volume 12, number 2, pp. 210228 doi:10.


Written in the Face of Adversity: The Senryu Tradition in America


Although the Japanese poetic form, senryu, began more than two-and-a-half centuries ago as an often bawdy form of verse focusing on human nature, it developed into a form that accommodated many aspects of the human experience. In the early twentieth century, Japanese immigrants in the United States began using senryu to document daily human activities in response to periods of cultural upheaval. In doing so, they instigated a tradition that continues in English-language senryu to this day. Multiple traditions of English-language haikai, including not only senryu but haiku and tanka, exist in America, and varied traditions of senryu certainly have been sustained in order to address the vicissitudes of human experience.1 The tradition founded by Japanese immigrants, however, remains one of the most vital traditions in the American senryu of the past century.

Genroku Era Senryu

Senryu was created in eighteenth-century Japan, and it is typically defined as a poem similar to haiku in its three-line structure but different from haiku in its focus on human nature.2 Its general characteristics include an interest in human affairs, a humorous tone,
University of Oregon, Clark Honors College. E-mail: rosenowce@gmail.com I would like to thank Margaret Chula and Michael Dylan Welch for their suggestions for this article. 1 Issei describes the lives of Japanese immigrants and includes many examples of their haiku and tanka. See Ito, Kazuo. Issei: A History of Japanese Immigrants in North America. Trans. Shinichiro Nakamura and Jean S. Gerard (Seattle: Japanese Community Service, 1973). For discussions of the English-language haiku movement, see the following two books by William J. Higginson: Haiku Compass: Directions in the Poetical Map of the United States of America. Tokyo: Haiku International, 1994; and The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (New York: McGraw, 1985), 6376. For a history of the first twenty years of the Haiku Society of America, see Davidson, et al., eds. A Haiku Path: The Haiku Society of America 1968-1988 (New York: Haiku Society of America, 1994). 2 The following are among the texts that describe senryu and often contrast it with haiku: Blyth, R. H. Edo Satirical Verse Anthologies. Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1961, Essentially Oriental: R. H. Blyth Selection, ed. Kuniyoshi Munakata and Michael Guest (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1994), and The Genius of Haiku: Readings from R. H. Blyth on Poetry, Life, and Zen (np: British Haiku Society, 1994); Brown, J. C., Senryu: Poems of the People (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1991); Higginson, William J. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (New York: McGraw, 1985); Ross, Bruce. How to Haiku: A Writers Guide to Haiku and Related Forms (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 2002); and Welch, Michael Dylan. Introduction. Fig Newtons: Senryu to Go, ed. Laura Bell et al. (Foster City, CA: Press Here, 1993). For a book-length consideration of senryu, see Ohno, Shuho. Modern Senryu in English (Seattle: Hokubei), 1988. For texts that focus

The Author 2010. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. All rights reserved. For permissions please e-mail: journals.permissions@oxfordjournals.org Advance Access publication January 13, 2010

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an often critical point of view, an emphasis on human foibles, and as mentioned above, the early verses were often bawdy. The precise definition of the term, senryu, suggests its colorful originsthe word itself means river willow, which was slang for prostitute. The word, senryu, became associated with the poetic form through Karai Senryu (1718 1790), the pen name of Karai Hachiemon, who in 1757 became a maekuzuke master. As a master, or judge, of this verse-writing game, he provided the maeku, or first two lines, and the contest entrants wrote the tsukeku, or following three lines.3 The contests judged by Karai Senryu became immensely popular, and an anthology of 756 winning verses from the contests appeared in 1765.4 The editor, Goryoken Arubeshi, omitted the maeku and printed only the tsukeku, selecting poems that could be easily understood by themselves, thus beginning the history of senryu as a separate form.5 Many early Japanese senryu were written during the Genroku Era. By Genroku Era, I refer not to the specific imperial era of 16881704 but to the broader cultural era that existed during the last two decades of the seventeenth century and the first few decades of the eighteenth century.6 The senryu written during this time period tend to address the everyday practices of human beings. While some of these practices are portrayed humorously and others are portrayed critically, the emphasis on daily life specific to that era becomes a defining characteristic of these poems. Genroku culture is known for its tremendous energy, and this energy developed in part from the rising merchant class, many of whose members were very wealthy. These men focused on the momentary pleasures of entertainment, food, drink, conversation, and sexual activity, often frequenting tea houses in the pleasure quarters of the large cities. Popular literature was designed for mass consumption during this era; senryu, as a popular form of verse, not only develops in this period but often focuses on these same subjects. Makoto Ueda, in Light Verse of the Floating World, notes that
The raison detre of senryu, then, lies in its value as popular literature, literature for mass production and consumption. If it is poetry, it is the kind of poetry specifically intended to entertain the millions . . .. Senryu was comic verse, a type of verse that gained enormous popularity through its humorous quality, through its ability to make the reader laugh.

specifically on humor and are not limited to discussions of senryu, see Addiss, Stephen. Haiku Humor: Wit and Folly in Japanese Poems and Prints (Boston: Weatherhill, 2007); Blyth, R. H. Essentially Oriental: R. H. Blyth Selection, ed. Kuniyoshi Munakata and Michael Guest (Tokyo: Hokuseido, 1994) and Japanese Humor (Tourist Library 24, Tokyo: Japan Travel Bureau, 1957). 3 The following texts summarize the history of senryu: Brown, J. C. Senryu: Poems of the People (Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1991); Higginson, William J. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku (New York: McGraw, 1985); and Ueda, Makoto. Introduction. Light Verse from the Floating World: An Anthology of Premodern Japanese Senryu, ed. Makoto Ueda (Columbia: Columbia UP, 1999). 4 Ibid, 9 5 qtd. in Ueda p. 10 6 Although many descriptions of the Genroku Era exist, the following two considerations are especially useful for concise, thoughtful overviews of the eras arts and culture: Sansom, G. B. Japan: A Short Cultural History, (London: Cresset, 1932), 463485; and Varley, Paul. Japanese Culture, 4th edn, (Honolulu: U of Hawaii P, 2000), 164204. Donald Keenes book on literature of Tokugawa Japan also includes an excellent focus on Genroku literature. See Keene, Donald. World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867, (New York: Grove, 1976).


The Senryu Tradition in America

Edo townsmen amused themselves by reading and writing senryu, not caring whether it qualified as poetry.7

Senryu, like other forms of popular literature, responded to an era of cultural change by focusing on the activities undertaken by, and appealing to, one of the social groups central to that period: the townsmen. The subject matter of early senryu reveals some of the activities in which this particular group of people participated. Consider the following poem:
a filial daughter and an unfilial son sleeping side by side8

The setting for this poem is a teahouse in one of the pleasure quarters. A daughter becomes a courtesan in the tea house to help support her family; therefore, she is a loyal daughter. A son from another family, however, squanders his familys money by paying to sleep with a courtesan; therefore, he is not loyal. The setting, subject matter, and humorous critique are all characteristic of Genroku Era senryu. The next poem also contains critical humor but it uses a different setting and subject as its vehicle:
the game of chess: he loses two matches, before asking for a loan9

The poem depicts two aspects of life in the Genroku Era: entertainment via the game of chess and business. Fortunes were quickly made and lost among members of the merchant class. Sometimes the money was spent on seeking pleasure rather than being used more responsibly. Whatever the cause of the mans financial need, the critical humor comes in the mans willingness to lose two matches before asking to borrow money. The final example again centers on the pleasure quarters with its tea houses and courtesans:
a teahouse where the tea costs as much as sake shes that good-looking10

Money in the Genroku Era is often spent on pursuing pleasure. In this case, the courtesan is so physically attractive that customers are willing to pay as much for tea as they would have spent on sake at another establishment. The poem reveals that the willingness to pursue pleasure sometimes outweighs common sense. The topics in these poems are specific to the new merchant class with its interest in pleasure and its pursuit of the money needed to enjoy that pleasure. Everyday activities comprise much of the subject matter, and the poems are written in response to a period of cultural change. When humor is found in the poems, it derives from casting a critical or satirical eye toward the events of the day complete with the hypocrisy and human foibles that attend those events.
7 8

Ueda, pp. 1920. Ueda, p. 191. This poem, and the examples that follow, were written anonymously. 9 Ueda, p. 249. 10 Ueda, p. 186.

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Senryu by Japanese Immigrants in America

Senryu written in America follow a variation on this approach. While they focus on everyday activities, they respond not only to periods of cultural change but also to periods of intense difficulty. The tradition of senryu written in America begins with the first and second generations of Japanese immigrants. Teruko Kumei, in Crossing the Ocean, Dreaming of America, Dreaming of Japan: Transpacific Transformation of Japanese Immigrants in Senryu Poems; 19291941, explores senryu as a collection of historical documents in order to shed some light on the transformation of Japanese immigrants from birds of passage to the Issei, the first generation of Japanese Americans.11 Writers believed that a new literature needed to be developed to reflect the new life in the new environment.12 Senryu became part of this new literature. The earliest known senryu reading circles in the U.S. originated in Yakima, Washington in the autumn of 1910 or 1912,13 and at the first meeting, the poem awarded first rank reads as follows:
Next morning, all sobered up. Damn. Sake brewed brawls.14

Kumei glosses the poem as immigrant workers come out of a labor camp on a Saturday night to a Japanese sawdust parlor; friends meet and have a nice chat over drink after drink; drunk, they have a brawl over a trifle; the next morning, they meet, feeling ashamed, and apologize; Sorry, it was because of the sake. Sake drove me insane. 15 The setting of the labor camp, the drinking of sake, the fight, and the apologies all reflect activities in daily life. The poem also suggests the challenge of bridging aspects of Japanese culture, such as drinking sake, with a difficult new life in a Northwest labor camp. In writing senryu, these poets are answering the call of Kyuin Okina, a Japanese immigrant writer who argued that the goal of immigrant land literature is to record or narrate what happened in the immigrant land. . . in the future our descendants will grow naturally in America. We have to tell how their ancestors had struggled, what kind of life and thought they had. 16 In other words, write about daily life and experiences so that the information can be passed down to future generations. Other writers and editors shared this focus. Isshin Yamasaki, the editor of several anthologies of Japanese immigrant literature, states,
we created literary works, materials of which we draw on the lives of our fellow [Japanese] people in the peculiar immigrant land; even if our works are unrefined and poor, they should be regarded as precious records of human beings; the records of the life every author had experienced; the records of the unprecedented environment our people created and lived in.17
Kumei, Teruko. Crossing the Ocean, Dreaming of America, Dreaming of Japan: Transpacific Transformation of Japanese Immigrants in Senryu Poems; 1929-1941. The Japanese Journal of American Studies 16 (2005): 8182. 12 Ibid, 82. 13 Ibid, 85. 14 Ibid, 86. No author name was given for this poem nor for the other examples that follow. 15 Ibid, 86. 16 Ibid, 83. 17 Ibid, 83.


The Senryu Tradition in America

The tradition of senryu in America begins by establishing the importance of recording activities from the poets everyday life. This project differs from that of the Genroku Era precisely because it is a conscious project, but once again the poems are documenting and commenting on representative moments of life at a time of great cultural change, and more specifically, at a time of difficulty. The following examples represent the variety of everyday experiences that Japanese immigrant writers chose to document as precious records of human beings. The first two focus on holidays:
My dear, put this money into the pot of the Salvation Army. Remember the spirit of the holiday.18

The American experience of encountering a Salvation Army worker collecting money at Christmas is juxtaposed with the writers financial hardship. He must remind himself and his wife of the spirit of the holiday; Christmas is a time of giving. Even if the writer and his family could use the money they donate, they also know that the Salvation Army will use that money to help others in need.
Independence Day, full of floats, but first of all, a Japanese float.19

Instead of a winter holiday, this poem focuses on the Fourth of July. The parade celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a quintessentially American holiday, contains a series of floats; however, the poet emphasizes that the first float is Japanese. The poem reflects the complex negotiation of national pride in Japan and a developing Japanese-American identity. The reference to Independence Day infuses the poem with irony. The holiday celebrates Americas declaration of independence from Great Britain and the claims to freedom that accompanied it. The celebratory parade, however, includes a Japanese float in the lead even as discrimination against Japanese immigrants was being institutionalized by Supreme Court decisions and the Immigration Law of 1924.20 The difficulty of life in America surfaces in many poems. The following example depicts the experience of a Japanese couple struggling to earn money, while simultaneously demonstrating a strong work ethic and a willingness to do what was necessary to survive:
The plant is alight, my wife is there on a night shift, earning our rent.21

Ibid, 95. Ibid, 95. 20 In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court heard and decided the case of Ozawa v. United States. The court defined white as Caucasian, specified that a Japanese person was not a Caucasian, and upheld the Naturalization Act of 1906 that decreed only Caucasians, persons of African descent, and persons of African nativity were allowed to naturalize. The court ruled against Takao Ozawa and he was not allowed citizenship in the U.S. In 1924, the Immigration Act excluded the immigration of Asians to the U.S. 21 Kumei, p. 92.


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The senryu documents not only the fact that the poets wife is working a night shift but also includes the reason for this type of employment. It is possible that the poet is out of work or that the couple has to take whatever jobs are available, even if that means the husband works a day shift and the wife works a night shift. The perseverance reflected in the above poem also appears in other poems. The following senryu demonstrates, in addition to perseverance, a growing connection to the new country:
Its harsh to live here, but hard to give up my life in America.22

This senryu acknowledges the complex experience of Japanese immigrants who live difficult lives in America that they still choose not to give up. The poem, and the one above it, are taken from the 15,000 senryu written between the late 1920s and the end of World War II and collected by Kumei, a number that suggests just how substantial a foundation exists for this tradition of senryu written in America.

Senryu Written by Japanese-Americans Imprisoned During WWII

The tradition continues during World War II, when Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated and imprisoned. Marvin K. Opler and F. Obayashi, in their 1945 article, Senryu Poetry as Folk and Community Expression, examine poems written by members of a senryu group at the Tule Lake Center for Japanese-Americans in California, and their examination also reveals the importance of senryu for the prisoners. Once again, the poems focus on the daily activities and are written at a time of immense cultural change and difficulty. The poems from the Tule Lake Center were collected by one of the prisoners, F. Obayashi, who was a member of the Centers senryu group. Opler, the Community Analyst in the Center and the lead author of the article, acknowledges that much of the information comes from Obayashi, who compiled these data [and] was a member of the group from May to November, 1943. Without him, this article could not have been written.23 Opler emphasizes the difficult situation and high degree of uncertainty experienced by the writers, stating, Senryu poetry, then, is one aspect of the cultural revivalism which occurred within the first-generation age group when they realized that their futures might be uncertain in this nation . . .. It also recaptures Japanese cultural values of an apolitical sort.24 Senryu writers continue to negotiate their new identity as Japanese Americans as well as the instability and struggle that developed in the 1920s and increased as the writers became prisoners within their own country. Some of the poems generated at Tule Lake appear to respond to this struggle by focusing on unusual experiences; however, these experiences are actually part of regular

22 23

Kumei, p. 105. Opler, Marvin K. and F. Obayashi. Senryu Poetry as Folk and Community Expression. The Journal of American Folklore 58.227 (1945): note on p. 4. 24 Ibid, 4.


The Senryu Tradition in America

prisoner life and function as everyday activities rather than unusual events.25 Consider the following poem:
Again, the fingerprints, The old mans Bitter face.26

The word again modifies the experience of fingerprinting from something unique or unexpected and emphasizes its routine nature, thus establishing it as ordinary activity. The phrase old mans/Bitter face, reflects the strain and difficulty even though, or perhaps because, the experience has become routine. Another poem depicts the boredom and lack of stimuli experienced by the prisoners:
The Center, Of yawning, mixed, A day is spent.27

Not only do the yawns recur throughout the day, but also many days pass in this manner. In the setting of the Center, each day is very much like the next. Clearly, the senryu group and the writing of poems offer a means of disrupting the inactivity of Center life, but the fact that this senryu takes inactivity as its subject foregrounds the pervasiveness of the boredom. The final example from Tule Lake is emblematic of senryu that respond to difficult times by focusing on everyday experiences:
Mans mind imprisoned and Disturbed behind the fence, Prepares for marriage.28

This senryu provides an image of extreme difficulty, the disturbed minds of men wrongly imprisoned, with a common experience, the ritual of marriage. The ritual itself stands out as unique precisely because it is a common experience but it is now being enacted in the detainment center. Everyday life continues regardless of the circumstances, and the poets document this continuity through senryu. Other forms of poetry also responded to these difficult experiences, and given the structural similarities between haiku and senryu, an examination of selected haiku written by prisoners at Tule Lake provides a useful contrast to the senryu written there. Violet Kazue de Cristoforo collected haiku from several camps, including Tule Lake, and published them in the anthology, May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku. The term kaiko means crimson sea and it refers to the kaiko style. Ippekiro Nakatsuka founded this style in 1915 in Japan and chose the name after the crimson-colored flowering quince around his home.29 As de Cristoforo explains, the style allows poets to deviate from the restrictive expressions of scenery and objective subtleness associated with the earlier classical
All of the senryu in this article are written anonymously. Opler, p. 8. 27 Ibid, 8. 28 Ibid, 10. 29 de Cristoforo, Violet Kazue. May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), 23.
26 25

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haiku.30 Furthermore, she notes that love and observation of nature, vivid and youthful expression of detail and elegant usage of words correlated with the season became central characteristics of the style.31 In other words, Kaiko-style haiku can encompass a different range of subject matter and be more subjective than classical haiku. The inclusion of a seasonal reference characterizes one key difference between the haiku and the senryu written at Tule Lake. The following poem demonstrates the centrality of the seasonal reference in many of the Tule Lake haiku:
Flower of anemone motherland seems so distant when one is ailing32 Neiji Ozawa

The poem conveys the feeling of homesickness and alienation experienced by one of the prisoners. Geographically, Japan is far away from the camp in Northern California. The distance, however, appears to increase when the prisoner is ill because illness often makes one feel more isolated and helpless. The poem also suggests a contrast between the lack of care administered by the United States toward Japanese Americans through forced imprisonment and the memory of feeling cared for by the motherland, Japan. The seasonal reference to an anemone provides the first image of the poem and leads into the reflections that follow in the concluding two lines. The contradictions expressed by the poemthe reality of physical distance between California and Japan as opposed to the feeling of increased distance brought about by the illness; a lack of caring by the U.S. and a memory of caring by Japanare also encompassed by the physical immediacy of the anemone flower and the contrasting memory of flowers in Japan. This contrast heightens the sense of separation experienced by the writer and contributes to the internal comparison in the poem between the different types of closeness and distance. The role of suggestion functions as a second key difference between the haiku and senryu written at Tule Lake. As Makoto Ueda clarifies in his foreword to the anthology, Haiku is short in length, but it speaks through its silence, through what it does not expressly state.33 This emphasis on what a haiku does not expressly state applies to all of the poems in May Sky, including the previous poem by Neiji Ozawa and the following poem by Kazue Matsuda:
Afternoon sun shining this years moss-rose reverted to single petal34 Kazue Matsuda

Ibid. Ibid. 32 Ozawa, Neiji. May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, ed. Violet Kazue de Cristoforo (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), 215. 33 Ueda, Makoto. Foreword. May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, ed. Violet Kazue de Cristoforo (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), 10. 34 Matsuda, Kazue. May Sky: There Is Always Tomorrow: An Anthology of Japanese American Concentration Camp Kaiko Haiku, ed. Violet Kazue de Cristoforo (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1997), 233.



The Senryu Tradition in America

Each element in this haiku gestures toward the passage of time. The afternoon suggests that the day is passing. The phrase this years moss-rose emphasizes that this is not the first year that the moss-rose has been seen in bloom but that it has been seen blooming in previous years, as well. The moss-rose is the seasonal reference in the poem, and the acknowledgement of the season is another example of time passing. Finally, the image of the single petal also indicates that multiple years have passed because, as the editors note explains, Moss-rose reverts to single petal after a time, thus showing years spent in camp.35 The internal comparisons between the time of day, the season, and the single bloom all reinforce the idea that the poet has spent a considerable amount of time imprisoned in the camp, but the poem never states this fact directly. In fact, this type of suggestion is the primary difference between the haiku and senryu written at Tule Lake. Senryu are much more explicit as opposed to the silences that operate between the images in haiku. George M. Oye also acknowledges the importance of writing senryu during his time as a prisoner in Americas concentration camps when senryu groups developed among the prisoners.36 In his book of original senryu, Nameless to Nameless, Oye explains: Because of our desolate feelings of helplessness in the unpleasant surroundings, I looked forward to the weekly gatherings of fellow poets under the leadership of Shimizu Kicho. It was like an oasis in the desert.37 His poems, however, dont specifically address his experience of being imprisoned but reveal the impact of that experience on his life after imprisonment. He published his collection of senryu in 1981, long after World War II. The book presents poems informed by his previous experience primarily through their focus on compassion and peace as seen in the title poem:
Nameless to nameless The gentle hand of mercy Reaches those in need.38

They also address the lingering presence of war:

Because the H bombs Are available to all Peace talks now commence.39

Other poems take as their subject matter difficulties experienced by American culture in general, as demonstrated by the following examples:
Emerging from the nuclear shelter How do you intend to live In the world alone?40 How tense the border After the presence of oil Has been discovered.41
35 36

de Cristoforo, p. 233. Oye, George M. Nameless to Nameless. Media, PA: np, 1983. 37 Oye np. 38 Ibid, 4. 39 Ibid, 6. 40 Ibid, 4. 41 Ibid, 5.

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Oyes book, while beginning with a reference to his initial encounter with senryu in the internment camp, actually offers a response to the cultural concerns at the time when the collection was published. The use of senryu to address the threat of war, whether nuclear warfare or battles waged over oil rights, reflects a shift in subject matter consistent with other senryu written during the second half of the twentieth century and reveals a new phase in the tradition of senryu written in America.

The Senryu of Etheridge Knight

Several books, including R. H. Blyths four-volume Haiku, appeared in the 1940s and 50s that generated a wider interest in the haiku form. Although haiku was still not considered mainstream American poetry, poets such as Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, and Richard Wright wrote many poems that in some cases adhered to, and at other times diverged from, traditional haiku. One poet in particular, Etheridge Knight (19311991), made distinctive formal innovations in order to address a variety of experiences and concerns including prison and racism. The changes he makes to the haiku form, and the fact that the poems are clearly written in the face of adversity, suggest that many of his poems are more accurately defined as senryu and belong to the tradition traced in this essay. In 1960, Etheridge Knight was arrested for taking a womans purse, convicted of armed robbery, and sentenced to ten-to-twenty-five years in the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City. He served eight years of his sentence before being released on parole.42 While in prison, he began writing poetry and his first collection of original poetry, Poems from Prison, appeared in 1968. Even as he expanded his topics and themes in subsequent poems, he acknowledged that My major metaphor is prison,43 a claim substantiated by a reading of Knights collected works. He elaborates on this metaphor, explaining that art is ultimately about freedom, the celebration of that freedomwhether its individual or general. 44 Prison, for Knight, is the ultimate in oppression. And as with black people in the larger prison outside, the keepers try to hold the black inmates minds in chains along with their bodies by making full use of a white educational system, a white communications system, a dead white Art, and the white Law.45 In other words, prison metaphorically represents the oppression of black Americans both inside and outside of literal prison walls. While incarcerated, Knight took up haiku at the suggestion of Gwendolyn Brooks, who felt the form would help Knight write more concise poems.46 As Michael Collins points out, Knights early poetic efforts, including his first haiku, coincide with the black-power
42 See the first footnote on p. 21 of Hill, Patricia Liggins. Blues for a Mississippi Black Boy: Etheridge Knights Craft in the Black Oral Tradition. Mississippi Quarterly 36.1 (1982): 2133. 43 Price, Ron. The Physicality of Poetry: An Interview with Etheridge Knight. New Letters 52.2-3 (1986): 16776. 44 Ibid. 45 Knight, Etheridge. Preface. Black Voices from Prison. By Etheridge Knight and Other Inmates of Indiana State Prison, (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), 9 46 Although this fact is often mentioned briefly in articles on Knight, a more developed discussion of Brooks encouraging Knight to write haiku appears on p. 18 of Tracy, Steven C. A MELUS Interview: Etheridge Knight. MELUS 12.2 (1985): 723.


The Senryu Tradition in America

and black-arts movements and their project of redefinition and counterhegemonic communication.47 It is not surprising that taking up a relatively new form in American poetry such as haiku and adapting it would appeal to Knight nor is it surprising that he would find this form suitable for addressing power imbalances and the injustices that accompany them.48 Consider Knights statement that as a black male, Im always one step away from jail.49 Consider also that, in a list of instances where the law was determined by whoever held the most power, Knight includes Admiral Perry forcing Japan to agree to trade treaties with the U.S. under the threat of military action:
Power equals Law equals Right as defined by whoever has got the guns and tear gas. Long before Mao Tse-tung came on the scene, the Mans game was tight: Commodore Perry sailed his gunboats into the Sea of Japan; Teddy Roosevelt swung his Big Stick throughout the Caribbean; Mayor Daley occupied Chicago; four days ago, one tier above me, young black men were tear-gassed and beaten while already locked in solitary confinement.50

Given that haiku was even more closely associated with Japanese history and culture in the mid-twentieth century than it is today, Knight may have found in haiku a form that itself was a touchstone for Americans with power using it to control those with less power. His adaptation of the form to address his own experiences of power imbalance within U.S. society does not negate the forms use as a touchstone even as it connects it to the black-power and black-arts movements interests in redefinition. As Knight claims, The Black artist must create new forms and new values.51 Using haiku would have been new enough to writers in the 1960s. Knight, however, continues to adapt the form to his subject matter. For example, while he uses a 5-7-5 syllable count, he focuses on specifically human situations, employs similes, and often truncates words or sentences so that the rhythm of the poem is choppy rather than fluid. These changes to the haiku form allow him to address his larger concerns which are specifically about oppressive human situations while maintaining the intense focus on a specific moment that is part of the haiku tradition. The resulting senryu depict specific moments of cultural upheaval and tremendous difficultya use consistent with that of other senryu writers in America even though Knight did not have the senryu form itself available to him at the time he wrote his poems. Examining a selection of Knights senryu reveals just how closely his poems adhere to the American senryu tradition. The following poems best represent Knights earliest senryu about prison life. They form part of a nine-poem sequence titled Haiku published in Poems from Prison.
Collins, Michael. The Antipanopticon of Etheridge Knight. PMLA 123.3 (2008): 580597. Although Japanese haiku has existed for hundreds of years, the form enters American literature in the early twentieth century through the work of Ezra Pound and other modernist poets. In the midtwentieth century, interest in haiku began to increase but haiku only begins to flourish in American poetry in the last few decades of the twentieth century. The Haiku Society of America, for example, was only formed in 1968 right around the time when Knight was writing haiku. 49 qtd. in Collins, p. 581. 50 Knight, Black Voices from Prison, 9 51 qtd. p 115 in Hill, Patricia Liggins. The Violent Space: The Function of the New Black Aesthetic in Etheridge Knights Prison Poetry. Black American Literature Forum 14.3 (1980): 115121.
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1 Eastern guard tower glints in sunset; convicts rest like lizards on rocks.52

The first line presents a dominant image of the guard tower. Formally, the image hovers over the rest of the poem just as the guard tower hovers over the prison and continuously reminds the prisoners that they are not free. This constant surveillance contributes to the dehumanization of the men suggested by the simile describing convicts resting like lizards on rocks. Knight himself describes the effect of being imprisoned: Theres so much pain and brutality and oppression that you want to encapsulate yourself. . . Just to be aware of your existence when youre in prison, man, is painful.53 This experience, brought about by in part by the oppression convicts experience in prison, can create the dehumanizing effect Knight describes in the poem. The image of the prisoners like lizards, however, is presented through a simile and not a metaphor. It therefore emphasizes that these convicts are still men and are nothing less than human although they may at times feel that way and may also be viewed as less than human from the occupants of the guard tower and others holding power within the prison. Knight addresses the reality of this surveillance and its effects in longer poems, as well. In The Antipanopticon of Etheridge Knight, Michael Collins argues that Knights poetry tabulates panopticisms costs and utilizes the strategy of cleansing what is written on the human heart of its layers of panoptic prescriptionsby exchanging words, letters, and publication contracts along routes and styles of communication and interpretation that escape the view of a central authority.54 Although the brevity of senryu doesnt allow them to formally enact the strategy Collins describes, the thematic concern that accompanies this formal strategy is clearly central to the above senryu, as well. Finally, the division of the two main images right at the center of the middle line creates a sense of surprise typical of haiku but here functioning to emphasize the experience of the convicts. The first line and the first hemistitch of the second line present the image of the tower in sunset. Day is ending. The second hemistitch of the second line, convicts rest, initially suggests that the men are resting because it is the end of the day. The third line, however, presents the surprise description of men like lizards and the unexpectedness of this description as the final line of the poem makes the impact of the description much stronger. Prison does not afford rest and relaxation. It oppresses the prisoners. The third poem in the sequence uses different imagery and a slightly different structure to achieve a result similar to the above poem.
3 Morning sun slants cell. Drunks stagger like cripple flies On Jailhouse floor.55
52 53

Knight, Etheridge, Poems from Prison, (Detroit: Broadside, 1968), 18. Price, p. 168. 54 Collins, pp. 582, 595 55 Ibid.


The Senryu Tradition in America

Once again, the poem uses a simile and compares the imprisoned men to something nonhuman, in this case flies. The description goes a step further, however, by noting that the men are not just compared to flies but to cripple flies. The men resort to alcohol to temporarily numb their feelings and escape the experience of being imprisoned, but instead of blocking out their dehumanizing experience, the drunkenness results in their being even less like dignified, autonomous human beings. Knight himself struggled with alcohol and drug use, and he acknowledges that his drug use developed during the Korean War: In the Army I went to Korea, saw people and some things, and, also, got hooked on drugs . . .. Then I fell and went to prison in 1960 for armed robbery to get some money to get some drugs.56 Knight also notes that he used drugs as a way to block out his experience of the war: I was trained as a medical technician, and I was using morphine, because it would kill the fear and the psyche. Narcotics does to the psyche what novocain does to the pain in the tooth. It kills the pain.57 The choppy nature of the first line formally mirrors the mens drunken staggering. It also establishes an unbalanced relationship between the natural world represented by the sun and the unnatural world of the prison cell. The unnatural environment of the prison cell is further emphasized by the fact that the prisoners are compared cripple flies. Knight publishes haiku, including the above poems, in his other collections. Five haiku appear in Belly Song and Other Poems (1973). The first four comprise the sequence Haiku 2, and the fifth poem appears on its own later in the book as Haiku 1. Of the five poems, only the first poem in the sequence relates to the particular senryu tradition of poems written in response to difficult situations:
1 Outside, the thunder Shakes the prison walls; inside My heart shakes my ears.58

This poem shares qualities with both haiku and senryu. While continuing to use a 5-7-5 syllable structure, Knight also employs an internal comparison between the natural world via the thunder and the human world via the prisoners heart pounding so loudly that it shakes in his ears. The comparison is consistent with haiku; however, in this case, the internal comparison is more explicit than in many haiku that gesture toward the comparison without stating it directly. The overall emphasis on the human experience of prison is more characteristic of senryu than haiku. As with the two other senryu previously discussed, this poem constructs tension between the natural world of the thunder storm and the unnatural world of the prison where the walls shake from the thunder and the prisoners heart pounds in his ears. The result is an emphasis on the convicts physical experience of prison, including the fear and anxiety suggested by the loudness of the hearts pounding, and the unnaturalness of human imprisonment and its impact on the human body. In Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Knight intersperses several haiku sequences and single haiku among the other poems. He reprints the Haiku sequence
See p. 973 of Rowell, Charles H. An Interview With Etheridge Knight. Callaloo 19.4 (1996): 967980 for Knights discussion of his time in Korea and related drug use. 57 Tracy, p. 20 58 Knight, Etheridge. Belly Song and Other Poems (Detroit: Broadside, 1973), 24.

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from Poems from Prison and Haiku 1 from Belly Song and Other Poems.59 He also adds three new sequences: Indiana Haiku, Indiana Haiku 2, and Missouri Haiku. The poem, Indianapolis War Memorial, is representative of Knights senryu that arent specifically about prison but still address difficult circumstances. In this case, the poem focuses on war.
Indianapolis War Memorial Young boys play in pairs, Touch the War weapons: tanks, guns, Dreaming blood and Death.60

It is difficult to read this poem and not think about Knights own experience of war. Decades after Knights time in the service, he describes joining the army as a teenager: I was a boy. I went in the army when I was sixteen and I lied about my age and put it up to seventeen . . .. I became alienated. I became split in myself. Because its insane. War is organized insanity.61 The tension Knight creates in the poem between the boys playing at war, the reality of the veterans honored by the memorial, and the knowledge of the speaker describing the scene resonates with his own comments about his experiences in the Korean War. As a poem, this senryu is particularly innovative in its use of time. The boys playing at the war memorial are in the present moment; the title of the poem establishes the war being remembered as something in the past; and the dreams of the boys suggest that war is inevitable and will happen again in the future. The poem directs the readers attention to the omnipresence of war in American history and culture, even in times when an actual war is not being fought. The above poem is best defined as a senryu for two reasons. First, the treatment of time and its importance for the poem rely on an intellectualization consistent with senryu. Second, the entire poem focuses only on the human experiences of war and boys playing at war. This focus also foreshadows the war senryu written by later generations of poets that will be discussed later in this essay. In The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986), Knight reprints all of the haiku and senryu from his earlier collections and adds a new, much longer haiku sequence that is also titled Haiku. The seventeen poems are primarily senryu and, as they address topics ranging from personal relationships to music to racism, not all of them fit into the tradition examined here. As an example of Knights senryu from this sequence that do fit this tradition, consider the following senryu with its indictment of Apartheid in South Africa:
Woe South Africa! Bullets, bones, fires of Apartheid! My bowels wont move.62

This poem adapts the haiku form in ways that are innovative for senryu, as well, although the adaptations are in service of the poems topic and that topic is consistent with senryu.
Many other poems from Knights earlier collections, and not just his haiku, are included in this volume. 60 Knight, Etheridge. Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Houghton, 1980), 42. 61 Tracy, p. 20 62 Knight, Etheridge. The Essential Etheridge Knight (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1986), 101.


The Senryu Tradition in America

Specifically, the quantity and variety of punctuation is unusual for haiku and senryu; however, the punctuation helps establish the relationship between Apartheid in South Africa and the speakers bowels not moving. The exclamation marks at the end of the first and second lines create a parallel between the speakers degree of woe for the people of South Africa and the scope of the oppression and suffering. The period at the end of the third line creates a parallel between the direct, unemotional statement and the mundane physical condition experienced by the speaker. The commas in the second line structure the list in that line but also fulfill another important function. Bones are included in the list and placed in the center of the line offset by two commas. The placement formally represents the fact that the bones connect Apartheid and unmoving bowels because they foreground the centrality of the physical body. The body suffers on a large scale because of bullets and fires and on a smaller scale because of the unmoving bowels. Finally, each end stopped line suggests curtailed movement, which is consistent with the lack of mobility both physical and in terms of individual agency under Apartheid and with the speakers bowels not moving. Even though the amount and variety of punctuation is different than that typically used in senryu, the poems subject matter aligns it with senryu. Both Apartheid and the condition of ones bowels are part of the human world and this senryu connects forms of human suffering on two different scales. Knight, as a black poet, relates to some degree to the suffering caused by Apartheid, even though his experience is of racism in America and, in this poem, his bowels. Ultimately, Knights poems resist being defined as part of the senryu tradition traced in this essay because Knight did not know about senryu nor strive to write it in response to his experiences. Instead, he took a poetic form that was somewhat new to American writers, the haiku, and adapted it to convey a variety of challenges and difficulties including prison, war, and racism. The fact that Knight had only two options available, haiku or adapted haiku, explains why the resulting poems are sometimes haiku, sometimes borderline haiku-senryu, and sometimes senryu. Had he known of the senryu form, he may have chosen it specifically or, more likely, he may have adapted that form, as well. Of the poems he did write, those most clearly defined as senryu are, whether Knight intended it or not, consistent with decades of American senryu written in response to difficult situations.

Early Senryu in English

The first English-language haiku journals contain some of the earliest attempts by the nascent haiku movement to write senryu as well as haiku. These poems, though few in number, are consistent with the tradition established by Japanese immigrant writers, as seen in the following examples:
At the street corner he with banjo, she with tin, arm in arm they stand.63 Ethel Green Russel Hippie writing verses

Russel, Ethel Green. American Haiku 2.1 (1964): 55.

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as long as his hair and just as dirty.64 Elizabeth Gregg

The poems clearly address cultural change. If writers had pursued senryu more rigorously, they might have used the form on a larger scale and in a way similar to that of the immigrant writers. Certainly, the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 70s would have afforded ample subject matter. Poets, however, did not adhere to this approach. The senryu included in the earliest senryu section of Frogpond, the journal published by the Haiku Society of America, reflect very different subject choices. Frogpond first includes a separate section for senryu in 1982 before merging haiku and senryu into one section, and finally, in 1998, placing senryu in a separate section again. When haiku and senryu are blended within a single section and the senryu are not distinguished from the haiku, it is at times unclear which poems are intended as haiku and which are intended as senryu. The first distinct senryu section, from the fifth volume of the journal, contains one page with three senryu. These poems represent what the poets and editor consciously defined as senryu. Here are the three poems in their original order:
gently awakened by an argument in 3- B65 Dan Liebert barbershop floor: my hair mingles with fathers and grandfathers66 Nick Virgilio years of the dog: waiting for the new years feast, my stomach growls67 Jerry Kilbride

The poems convey humor and focus on human experiences. Clearly, however, English-language writers are not yet turning to senryu consistently as a way to address a difficult time in their culture. That shift does not take place until the early 1990s.

Contemporary Senryu
Etheridge Knights poem Indianapolis War Memorial and the concerns about warfare raised in George M. Oyes 1981 collection foreshadow the next phase in this senryu tradition: senryu as a response to war. The Persian Gulf War (19901991) and the war on terrorism (2002present), including the war in Afghanistan and the war in
64 65

Hood, Elizabeth Gregg. Modern Haiku 1.2 (1970): 35. Liebert, Dan. Frogpond 5.2 (1982): 35. 66 Virgilio, Nick. Frogpond 5.2 (1982): 35. 67 Kilbride, Jerry. Frogpond 5.2 (1982): 35.


The Senryu Tradition in America

Iraq, emerge as a recurring focus for contemporary senryu written in English. While senryu also address other situations of extreme difficulty such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005), the majority of poems documenting daily activities during a difficult cultural moment focus on living in a country at war. The Gulf Within anthology, edited by Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch and published by Two Autumns Press in 1991, presents fifty-eight poems written in response to the Persian Gulf War. Some of the poems in the anthology are haiku while others are senryu, and all of the poems involve the presence of the war in daily life. The following examples demonstrate that many of the poems are written not about events at home but about events taking place in Iraq:
on a clear night these stars, all can be seen from Baghdad68 Christopher Herold strings of bright beads crossing the green sky: Baghdad by night69 Richard Goring

The poems, however, are still representative of everyday life in America because the images they present come from the television, once again emphasizing the ongoing presence of the war. The poets experience of watching their country at war on TV permeates this collection. Many poems, such as this senryu written by Helen J. Sherry, directly mention the television itself:
on television sounds of the Gulf War I dust and redust70

Here, the poet juxtaposes an act of peaceful domesticity, dusting, with the sound of war coming from her television. The domestic images of television and dusting contrast with the image of war and yet simultaneously suggest how the war, by appearing constantly on TV, has become a regular feature of American life. The poets emphasis on dust and redusting resonates with the dust of the desert, the dusting of human lives when people are killed, and, as with the act of dusting furniture, the inability to completely remove both the furniture dust and the presence of the war. Eleven years after the Persian Gulf War, America begins its war on terrorism. Senryu that address this war focus on living in a culture at war, a culture concerned with

68 Herold, Christopher. The Gulf Within, ed. Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch (Foster City, CA: Two Autumns, 1992), 10. 69 Goring, Richard. The Gulf Within, ed. Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch (Foster City, CA: Two Autumns, 1992), 13. 70 Sherry, Helen J. The Gulf Within, ed. Christopher Herold and Michael Dylan Welch (Foster City, CA: Two Autumns, 1992), 16.

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terrorism, and a culture divided in its response to these situations. The senryu presented here appeared in Frogpond between 2005 and 2007:
talk of terrorism . . . he rearranges the fruit in the bowl71 Marilyn Appl Walker boys in the park win the war in Iraq72 R. P. Carter back from Iraq my former student remembers freshman year73 John S. OConnor driving eighty in these days of war all defiance feels good74 Michael Ketchek

All four poems operate in ways similar to Helen J. Sherrys poem, on television/sounds of the Gulf War / I dust and redust in that they each locate very ordinary experiences within the context of the war. The poems also reveal how the war permeates so many aspects of daily life including family discussions, childrens games, employment, education, and driving the car. They resonate with the first senryu written in America because they often include the writers feelings about the activity, such as Michael Ketcheks acknowledgement that, for someone against the war and feeling powerless to stop it, even the small, defiant act of driving above the speed limit causes the writer to feel good. R. P. Carters poem, while formally quite different in its one-line structure, also recalls Etheridge Knights Indianapolis War Memorial senryu. The different responses to this constant presence of war suggest that while people in America experience the war collectively, they also experience it individually. In this sense, too, they are consistent with the poems from The Gulf Within and with the poems written by earlier generations of senryu writers.

For almost a century, senryu have been written in America. The poems cover all manner of subjects, including those common since senryu developed in eighteenth-century Japan such as love, death, greed, and jealousy. Two characteristics, however, distinguish senryu written in America: senryu are used to respond to moments of cultural change and difficulty, and they respond by focusing on daily activities and experiences. Together these

71 72

Walker, Marilyn Appl. Frogpond 28.2 (2005): 31. Carter, R. P. Frogpond 29.1 (2006): 28. 73 OConnor, John S. Frogpond 30.3 (2007): 36. 74 Ketchek, Michael. Frogpond 29.2 (2006): 29.


The Senryu Tradition in America

two characteristics allow senryu to act as the precious records of human beings that Isshin Yamasaki described. Contemporary English-language senryu are part of this tradition.75 In fact, senryu seems particularly appropriate for constructing this record because of its ability to hone in on individual moments while focusing on human nature. It differs from the related form of haiku which, while also conveying a single moment, typically emphasizes the natural world or the relationship between people and the natural world. Senryus focus, by its very existence, emphasizes the value of human experience, even when the perspective on that experience is humorous or critical. When its focus centers on human activities during times of great difficulty, senryu offers moment by moment reiterations of human persistence in the face of adversity. Early- and mid-twentieth-century senryu poets constructed a tradition based on a belief in the value of recording this persistence, and their belief has been adhered to by contemporary poets, as well. Anita Virgil, a poet who has long argued for the importance of senryu as a poetic form in English, states in her 1990 interview with Vincent Tripi, [senryu] are wonderful because they shoot from the hip. In todays world, with all the ugliness and painful material that at last is out in the open, the poet feels impelled to write this way if he is to be true to the world in which he lives. . . the new direction for haiku poets of this era is naturally going to be senryu, at least part of the time.76 Those senryu written during the last two decades as responses to some of the momentous challenges of those years, and especially the poems written as reactions to the two wars, suggest that Virgil was correct. Furthermore, in turning to senryu, the poets of this era are participating in, and continuing, an established tradition of senryu in America.

It is worth noting that contemporary Japanese senryu have also been used in a similar way. For instance, after the Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas in 1995, many thousands of senryu were published in newspapers in response to the attack. See Gardner, Richard A. The Blessing of Living in a Country Where There Are Senryu!: Humor in the Response to Aum Shinrikyo. Asian Folklore Studies 61 (2002): 3575. 76 Virgil, Anita. Interview. By Vincent Tripi. On My Mind (Foster City, CA: Press Here, 1990), 16.