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  • April 2011
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Senryu: an ancient poetry contest

photo by flickr user ds2nd

I would bet money that most readers of this blog have heard of the Japanese poetry form called haiku, with its 5-7-5 syllable structure, alluding to nature.  Senryu is like haiku, but it is often about day-t0-day occurrences instead of nature, and is part of an interactive poetry game called maekuzuke.

Maekoto Ueda, in the introduction to Light Verse from the Floating World, a collection of senryu, explains it thus:

“The word senryu is derived from the name of a person, Kara Senryu (1718-1790), who lived in the downtown district of Edo, a city now known as Tokyo.  His real name was Karai Hachiemon, and he made a living as the head official of his ward, a position he had inherited from his father at the age of about thirty-six.  Perhaps his work was boring, or perhaps it did not bring him much income.  For whatever reason, in 1757 he decided to make a debut as a master of maekuzuke, a verse-writing game played by a good many people in Japan at the time.  …

[In the game] the master would first announce the maeku (previous verses) usually containing two lines of seven Japanese syllables each. For example:

just in case it should happen   moshi ya moshi ya to

just in case it should happen    moshi ya moshi ya to

Anyone who wanted to enter the contest was to add a tsuskeku (following verse) of 5-7-5 syllables in such a  way that the two verses combined would make a good poetic sequence.  To use the example cited above, one entrant for the contest submitted the tsukeku,

at the teahouse                     mizuchaya e

he puffs rings of smoke     kite wa wa wo fuki

all day long                             hi wo kurashi

which seems to picture a shy young man who is secretly in love with a waitress working at the teahouse.”

The entrants would pay a fee to submit, and would get a chance to win prizes for the best verses.  The judge of the verses was the maekuzuke master, who also wrote the maeku.  Senryu became synonymous with this poetry game because he eventually was the master of over 2.3 million maekuzuke.  Eventually the game part of the poetry form lost popularity, but the following verse (tsukeku), became a form of poetry in its own right, and kept the name senryu. (I paraphrase from pages 1-3 of Light Verse from the Floating World).

photo from flickr user shinyai

The freedom in subject matter that came with writing senryu led to many poems that showed what life was like in Japan back when the poems were written.  Here are some of my favorites from the compilation:

the doctor gets paid

by the victim he’s killed–

great business to be in!


the love letter

from a man she doesn’t care for–

she shows it to mother


sheltering from rain

he’s memorized all the words

on the plaque

Check out some of our books of Senryu and add your own Senryu in the comments!  I’ll even give you one of Senryu’s own starter verses:

it goes on forever / tsuzuki koso sure

it goes on forever / tsuzuki koso sure

– Tessa (CLP – East Liberty), who will give the first teen who comments or tweets us (@CLP_Teens, #senryu) an answer to this verse an awesome national poetry month poster:

One Response

  1. Thanks for the great post, Tessa!


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