A Layman's Guide to Haiku and Senryū

John Kidwell By John Kidwell, 10th May 2013 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL http://nut.bz/2imz9rl4/
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>Writing

My journey to understand and better write the Haiku and Senryū forms of Japanese poetry.

A Layman's Guide to Haiku and Senryū

According to Wikipedia, Haiku, in the English development of the Japanese poetic form, "is a short poem which uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition."

Also according to Wikipedia: "Senryū (川柳?, literally 'river willow') is a form of Japanese
short poetry similar to Haiku in construction: three lines with 17 or fewer total Morae (or "on", often translated as syllables… Senryū tend to be about human foibles (and) are often cynical or darkly humorous…"

The Wikipedia articles on Haiku and Senryū go into a technical description of the physical layout (3 lines, 5-7-5 syllables, for a total of 17) the Japanese words for the parts of the form, and show samples of both Japanese and contemporary examples of Haiku/Senryū. If interested you can find these articles by doing a search on your favorite search engine by using the key words "Haiku," or "Senryū." These articles also have hot links to other resources on the subject.


To put it in layman's terms, the emphasis for Haiku is the observation of nature and the seasons of the year, tending to the serious, serene or perhaps profound, while the Senryū can be seen as a cynical, even darkly humorous, look at the human condition. My attempts at Senryū tend to have a touch of sarcasm, or sass to them.

My journey to understand and better write the Haiku and Senryū

I first discovered Haiku in high School, in the late 60's, and later in college, in the mid 70's. I was taught that Haiku consisted of 3 lines in a 5-7-5 ratio, for a total of 17 syllables, and that it dealt with nature and the seasons of the year. Oh yea, and the 3rd line should be a "disconnect," whatever that was. I loved the format, because the haiku forced you to distill an entire concept into a mere 17 syllables! I never had trouble putting the poem into the 5-7-5 format, but it was years of trying to write Haiku, badly, before I got a better understanding of what a disconnect was, or that it was also called the "satori" of the poem.

In the early 2000's I got involved with several "vanity press" poetry sites. Thanks to these sites, I learned that in traditional Haiku neither capitols nor punctuation are used, that filler words like "and" "that" "when" "are" and "be" are to be discouraged. and, oh yes, titles were not used in traditional Haiku either. I also found that a 3-5-3 syllable count was an acceptable form too, and later that anything 17 syllables or under was OK. It was also during this time that I discovered that there was another form of Haiku called Senryū, and that a good half of what I wrote thinking they were Haiku, were actually of this, new to me, format!

During this time I found that most Haiku that I wrote, wasn't, and I used this time to rework many of my Haiku, write new poems based on my new knowledge, and properly naming them as Haiku or Senryū. Some of my earlier attempts I couldn't rewrite without losing the observation that I was trying to make, so, I reformatted some of them into free verse poetry, only changing the 5-7-5 format, without changing a word, or in some cases, leaving them alone, calling them Pseudo Haiku or Pseudo Senryū, these being poems having the right physical layout, but the wrong philosophy, or lacking a proper disconnect, hereto referred to as the satori.

Now for the nuts and bolts:

During my vanity press time I got to the point that other poets were consulting me for advice on their attempts at the Haiku/Senryū format. I never posted this, but I wrote letters, or "personnel messages" to several of these poets, using my and their problem children as examples and possible ways to rework them. The following is an excerpt from one of those letters.

In traditional Haiku (& Senryū) the first two lines set the scene, as it were. Your story line is here, the observation that you wish to make.

The third line is the Satori, something that relates to the body of the poem, but not necessarily the first thing that you would think of from reading the rest. (I have found reading Wikipedia, and other Haiku sites, that the satori can come first followed by observation.)

Here is an example one of mine that doesn’t work.

when foolish golden
enchantments are overcome
paradise shall be

This Senryū has the structure right, but it is in reality a run-on sentence - Just one complete thought rather than an idea, followed by a disconnect to offset, or provide a counterpoint to the rest of the poem. Filler words like ‘when’ ‘are’ and ‘be’ should be avoided too. It would perhaps fit better if I went to the 3-5-3 form and did this:

golden enchantments

or perhaps put the satori 1st:

golden enchantments

Which do you like?

Now to use one of yours as an example:

bent lone palm
silhouettes sunlight
gentle breeze

Considering the constraints of the 3-5-3 format, this isn’t too bad, but it leaves one sort of hanging. Asking for more information. To my mind, a Haiku is, or should be, a microcosm – a complete observation – a photo frozen in time. You either need to narrow the focus for a
3-5-3 or perhaps, open it up a little, for a 5-7-5. One way to effectively work out a Haiku or Senryu is to not be wedded to only one approach. For the 3-5-3 format you might try this out for size:

gentle breeze
bends lonely palm fronds

Since you aren’t going to submit this for the 3-5-3 contest, you might try something like this in the 5-7-5 format:

gentle breeze bending
swaying lonely palm fronds
sunlight silhouettes


lonely palm gently
swaying sunlight silhouettes
twilight approaches

There are any number of solutions to writing a good Haiku/Senryū. Be flexible.

Now lets look at your next one:

raining petals
breeze bows limbs, breaks buds
soft , white, pure

Once again, punctuation is discouraged in Haiku/Senryū, so you need to drop the comma’s.

By your 3rd line I assume that this is a fresh blossom, being torn by violent winds. Hurricane? Tornado? Monsoon? Not important to specify but need to know for how you write the Haiku. If it is a violent wind, then breeze gives the wrong impression; if it is merely a breeze, the light wind would not tear up a fresh blossom. I am leaning toward the fresh blossom by your ‘bows limbs, breaks buds’ statement. This line also has another problem. You have two sets of plurals. With this in mind I would approach it in this way.

winds bow limbs
break buds soft white pure
torn petals rain

or perhaps:

wind bows limb
soft white pure buds break
torn petals rain

There are other ways that either of the Haiku could have ended, but the more related yet more out of the box your satori is, the better; there are a multitude of options when you think outside the box.

I am going to say it again. Be flexible. Don’t wed yourself to only one approach. Better than half the time I start out with one concept only to find that my concept has a mind of its own and takes me where I wasn’t expecting.

This letter and others of this type were well received by the poets that I sent them too, but as I told them, this is only my interpretation of what a Haiku/Senryū is and how to work them out. This is not "written in stone." I also told them that my solutions to their poems should only be taken as ideas, that they should take my ideas, and find their own solutions.

My basterdation of the beautiful Haiku/Senryū form

I mentioned that some of my attempts to rewrite my earlier attempts didn't work out. I also discovered that sometimes one Haiku/Senryū was not enough. I sometimes linked several Haiku or Senryū (or the pseudo versions) into a longer poem that I termed a "cascading Haiku/Senryū. Here is an example of one of my cascading pseudo Senryū:

Mighty waves crash on
Mutable shores. . . No one can
Sail the same sea twice. . .

A foot on the road
Moves dirt aside. . . No one can
Walk the same path twice. . .

Wind deflected by
Mountain and shrub. . . No one can
Fly the same sky twice. . .

Orbits are changed by
Solar winds. . . No one can gaze
At the same star twice. . .

Events alter our
Cherished truths. . . No one can read
The same poem twice. . .

The reasons that I call the stanzas Pseudo Senryū are legion; capitols, filler words, punctuation, and the satori is one and a half lines long! come to think of it, most of my cascading Haiku/Senryū are of the pseudo type.

Photo Haiku/Senryū

I have been a photographer for almost as long a time as I have written poetry. In the late 90's I learned the joys of Photoshop, and one of my dreams came true, I could now combine two of my loves: poetry and photography. Haiku/Senryū being a short form of poetry worked so well that I couldn't resist trying it out. Here is an example of using Photoshop as a canvas for a Senryū.
To do this I took a photo of a woman, and "painted" it in Photoshop. Then I took a photo that I had taken of wildflowers and superimposed them to get the visual effect that you see here. from that point it was a simple step to use Photoshop's text tool to add the Senryū.


Haiku, Photography, Photoshop, Senry

Meet the author

author avatar John Kidwell
62 yrs old, politically conservative; photography, graphic design, and poetry/writing are my main interests, or hobbies.

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author avatar Lauren
20th Aug 2013 (#)

This is my first time searching haiku still trying to figure it out...

I scribbled this down following 5-7-5 rule please tell me of I have completely missed the point any feedback is welcome!

I love summer rain
It fills me with elation
A refreshing feat.

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author avatar Sivaramakrishnan A
21st Nov 2015 (#)

Thanks for the detailed information on this rather esoteric subject - one needs real passion for the art - siva

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author avatar Lesa Cote
18th Sep 2018 (#)

Thank you for sharing the layman guide on haiku ! It is good to know about it!

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