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Periplum #3

Periplum returns this month with the series’ third installment. This time it is a sampling of work by Masahiro Koike—work that I think will be exciting, inspiring and challenging for haiku enthusiasts in subject matter as well as expression and the way the poems play along the edges of what senryū (and haiku) are and can be.
Like Envoys, Periplum is a section that is devoted to 20th and 21st century non-English haiku. Periplum, however, is overseen by David G. Lanoue. For an introduction to this section, see Periplum.

Periplum #1
Periplum #2

Periplum #3: Masahiro Koike

by David G. Lanoue


Masahiro Koike lives in Osaka and specializes in senryu and renku. With a daring imagination and sly wit to match the twinkle in his eyes, Koike writes one-breath postmodern absurdities that might or might not be–depending on how you look at them–profound. Will this poet of contemporary Japan surprise, perturb or delight readers in the West? Let’s find out.

Here’s a sampling of three of his works in Japanese and, for the first time, in English translation:


                                                            tsurikawa ni tsugumi no ou wo burasageru

                                                            from a strap
                                                            the king of dusky thrushes
                                                            is dangled


                                                            hana-karuta ochite hankyou suru uchuu

                                                            flower cards fall
                                                            and the whole universe


                                                            seetaa ni tori wo koroshite kita nioi

                                                            in my sweater
                                                            the smell of the bird
                                                            I killed

This poetry wants to sink in. Don’t rush to judgment! Read and reread the above verses one by one, slowly. Savor them. Close your eyes.

Now, what’s your reaction? What do these lyrical pieces mean to you? What do they entice you to feel? Shock, amusement, confusion? All of the above? None of the above?

For what it’s worth, here’s my own reaction, because that’s my job here: to read and report. Mind you, mine is just one way out of millions to read, receive, or—maybe the best term—interact with these senryu of Masahiro Koike.

tugumi_s In the first example, the original Japanese leaves the identity of the “king of dusky thrushes” to the imagination. This king could be the poet himself (“I, the king of dusky thrushes, am dangled”) or someone other than the poet (“he, the king of dusky thrushes, is dangled”). The important point is that this king, whoever he is, dangles from a strap: a decidedly un-kingly posture. If he is in fact a monarch, why does he not sit on a throne or, more naturally, warble on a tree branch? This business of his dangling is disturbing, unless we choose to imagine that a photo or drawing of a bird is dangling and not the real thing. But the image of a dangling photograph or sketch lacks power and surprise. Besides, the poet doesn’t tell us that a picture is dangling from a strap; he tells us, more provocatively, that a bird is: the king of such birds, in fact. A next question for the imagination: Is it living or dead? I can picture a specimen collected by some zealous naturalist, hung up for display, stuffed. However, the image of a living bird dangling, though crueler, is possible as well. And another question, even harder or impossible to answer: How should we feel about this bird, dangling from a strap? Is his situation pitiful? Outrageous? Tragic? Funny? Koike’s image is emotionally slippery. There’s no fixed point, no moral compass hinted at in his words. This is a thing that perhaps differentiates senryu from haiku. In a haiku there are also choices for readers to make, but some of those choices resonate deeply; they feel right, feel important. But Koike’s surrealistic senryu leaves us myriad choices of equal weight or equal weightlessness. His poem is playground equipment: the seesaw goes up, goes down, goes nowhere. The king of dusky thrushes whispers no clue about what or how to think and feel about him. He, like his meaning, dangles.

According to the Haiku Society of America’s official definition, “A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.” Using this definition as a guide, I wonder what foibles of human nature are highlighted in this dusky thrush senryu by Masahiro Koike. At first, I start to question the definition. Perhaps senryu in Japan, begun so long ago as a vehicle for satirical attack, has grown beyond the HSA’s definition. This is actually a comforting thought for me, since I believe that great art must, at least at times, transcend its definitions, especially “official” ones. But as I think about it more, I begin to suspect that Koike with his nonsense is indeed poking fun at a human foible, namely: our desire to make sense of things—what Wallace Stevens called our “blessed rage for order.” Maybe then, just maybe, the joke is on me, on you . . . but more on this later.

2359332799_9a479fe923 The second example refers to Japanese hana karuta or hana fuda: cards decorated with pictures of blossoms that are used in games played especially in the New Year’s season. The playfulness of Koike’s style is more blatant here, as his object of focus is now a deck of playing cards: artifacts of amusement, not of serious, “real” life. These artifacts, in his vision, fall and, he reports, the universe echoes with their sound. Colorful cards fall and scatter just as the colorful flowers painted on them fall and scatter when their season of glory ends: plum blossoms, cherry blossoms and all the rest. But instead of presenting (as one finds in thousands of haiku) the falling of actual blossoms, Koike, in his senryu, presents the falling of blossom pictures. As with the dangling thrush of the first example, there’s something off-kilter, something magnificently skewed in this vision of tumbling cards. Their fall, which should produce no more than a delicate, scarcely audible pit-a-pat, instead makes the whole universe resound. Is this an absurd overstatement or a keen insight into physical reality? The proverbial butterfly flutters its wings somewhere in China and sets into motion a chain reaction that whips up a hurricane half a world away. If all the universe is, in fact, interconnected like this, then Koike’s absurdity isn’t really absurd. Or am I absurd in my rage for order, trying to dredge deep meaning from a joke? I have to wonder: Is Koike perhaps, unknown to himself, a Zen master? Are his senryu actually modern-day koan: conundrums with no logical solutions, devilishly designed to frustrate the rational, controlling voices in our minds? Of course, every poet who plays with meaning and nonsense need not be placed into the narrow category of Zen; Japanese haiku in the West, since the time of R. H. Blyth, has been overly painted with the Zen brush. Still, I can’t shake the thought that maybe enlightenment waits just ’round the bend if I can only learn to hear the crash of flower cards, the sound of one hand clapping. I’ll work on this, but first there’s the matter of the third example.

dc128birdfeather100x My girlfriend and I once lived in an apartment with a fine balcony. One morning, the door to that balcony left open, Kathleen heard scraping and banging sounds somewhere in the apartment but couldn’t locate the source. Months later, preparing for a trip, she opened a bag in the hall closet and discovered an enormous black bird with black, beady eyes. I was appointed to handle all the funeral arrangements. Only one word in the English language can evoke the smell I smelled that day: rank. That dead bird stank, rankly. And this poem about a sweater stinks too. I’m not saying that it’s no good, the poem. It’s just that it elicits for me a viscerally remembered smell. In Koike’s original Japanese the identity of the sweater-wearing bird murderer is left ambiguous: it could be “I” (the poet), as my translation has it, or it could be “he” or “she” or “they” or, even, “you,” the reader. Japanese allows for all these possibilities. Once again, the poet leaves ample room for the reader’s imagination to play. But no matter who is wearing that sweater, the bird is plainly dead. How should we feel about this fact? Should we feel sorry for the bird? Should we laugh at the scene’s absurdity? Or, should the rank smell in the sweater prick our consciences, since—unless we are strict vegetarians—people eat birds and, therefore, cause them to be killed? (Ah, a human foible: eating with no consciousness of what our food is!) Or (again!) I’m peering too deeply into the joke. Is my relentless search for significance in the sweater’s stench the biggest joke of all?

“What have we learned today?” the professor inside me inquires, and I answer him: “Well, we’ve at least learned one thing: that sometimes it’s plenty enough just to ride the seesaw. Go up, go down. It can’t hurt your imagination to take time out, now and then, and simply play.”

Works Cited

Koike Masahiro, three haiku. English translations by David G. Lanoue. The Japanese originals were first published by Koike Masahiro (小池正博) in『小池正博集(セレクション柳人6)』邑書林、2005. Koike Masahiro Shū (Selection Ryujin 6) Yū-Shorin, 2005.

“Official Definitions of Haiku and Related Terms.” The Haiku Society of America. Accessed 6/10/09.

Stevens, Wallace. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” Accessed 6/10/09.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Keiji,

    My thanks to you comes far too late after you wrote your comment, but many thanks for the time you took to explain some of the history and background of senryu and haiku. It seems that, in the end, it is up to the individual, based on their readings of the particular ku. I enjoy this questioning of boundaries (it seems very human, and free to me). And, as I mentioned in my intro to Viral 4.3, because of an expanding view on how people define “nature,” along with the globalization of haiku and senryu, the terms quite naturally expand, evolve, and blur. I see this as exciting. Others who are more traditional and enjoy the rules and firmly guarded boundaries will probably take great offense to it though. So be it. Thanks again, Keiji.

    One last thing, while do some searching for another project, I came across this quote (from “Technique used in Modern Japanese Haiku: Vocabulary and Structure” by Ban’ya Natsuishi):

    “Ichiro Fukumoto (1943 – ), who specializes in haiku and literature, explains the difference between senryu and haiku, both of which are usually written in five-seven-five syllables. He denies the common belief that senryu doesn’t use season words whereas haiku does, and that senryu sets the theme on human beings whereas haiku focuses on nature. According to Fukumoto, such a simplistic interpretation became invalid ever since muki-haiku, seasonless poems, appeared. Fukumoto’s assertion is that the real difference is that senryu doesn’t have kire, whereas haiku does.”

  2. I too join in gratitude for Keiji Minato’s comments. It has given me a fresh new concept of how to approach the subject that has never been available to me before…nuggets of gold.
    The thought occurs to me that the 7/7 concept for writing senryu seems to me to have some resemblence to the responding verse in a tan renga???? One of the reasons I enjoy tan renga writing with others is that it gives me an opportunity to offer a #1 grasp of reality regarding the haiku I’m addressing #2 a bit of comic relief and #3 a bit of lightness.
    Any thoughts on this?

  3. I’d like to thank Keiji Minato for an extremely informative post. It provides a powerful way to conceptualize haiku and senryu as genres. (“The question is: When you write a ku, which tradition does your ku respond to?”) Separating the two in English has always seemed something of a problem–we probably need to cultivate a more sophisticated awareness of tradition, particularly in the case of senryu. I am also very sympathetic to the following concept: “A literary genre [is] not a set of fixed rules but accumulations of text and acts of writing, reading, and sharing.”

  4. Regarding Keiji Minato’s comments, I am very happy to at last see someone say what I have been saying for many years.

    He wrote, “In the process part of the senryu genre has been overlapped with that of haiku, which has also come far-away from the traditional hokku or haikai.”

    There it is — that modern haiku is far from traditional hokku — far from the hokku of Bashō, Onitsura, Buson, Taigi, Gyōdai, and all the other writers up to the time of the revisions of Shiki.

    To me, as a teacher of contemporary hokku in languages other than Japanese, it is of fundamental importance to distinguish hokku from haiku, to avoid anachronistic use of “haiku” when referring to hokku, and to be historically correct in differentiating the two.

    Once the confusion caused by indiscriminate and misleading use of vague and inaccurate terminology in the 20th century has been eliminated, it is then up to individuals to choose the verse they prefer to study and write, whether hokku, traditional haiku, or post-traditional haiku.

  5. Many thanks to you David, from a senryu writer in Japan! We produce tons of ku, but tend not to take time to read them well, I am really glad to see one of my favorite writers is thoroughly read this way. I’m glad it evoked really insightful and well-informed comments here. I’d like to thank the commentators too.

    Definitions of senryu and haiku, and their distinction, are real conundrums for Japanese senryu and haiku writers too. As Mr. Metz quoted above, some say they are only distinguishable according to who wrote them: if the writer says he is a haiku writer, then his ku are haiku, and if he/she says he/she writes senryu, then their ku are senryu . This opinion is a bit extreme, but they have a point. Many ku today can be categorized either as haiku or senryu. As genres, though, most think there are differences in feelings (and maybe structures).

    In my opinion, you have to refer to the history of both genres to get a little clearer perspective. Haiku and senyu were both born from renku (renga). As many of you already know, a haiku is originally called a hokku, the first ku of a renga. Basho and Issa wrote their famous ku as a hokku, and in the late 19th century modern master Shiki cut hokku from renga and started to call them haiku. Elements that are distinct in haiku are rooted in hokku.

    Senryu, on the other hand, has its roots in hiraku, or ku that are not a hokku in a renga. The genre began as a practice for novice renku writers to learn how they put their ku to the previous ku in a renga. The method of practice became the genre called “maeku-dsuke,” independent from renga. KARAI Senryu was the most popular master in “maeku-dsuke,” and, in the late 19th century, the master’s name was picked as the name of the genre. Well, that’s a brief history of haiku and senryu before the late 19th century.

    [ oh, it’s getting too long for a comment! ]

    Haiku and senryu writers in the late 19th and early 20th century tried to revitalize their genres that were so formularized and dull. Shiki re-read classics and emphasized descriptive elements in haikai. He also cut haiku from the renku tradition, eliminating much of the communal elements in haikai. Senryu writers also re-read their classic “maeku-dzuke” and other neighboring genres and at the same time attempted to “modernize” the genre. Some tried to make them more “poetic,” and others wrote their ku as self-expressions.

    Such new approaches to their genres gave birth to many ku that could not fit to the traditional views of them, that are still popular in today’s Japan (Most Japanese feel difficulties accepting Mr. Koike’s ku as senryu). Senryu is often thought of as a genre that has three elements: 1. ugachi (surprising but persuasive grasp of reality), 2. kokkei (comicality), and 3. karumi (lightness). However, among serious senryu writers, they are not necessary conditions. Actually, the three elements were theoretically abstracted from classic maeku-dzuke by scholars in the 20th century, and are pretty much modern constructions.

    Recently, it is getting clearer that modern senryu has roots not only in maeku-dzuke but in a much broader genre of haikai. For example, many senryu writers today write 7-7, not only 5-7-5. The 7-7 form derives from Haikai Mutamagawa, a book that collected good hiraku in renku. 7-7 senryu (sometimes called juuyoji-shi) have very different feelings from 5-7-5 senryu. In addition, modern senryu, as a living literary tradition, has incorporated literary elements from overseas to have many types: biographical, surrealistic, satirical, socially critical, etc. In the process part of the senryu genre has been overlapped with that of haiku, which has also come far-away from the traditional hokku or haikai.

    Back to definitions of senryu and haiku and their distinction, it is impossible to fixedly decide if ku like Koike’s belong to senryu or haiku when you discuss them separately. However, as genres the two have had accumulated strategies of writing, reading and sharing. The question is: When you write a ku, which tradition does your ku respond to? A literary genre are not a set of fixed rules but accumulations of text and acts of writing, reading and sharing. What is important is how much your new work enriches which genre. In other words, Koike’s works are senryu because they are more interestingly read as such than as haiku.

    Koike is also a renku writer and very conscious of questioning the boundaries between the genres from a broader context than I do. Sometimes, haiku and senryu writers defend their genres by limiting possibilities of each other and themselves. Koike’s works are well beyond that, as you read in the three ku above.

  6. The poems in this installment of Periplum especially satisfy me, in the way they challenge me, but also, especially, the way they play along the edges of what senryū and haiku are and can be; it was a real pleasure being able to see them first and post them and your commentary on the site, David. They are fascinating—very open and free for all to enter, yet at the same time strong and solid in their imagery and wording. Their openness and flexibility is precisely what I find fulfilling, making for enjoyable rereadings and revisits, offering something new and different to think about each time. In fact, after rereading these a number of times, I can’t help but question why exactly they are (or must be?) considered senryū necessarily (?). I see them as playing along the border of senryū and haiku, an area that is particularly true to life.

    I like the way in which you question the HSA definition of senryū. It seems a bit weird to me though thinking that Koike somehow would be aligning his work with a definition—especially a *western* definition of senryū, to which his work seems significantly different from the the Western senryū standard (need?) to be ironic or slapstickish/clownish (work that oftentimes seems less like poetry and, instead, more often, like forgettable, empty humor that lacks reasons for return readings, work that’s more like drumroll/cymbal crash jokes, or lead shoes dropping: that say everything without saying very much at all really). Whenever I come across Japanese senryū they seem to have so much more depth, more intrigue, more of a sense of seriousness, mystery and sophistication than the standard Western hardy-har-har stuff that passes for senryū (*there being exceptions, of course, here and there*). And so I wonder what a Japanese definition of what senryu is from a Japanese source—for example, a dictionary or some other common reference. And why they tend to be so different in quality and subject than Western senryū.

    Also, Hiroaki Sato, in his recent book, Japanese Women Poets, wrote the following:

    “The distinction between haiku and senryu has been tenuous at best from early on, and in recent years the blurring of the differences has become such that Onishi Yasuyo has said, ‘If someone asks me how senryu differ from haiku, I tell the inquirer that the only distinction that can be made is by author’s name’—that is, if the author is known to write haiku, the pieces he or she writes are haiku; if the author is known to write senryu, the pieces she or he write are senryu. Onishi herself is sometimes listed as a senryu poet, sometimes as a haiku poet.”

    I find this fascinating and ponder it when reading Koike’s work you’ve selected. The questions I ask myself are: why aren’t these considered haiku (being that there has been, since the beginning of the 20th century, a movement away from kigo into non-seasonal, muki kigo, haiku/senryu)? And what is stopping someone from taking them in initially as haiku, or even afterwards [“dusky thrush” (summer), “flower cards” (new year’s/the 5th season) & “sweater” (autumn or winter)]? Or: how are they *not* haiku? And, ultimately—I can’t help but wonder—does any of this even matter, these distinctions and definitions, so long as they are great poems? (I think the ones you’ve chosen are indeed great, despite definitions)

    Does Koike consider them senryu? Do his readers? His critics? Other poets? His publisher? I wonder.

    This is why I think I prefer the term “ku”: let the reader decide, instead of imposing on the reader a way in which to read and interpret it. I think using this kind of term might be especially useful when dealing with work like Koike’s which plays along the edges of strict definitions and categorizations. That said, I think you’ve done a great job of analyzing these three from a traditional senryū definition and in trying to find out why they are, or can be, senryū based on the definitions we’ve come to know and be guided by.

  7. Very interesting poems. They have enough detail to leave a sensation, but not enough to tell a full story. In fact, there are so many possible stories that I can’t pick just one. I find such poems a bit frustrating, and unfulfilling. But as you say, some things are simply rides and may not lead us anywhere concrete. So enjoy it. That said, in the first one, I find the active “is dangled” to imply the bird is still alive. I read the bird as king, singing on a high branch, and as pondered on a lunchtime walk, I feel a sense of loss—the clash of needing to know something (I’m thinking here of scientific collections more of Darwin’s time) with the bird’s proud song (and my enjoyment of it). The third poem is really delightful—although equally frustrating. I’d have written the last line as “I found” or rewritten it to leave out the “I killed.” But I’d be wrong. That is a great haiku leap. Unexpected!!! Was it an innocent murder (cleaned the window) or not (shot the bird). Since I cannot decide which I am forced to waver on my opinion of the “I” in this poem. How like real life! I’d love to see more of his work. Thanks for the introduction!

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