[This week in bad things I like anyway: the poetry in the spring 2019 anime Senryu Shoujo. It’s a fun and funny show, so even if my snob is showing regarding junk like metrical analysis, I mock the poems out of fondness. Better yet though, the mockery is part of the point! Senryu Shoujo succeeds because it doesn’t take its poems too seriously, instead incorporating them into the otherwise-bland high-school gag comedy to offer a light, loving parody of immature — and maybe even bad — would-be-poets. So, i’unno… with the recommendation and positivity out of the way, proceed with the snobbery!]
You’ve probably heard this before, right? Good artists copy, great artists steal?
It’s one of those apocryphal quotes that shows up everywhere but never seems to have a consistent form. Maybe Pablo Picasso said it about artists, or William Faulkner said it about writers, or Igor Stravinsky said it about composers? — none of those, nope! T.S. Eliot said it about poetry, in print even, from his 1921 collection The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
I won’t pretend to know what makes a good or bad poem with the same confidence as Eliot, so I’ll defer to his expertise here (plus, every aphorism has its opposite: Eliot may have made “something different” out of a line from writer W.H. Davenport Adams: “The great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil”). However, can we at least agree that the first poem from episode one of Senryu Shoujo might deserve an “immature” classification? As rendered by the official subtitles on HIDIVE, followed by the Japanese, a transliteration, and a line-by-line translation:
As the cherry blossoms bloom / I’m so happy / That we met
sakura saku / kimi to no de-a-i ga / ureshikute
cherry blossoms bloom / the meeting with you / is happy
The poem has two interesting points. First, I suppose you could find two meanings in “kimi,” either the obvious “you” (君) or a weak play-on-words with “feeling” (気味) to suggest the emotion brought forth by a blooming spring flower. And second, count the syllables, or to use the proper linguistic term for the Japanese language, morae. The subtitle translation doesn’t bother with the usual 5-7-5 haiku structure out of grade school English class, but even in Japanese the second line technically uses eight because “ai” counts as two morae (Japanese あ and い). As the protagonist reads the poem, she elides “ai” into one beat to bring the metrical total back down to seven, but keep that 5-8-5 “miscount” in mind for later.
Otherwise though, it’s a pretty unnotable poem. The “sakura = spring” imagery is *the* haiku cliché, the wordplay between “you” and “feeling” doesn’t produce much… feeling… because the joyful flowers already imply it, and then the third line just straight-up declares that happiness anyway so… whatever, I guess.
It resembles Eliot’s concept of immature, imitative poetry: it looks like a haiku by copying the nominal 5-7-5 line structure and borrowing some common-to-the-point-of-banality techniques like the cherry blossom image but otherwise lacks much substance. It has no clear literary inspiration to interpret as “stealing” like a “great” would and does nothing “different” to praise as “good” …buuut then neither does it “deface” anything enough to call “bad.” It’s just immature, inoffensive, and ultimately uninteresting (with my necessary refrain: immature does not mean bad).
Lucky for us though, the title alone tells us that Senryu Shoujo isn’t about haiku. It’s about senryu, a related style of poetry that dispenses with some of the floaty structural features required of traditional haiku like the season word (kigo) ~suggestive~ of a ~subtle~ natural image and the cutting word (kireji) which splits the poem into juxtaposed, observational ~sentiments~ joined by ~implication~. Instead, most senryu use a similar abbreviated — but less constrained — form to express more direct human feelings, often with an ironic or even comical bend (see a few examples ranging from dark to funny to both here). Though the concepts have begun to merge in Japan and especially abroad, senryu perhaps don’t aspire to the same formalized literary gravitas as haiku. But even then, they can express emotion with just as much depth and cleverness, to the point that I don’t see much reason to delineate some hard definitional boundary to elevate haiku as the better of the two forms.
Ah, but double-lucky for me, because Senryu Shoujo isn’t about good poetry either. Instead, it uses self-consciously bad poems to poke fun at the clichés and weaknesses common among amateurish poets while still celebrating their efforts as meaningful and worthwhile.
For example, most of the poems from the show’s silent protagonist Nanako Yukishiro hardly count as poetry. Because Nanako seems to have an anxiety disorder (I want to write about her selective mutism later, see comments), she doesn’t just write poetry to express her deep inner self; she writes it express herself, period, in place of speech. For example, consider these simple statements from episode one fitted to a 5-7-5 structure (at least, in the Japanese):
To tell you the truth, / I haven’t understood / The last five problems
I just realized / I forgot to tell him / I don’t like onions…
Hey Ei-chan, / Why did you / Start writing senryu?
My snob won’t let me call those poems… remove the line breaks and you couldn’t tell them apart from ordinary dialogue. As poetry, they lack any emotional or suggestive content, conveying nothing beyond the literal words. And as comic senryu, they have no humor, no punch line, no ironic observation. They’re just plain sentences shaved and kneaded into a short 5-7-5 meter.
However, beyond the poems themselves, the banality becomes the joke. Nanako’s 5-7-5 statements mock the impulse by what Eliot might have called immature poets to follow a fixed form that looks like poetry …actual literary results be damned (see the Senryu Shoujo episode discussion threads on reddit for some awful by-syllables-only “haiku”). But contrary to what our elementary school teachers might have taught us, neither haiku nor senryu require 17 sounds in an immutable meter. For example, take this 6-7-5 example by the Edo-era haiku master Basho:
The wind of Fuji / I’ve brought on my fan / a gift from Edo
fuji no kaze ya (6) / o-ugi ni nosete (7) / edo miyage (5)
Or to offer my own reductio ad absurdum example:
haiku. Oh, uhhh… quick, more syl-
-lables to finish.
If we define haiku solely by the metrical structure, sure, whatever, that’s a haiku and Basho’s isn’t. Yip Yip for me, I’ve bested a master! I’m quite fond of the otherwise unstressed third line tripping itself on “fin.” But by my own admission, it’s a terrible poem that demonstrates the inanity of calling anything with a 5-7-5 structure a haiku or senryu. Triple-lucky though, because Senryu Shoujo recognizes that neither form follows a fixed meter, as evidenced by that first 5-8-5 cherry blossom poem from episode one. It even makes some direct commentary on the issue when an inexperienced poet introduces himself to the senryu club:
Hello there / My name is / Eiji Busuji-
ko-n-nichiwa (5) / boku no nama-e wa (7) / busujima e (5)
He comes up two beats short on his own name, prompting the club president to reply “Hmm… I like that you stuck with the 5-7-5 format, but you didn’t even finish the name. It defeats the purpose.” Ha, poor Eiji. He’s a typical delinquent-with-a-heart-of-gold anime protagonist who joined the club just’cuz poetry sounds cool’n’shit, y’know:
He’s not wrong about it sounding cool, but his inexperience prevents him from producing his own good verse. As such, his less-than-immature poetry becomes the main vector for the series’ loving parody of bad poets. Take a few more fun examples from episode one:
The sky and the birds / Trees, a forest, telephone poles / And cherry blossoms
…just a literal list of what Eiji sees out the window.
My little sister / Is so cute / I could die!
…as the president notes, funny for Eiji’s stupid contrast between cute and violent images.
I’d trade in my fists / To live a life / Full of smiles!
…just sounds cool’n’shit, y’know.
For more details / Please check out / My blog!
…this time from Nanako, worth a laugh for its sheer absurdity.
The comedy usually lands, but I do have to temper my enthusiasm for an anime about poetry with just a little pessimism: by the third episode, the bad poem gags begin to run a little thin as the show leans more on the usual high-school anime scenarios like a quasi-harem centered around a sole male club member and an amusement park trip to build the romance plot between Nanako and Eiji. The first episode worked best because it centered on the poetry and incorporated actual poetic criticism into the jokes, like when the club president tried to help Eiji along with advice about making connections to expand on his imagery and “let the verse take shape.” But man, I don’t care about Nanako’s diet in episode two, slimming down her already twiggy anime girl figure to enforce excessive Japanese beauty-weight standards. Or how about the moment she guesses the club president’s chest measurements in verse:
Eighty-five / Just over fifty-nine / Eighty-two
With the weakness of the regular gag comedy in mind then, I’m glad for the shortened 12-minute episodes. If Senryu Shoujo had received a full 24-minute, 12-episode season, I don’t know how well it could have kept the poetry jokes fresh across four-ish hours of television. But as they are, the episodes end quickly enough that they never had time to bore me. Meanwhile, the high-school shenanigans do serve a valuable function by padding out series with some cute-but-mostly-harmless genre nonsense so that the poems themselves do not become too repetitive. Take another A-for-effort from Eiji:
Me, my pet rabbit / My mom, my little sister / And my old man.
The poem makes the same joke about his struggle to move beyond the simple lists, but because it does so in a different story context, I only noticed the redundancy on a second viewing.
Anyway though, those are just minor criticisms. If you like poetry or literature and feel down for an unserious, light comedy, maybe check out Senryu Shoujo. None of the poems are good, but that’s the point of the parody. And plus, hey, sometimes it’s fun to drop a snob and say stupid things like “metrical analysis” and “dispenses.” At first, I wanted to call this post “Senryusnobshite” but didn’t want to curse in the title…
[Update: I wrote a follow-up post about Nanako’s inability to speak here. Also, I apologize, somehow the comments below got out of order, oddly enough, like the line order of the poems in the English subtitles…]