Alexis Iffert

John Dunphy's Senryu:
More Than a Slap in the Face

Global Haiku Tradition
Millikin University, Spring 2002

Alexis Iffert

Alexis' Haiku



John Dunphy's Senryu:
More Than a Slap in the Face

Originally, haiku began as verse about nature and humanity written in a Japanese pattern consisting of three metrical units of 5-7-5 syllables. The Haiku Handbook explains that the purpose of reading and/or writing haiku is to share moments of our lives and personal experiences through forms of nature and as expressions of art. Seeing as how haiku began as an Eastern tradition, it can be quite difficult for Westerners to grasp the reasoning behind the techniques and poetry of the haiku. Different approaches are used and interpreted in different mind frames today, as haiku becomes more popular in areas across the globe. It seems that these days, haiku can mean pretty much anything. The Japanese view of nature may be impossibly foreign to Americans, and their syllables, being based on the consonants that surround each vowel, have no direct parallel in English. Personally, I view haiku as an opportunity for the writer to share thoughts and/or experiences of his/her own life through basic elements of insight. These smaller, everyday experiences or understandings that I refer to are all part of a larger web of life where everything is somehow tied together. It can be said, then, that the modern haiku written by many Americans can be classified more as senryu than true haiku.

Like a distant relative genre to the original form, senryu displays many of the same features and techniques that haiku contains. However, instead of dealing mainly with nature, it specifically focuses on human nature and human relationships and interactions. Often times, senryu are humorous or satiric. I like to think of senryu as an easy way to break "the rules" of writing haiku. There is no certain syllable pattern that must be followed in the development of senryu. Basically, a senryu is a poem very similar to a haiku that does not meet the exact criteria for haiku.

Throughout the course of the semester, I have realized how much more drawn I am to authors who focus more on senryu than on haiku. I, personally, find the senryu much more enjoyable and more realistic. They can provide comical relief and satire to everyday occurrences. It seems, at times, that some senryu are more than a slap in the face. By this, I mean that they really open the reader’s eyes to the badness and dirt of society. They show the real truth about things happening around us and have the ability to really make the reader think about issues in other ways than he/she normally would. For these reasons of truth and reality, I have chosen to focus my research on author, John Dunphy.

John Dunphy lives in Alton, Illinois. He was born there on December 8, 1953 as an only child to a Catholic family. His parents worked hard for what they had; his father worked as an assistant at an oil refinery and his mother worked many random jobs. Some of these included a receptionist, a department store clerk and a part-time teacher.

John’s father had served in the Army during World War II. However, John was never really informed much of this time period in his father’s life and rarely heard stories of the experiences of the war. Through discussions with his mother, John learned his father has been in the Battle of Bulge. He was amazed to find out that his father had been awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.

John Dunphy is not one to follow the strict and orderly rules of haiku writing in any manner. He writes freely with his own personal style, which I particularly admire. The poetry he writes would definitely be classified as senryu due to their abnormal and shocking contents. He tends to focus on apparent non-haiku themes, such as sexual and child abuse and homelessness. Dunphy is a very profound author, capturing controversial issues, situations and scenes clearly out of the norm. For these reasons of truth and harsh reality, I particularly appreciate the senryu Dunphy writes. His more noticeable and memorable haiku and senryu are those that involve children and the pain and suffering that they sometimes endure. One that sticks out clearly in my mind is as follows:

frozen still
on the child’s grave

          Modern Haiku 31:3, 2000

I feel that this haiku gives a loud and clear image. It is obviously a cold and dreary winter day as indicated by the second line of the poem. The pinwheel represents the life that was once not only present, but very vivid and animated. However, the small child’s life has come to a stop, just like the pinwheel which has frozen still. Even though one can sense the sadness of the haiku after reading just the first two lines, the true element of surprise comes at the very end with the child being revealed. A similar haiku also written by Dunphy relays the same vivid image:

propped against
the smallest tombstone
a rain-soaked teddy bear

          Frogpond 18:3, 1995

After reading this senryu, I felt the same sorrow as I did for the previous one. It provides such a cold and melancholy image that the reader can almost feel the pain of the family and friends.

Besides the deaths of young children, Dunphy also tends to write about the current mistreatment and abuse of youngsters. Some examples of this are as follows:

even the tooth
her father knocked out
placed under her pillow

          Modern Haiku 24:3, 1993

emergency room
parents tell their child to say
he fell down the stairs

          Modern Haiku 23:2, 1992

These senryu are also very sad, but they contain such an element of truth that is commonly ignored or looked over. They refer to a topic that is not often spoken about because it makes people uneasy. I like the word choice he uses here to cleverly reveal that the child has been abused. Dunphy does not just spell it out straightforward that the children are victims of abuse. He indirectly relates the abuse to the Tooth Fairy in the first senryu, tying together the child’s dreams and hopes to her abusive father. The second senryu is a little more spelled out but it also deals with the aftermath of the abuse rather than the process. This realization makes the senryu a little more comfortable to read and also makes it a more depressive poem.

Other forms of depression are quite evident in Dunphy’s haiku and senryu. For example, he created a whole series of haiku that dealt with one of the most terrifying moments of our recent times. On April 19, 1995, a massive bomb inside a rental truck exploded in Oklahoma City, blowing half of the nine-story building into oblivion. Men, women, and children were pulled from the rubble for nearly two weeks. When the smoke cleared and the exhausted rescue workers packed up and left, 168 people were dead in one of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Dunphy took advantage of the horrifying situation and used it as inspiration for a memorable series of haiku outlining the pain and suffering felt by people throughout the country. These haiku and senryu were used as a link to people everywhere who shared in the terror of the incident. Some of the haiku of this collection read as follows:

in the debris
a teddy bear
its smile torn away

"my mom worked there"
teenager points to
the fourth floor

returning home
rescue worker watches
his children sleep

new widower
clutches a piece of rubble
knuckles white

          Frogpond 18:2, 1995

The haiku in this series clearly relate to people of all different ages and are based on true life experiences. Dunphy captures this horrible moment in history in a series of just a few, simple words. The few words that he does choose to use to portray his image are so cleverly placed together that they invoke pain and suffering in those who did not even witness the events firsthand.

I have noticed that a lot of John Dunphy’s haiku and senryu contains images containing a teddy bear. One of the more memorable ones is as follows:

the hooker goes to bed
with her teddy bear

Frogpond 19:3, 1996

This senryu produces a clear, crips image in the mind of the reader. The timing of the scene is obvious and the action found in the poem is also easily noted. I believe that this senryu better explains how even someone like a hooker can be seen as normal and like everyone else. Also, it has great symbolism in that the hooker is somewhat lonely, so she takes her teddy bear to bed with her. She is used to lying in bed next to someone else. But since she does not have that this time, she takes her stuffed animal to bed to keep her company.

Through a wide variety of haiku and senryu, John Dunphy is able to cleverly express some insight to some of the more disturbing things in today’s society. His poetry reflects a lot of the unpleasant happenings of life, such as child abuse, neglect, death, etc. The images he produces are quite vivid and real and are known for creating shock and sadness in the reader.

—Alexis Iffert

©2002 Randy Brooks, Millikin University, Decatur, Illinois || all rights reserved for original authors