the well digger
comes out into the floating world—
Yokoi Yayū (1702–1783) (Japan)
Before we get into this senryu, let’s take a look at the poet himself. Yokoi Yayū was a Japanese samurai best known for his haibun, a scholar of Kokugaku, and haikai poet, though he was also an expert in tea ceremonies and martial arts.
He learned haikai from Mutō Hajaku and Ōta Hajō. Hajaku and Hajō were pupils of Kagami Shikō, a leading disciple of Matsuo Bashō. Mori Senzō, a student of old Japanese literature, compared his hokku to senryū, and said they were not as interesting as his haibun. Yayū has been described as a master of haibun, and Nagai Kafū called Yayū’s haibun a model of Japanese prose.
Though Yayu was highly respected for his haibun, we are going to go over one of his senryu, or short poem pondering the foibles of human nature.
There is something in this senryu that some readers might not be familiar with: the floating world (ukiyo). What is it? Well, the floating world is a term that describes the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of Edo-period Japan (1600–1867). The floating world culture developed in Yoshiwara, the licensed red-light district of Edo (modern Tokyo), which was the site of many brothels, chashitsu, and kabuki theaters frequented by Japan’s growing middle class. The ukiyo culture also arose in other cities such as Osaka and Kyoto.
The term ukiyo (when meaning the floating world) is also an ironic allusion to the homophone ukiyo (憂き世 “Sorrowful World”), the earthly plane of death and rebirth from which Buddhists sought release.
So, like many words used in literature, “floating word” has at least two connotations. This open-endedness is one of the main features of senryu and haiku. It is important to have an open interpretation in senryu and haiku, as there are only a few words used, and you want readers to get the most they can from those words.
The juxtaposition in the senryu is intriguing because “the heat!” can mean at least two things. It could be the heat from the day and the feeling of being in the now when struck with that heat. On the other hand, it could be a play on the idea that hell is hot, (where the well digger was digging), and he came up to the surface with a surprise that the same heat that hell had was present on Earth. In a sense, the poet is hinting that hell is on Earth, and that it is not so supernatural after all. This idea of hell also coincides with both definitions of the floating world.
As you can see, senryu, though often humorous, can also have a lot of depth and introspective ideas. Senryu are more about conveying thoughts, and haiku are more about conveying a mood, and ultimately the human heart in connection with the natural world. Each genre has its place in literature, and can equally stir us towards being better people.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky