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ABSTRACT: Bashō’s aesthetic focus over the last fifteen years of his life may be reduced to two fundamental elements, sabi and karumi. The custom is to give sabi the predominant position. However, a complete understanding of his life and work will not be complete unless and until karumi is given proper status. Sabi represents the element which is characterised by the traditional, medieval poetic values based on aristocratic sensitivities, such as mono no aware, yugen, u-shin and sabi itself. Karumi represents the element of the common people whose plain speech and everyday activities provided an immensely rich source for humorous rendering and light-hearted diction of universal relevance.



by Susumu Takiguchi

In early May, 1694 (Genroku 7)1 Matsuo Bashō set out westwards from his riverside hut in Fukagawa, Edo on a long journey whose destination is thought to have been Nagasaki. On his departure, one of his disciples, Yaha, asked the master what the New Year’s poems2 should be like. It was in Bashō’s reply to this question that a very significant pointer could be found to his thinking at that time about the poetical style which he was developing. “For the time being,” he said, “the present (haikai)3 style (of the Bashō School) will do. However, in about five or six years’ time it will have changed completely and our style will turn ever lighter.” This episode is recorded in Kyorai’s Tabineron,4; “Shio sashikakaru hoshikawa no hashi” [Bashō] According to Kyoriku, Bashō said “All of my haikai will become like this in four or five year’s time.” Kyorai records also that Bashō indicated to Izen on his last journey that the haikai style would become lighter and lighter from then on.] which by general consent is thought to be one of the more reliable documents about Bashō’s ideas on poetics.

Exactly five months later, one of his most famous and also his last poem was composed in Osaka: Tabi ni yande yume wa kareno wo kake meguru (Taken ill on a journey, my dreams roam over a moor). Among various possible interpretations of this poem, one that is relevant to Bashō’s unceasing search for an improved style is that the poem reflects a demonic power which had possessed Bashō and had driven him endlessly into writing poems. But looked at from the opposite point of view, the poem can be said to reflect the degree to which Bashō despaired that the death which he felt was rapidly approaching would terminate his endeavour to perpetuate the creation of a new style. Sadly, that actually came true four days later on 12 October 1694.

Bashō’s same apprehension is attested by writings of his disciples, notably Toho’s Akazoshi5 which is another important first-line document about Bashō. From these it is quite clear that in his last days, Bashō was proceeding in earnest with forming a new poetical ideal which he called karumi, or “lightness” and that he was not at all complacent about the progress he was making. On the contrary, in the end he came to an agonising realisation that this endeavour was not to be completed during his lifetime. and that his only hope rested upon a number of chosen disciples who, by following his teaching, might be able to continue and finish the task where he had left off.6

Karumi, then, is a concept which needs to be fully investigated not only because it may provide a key to the true understanding of Bashō’s poetical theory in his last years but also, it may enable us to take a fresh look at the whole of his achievement and its meaning.

A Hypothesis

First and foremost, let me put forward a somewhat ambitious working hypothesis plus a few auxiliary “mini” assumptions on karumi, a concept which is rather elusive and difficult to define. Bashō’s whole poetry during his last fifteen years may be reduced to two fundamental elements which exist side by side or in a mixed or compound state. One can be represented by that celebrated aesthetic term sabi and my hypothesis is that the other can and should be represented by karumi. That is to say, that the traditional custom of giving the former the sabi element, a predominant position in Bashō’s poetical theory might be amended and that the understanding of his life and work will not be complete unless and until the latter, the karumi element, is given proper status. Sabi represents the element which is characterised by the traditional, medieval poetic values based on aristocratic sensitivities, such as mono no aware, yugen, u-shin and sabi itself.7

By contrast, karumi represents the element characterised by Bashō’s contemporary world of the common people whose plain speech and everyday activities provided an immensely rich source for humorous rendering and light-hearted diction of universal relevance.

Of course, the relative importance of the sabi and karumi elements in Bashō’s poetry varied according to different stages of his development. But towards the end of his life, the karumi element was markedly becoming more and more crucial to the perfection of the so-called Shofu, the style of the Bashō School. The full development of the concept karumi itself was terminated, as we have seen, by Bashō’s death but the implication of my hypothesis is that karumi was to have been developed into an aesthetic key word equal in its importance to sabi.

The first of my “mini” assumptions is the possibility that one of the main objectives of Bashō’s last journey might have been to disseminate the new style of karumi among his followers in the western regions, particularly Kamigata. The second assumption is that the urgency and enthusiasm with which Bashō was trying to develop karumi in his last years can be explained partly by the fact that some of his important disciples were falling away or even challenging the introduction of his new style and that he therefore had to try even harder to establish it. The third of my assumptions is an extension of the hypothesis described above. It is that the greatest of all Bashō’s achievements is to be found in the creation of a new kind of poetry, born out of the marriage of the already existing two poetic worlds represented by sabi and karumi.

A Brief Account of the Development of Karumi

For the investigation of the Shofu as a whole, any study should go at least as far back as 1680 (Empo 8), the year which marks the first of what I call “Bashō’s four turning points.” In that year he gave up his increasingly successful career as a haikai master and moved from the bustling hurly-burly of Nihonbashi to the picturesque tranquillity of the East Bank of Sumida River, to start a new life as a poet recluse. Here he took up residence in a simple fisherman’s hut, later to be known as Bashō-an (The Banana Hut). He was beginning to take over the dominant role in haikai poetry from Nishiyama Soin (1605-82) master of the Danrin School, as his own style turned decisively towards a more earnest search for truth and beauty.

The second turning point came in 1684 (Jokyo 1) when he made the trip of Nozarashi Kiko (The Journey of a Weather-beaten Skeleton) which triggered off a series of similar trips of special importance to Bashō’s Weltanschauung, epitomised by his belief that “life itself is a journey.” During that trip of Nozarashi Kiko, he wrote the poem Konoha chiru sakura wa karoshi hinokigasa (Leaves of cherry trees, having turned colour, are falling lightly on my cypress hat). This is the first known instance of Bashō using the word karoshi, the adjective from karumi, in his poetry. Although we must refrain from speculating, as some do, that it was the point of departure for Bashō’s quest for karumi, it is significant that Bashō who was meticulous about terminology should have actually used the word.

Bashō’s journey of 1689 for Oku no hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) was of the greatest importance, having far-reaching consequences in both his life and literature. This forms his third turning point, the effect of which on the subsequent development of Bashō’s haikai style was beyond measure. The same year saw the publication of Arano, an anthology compiled by Kakei, which was later commented on by Morikawa Kyoriku (1656–1715) as already containing the characteristics of karumi. Kyoriku, a samurai of Hikone, had long adored Bashō but curiously did not become his disciple until 1692 (Genroku 5). But when he did, he helped Bashō’s endeavour concerning karumi as an important disciple almost straight away.

It seems as if karumi as a poetic tenet can be traced in a tangible form as far back as the Arano anthology. In the following year, Bashō composed a poem which he himself commented on as embodying the style of karumi: Ko no moto ni shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana (Under the trees/Soup, fish salad and all/In cherry blossoms – tr. Ueda).8 His own letters as well as writings by the disciples suggest that he had now intensified his efforts to develop and to teach the new concept of karumi.

After that momentous journey to the north he continued to stay in his home town, Iga, and places he was fond of such as Zeze, near Lake Biwa, Genju-an (The Hut of Unreal Dwelling) in Ishiyama and Rakushi-sha (The Hut of the Falling Persimmon) in Saga in Kyoto until at last in the autumn he returned to Edo after two and a half years’ absence. During the summer, that illustrious anthology, Sarumino (The Monkey’s Cloak) had been published. This, of course, is the monument, the magnum opus, of the Shofu haikai. And its leading spirit is sabi, or put conversely sabi found its complete expression in this work. However, life in Edo did not prove uneventful for him, creating the last new phase of his life. Coming back to Edo thus turned out to be the fourth turning point. It was the period when Bashō began putting different aspects of karumi into practice on a full scale, culminating in the year 1694, which brings us back to where we began.

The Outline of Bashō’s Idea on Poetry

Bashō’s choice of the word karumi was rather unfortunate. Almost all senses attached to the adjective karoshi, of which karomi or karumi is the noun derivative, are negative and pejorative: trivial, frivolous, insignificant, flippant, lowly, thoughtless, contemptible, worthless, etc., apart from its primary meaning of the “lightness of the weight of things.”9 It sounds hardly appropriate to name something so significant as the final style of verse of a most outstanding Japanese poet. Not surprisingly, this seems to have led to various misunderstandings, even in Bashō’s time, in that it was taken to mean no more than the usual frivolity of comic poems.10 There are instances which reflect these misunderstandings in the anthology Sumidawara (A Sack of Charcoal) which is regarded as the embodiment of the concept karumi.

What I propose to do is to think of all the possible connotations of karumi other than those mentioned above and narrow them down to what can reasonably be established as the sense in which Bashō must have used the term.

But before going into the details, let us first look briefly at Bashō’s general idea about what the art of haikai should be like. First of all, Bashō believes in something which runs through all the best works of any branches of Japanese art. “Be it Saigyo’s waka, Sogi’s renga, Sesshu’s painting or Rikyu’s tea-ceremony, what permeates them all is one and the same,” says Bashō in a travel diary called Oi no kobumi (The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel).11 One may call it a fundamental principle or an ultimate aesthetic value or an artistic truth. But one should take heed not to define it because to do so is to restrict the scope which this common denominator possesses. Suffice it to say, that it is something which makes the best artists and authors what they are and their works so meaningful to us.

Naturally Bashō wanted to share this “something” with classical masters, particularly with those he admired,12 and this became his driving force which was to find expression in its poetic application, fuga no makoto13 (poetic sincerity or truth). For Bashō, fuga means haikai in most cases. It follows that achieving fuga no makoto became the aim which pervaded all of Bashō’s tireless effort to realise better styles for haikai. In other words, fuga no makoto was the ultimate criterion to judge the value of haikai works, whether they were hokku or renku14 or even a complete anthology itself. Moreover, according to Toho what distinguished Bashō from previous haikai masters such as Matsunaga Teitoku (1571–1653) or Nishiyama Soin (1605-1682) was the fact that with him, haikai was transcended for the first time to a level of great literary merit and that it was the makoto that made it happen. Thus, Bashō aimed at haikai no makoto and achieved makoto no haikai.

Quite possibly, Bashō might not have been able to achieve this poetic spirit, fuga no makoto, had he not come up with the famous modus operandi called fueki-ryuko. Like all of Bashō’s haikai vocabulary this word was not new, nor was it Bashō’s invention. It was the meaning Bashō gave it that was new. We may perhaps be excused in calling it revolutionary even — judging from the consequences it created. It refers to the dual nature of good haikai poems having both “a perception of some eternal truth (fueki) and an element of contemporaneity (ryuko).”15 Ueda Makoto sums this up neatly in his Literary and Art Theories in Japan:16

“. . . According to Bashō, then, all the styles of the Haiku fall into two large categories: the one that has qualities transcending time and place, and the other that is rooted in the taste of the time. Both styles are good, the former because of its universal appeal, the latter because of its freshness in expression. Bashō, however, thinks that the two are ultimately one—the poetic spirit.”

Thus, fueki-ryuko made it possible for Bashō to solve the dilemma which had dogged earlier haikai masters. That is to say, that if they sought in haikai only the traditional canon of poetry such as yugen, sabi and mono no aware they would deprive haikai of its main characteristics, namely humour and jocularity. On the other hand, if they did not do so the haikai would quickly degenerate into a frivolous play of words, whimsical conceit or pedantic witticism, which was the cause of the decline of many schools or individual poets. Waka and renga may have belonged to the aristocratic world of court poetry and samurai culture but haikai should and can remain the poetry of men in the street. Bashō’s solution is somewhat like the triadic movement of Hegel’s dialectic where fueki (thesis) and ryoko (antithesis) are sublimated into fuga no makoto (synthesis) but retaining what Hegel called aufgehobene Momente, namely, synthesised characteristics of fueki and ryuko of the pre-synthesis stage. In this way, Bashō could continue to employ the so-called zokudan-heiwa (plain language) as well as subjects of the common people and still attain the depth and quality which is found in the best of Japanese art. Humour, pathos, sympathy with nature, understanding of humanity, beauty and truth — all are there in Bashō’s best poems.

These two concepts, ie, fuga no makoto and fueki-ryuko, served as the foundation of Bashō’s creative work and occupied the central position in his haikai. They are like the warp and the weft in weaving, determining the very fabric of poetry, while other poetical attributes such as wabi, sabi, shiori, hosomi and karumi can be likened to pattern books with different colours, patterns and motifs. Among the latter, sabi is perhaps the most well-known. This is a historical extension of Fujiwara Shunzei’s yugen and Fujiwara Teika’s u-shin and subsequent aesthetic ideals of such diverse names as Shotetsu (1381–1459), Zeami (1363?–1443) and Shinkei (1406–1475). But Bashō’s haikai represents sabi in such a powerful way that it has almost become synonymous with him. And yet, Bashō left no word about it. Those of his disciples are but fragmentary notes with little theoretical consistency.

“Patinated loneliness and desolation” seems to be the best English translation17 so far of the word sabi. Since sabi is one of those Japanese bywords pregnant with all shades of implication and ramification, one would try in vain to pin it down with a single interpretation. However, Bashō inherited the essential characteristics of sabi from earlier poets and we need only to check the deviation which Bashō made when applying the concept to his own poetry. Firstly, he seems to have rejected the idea of depicting the scene of sabi for the sake of doing so. Loneliness, for example, will not of itself constitute sabi. Technical skills such as clever use of terminology will not guarantee the presence of sabi. Rather, it comes from the heart of the poet and colours the poem he composes of its own accord. “The presence or absence of sabi,” says an authoritative commentator,18 “does not . . . depend upon choosing for one’s theme, objects which possess or do not possess such qualities.” Secondly, Bashō tended to find the quality of sabi in the contrast of two opposite things like the aged watchmen with white heads against the young blossoms of cherry trees, or an old warrior in the battlefield. The whiteness of the old men is set against the gorgeous colours of the cherry blossoms, thus emphasising the feeling of sabi in the former ever more strongly. The old warrior in a state of decline and decay and soon dying is placed in the environment which symbolises vigour, energy and violent death. Thirdly, sabi is taken by Bashō to mean some “impersonal atmosphere” which has been transformed from naked sorrow, as Ueda emphasises in the book mentioned above.19 As an example of this, he cites Bashō’s hokku which talks about a lonely green cypress tree standing amid the cherry blossoms.

Bashō’s important contribution here is that:

a) He enlarged the scope for sabi by liberating it from a narrow sense of sorrow; and
b) He gave it more depth and vividness by introducing the technique of contrasting what might be construed as representing sabi with that which is opposite to it. Added to this should be Bashō’s other achievement of spreading sabi, a concept enjoyed by the upper class, among the populace, or conversely of elevating the popular literature to the higher level that had belonged to the intellectual few.

Apart from these specific points pertaining to Bashō’s own expansion of the word, sabi can be regarded as a manifestation of what Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) later called mono no aware20 in its broadest sense. Are the next two concepts, then, basically shiori and hosomi? In fact, they are so similar that it seems to me to be more sensible to bundle them together in this paper to avoid unnecessary confusion.

It is enough for our purposes to note that shiori and hosomi also reflect a sense of loneliness, desolation and beauty, perceived in the decaying, wilting and withering of things.21 The rest of the poetical ideas used in Bashō’s haikai will be dealt with only when necessary in relation to the concept karumi.22

To sum up the observation so far, Bashō’s goal, fuga no makoto (poetic truth) was ultimately the same as was found in all the best works of any branch of Japanese art. He achieved it by means of fueki-ryuko (constancy and change) and the resulting works were very much of Bashō’s unique style, characterised by such poetic values as wabi, sabi, shiori and hosomi. However, it has to be said that Bashō is a poet with whose unparalleled significance it is easier to agree than it is to understand those values which make him so significant.

Forces that Paved the Way for Karumi

From the foregoing, it would look as if the concept of karumi is totally unconnected with the traditional poetic ideals we have been describing. The latter have the all-pervasive calm tones of resigned loneliness and muted acceptance of the sad reality of life, and furthermore, of the unquestioning longing to find solace in nature. By contrast, karumi seems at first to picture the opposite end of human perception: the light-hearted approach to the human predicament with a bit of fun in this wretched world, providing comedy rather than tragedy to a too-restrained and too-pessimistic an audience.

This, in fact, is not entirely mistaken but it is too superficial an analysis to reach the depths of Bashō’s intentions. In order to understand the connection, we need to study the forces at work when Shofu was being constructed. There is a built-in force in Japanese literature which, like the swing of the pendulum, alternates between the serious (yubi) and humorous (kokkei). During the Heian period (794–1192), from waka there developed renga (linked-verse) whose characteristics were wit and humour. As a reaction to this, the so-called u-shin renga23 of the Kakinomoto-shu emerged at the beginning of the Kamakura period (1192–1333) to follow the traditional “courtly elegance and decorous taste”24 of Shunzei and Teika, particularly the latter. This u-shin renga in turn was challenged by the mushin renga25 of the Kurinomoto-shu whose interest lay in making unserious, jocular verses. In the Muromachi period (1333–1603) renga was once again dominated by the serious school of waka with all its principles and conventions, led by such brilliant figures as Nijo Yoshimoto, Shotetsu, Shinkei and Sogi (1421–1502). But towards the end of this period, with the rise and prosperity of local samurai and chonin (townsmen) of commercial towns such as Sakai, u-shin renga became too rigid and sterile to accommodate the freedom of the new style, themes and expressions demanded by these newcomers.The demand was all the more explosive because the orthodox renga had restricted its range, striking off the comic renga from the legitimate register. Thus, haikai-no-renga (literally, comic renga) was given its first real chance to come to the fore and dominate the scene, later developing into haikai and eventually haiku. Sokan (1465–1553)26 and Moritake (1473–1549) are usually deemed the fathers of this new movement, again with jeu d’esprit and quip as its keynote. Then, in the early Edo period (1603–1867), Teitoku started a new school, Teimon, trying to swing back more towards the serious renga but his failure led to the rise of the Danrin School whose master, Soin, reversed the trend. And as we know, this degenerated into excessive jest and facetious word-play until at last Bashō took over the leadership to bring haikai back on the track of traditional waka values.

Within Bashō’s own development itself, we see the same pendulum movement. As a young man, he started off by being initiated into the world of waka and haikai under the guidance of his master, Lord Yoshitada (nom de plume, Sengin) whose teacher was Kitamura Kigin (1624–1705), an influential disciple of Teitoku. But Bashō was not to be restricted to the serious and genteel style adhered to by the conservatives. His first and only publication, Kai-oi, which came out in Edo when he was twenty-eight provides us with his poems full of witticism, play upon words and even sensual teasing of amorous love. This was three years before Soin came down to Edo and spread the humorous style of the Danrin School. It was this school Bashō associated himself with until he had to abandon it because of its debasement into frivolity as we have seen. His dissatisfaction led him eventually to give up his career as a renowned haikai master and in the winter of 1680 he resigned from this world and moved to Bashō-an in Fukagawa, then still a scenic countryside, sparsely populated.

It was only natural that Bashō should have become more and more serious in his rendering of poetry, as well as his teaching. But in many instances of his renku he still continued to show wit and light-heartedness and within the serious overtones generally observed in his last ten years or so there was nevertheless a subtle oscillation between serious and light tones. Nozarashi-Kiko (The Journal of a Weather-beaten Skeleton) is perhaps the most serious of all the journals he wrote and Sarumino (The Monkey’s Cloak) is regarded as the apex of the Bashō School. We then have Sumidawara (A Sack of Charcoal) and Zoku Sarumino (The Sequel to The Monkey’s Cloak) which have much lighter and more humorous tones.

The oscillation and interaction between the serious and the humorous are a common feature of Japanese literature. It is therefore not surprising that such a concept as karumi should have emerged in Bashō’s haikai. On the contrary, it would have been very odd if it had not. Of course, Bashō’s world is tinged with serious and melancholic tones, reflecting his personality as well as the temperament inherent in his samurai background. But it was inevitable that something like karumi should become part and parcel of Bashō’s haikai sooner or later and perhaps one can even argue that coming from such a stern person as Bashō, karumi is so much more significant and merits profound investigation.

Another important force which was seen in the formation of Shofu is atarashimi (newness). Bashō was a dynamic poet. He had an almost obsessional urge to seek new ideas and inspiration so that his poetry could remain unhackneyed. Atarashimi became particularly necessary after the publication of Sarumino. Some of his disciples felt that having reached the highest point there was no need to go any further but simply to preserve what was achieved. This led to the rise of sated conservatism which in Bashō’s view would be the quickest way to the decline of Shomon. The worry added more urgency to the introduction and development of a new style based on karumi.

The third force at work was Bashō’s desire to create an entirely new kind of haikai and to increase its literary merits to such an extent that it would be ranked not only as one of the highest forms of Japanese poetry but also as one of the most important branches of Japanese literature itself. I am not suggesting that Bashō worked every minute of the day with this task clearly in mind but the result of his passion is something we know only too well. This posed, however, an intractable problem when dealing with the dichotomy seen in haikai between the serious aspect and the comic one. The latter was the ultimate raison d’etre of haikai and one which can only be derived from ordinary words and a mundane life. And as we shall see in more detail, karumi seems to have played a vital role in solving the problem.

Various Aspects of Karumi

Let us now turn to the salient characteristics of karumi. Since Bashō left no writing of his own, explaining what it was and since his disciples’ fragmentary explanation of it does not provide any clear definition, we may as well begin by looking at what was not karumi. In other words, instead of being reduced to conjectures as to what karumi must have meant, we resort to an elimination method by investigating the known antitheses of karumi.

a) Karumi as the Antithesis of Omomi

The most obvious concept opposite to karumi is omomi or heaviness. The best document in which to see the relation between the two is Fugyoku-Ate-Kyorai-Ronsho which is a long letter Kyorai wrote to another disciple of Bashō’s, Fugyoku, in which he discusses poetics. The word omomi used here has several different connotations. Firstly Bashō is quoted as saying, “Never let haikai stagnate, otherwise it will become heavy.” In this instance, omomi relates to the stagnation of poetry, which from other evidence is to be interpreted as meaning the conservative attitude of a poet clinging to one style with the result that he loses fresh inspiration and innovation.

Another sense of omomi can be found in a word Kyorai uses: omokuretaru. This means oppressed, clumsy, awkward, tedious, leaden, ponderous, dull, etc. Kyorai cautions that it should not be confused with genju (strict, severe) or jo no fukaki (deep feelings). Kori (stiffness) and nigori (muddiness) are also words associated with omomi.

From these various shades of omomi’s implications, one can deduce that the quality of karumi seems to be obtained from the newness or freshness of that which does not stagnate or become stiff but constantly changes and flows, rather like a shallow mountain stream:27 fresh, clear and light.

It is in this sense of omomi that Kyorai made the following famous statement: “The reason why the Master’s teaching centred at that time around karumi is that (the old concept of) omomi had to be destroyed. And how could anything else have destroyed this conventional concept (of omomi) except karumi itself?”

b) Karumi as the Antithesis of Furubi

It should now be clear that karumi has antipodal characteristics to what is old-fashioned, repetitive and conventional, which is summed up in the word furubi (oldness). As Ogata Tsutomu points out in his Karumi eno Shiko,28 what Bashō was referring to by this term is the tendency of some unimaginative and conservative poets to rely heavily on the conventional practice of kanso, which was the abuse of traditional poems about nature, distorting them to describe one’s views on life and the world. If this becomes the central feature of a stanza, it inhibits the natural flow of the poet’s feelings and thus causes stagnation in expression because the poem would be over-loaded with irksome intellectualisation.

c) Karumi as the Antithesis of Nebari and Shiburi

These are normally expressed as kokoro no nebari or kokoro no shiburi or kotoba no shiburi. The former, nebari, means sticky and the latter, shiburi, signifies that something does not proceed smoothly. Therefore, both are similar to omomi which we saw above and may be regarded as an aspect of it. It refers to contrived artificiality, lacking in naturalness.

d) Karumi as the Antithesis of Shi-i

Shi-i means self-will and was strongly condemned by Bashō as a hindrance to true poetry. This has three dimensions. Firstly, it relates to individual subjectivity which in those days was regarded as being a barrier to reaching the truth of the outside world. Secondly, it relates to a lack of discipline or deviation from rules, particularly from the master’s teachings. Thirdly, it relates to a split between man and nature, which ought to coalesce in a true poem. None of these, in fact, is directly opposite to karumi but they are conducive to negative qualities such as forced conceptualisation, long-winded arbitrariness or lack of intuitive diction, which are contrary to karumi. The most famous of all Bashō’s words in this connection are to be found in Toho’s Akazoshi:29

“The master said: “Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.” What he meant was that the poet should detach the mind from his own self. Nevertheless, some people interpret the word “learn” in their own ways and never really “learn.” “Learn” means to enter into the object, perceive its delicate life, and feel its feeling, whereupon a poem forms itself. Even a poem that lucidly describes an object could not attain a true poetic sentiment unless it contains the feelings that spontaneously emerged out of the object. In such a poem the object and the poet’s self would remain forever separate, for it was composed by the poet’s personal self.

The abandonment of self and the coalescence with the object are intrinsic qualities which permeate Japanese creative activities. Bashō was very stringent about this and it may be noted that Natsume Soseki’s last ideal of sokuten-kyoshi has a ring curiously resembling Bashō’s view.

e) Karumi as the Antithesis of Amami

Amami is probably the most ambiguous and misleading of all Bashō’s terminology. None of the senses given to the word amashi in Kojien, for example, seem to apply to what Bashō was supposed to be saying. According to Ebara Taizo and Akahane Manabu,30 amami is expressed by way of another word noen, whose literal meaning is luxuriant charm. But in the context of a reverse sense to karumi it is understood to mean the excessively extravagant poetic diction of the classicism that was elaborate, “rococo” and florid. Interestingly, this fashion seems to have been entertained particularly by the poets living in Kyoto. And nothing evokes it more effectively than love poems. For instance, Kyorai (a Kyoto poet) wrote a love poem to which Bashō added a tsukeku stanza.31.] Afterwards, Bashō commented on this event in the letter he wrote from Kyoto to his Edo disciple, Yaha, saying “Authors around here have not yet managed to get rid of this business of amami. You, yourself should be very careful not to neglect karumi.”32. Kyorai-sho, Senshi-hyo.]

It looks as though the term amami was introduced to highlight a requirement of karumi in that while the poet should be deeply moved and his perception profound, the actual poetic diction and imagery should not be artificially sought or contrived but be rendered in an easy and natural manner. It should not be “too heavily loaded with emotion,” as Ueda puts it.33 Kyoriku, who wrote a great deal about karumi, comments in the same vein in his Haikai Mondo:

What is meant by karumi, whether it is hokku or tsukeku, is that it is composed as one sees, so to speak,34 without reaching out for it. Using plain words does not mean that the sentiment expressed is slight. (On the contrary) it should come deep from the poet’s heart and the finished stanza should have perfect naturalness.

Immediately after this, Kyoriku gives three examples of renku which seem to him to embody karumi.

Butsudan no shoji ni tsuki no sashi kakari
The moon shines through the shoji sliding door of the Buddhist shrine within the household

Gyozui no senaka wo terasu natsu no tsuki
The back of a bathing lady is illuminated by the summer moon

Takaba no ue wo kari wataru nari
A flock of wild geese fly over the hawking ground

Indeed, each of these poems has such a striking vividness that the feeling is almost overpowering. It is as if we ourselves are seeing what the poet saw. Moreover, none of the words used is affected and none of the objects elaborate or florid and yet the poetic sentiment is one of a deeply-felt human experience.

f) Karumi as the Antithesis of Umami

There is another slightly puzzling term which was used to help explain karumi. And that is umami, which should perhaps be translated as “being delicious to taste” judging from Kyoriku’s explanation. In the anthology-cum-treatises called Hentsuki of which Kyoriku was a co-editor35 he introduces a famous episode of Bashō’s life and then talks against umami:

The master said: you must know that (the life of) haikai poems lasts only while they are being composed on a bundai (writing desk). Once they are removed from it they are no more than old scraps of paper. These are precious words. Nevertheless, the haikai currently in fashion does not possess the quality of elegance or grace. Today’s haikai poets, if they happen to hit on an interesting idea, would bite at its umami (tasty, juicy bit) and cling to it without realising that there is poetry also to be found where there is no such “taste.” However, when I say that tastelessness is good, I don’t mean that the taste shouldn’t be there from the start. What I am saying is that we should extract umami from that taste and throw it away.

To my understanding, this seems to be saying that even a genuinely clever idea will become a cumbersome bore if it is repeated as gospel and that good poems may look plain at first sight because that cleverness is deliberately removed from them. And of course it is karumi that does the trick.

In order to see how much clearer the image of karumi has so far become to us, let me try here to say in one of the 20th century Western languages, English, what Bashō tried to teach by karumi. A haikai poet should never cease to advance in his unremitting search for new inspiration and style. A halt can mean stagnation which deprives his creative spirit of freshness, turning his poems into ponderous and jaded tedium. He should also guard against the ill-effects of dogmatic subjectivity and arbitrary self-centredness as they tend to push him further and further away from poetic truth. Instead, he should rid himself of self-assertiveness in order to attain spontaneous, objective and impersonal poetry. The poet must not indulge in imitating the old-fashioned features of classic time, or in too elaborate and florid a style as they are not compatible with haikai’s most fundamental prerequisite — plain language and humour. Over-ingenuity and gimmicks are also to be avoided. All these may be achieved by means of karumi, which is “counteractive” to the negative qualities mentioned.

Characteristics of Karumi

Having seen various aspects of karumi in a ‘negative image’, as it were, let us now look at its ‘positive’ characteristics.

a) Kogo-kizoku

What helped prevent Bashō’s haikai from becoming either an adulterated version of waka or yet another specimen of vulgar literature was his artistic frame of mind which Bashō scholars often refer to in an abbreviated form as Kogo-kizoku. This was derived from Bashō’s own teaching, “Takaku kokoro wo satorite zoku ni kaerubeshi,” which can be freely rendered as, “a poet’s mind should reach lofty enlightenment and then return to the popular” or better still, “the poet should mingle with the herd yet preserve a noble mind.”36 The short sentence just quoted in Japanese is placed in Toho’s Akazoshi in a humble and isolated sort of way, almost drowned by the sea of other impressive entries. And yet it represents a crucial breakthrough in Bashō’s long-suffering reform of the art of haikai. Kogo, the noble mind, exemplifies the highest values in Japanese artistic creativity as well as aesthetic receptivity, while kizoku (returning to the herd) illustrates Bashō’s bifocal undertaking of:

i) popularising the traditionally aristocratic poetical forms; and
ii) of elevating the popular literature to that traditional height.

The synthesis of these seemingly conflicting factors was made possible by the help of karumi. Ebara Taizo, one of the pioneers advocating the importance of karumi in Bashō’s theory and practice, goes so far as to say that “the highest and deepest spirit in Bashō’s haikai should be found not in sabi nor in shiori or hosomi but in karumi.”37 Yamamoto Kenkichi endorses Ebara’s view quoted. Sabi, shiori and hosomi may indeed represent traditional aesthetic values but even they on their own fail to create an advanced poetic dimension of kogo-kizoku. To see how karumi succeeded would be to see more of karumi’s own characteristics.

When the poet is well-versed in the traditional values mentioned, he then has to acquire additional elements which make up the principle of karumi in order to arrive at Bashō’s last ideal, symbolised by kogo-kizoku. Simplicity, humour, detachment, plain language and mundane materials found in people’s daily life are such elements. They helped the birth of an entirely new literary form from the union between the waka tradition and the haikai tradition. It was neither going back to the genre of waka nor coming down to the lower merit of the hitherto existing haikai, but a “creative evolution” into a synthesised new entity made possible by Bashō’s genius and struggle. It is in this context that the true significance of karumi should be evaluated.

b) Haikai-jiyu

In a way, “freedom” may well be a better translation of karumi. After all, a function of karumi is to liberate haikai from the tedious fetters of rules and conventions of the past. The new poetic form thus effected should be free from prolixity, cerebral conceptualisation, arbitrary subjectivity and over-elaborate poetic diction. This function has been traditionally called haikai-jiyu (the freedom of the haikai) as opposed to waka-yubi (the elegant beauty of waka). Waka and renga had long denied poets access to rich sources for poetical inspiration and expression, namely, the daily experience, language, perception and the way of life of the greatest part of the population. Karumi played a pivotal role in realising this liberation.

At the same time, karumi sets a limitation as to how popular a haikai poem is allowed to become. Some of Bashō’s students on occasions went too far in applying karumi to their haikai composition, making their poetry simply banal and vulgar. For example, Boncho, a Kyoto disciple, had composed the last two lines only of a triplet: yuki tsumu ue no yoru no ame (the night rain falling on top of the settling snow), but was unable to write the beginning line. Bashō instructed that it should be shimo-kyo ya (in South Kyoto). According to Kyorai-sho Boncho fidgeted restlessly, apparently not very pleased with Bashō’s idea. He wanted something plainer and more ordinary. But Bashō immediately put him in his place, saying “you should be proud of having this first line to your stanza. But of course if you can come up with something better, I would at once abandon my haikai career.”

The motto is that Bashō was teaching the importance of preserving the elegance of tranquil beauty (or kanga) even in a poem which may be the embodiment of karumi.

c) Karumi and Zen

The impact of Zen Buddhism on Bashō’s haikai is a popular theme for Western writers. Bashō’s encounter with his Zen teacher Butcho is estimated to have taken place around 1681 (Tenwa 1) a year after Bashō moved to Fukagawa. We may recall that just before the move he composed an important poem kare eda ni karasu no tomari taru ya aki no kure (On the withered branch/A crow has alighted—/Nightfall in Autumn. Tr Donald Keene). This autumn poem is said to reflect the influence on Bashō of the monk-poets of the Gozan Zenrin. He made the famous trip to Kashima, east of Edo, to visit Butcho, now an old friend, at the Nemoto-ji Temple in 1687 (Jokyo 4) and it was a year before this that he composed the verse Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto.

During these eight years, a number of events took place which drew Bashō towards a serious religious quest, particularly that of Zen: the loss of Bashō-an by fire (thus homelessness), the death of his mother (thus the realisation of the ephemeral nature of our existence) and the journey of Nozarashi Kiko (thus the journey which had such vital significance for Bashō’s philosophy). But all these events pre-date the time when the first hint of karumi is said to have emerged, ie, in 1689 (Genroku 2). However, judging from some of the features of karumi, there seems little doubt that Zen helped formulate this concept to a greater or lesser extent. The immediacy and directness of karumi as well as the intuitive grasp of the subject matter has obvious similarities to Zen practice. The enlightenment of kogo-kizoku and the freedom of the haikai-jiyu which we have seen, possess heavy undertones of Zen. The abandonment of shi-i, self-will, is a necessary condition for enlightenment in both cases. Karumi’s rejection of conceptualisation or intellectualisation of things is akin to the Zen approach. But above all, flashes of insight are strongly present both in karumi and Zen.

d) Humour

Humour plays a very important role in Bashō’s haikai generally and this was especially so when the concept karumi was being implemented. Karumi’s characteristics are light-hearted, comic and humorous. If these characteristics are combined with the poet’s detached, impersonal attitude towards his external world, a new frame of mind will be achieved, whereby he can face the world with equanimity, gently smiling away, whatever happens to him, without losing sincerity. If he furthermore attains kogo-kizoku, he will be like the poets Ueda describes:

“. . . those who have returned to the earthly world after attaining a high stage of enlightenment can look at life with a smile, for they are part of that life and are not so. Knowing what life ultimately is, they can take suffering with a detached, light-hearted attitude—with lightness.38

In the West, joy and sorrow are separate, mutually-exclusive entities. But in the Japanese sentiment, they are often unarticulated or one surreptitiously turns into another. Bashō’s humour has such overtones and it is what Yamamoto Kenkichi calls the “sublimated karumi” that makes Bashō’s humour humane. With karumi, the contents of humour is expanded and enriched to include such things as affinity with nature, warmth towards one’s fellow human beings and acceptance of the idea that whatever is, is right, where the real question is not ‘to be or not to be’ but ‘to be and not to be’ as a Zen book puts it. Another study gives further evidence:

karumi is often combined with okashimi (“the comic”) . . . It implies an attitude towards life in which the world is not taken too solemnly and sentimentally but looked at dispassionately and with detachment.”39

e) Karumi’s Pictorial Qualities

Bashō had studied painting in the style of the Kano School before he met Kyoriku, a talented artist as well as a poet, who now gave lessons to Bashō. There are Bashō’s extant haiga (haikai paintings) which testify to a moderate degree of talent in this direction but more significantly, to the importance paintings generally had for Bashō’s literary endeavour. Those who are familiar with Bashō’s verses cannot help but see pictorial images emerge from the lines they are reading, although some verses are more evocative than others. Karumi actually had been an important factor in Japanese painting and a contemporary of Bashō’s, Tosa Mitsuoki, for instance declared in 1690 that what was required of paintings was none other than a single Chinese character kei (or “lightness”).

An example from Sumidawara may help illustrate this:

Kuratsubo ni kobozu noruya daikohiki

On a saddle, a little boy witnesses the pulling of Daikon radishes.

Kyorai’s comment on this stanza indicates that what makes it an interesting poem is its quality to conjure up a vivid picture of the scene described. This poem is taken up as a typical manifestation of karumi by Yamamoto Kenkichi, who is one of the most powerful advocates of the concept. Another example, from Oku no hosomichi, has strong pictorial qualities:

Aka aka to hi wa tsurenaku mo aki no kaze

ed, Red is the sun
Heatlessly indifferent to time
The wind knows, however,
The promise of early chill . . . [Tr. Yuasa Nobuyuki]

Bashō composed this on his way from Kanazawa to Komatsu. There is a painting by Bashō based on this poem on which Sampu commented, “the painting, too, is executed in a ‘light’ way.” The feeling of lightness inherent in haikai paintings and the karumi of Bashō’s haikai seem to have influenced each other in instances like this. By introducing pictorial qualities Bashō also hoped to emancipate his poetry both from the Danrin-type wordiness and from the rigid conceptualisation of waka tradition.

f) Karumi and Musical Qualities

Notwithstanding the validity of the generally-held view that Japanese poems usually lack the characteristics of Western prosody, musical qualities do play their part in them. In an extreme case, if a Japanese poem sounds monotonous to the Western ears, the Japanese hear ‘their’ music in that monotony. In this sense, Dorothy Britton’s interpretation that “the shichi-go-cho, or the seven-five meter, is to Japanese poetry and drama what Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is to English” is a healthy one.

Bashō’s early works, as seen in Kai-oi had taken plentifully, words and rhythm from kouta, popular songs of his time. They demonstrated a considerable musicality, even though they lacked the depth and literary merit of his later poems. This quality of musicality, though not apparent during much of his subsequent work, seems to have re-emerged towards the end of his life, possibly through the development of karumi.

The relation of karumi with music had been close. For instance, Zeami’s textbook on utai called Fushizukesho talks about the importance of “lightness” over and over again. The haikai of the Danrin School is particularly noted for its musical bent; so much so that it is sometimes referred to as hyoshi-no-haikai (or rhythm-haikai). When young, Bashō was under the direct influence of this type of haikai, from which he subsequently disassociated himself.

Bashō’s famous metaphor of karumi, “sunagawa no asaku nagaruru” (the flow of a sandy shallow) may first strike one as a vivid pictorial image but it also transmits the allegretto of the clear stream, the music and dance of glistening water and its light-hearted rhythmical play with the sand underneath. The musical characteristics of karumi are most manifest in poems using onomatopoeia. In Japanese, it would be gitai-go as well as gisei-go. Let us just listen to the sound only of these poems.

Horohoro to yamabuki chiruka taki no oto. (Arano)

Kariato ya wase katakata no shigi no koe. (Oinikki)

Hyorohyoro to nao tsuyukeshi ya ominaeshi. (Arano)

Hiyahiya to kabe wo fumaete hirune kana. (Oinikki)

Hirahira to aguru ogi ya kumo no mine. (ditto)

Mume ga ka ni notto hi no deru yamaji kana. (Sumidawara)

In my opinion these, though undoubtedly magnificent, are in a way an easy way out. Onomatopoeia, so rich in Japanese, has such great expediency that it can cheapen the poem. The more challenging and satisfying way is to achieve the same musically pleasing effect through the choice of words, refined contents and the so-called yo-jo (overflow of deep feelings). Here are a few successful examples.

Ariake mo misoka ni chikashi mochi no oto. (Shinseki Jigasan)

Sazanami ya kaze no kaori no aibyoshi. (Oinikki)

Kanbutsu ya shiwade awasuru juzu no oto. (Sanzoshi)

Kogakure te chatsumi mo kiku ya hototogisu. (Betsuzashiki)

Kari sawagu toba no tazura ya kan no ame. (Saikashu)

Zosui ni biwa kiku noki no arare kana. (Arisoumi)

We have been looking at different aspects of karumi. They are, however, only the most obvious issues. The question of karumi is not something that can be neatly explained away but has implications far more profound because it is not only a form of Bashō’s haikai theory but an integral part of his way of life. Therefore, it should also be examined from a biographical viewpoint. As R H Blyth puts it, “What makes Bashō one of the greatest poets of the world is the fact that he lived the poetry he wrote, and wrote the poetry he lived.”

By way of conclusion, I would propose that karumi, a preoccupation of Bashō’s final years, was an extremely important vehicle by which he tried to merge the refined, traditional poetic style of aristocratic vein with the new, humorous and light-hearted style of the common herd, using ordinary words and everyday subjects thus, perpetuating the creation of the Shofu, which would be an entirely new Japanese poetic expression. How far he succeeded is open to discussion. All depends on how much of the hypothesis I have set out can be proved, some of the groundwork for which, I hope, has been provided in this paper. Besides, the only ultimate recourse we can have to appreciate his poems is after all to his works themselves. At any rate, it is deeply regrettable that death overtook Bashō before he had been able to develop the concept of karumi to the point where it could unquestionably stand comparison with mono no aware, yugen and sabi. But let us listen to Bashō’s own words so we may not make a culpable mistake:

Haikai wa tada fuga nari. Fuga ni ron wa sukoshi mo gazanaku soro.

Haikai is nothing but poetry. Poetry needs no theory.

  1. Months given are based on the lunar calendar.
  2. These poems are called Saitan. They were composed at Saitanbiraki (New Year’s Poetry Meeting) on an auspicious day in January by a master such as Bashō himself and his top disciples. It was customary to have the poems printed on a single sheet or in a booklet, which was then given as a season’s greeting or sold to the general public.
  3. The word haikai is derived from haikai no renga (comic linked-verse) which was a form of renga. Haikai comprises hokku (opening stanza) and tsukeku (capping stanzas) forming renku (linked stanzas) but in a looser sense it can include such writings in prose as journals of journeys and diaries. Hokku was the most important as it set the tone and style of a particular renku sequence and was therefore usually composed by a master or a senior poet. So important was it that it came to be composed sometimes outside the renku session whenever a poet thought of a good idea for hokku, which he jotted down to be used in future renku sessions. This led to the situation where hokku was composed in its own right, thus paving the way for what we now know as haiku. The word haiku began to be used in this sense during the Meiji period (1868-1912), particularly by Masaoka Shiki although the earliest known usage of it (in the same sense as hokku) was during the Kambun period, i.e., in the 1660s.
  4. Kyorai also records the same conversation of Noha with Bashō at the end of the Kyoraisho (Conversations with Kyorai). The wording, however, is slightly different and karumi is not referred to. Kyorai records a similar episode in his Rekidai Kokkeiden (Successive Comic Tales), citing Bashō’s poem in the anthology Fukagawa (1693). The poem embodies the idea of karumi and Kyoriku comments, “My master said that his haikai would all be like this one in four or five years’ time.” Kyoriku as quoted in Rekidai Kokkeiden refers to a passage of Fukagawa (Shado ed. published Genroku 6, 1693) showing the following renku by Ranran and Bashō. “Norikake no chochin shimesu asaoroshi” [Ranran
  5. On his death-bed Bashō was asked by his pupils about the future of haikai. He mentions first that haikai, which originated from him, had undergone many a change, in his own words, “a hundred changes and a hundred transformations.” However, he goes on to say that in spite of the changes the essence of haikai would still be contained in three principal elements called shin, so and gyo. What is significant and even surprising is that he then laments that he had not yet been able to achieve any one of these. Immediately after this sentence, Toho also records the fact that, jokingly, Bashō had often compared his haikai to tawara, a straw rice-bag, saying he had not yet even opened it, which is to say that there was a long way to go before he could come to any attainment in his haikai.
  6. Karumi occupies a very important position in the development of what is known as Shofu, or the style of the Bashō School. There is no doubt that Basho took it very seriously and the importance he attached to it can be measured from the letter he wrote to Kyorai on 29 January 1694 (Genroku 7). Basho had for some time been challenged by some of his followers, notably Kakei, over their differences about the style of poetry. Bashō tells Kyorai simply to ignore these dissenters and declares that “at the time when one is pursuing the task of constructing the one great way of haikai style (not just for our own time but) for all times, how could one be bothered with such trifles?” Here, Bashō was of course referring to the developing style of karumi as Imoto Noichi, a noted Bashō scholar, points out in his Bashō (Vol.18, Nihon Koten Kansho Koza 1964, p27).
  7. Though these terms are untranslatable, best approximations may be given as gentle melancholy (mono no aware), mysterious depth (yugen), mind-possessing (u-shin) and patinated loneliness and desolation (sabi).
  8. Ueda Makoto, Literary and Art Theories in Japan, p166.
  9. It is most probable that Bashō simply decided on the word karumi because it had been used as a technical term in theories of renga and other areas of art including tea ceremony, flower arrangement and calligraphy.
  10. See Yamamoto Kenkichi, Bashō, Shincho-sha 1957, p425.
  11. This is also pronounced Oi no obumi.
  12. Noin, Saigyo, Sogi, etc.
  13. Fu and ga were originally two of the Rikugi (six poetical forms) in classical Chinese poetry. As a compound word, fuga was used either broadly to mean the arts in general or more narrowly all kinds of poetry of which haikai was a part.
  14. See note 3.
  15. Encyclopaedia Britannica 10-1070.
  16. p. 147.
  17. Geoffrey Bownas, Introduction to The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse, p lxvii.
  18. The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (Special Haiku Committee), Haikai and Haiku, Tokyo, 1958, Introduction xviii.
  19. pp. 149-150.
  20. Monono aware refers to something sad and pathetic that can be perceived as inherent in human affairs and their natural environment by those sensitive to such perception. “Gentle melancholy” (above) is one standard English translation for the term, “sensitivity to the beautiful sadness of things” another.
  21. For a concise account, see p xix, Introduction,The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai (op cit.).
  22. There is another set of concepts (nioi, hibiki, omokage, etc) in Bashō’s haikai theory. They relate to the tsukeai (linking) of renku and will not detain us here.
  23. Serious renga, characterised by u-shin, or ‘having heart’, namely understanding of the deepest of human feelings.
  24. Geoffrey Bownas, op. cit. p.lviii.
  25. Comic renga characterised by mu-shin, or having no heart.
  26. Little is known about Sokan’s life and the dates given of his birth and death vary. Donald Keene cites “the commonly given dates for his life” being 1464 – 1552.
  27. This analogy is not entirely the product of the present author. It is based on Bashō’s own famous analogy, asaki sunagawa, or a shallow sandy stream, which can be found in the preface of Betsu-zashiki (Shisan ed. May Genroku 7, 1694).
  28. Karumi eno Shiko (Towards Karumi), in the Bungaku, Feb 1967.
  29. The quotation is from the translation by Ueda, pp157 – 58 op cit.
  30. Ebara Taizo, Karumi no Shingi in Haikai Seishin no Tankyu pp 100-102. Akahane Manabu, Bashō Haikai no Seishin, pp831-884.
  31. Funbetsu nashi ni koi ni shikakaru [Kyorai
  32. Asajiu ni omoshirogezuku Fushimi waki [Bashō
  33. Ueda Makoto, op cit (Theories) pp167-168.
  34. In waka this is called miruyotei.
  35. Hentsuki, Kyoriku and Riyu (ed), published in Genroku 11, or 1698 by Izutsuya. The quotation is from a treatise entitled Hokku Choren no Ben.
  36. This last translation is given in Bownas, op cit p.lxvi.
  37. Ebara Taizo, Haikai Seishin no Tankyu, p 90.
  38. Ueda, op. cit. (Theories), p 169.
  39. The Nippon Gakujutsu Shinkokai, op cit.
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