Saturday, April 27, 2013

Poetic Musings: Basho’s First Hokku in the Karumi Style

under the tree
soup, fish salad, and all --
cherry blossoms

On April 10, 1690, Basho wrote the hokku above to start a 36-verse kasen at a blossom-viewing party in Ueno. When he wrote it, Basho said, "Having learned something about writing a verse on blosssom viewing, I gave a tone of Karumi ("lightness") 1 to this hokku (Ueda, p.286)

The middle phrase -- "soup" and "fish salad" -- of this hokku suggests "a realm of haikai that is alien to waka." (ibid.) Basho uses mundane words to suggest, not the gazing at cherry blossoms constantly found in classical poetry, but the festivity of eating and drinking, and his hokku  reveals "[his tendency to seek poetry in things familiar" (ibid.)

In the last years of his life, Basho experimented with the karumi style that “emphasized simplicity and ordinary language and situations,” (Shirane, p. 23) and the verse anthology, Charcoal Sack, was considered by some of his followers, called Rural Shomon poets, as the “epitome of good haikai.” (ibid., p. 28)

Note: Like so many of Basho's critical terms, karumi defies easy definition. In its most general form, as a salient characteristic of Japanese art from cooking to painting, "lightness" is a minimalist aesthetic, stressing simplicity and leanness. For Basho, it meant a return to everyday subject matter and diction, a deliberate avoidance of abstraction and poetic posturing, and relaxed, rhythmical, seemingly artless expression (Shirane, p. 26)


Makoto Ueda, Bashō and his interpreters: selected hokku with commentary, Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1991,

Haruo Shirane, Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Basho, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.


  1. Below is an excerpt from Anita Virgil's "The Four Pillars Part I – The Narrow Thread," which can be accessed at

    In 1690 Basho espoused a quality he called "lightness" (karumi) that is to be reached for in haiku. He gives a solitary example of it. His poem, an idyll in which nature is all encompassing:

    Under the cherry-trees,
    On soup, and fish-salad and all,
    Flower petals. 39

    Man fits within this tender benevolence; he is a part of the whole scene. Yet, this aesthetic principle, so upbeat in its objectives, does not carry through into Basho’s life. In 1693, Basho said in parting from a favorite pupil, Kyoroku: “Did not the retired Emperor Go-Toba say of (Saigyo's) poetry that it contained truth tinged with sorrow? Take strength from his words and follow unswervingly the narrow thread of the Way of Poetry.” 40

    39. R. H. Blyth, Haiku. Vol. 2 Spring (Japan, Hokuseido, 1950), p.360.
    40. Tsunoda et al, op. cit., pp. 458-9.

    Does Anita Virgil tell you anything about what the karumi style is ?

  2. Basho considered this quality of "lightness" to be "like seeing a shallow sandy-bedded brook. The shape of the verse, the very heart of the linkage, both are light and refreshing."

    -- Basho's Forward to Betsuzashiki ("Shomon Renku")

  3. ... Basho's "late" notion of karumi or lightness, which refers more to linking than to verse content, is still based on a preference for relatively distant links and an exclusion of verbally dense verses.

    -- excerpted from Christopher Drake's "The Collision of Traditions in Saikaku's Haikai," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Jun., 1992), pp. 57