Sunday, August 11, 2013

Poetic Musings: Plum Blossom Scent, A Haikai Sequence in the Karumi Style by Basho and Yaba

Plum Blossom Scent (Ume Ga Ka, 1694)

In the plum blossom scent
the sun pops up --
a mountain path


Here there pheasants
crying as they fly away


house repairs in
spring's slow season


From the city: news
of a rise in the price of rice


tarns. by Haruo Shirane

In the early spring of 1694, Basho composed with Yaba in Edo a haikai sequence, "Plum Blossom Scent," ("Ume ga Ka"), and later died in the early winter of the same year. As one of his last sequences, "Plum Blossom Scent" demonstrates his "karumi" style ("lightness") developed in his last years, one that "stressed everyday common life, contemporary language and rhythm, and avoided heavy conceptualization or allusions to the past" (Shirane, p. 201). This style was strongly supported by Rural Shomon poets and the sequence was later included in the verse anthology, Charcoal Sack, which was considered by some of his followers as the “epitome of good haikai.” (Crowley, p.28) 1

The plum blossom scent in the hokku, or opening verse, is a seasonal word for early spring, and with the aid of the sun image in L2, this verse is "implicitly on the spring topic of lingering winter cold" ("yokan," Shirane, p. 201). And the aurally effective use of "pops up" ("notto," a colloquial adverb with a roundish, warm sound," Ibid.) enhances the emotional appeal of the verse.

The main function of the second verse is to "expand on the content of the hokku,...maintaining the same season and filling out and extending the setting" (Ibid.). Surprised at the sound of the speaker's footsteps in the hokku, the pheasants fly out from the mountain grass, crying as they flee. "The sharp cries of the pheasants connotatively echo the startling, bracing feeling of the sun” portrayed in the hokku. These two verses are linked through a scent link (Ibid.)

Linking with the second verse while turning away from the opening verse, the third verse turns the reader's attention to the human world, describing the farmer's house repairing in the spring's slow season. The pheasants portrayed in the second verse now are implied in the third verse, wandering outside the house being repaired.

Linking with the third verse while turning away from the second verse, the closing verse announces good news from the city: an increase in the price of rice, which definitely brings a big smile to the farmer's face.

Note: Below is excerpted from my essay, titled “Reviving Japanese Haikai through Chinese Classics: Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival,” which was first Published in Haijinx, 4:1, March 2011 and then reprinted in Simply Haiku, 9:1, Spring 2011:

After his death in 1694, [Basho’s] disciples had varied views on writing haikai, emphasizing different aspects of the “Basho style,” and eventually formed their own followings. Within years, Basho’s school faded quickly, and his disciples and their followers used his name and legacy to form individual factions, fighting fiercely with each other to expand their local base of poetic influence.

Over years of grouping and regrouping among Basho’s disciples and their followers, there were two major factions: the rural Shomon, which was divided into two sub-factions, the Mino and Ise factions, and the urban Shomon. The division was related to the different periods of the Basho style during which he made stylistic changes exemplified in various anthologies published by his supporters. 14

Rural Shomon poets looked to the style with which Basho experimented in the last years of his life, the karumi (lightness) style. This style “emphasized simplicity and ordinary language and situations,” 15 and the verse anthology, Charcoal Sack, was considered by the followers as the “epitome of good haikai.” 16 Urban Shomon poets closely followed the style of Basho’s developed in the Tenna period (1681--84), the kanshibuncho or Chinese style. “[It] was a literary, elevated style that drew on kanshi (poetry in Chinese) for its model,” 17 and the verse anthology, Empty Chestnuts, was regarded as the “‘quintessential expression of Basho’s kanshibuncho period.” 18


Haruo Shirane, ed., Early Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology, 1600-1900, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Cheryl A. Crowley, Haikai Poet Yosa Buson and the Basho Revival, Boston: Brill, 2007.


  1. Below is Basho's first hokku written in the karumi style:

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

    For more information, see, my "Poetic Musings: Basho’s First Hokku in the Karumi Style

  2. Thanks for the great info, dear Chen-ou!

    I shared it with the community on FB

    Greetings from the Heat of Japan!

  3. Hi Gabi:

    Thanks for your continued support of my blog.