Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Carpe Diem Haiku Writing Techniques #8, Karumi (Lightness)

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

It's Wednesday again and it's time for a new episode of our Haiku Writing Techniques. This week I love to tell you more about one of the most delightful concepts of haiku writing, Karumi (or Lightness). The concept of Karumi isn't a new idea, it comes from the other Japanese arts and Basho has tried to bring that Karumi concept into haiku writing in the, say, last ten years of his life.

Not so long ago I got a gift from Jane Reichhold, a copy of her book "Basho, the complete haiku". You all will understand that I started immediately with reading it, after all (as you all know) I see Basho as my haiku-master.
Jane has put a lot of effort in this book, more than ten (10) years, and of course I was excited and anxious to learn all the wonderful haiku by Basho.
Basho has meant a lot for haiku. He created several new ideas and writing techniques and was really a master of haiku. During his life Basho became in a way a Zen-Buddhist (he studied under Butcho, a Zen Buddhist monk), however he was never really a monk, only during his journeys.
In his time the Japanese roads weren't great, sometimes only small paths and travelers often were robbed  along the way. The most travelers chose to travel like a monk or priest, because that provided them free and save passage. Basho also traveled like a monk or priest, clothed in a black robe and a shaved head.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Basho had a big group of disciples and followers close around him, but also widely spread over Japan.
Basho, the traveling poet (he undertook his journeys almost all in the last ten years of his life), had one goal in his last years. He was anxious to spread his idea, his concept, of Karumi (Lightness) in haiku. He even went on journeys to preach that concept notwithstanding his bad health. A lot of his disciples turned their back to him, because they wouldn't accept (or understand) his idea of Karumi.
Basho, however, tried strongly to "preach" his karumi idea, a technique which was known only from other kinds of Japanese art, for haiku. It's said that he himself managed this technique badly, because he couldn't find the right words to explain what karumi was. There are a few haiku by Basho in which karumi can be found. Here are a few examples:

Ko no moto wa shiru mo namasu mo sakura kana

Underneath the trees,
Soups and salads are buried
In cherry blossoms.

Uguisu ya mochi ni fun suru en no saki

A spring warbler casts
A dropping on the rice cakes —
The veranda edge..

© Basho

What is karumi?

Bashô developed this concept during his final travels in 1693. Karumi is perhaps one of the most important and least understood principles of haiku poetry. Karumi can best be described as “lightness,” or a sensation of spontaneity. In many ways, karumi is a principle rooted in the “spirit” of haiku, rather than a specific technique. Bashô taught his students to think of karumi as “looking at the bottom of a shallow stream”. When karumi is incorporated into haiku, there is often a sense of light humor or child-like wonderment at the cycles of the natural world. Many haiku using karumi are not fixed on external rules, but rather an unhindered expression of the poet’s thoughts or emotions. This does not mean that the poet forgets good structure; just that the rules of structure are used in a natural manner. In my opinion, karumi is “beyond” technique and comes when a poet has learned to internalize and use the principles of the art interchangeably.

In a way it brought me another idea.
Traditionally, and especially in Edo Japan, women did not have the male privelege of expanding their horizons, so their truth or spirituality was often found in the mundane. Women tend to validate daily life and recognize that miracles exist within the mundane, which is the core of haiku.There were females who did compose haiku, which were called "kitchen-haiku" by literati, but these "kitchen-haiku" had all the simplicity and lightness of karumi ... In a way Basho taught males to write like females, with more elegance and beauty, based on the mundane (simple) life of that time.

Morning Glories

Shiba Sonome, a female haiku poet, learned about karumi from Basho: “Learn about a pine tree from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.”

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.
Basho also said, “In my view a good poem is one in which the form of the verse, and the joining of its two parts, seem light as a shallow river flowing over its sandy bed”.

That, then, is karumi:  becoming as one with the object of your poem … experiencing what it means to be that object … feeling the life of the object … allowing the poem to flow from that feeling and that experience.

An example by Basho:

White chrysanthemum
I look holding it straight
no dust at all

© Basho

at dawn
I wash my feet with dew
the longest day

Sakura (woodblock) also karumi
feeling alone
lost in the woods around Edo –
just the autumn wind

© Yozakura

Karumi is lightness, simplicity, becoming one with the experience you have on that moment when you are composing your haiku. Karumi is, in my opinion, a higher level of the concept of Wabi Sabi, as we discussed in Haiku Writing Techniques episodes 6 & 7.
I think karumi can only be the concept for your haiku when you are not only a haiku poet, but also living haiku ... Living haiku is being one with the world around you including nature and enjoying the emptiness, loneliness and oneness of being part of nature as a human. A haiku poet (in my opinion) lives with nature, adores nature, praises nature and respects nature.
Haiku is not only a wonderful poem ... it's a life-style.

just one leaf
struggles with the wind
like Basho

© Chèvrefeuille

And here another one in which I hope I have touched karumi:

slowly a snail seeks
his path between Cherry blossoms
reaches for the sky

© Chèvrefeuille

Well I hope you did like this Haiku Writing Techniques episode. And I hope that it will inspire you to write an all new haiku, trying to catch karumi.

This episode is open for your submissions tonight at 7.00 PM (CET) and will remain open until February 27th at noon (CET). I will (try to) publish our new episode, our last CD special of this month, later on.


  1. Probably the very best post you have ever written, and one for scholars from far and wide to study. Perhaps you too, will walk and we will follow one day - though we already do, through modern techniques.
    Actually, it really hit me. Karumy is YOU, Chevrefeuille. It is your natural style, and your post refects that - you are truly the Master of Karumi. And your ''just one leaf'' demonstrates that. You cannot analyse it, but only intracommunicate it, and meditate it with oneself. When you reach such a level of simplicity why say more! Thank you!

    1. thank you Hamish, for speaking what is in all our hearts.

  2. help!! I can't keep up.Such great prompts all rushing past.
    When we get to haiga month we'll need more time :-)
    [And I trust that you will insist on our own work as far as the pictures are concerned.]

    1. Makes perfect sense to use only our own photos or artwork.

  3. lovely treatise on the Karumi: lightness explored in self realization of the poet yet there is reverence to the form

    much love...

  4. Agreeing with Hamish, here, Chevrefeuille -- this is a remarkable post. Very thorough, and you've done a wonderful job in explaining such an abstract concept in understandable terms.

    So now we just need to embrace the lifestyle :)

    Great post :D


  5. This is a fascinating article which gives us lots to ponder. I'm going to print it out and think about it more. I love your first haiku. I love the work of Basho. He shows us the Way of Haiku.

  6. Wonderful post.. let's see if I can come up with a haiku.

  7. Really fascinating and helpful, while I think this is a wonderful line - 'Living haiku is being one with the world around you including nature and enjoying the emptiness, loneliness and oneness of being part of nature as a human.'

  8. Great post Chèvrefeuille, very very interesting ... I enjoyed the part about the women's role in karumi and tried to follow that idea.

    Am I right assuming that wabi-sabi can weave very well with karumi or be written without the wabi-sabi allowing it to have a lightheartedness without the slight melancholia of wabi-sabi? Living the haiku is an interesting concept ... I'm sure that I definitely have wabi-sabi moments and very karumi ones ;-)

    A truely fascinating post! I've been printing these out, as I find them easier to read in my easy chair :-) where I'm reading your most recent e-book! Congratulations ... very nice!