Laughing with Karumi
First published in the British Haiku Society journal Blithe Spirit 25:2, May 2015. First written in December 2014, with minor edits since first publication, including the addition of the paragraphs that begin “In On Love and Barley” and “Perhaps another word we might apply to haiku” and other references to the word “lambent.” See also the two new postscripts at the end. See also “Poems About Nothing: Learning Haiku from Antonio Porchia.”
“The essential, most often, has no weight.” —Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Toward the end of his poetic career, Bashō advocated karumi, or “lightness,” in his haiku. His work went through many stages throughout his life, but his aesthetic ideals culminated in karumi. I’ve come to interpret this aesthetic principle as a way of treating one’s subject lightly, to not manhandle it, as if one’s poem were like catching a soap bubble without popping it. Apparently, though, some readers are insufficiently sensitive to appreciate such deliberate lightness, or don’t know to look for it. Although the following example is from some years ago, it was my first taste of how I believe karumi can be misunderstood. In a review of the second issue of my journal Tundra: The Journal of the Short Poem, Brian Tasker seems to be among them. His review, from Blithe Spirit 12:3, September 2002, had this to say in describing the contents of Tundra:
There’s plenty of English-language haiku too and naturally, the ubiquitous haiku-liteTM make an appearance, such as working late / in the office / someone opens a drawer by Nikhil Nath, a spool of thread / left on its side / summer rain by Burnell Lippy and Penelope Greenwell’s midday heat / under the shade tree / an empty chair. Alan Pizzarelli has morning twilight / a truck driver gently unloads / sacks of clams. To adapt a quotation from Alan Bennett: these kinds of haiku ‘take the pith out of life’.
It amused me that Tasker quotes what I think are some of the issue’s very best poems—poems that I consider not the weakest, but the strongest. He seemed to completely miss the virtue of karumi in these haiku, but perhaps he hadn’t gotten there yet. In the book Traces of Dreams: Landscape, Cultural Memory, and the Poetry of Bashō (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998), Haruo Shirane devotes a long section of his grand finale chapter to karumi as the pinnacle of Bashō’s poetic art. Shirane gives examples of how Bashō revised poems to avoid heaviness (omomi) and to give them lightness, and notes how the poet criticized some poems for having too much heaviness through allegory and symbolism. Here are some of Shirane’s other explorations of this challenging concept:
Like so many of Bashō’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 Bashō, it meant a return to everyday subject matter and diction, a deliberate avoidance of abstraction and poetic posturing, and relaxed, rhythmical, seemingly artless expression. (269)
In contrast to the “heavy” poem, which is conceptual or leaves little room for alternative interpretations, the poetics of lightness leaves a space for the reader to become an imaginative participant. (271)
Karumi also implies rhythm and attention to the poetry of the ear, what Ezra Pound referred to as melopoeia, especially those sound patterns that generate emotional connotations. (272–273; this thought would also seem to resonate with Eliot’s notion of the “objective correlative,” wherein writers can trust the effect of images because of the emotions that innately correlate to objective description)
Karumi, particularly in the early 1690s, was also associated with ada, with the playful spirit of a child. (274)
The action of the child, who sees the world with new eyes, without preconceived notions, here becomes a metaphor for the haikai spirit [referring to a quotation from Kyorai, who quoted Bashō as saying, in response to a question about ada, that “You should simply pay attention to the way children act”]. The notion of returning to the spirit of a child or the related idea of returning to the spirit of a beginner (the “shallows”) after formal mastery of the art (“the depths”) . . . implies the recovery of youthful playfulness, spontaneity, naturalness, and fresh perspective, all of which are part of karumi. (275)
[Bashō, quoted in a 1695 letter by Sanpū to Biji:] As the form of one’s verse gradually becomes heavier, it falls into the trap of logic and reason, and one creates difficult, overly intricate verse. When that happens, one should abandon the poetic style one has used until that point and compose lightly and gently, with ordinary words. That will give the poetry a sense of immediacy. (276)
Karumi ultimately was associated with Bashō’s notion of “awakening to the high, returning to the low,” [kōgo kizoku] attaining the spiritual, artistic, or poetic heights achieved by the ancients. (277)
[Quoting Dohō, from Sanzōshi:] Experienced poets have a disease. The Master [Bashō] stated, “When it comes to haikai, one should let a small child compose it. The verse of a beginner is most promising.” (283)
[Shirane’s definition of ada from his “Glossary of Literary Terms”:] A humorous, ingenious, seemingly artless poetic mood or style that emerges from a childish, un-self-conscious approach or attitude. Kyorai considered ada to be the epitome of karumi. (293)
Shirane also quotes Edo painter Tosa Mitsuoki, from Great Transmission of the Methods of Japanese Painting (1690), as saying that “The essence of painting can be summarized in one word: lightness. . . . The overall design of the painting should be left incomplete” (272). Shirane comments on the full quotation by saying that “Mitsuoki related lightness to the notions of understatement, overtones, and open space, which enable the viewer to participate actively in the completion of the painting” (272).
It’s in this context, which I had appreciated long before reading Shirane’s book, that I not just like but deeply love the particular poems that Tasker dismissed as “Haiku Lite.” Consequently, when I read the poems he quoted,
in the office
someone opens a drawer
a spool of thread
left on its side
under the shade tree
an empty chair
I am moved to a sort of transcendence and suchness that is utterly removed and dissimilar from the so-called “so-what” poem. I’ll leave it to you to feel what the poet felt, to fill in the details that these poems deliberately leave out in their unreservedly brilliant lightness.
In On Love and Barley: Haiku of Bashō (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), Lucien Stryk says karumi is “the artistic expression of non-attachment, the result of calm realization of profoundly felt truths,” and translates a quotation from Bashō himself about karumi, who said that “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” (10). This reminds me of Ted Kooser’s comment in his book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), where he says that “a well-written poem can be like going for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat” and that you don’t want the view to be ruined when “something—a pair of sunglasses maybe—suddenly clatters down upon the surface and spoils the moment” (66). Indeed, in a haiku with karumi, both the form and content have this “lightness.”
Perhaps another word we might apply to haiku with karumi is to say that they are “lambent.” The word means to flicker lightly over a surface, or to be brilliantly playful or marked by lightness or grace (one of the reasons my website is called Graceguts). We can hear the gentleness of the word “lamb” in its root, which also comes from the Latin, which means to lap at or to lick. Do we swallow our subjects whole, or do we gently lap at them? Are our haiku marked with lightness and grace, flickering lightly over the surface of our subjects, implying the depths beneath? This, I think, was the masterful accomplishment in Bashō’s poetry—a lightness of touch that makes them anything but light.
Thus, I come to this conclusion: In Traces of Dreams, Shirane refers to Bashō’s selection of a poem by Shadō as an example of lightness, and then reports the following commentary, written by Kyorai:
Several young disciples laughed at the verse, “The subject matter is so mundane, it would be hard to call it a hokku.” The Master [Bashō] responded, “You laugh because you still have not reached the stage of understanding. You should study this poem to find out why you should favor lightness and avoid heaviness.” (272)
It seems to me that laughing at karumi says more about the laugher than the poem. It’s a dismissal based on not understanding. If anything, I hope we could laugh with karumi. Or better yet, we should feel whatever emotions arise from the poem because the poem is refined enough to let us have those emotions on our own—thanks to the poem’s supremely lambent touch. This is something I value in the poems I read and select for publication, and often strive for in the poems I write. The refinement here places demands on the reader, to be sufficiently sensitive and aware, to appreciate delicacy—to be, according to Henry James, one on whom nothing is lost. Karumi should not be confused with “light verse” that produces laughter merely because it is funny. Rather, poems with karumi may produce laughter, if at all, simply because they are joyful (I am reminded that the word “haiku” itself means “playful verse” and that “lambent” means “brilliantly playful”). It’s this childlike spirit of play and lightness, even while the poem retains allusion and other complexities, that contributes immeasurably to the art of artlessness in haiku poetry.
In referring to a poem by Horst Ludwig, Max Verhart writes the following in his essay “Haiku About Almost Nothing” (available on The Art of Haiku and The Haiku Foundation websites):
The corn has changed its colour
just a little more
Verhart says, “A slight change in colour, that is all that this haiku is about. It is almost nothing—but it says everything about the passing of time, pointing to the ripening of the corn and to the harvest drawing near.” Verhart also quotes the following Shiki poem:
Look, a sparrow hopped
all along the porch
with wet feet.
Later he says, “Only when noticed does the tiny, the inconspicuous exist fully. This ability to perceive is actually creative. By observing, we create the universe, including ourselves. If this sounds presumptuous, I can put it more modestly: By paying attention to even the tiny, we enhance our awareness of being part of something too big for us to even comprehend.” This, to me, is a fundamental understanding of karumi.
—12 June 2019
After my “Laughing with Karumi” essay appeared in Blithe Spirit 25:2 in May of 2015, the next issue (25:3, August 2015, page 67) included the following response by Klaus-Dieter Wirth. At the time I never responded, but I thought I’d do so now.
A Response to “Laughing with Karumi” (Blithe Spirit 25:2, May 2015, pages 49–52) by Michael Dylan Welch
Certainly no bad idea calling to mind again the importance of karumi according to Japanese haiku poetics, while assembling a good deal of confirming quotations. So far, well done!
On the other hand, the author was far too easy about the rest of his job. Just citing examples assuming that they already prove the point does not provide any convincing evidence nor satisfy the requirement of an academic approach.
In my estimation Brian Tasker is absolutely right when dismissing the texts in question as “Haiku Lite”. They are even less than “so-what” offers. Yet the decisive aspect is that Welch does not present the least bit of conscientious argumentation to support his bare assertion! “Lightness” in Bashō’s tradition does of course not mean mere banality. That is what we, the readers, should learn from this reckless attempt.
Klaus-Dieter Wirth makes a fair point that I might have explained in detail why the poems I quoted were indeed showing effective touches of lightness (karumi), although I fail to see why the essay is therefore “reckless.” I had not expounded on each of the poems because I truly trusted readers to pay sufficient attention to recognize the karumi for themselves. Karumi requires deep sensitivity, as writers and readers, to be someone one whom “nothing is lost”—or, as Mary Oliver has put it, “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Perhaps you’re either wired for this sensitivity or you’re not, this way of being astonished, or perhaps it depends on one’s subjective relationship to the content of each particular poem. Perhaps some readers were able to recognize the effective lightness in these poems, to catch the soap bubble without popping it, even if Wirth (and Tasker) seemingly could not. This is not an excuse for haiku that are truly “so what” poems, but an attempt to differentiate between the so-what and the so-wow, to differentiate between the banal and the subtle.
So, to explain what I value in these poems or not? In an essay titled “The Dreamer and the Watcher,” from Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1994, 99), Louise Glück wrote, “I am uneasy with commentary.” I’m not sure I agree with that perspective, because I’ve made a lot of my writing life out of such a habit, but I also note what else she said, which was this, in reference to commenting on her own work: “I can’t add anything; what I can do is make the implicit explicit, which exactly reverses the poet’s ambition.” In any case, it seems that some readers may need more handholding to see the lightness in these poems, so let me explore them now, even if my doing so reverses the poet’s ambition.
in the office
someone opens a drawer
In the context of working late, what does it mean to have heard someone opening a drawer? To me it’s not just noticing a sound and recognizing that it’s the sound of a drawer. A deeper overtone is that the poet realizes that he is not alone. This could be comforting, or it could be startling. If we trust the image, presented as barely as possible, I believe we can empathize with this late-night office worker—haiku is, after all, a poem of empathy, and this sensitivity is especially necessary with karumi. Someone else is working too, we can presume, which may mean that some project requires more than one person’s attention. Or it may be disturbing if the poet thought he was alone and hears evidence that he is not—raising the question of who the other person might be, whether it’s someone else at work or perhaps an intruder. We are given just the barest open-ended hint as to what the feeling might be or what might happen next. The poem’s light touch opens its meaning and emotion to engaging possibilities if you give it empathy and attention.
a spool of thread
left on its side
This is an example of what I would call trusting the image. It seems very slight on the surface—a sideways spool of thread in the context of a summer rain. But why is the spool on its side, and why does that matter? To me it suggests not carelessness (a lack of tidying up) but active work. The summer rain is not incidental but is a motive for staying indoors and perhaps finishing a sewing chore or pursuing a creative hobby. The spool left on its side indicates, at least for me, that the poet is busy working, paying more attention to the task at hand rather than straightening his tools. Alternatively, it could be that the person is no longer sewing but has walked away to attend to some other need, the spool on its side therefore being evidence of past work. Either way, a key word here, perhaps the most subtle, is “left.” The spool of thread is not just “on its side” (a purely factual description) but is “left” that way. This word helps with the rhythm of the middle line but more importantly carries the meaning of intention, meaning that other things are more important at that moment. How very delicately the poem gets to the point of suggesting the poet’s focus on the sewing task at hand—or perhaps some other task entirely.
under the shade tree
an empty chair
Another barely presented image. But it immediately begs the question, why is the chair empty? Pointing merely at the chair and noting that it’s empty easily suggests that it used to be occupied. We are left to wonder whether someone has just risen temporarily for some reason or if, at the other extreme, if someone might have moved away or even died. The absence here has range, suggesting either a temporary or permanent absence. The poem therefore exudes melancholy. Those interpretations aside, the empty chair also serves as an invitation. If the observer is hot, she might be attracted to this particular chair in the shade—and thank goodness it’s empty. We can dwell in many possible meanings here—it’s hardly a so-what poem.
a truck driver gently unloads
sacks of clams
Does the word “gently” not transform this poem? Clams are hard and could easily make noise that disturbs nearby sleeping residents in what I see as a city location. Despite truck drivers having a reputation for being “hard” themselves, and perhaps insensitive in their masculinity, this truck driver is thoughtful and considerate, not just of nearby residents but also careful with the clams themselves, taking care not to damage them. In this way the poem bucks a too-frequent stereotype we may have of truck drivers. The first line sets the time of day, still in twilight, so very early. The second line tells us that a truck driver is going about his work, presumably making a delivery to a restaurant or seafood seller. The sharp K sounds in “sacks” and “clams” reminds us of how hard the clams are and how noisy they could be. But no, they are unloaded gently, and we therefore see into the truck driver’s considerate psyche. Each word is rich and essential in this poem. Personally, I don’t know if it has karumi, and I never emphasized it as such, but I do think the poem treats a “hard” object with delicateness—and I don’t just mean that the truck driver treated the clams delicately, but that the poem presents the action delicately. Brian Tasker seemed to suggest it was “Haiku Lite,” though, and I disagree. While the clams are heavy, the truck driver’s actions are not—yet they are “heavy” in terms of significance. Indeed, to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “The essential, most often, has no weight.” The attuned heart will see this weight, and if one is not attuned for these particular poems, I hope one will be for other poems demonstrating lightness.
—30 June 2022