WHR March 2019
WHR March 2019
Tenth Anniversary Issue
Editorial on this page
Ten years may not be long in astronomical terms. A mere drip like a morning dew, they have however been like eternity for someone who has been editing this humble online haiku magazine, World Haiku Review, since it was resurrected in March 2008. Counting from its original inception in 2000, it has existed for 19 years. The last twelve months were devoted to celebrating its tenth anniversary. We are now celebrating embarking on the second decade of its life.
The anniversary year came to its climax at the TRIVENI World Haiku Utsav 2019 held in its celebration in Pune, India, 1-3 February 2019 (see a special feature on this) where I talked about karumi in my key-note speech.* Karumi is such an important concept not only for Basho who explored it more than anybody else, but for every one of us in the modern world haiku community that the text of my key-note speech is reproduced below in this Editorial.
*For those who wish to study karumi in depth, see my academic paper of 1983 at: https://haikutwaddle.wordpress.com/2019/03/03/karumi/
Chairman, The World Haiku Club
At TRIVENI World Haiku Utsav 2019,
Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, India,
1-3 February 2019
Eleven years ago, The World Haiku Club held its 9th World Haiku Festival here in India at the Art of Living Ashram in Bangalore. The Festival was heralded as an epoch-making event and was expected to have a profound impact on the future course of haiku movement in India. Its architect was Mrs Kala Ramesh and her dedicated team.
Today, we celebrate an inspirational three-day TRIVENI World Haiku Utsav 2019, at this magnificent Savitribai Phule Pune University, conceived and organised by none other than the same Mrs Kala Ramesh. I have no doubt that it will be an exciting and memorable occasion, bearing a silent but eloquent testimony to the amazing and widespread development of haiku in this country over the past decade. I salute you all who gathered here today and all other Indian haiku poets up and down the country for the good job done, and wish you the very best in your endeavour for years to come.
I am especially delighted that this event is in celebration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Relaunch of World Haiku Review, which is the official online magazine of the World Haiku Club, and which Ms Rohini Gupta, Mrs Kala Ramesh and myself have been running over the last ten years.
As a fitting tribute to the success story of Indian haiku, I would like to talk on something which after many decades of deliberation I have come to consider to be perhaps “the” most important principle in the haiku literature…karumi.
Karumi is the concept, or more appropriately, the way of haikai which Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) was very keen to explore and develop, especially towards the end of his life as the definitive beacon of his school of thought, or shofu. If it was good enough for Basho, it has to be good enough for us too.
I believe you have had a chance to read the academic paper on karumi which I delivered in England in 1983. It is very long and elaborate. In today’s talk, it’s not possible to cover such an extensive and detailed deliberation on karumi. What I will do instead is to talk about it in a new or different way, explaining the essence of karumi as much as the time allows.
Now, karumi is a notion which seems deceptively simple to understand on the surface but in fact quite convoluted if one digs deeper. Karumi is a noun form of karushi or karoshi, meaning light, with more or less the same definitions of this English word. Then, is everything light good in haiku, and heavy bad? It, of course, is not that simple.
So, let us tackle it differently. We want to think of something we humans do, which has nothing to do with haiku but which nevertheless points directly to what might be the essence of karumi. Take a good violinist, to start off with. He or she seems to play the violin naturally, smoothly, cleanly and effortlessly. All this gives a sense of lightness, as I’m sure you have experienced yourselves. And surprisingly, each performance sounds new, fresh and distinct. This fact becomes immediately obvious if you listen to a bad violinist, heavy-going, muddy, sticky and laboured. The same can be said with piano, or any other musical instruments, including even bass drum. In singing too, good singers have a light touch, soft rendition, clear tone and smooth flow, as opposed to the heavy, strained and unnatural voice of bad ones.
What about world-famous ballet dancers? Their leaps, jumps and turns look weightless, free, smooth, flowing and elegant. What about good tennis players, swimmers, gymnasts, golfers or skiers? What about circus acrobats, Japanese sword experts, nurses good at injection, snipers, safebreakers, good drivers? The list goes on.
What all this means is that in any human activity, there is an element of lightness in the performance of best people. And it covers more specifically such qualities as smoothness, ease, simplicity, clarity, elegance, fluidity, naturalness, devoid of excess, superfluity, gimmick, artificiality, contrivance, being confused and muddle-headed, heaviness, burden or “baggage”.
As Basho left scarcely any writings of his own, explaining what he meant by karumi, we are only left with speculation. In fact, he himself did not know it for certain, because he was still only in the process of exploring into what kind of form haikai should be changed under karumi. However, a few words of Basho talking about karumi were found in his letter to Kyorai or quoted by some of his other disciples (Shisan’sBetsu-zashiki or Doho’s Sanzoshi). They are definitely a pointer to understanding karumi.
The lack of solid historical evidence of karumi does not mean it is not important. On the contrary it is very important in at least three major ways. Firstly, it is evident that Basho made a great effort to explore the way of karumi towards the end of his life even if shofu, or the doctrine of Basho school, was already well and truly established. This indicates that he was not really completely satisfied with shofu alone, and needed a new doctrine to make up for what was missing in order to provide an integrated haikai doctrine. In 1694, the year of Basho’s death, he was quoted as saying that shofu was still fine at the moment but in five or six years time, haikai would turn ever lighter. He died without seeing this development through.
There is some evidence to suggest that Basho had been thinking about karumi earlier. (e.g. Kyoriku says that the new tendency of karumi appeared as early as the time of “Arano”, Genroku 2, 1689). One can only conclude that this notion of karumi was on his mind every now and again for some time and that towards the end of his life he decided to make a concerted effort to build a complete theory of karumiwhich could be integrated into shofu.
Secondly, Basho’s disciples continued to study karumi after his death, quoting the master’s words, which indicates that they also recognised its special significance as Basho taught it.
Thirdly, it is such a fascinating and intellectually stimulating task to try to build up an informed opinion about what Basho really would have meant by karumi and integrate it into each contemporary haiku poet’s basic tenets of haiku. Karumi question, though, is regarded as one of the most difficult areas of the study of Basho.
Let us compare some of Basho’s remarks with those qualities I have listed of good performers of arts and other skills in order to see if they tally with each other:
One of the most famous of his remarks is comparing karumi to “…seeing a shallow stream rippling lightly on sandy bed…”.
The river here is not deep or turbulent. The water is clear and flowing without hindrance. The river bed is readily visible and not muddy or dark or full of heavy rocks. Perhaps grains of sand are being carried lightly downstream. The whole scene evokes a feeling of smoothness, weightlessness, fluidity, grace and lightness.
The other well-known remark of his compares karumi to something “…like gold being beaten and extended…” It would be wrong to regard gold here merely as something gorgeous or extravagant. Rather, it symbolises something rare, precious and significant. However, the most important point is the way gold is processed. I am assuming that Basho was talking about how to make gold leaves in places such as Kanazawa. The high quality of Japanese gold leaves is well-known worldwide. Basho must have been emphasising especially their thinness, smoothness, high quality and, of course, lightness.
Basho warned his disciples against letting “haikai stagnate” because “otherwise, it will become heavy.” So, it is obvious that for Basho haikai should not be heavy, i.e. it must be light. Here, by stagnation he meant a tendency of some poets to be dogmatic about their haikai stance without exploring new inspiration or insight.
Basho’s famous remark, “Learn about pine from a pine tree, and about a bamboo plant from a bamboo plant.”, was to warn against one’s self-will or arbitrariness, which would be opposite to karumi as it leads to loaded artificiality and harmful conceptualisation.
Basho wrote a letter to his Edo disciple, Yaha, saying, “You, yourself should be very careful not to be negligent of karumi.” Basho was talking about his recent experience of meeting Kyoto poets who had not managed to get rid of amami, which was a florid, elaborate and flowery sentiment derived from waka tradition.
Significantly, haikai originally meant comic verses as its essence was a sense of humour. Its history was an alternation between very humorous and not so humorous, and it was of course Basho who drove this alternating cycle to its extreme and turned haikai up-side-down into a serious form of poetry. Humour did not disappear in Basho. He internalised it. I have a fleeting thought, though not proved, that Basho was aware of the contradiction of making haikai serious as it would run counter to the most essential factor of haikai, humour. My thought goes that karumi must have been the answer for Basho to resolve this contradiction and provide him with an integrated theory of haikai.
During the trip of Nozarashi Kiko (The Journey of a Weather-beaten Skeleton) in 1684, he wrote a haiku,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 Basho using the word karoshi, the adjective form of karumi in his poetry. Whether he had the concept of karumi in his mind is not known but still it is significant that he used the word light when it could have been many other different words. Falling leaves are normally light as they have little moisture. A cypress hat looks and is light. There are many haiku depicting a cypress hat heavily laden with snow. So, it is obvious that Basho wanted to emphasise the lightness of falling leaves.
Let me at this stage sum up Basho’s teaching in relation to 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 hopefully universal 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.
We have seen the main characteristics of karumi. Does this mean that we can now write haiku of karumiby simply replicating these characteristics? The answer is emphatically NO. This is because there are deeper and more fundamental requirements for karumi.
Basho’s teaching, kogo-kizoku, is often used to describe one such requirement. It means roughly that a haikai poet should aim at and achieve high but must come back to the plebeian level. More specifically, a haikai poet should create internally a poem of high quality in terms of its subject, message and profound meaning, but externally, i.e. when actually putting it into words, should come back to the level of the common people, using everyday language and ordinary subject matter, which is the prerequisite of haikai-no-renga, after all.
This high-mindedness looks contradictory to karumi, and I dare say that Basho must have felt that, too. It may be that ever since Basho began to raise haikai-no-renga, which was comic poetry, using ordinary language and subject of the common herd, to the level of waka, which was highbrow literature of the upper class, his endeavour was always beset by this same internal contradiction. I think that his search for a new way under the guidance of karumi was indeed an effort to resolve this very contradiction.
Another teaching of Basho is haikai-jiyu, which is poetic freedom. He wanted to have recourse to karumito liberate haikai from the fetters of rigid rules and conventions of the past. The new way he sought should lead to a form which was free from prolixity (too wordy), cerebral conceptualisation and over-elaborate poetic diction. It was a flight from the formality of traditional aristocratic culture down to the one of the masses where things were done more freely. Basho was, however, also aware that too much freedom could and did lead to chaos, merely producing vulgar frivolities.
There are other aspects of karumi which affect the quality of haikai, but the two I have just outlined are the most crucial.
Nothing is better than showing examples, and explaining karumi is no exception. So, let me pick up a few examples of the haiku which I have deemed to be among the top English haiku and which also have the qualities of karumi.
out of the water...
out of itself
(Nicholas Virgilio, USA)
A well-known haiku by a legendary master, this poem has the qualities of good flow, nice rhythm, smooth rendering, surprise and deceptive lightness despite its profundity, all essence of karumi. I would not call it a minimalist haiku, even if its brevity may make it look one, and Virgilio was one of the first to realise the folly of replicating Japanese 5-7-5 and to make English haiku shorter. For want of better words, I would call it a karumi haiku and ask Basho for his verdict. Brevity certainly helps to give this haiku karumi. I make no apology for saying that this is one of the best haiku in English ever written (It is certainly my most favourite. I wish one day to visit his tomb and read it engraved on his gravestone.) and that he was one of the best haijin in any language, and a special one at that. His belief: “…We all have these tragic experiences, and life basically is tragic, nobody lives happily ever after. So what I hope to do is to uplift it and bring it into the realm of beauty..."
storm swept beach –
inside an empty shell,
(Carole MacRury, USA)
The author may not yet be a haiku master or mistress, but she certainly is a very good haijin. The poem begins with the calm “after” the storm and presents lighter and lighter topics/objects but with a sense of desolation and futility. It flows well and the image is clear. It feels light-hearted but its implications are deep. What is there inside the barnacles, I wonder? Endless, eternal emptiness of being? Or, is thisfukayomi? Someone who loves or lives near the sea, her familiarity with it will not diminish her sense of wonder and awe. She never ceases to be amazed by the unfolding of the secrets of nature. Karumi is certainly here.
a cat watches me
across the still pond,
across our difference
(Paul O. Williams, USA)
Both the topic and chosen words are ordinary and plain in this haiku. And yet it is a good observation and has an intriguing punch line. It invites smile from the reader because of its gentle humour and light touchon complicated human affairs. He was a good storyteller. Yes, there ought to be a lot of storytelling in haiku, only not the length of War and Peace, The Tale of Genji or À la recherche du temps perdu. I miss the conversations I had with him a lot. A humorous intellect, Williams could be compared to Natsume Soseki who also wrote a bestseller novel about a cat.
spring shower –
even communists took shelter
within church walls
(Tomislav Maretic, Croatia)
The whole story is related in a light tone as if it is an ordinary episode of peaceful life. But the recent history of the Eastern European conflicts gives it a deeper and sinister meaning. Are we, human beings, never cease to be enemies to each other? Can we never eradicate man’s inhumanity to man? Have religions never been dead, or never will be? Hard questions are washed down by warm, gentle spring shower and men of all sorts and walks of life still wish to avoid getting wet. An excellent example ofkarumi.
spring in the air
earth smelling of
(Gabi Greve, Japan)
The harbinger of spring drives our spirits up and makes them nice and light. The blanket of snow may have been beautiful, but it has also been heavy and oppressive. If you see grasses or ground peeping through the melting snow, life at last seems to be returning to some semblance of normality, constancy and pleasantness. One’s steps tend to become light naturally. The changing season is simply depicted with a light touch. We cannot help joining the author and smelling and breathing in the air with her.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, I hope my talk today has gone some way for you to understand the very essence of karumi, as opposed to some superficial theorising of it.
Eleven years ago, I said to you, “… the greatest hope [for the world haiku] will come from a country like India with ancient and versatile cultural, religious and regional dynamics and diversities, where not only poets have relatively been spared the [bad] influence of dominant haiku trend but also have their own strong poetic sensibility and love of their indigenous local languages. They have the perfect capability of grasping the essence of HAIKU from the primary source, i.e. Japan, so long as they remain uninfluenced by the [afore-mentioned] dominant haiku force in a negative way. They also have a lot to offer by creating their own haiku from their very soil…”
I have absolutely no hesitation in re-emphasising the same point today.
Before finishing, I have one special proposal. Have one of Indian university students doing Japanese studies specialise in haiku, send him or her to Japan to do PhD in haiku and become an academic; let him or her write many papers, books, both academic and popular, and above all many translations from the primary source. The whole world would look up for him or her and can learn a great deal to change the course of haiku outside Japan, or better still inside Japan as well. Would it be impertinent if I were to say that the initiative could start right here, at this
Thank you for your patience.