Karumi – Bob Jones on lightness in haiku

The following thoughts first appeared on the HaikuOz website in 2001, originally posted by John Bird.

It comes as no surprise that when Janice Bostok visited Bob Jones, they spent a morning talking about haiku. Bob raised the subject of “karumi” and explained that karumi is the mood of lightness which informs much of Basho’s late-life poetry and that few western poets seem to have engaged it in their haiku. Bob gave this example of Basho’s karumi:

so cool
 the wall against my feet
 a noonday nap~

When editing submissions to FAHA (First Australian Haiku Anthology), Janice Bostok and I noted a leaning towards profundity, and we thought Bob’s comments might provide counterpoise. With the permission of all concerned, I quote from a letter Bob subsequently sent to Janice, and in which Bob returns to his theme. ……….. John Bird.

“A couple of important issues were raised that we didn’t have enough time to explore. One of them concerned the mood of karumi, which has been a chief interest of mine over the years, particularly in relation to my own haiku. You asked for my understanding of it and I couldn’t easily come up with an explanation. I think most serious students of haiku have a hard time coming to terms with Basho’s later works. In many respects the poems seem bland and a little bit thin. Basho himself likens karumi to shallow water over a sandy bed, which certainly seems to go against any sense of mystery or depth. However I think the main thing to get from this likeness is the idea of transparency. Nothing’s hidden, or even hideable, in the mood of karumi. Everything’s out there, plainly shown. Everything’s part of the open secret.

At the same time Basho’s late poems show a definite preference for everyday things and events. I take this to relate to the Zen position that awakening is nothing special and that the illumined mind isn’t different from the everyday mind. What it all adds up to for me is that the Mystery is always right there in front of and within us and that the only thing hiding it is whatever sense of complexity or showiness: whatever seems a big deal.

Ross Clark’s contribution to paper wasp [journal of haiku] hits the nail on the head: “we have spent years/trying to be extraordinary while he was/becoming ordinary“. The ordinary things and events of haiku written in the mood of karumi aren’t particularly valuable in themselves: they are valuable as expressions of the sincerity and inward simplicity of the poet: what Basho sometimes called makoto (genuineness). Basho was always cutting the throat of whatever impulse to impress or to achieve grand effects, and his karumi poems seem to show the way to true genuineness. They let things be, in all their comparative flatness. Readers are challenged to enter a simpler dimension where these simple things are reflections of an inward stillness that needs no fireworks or dressing up.

That’s my understanding but I expect it will grow. Among the poems in an issue of paper wasp, the one which strikes me as being nearest to karumi is Levy’s:

In between rains,
the smell of the garden
 decomposing.

Bob Jones”