Lightness shines in Basho poetry from his first renku stanza in 1665 till his final words spoken moments before he died in 1694; only from 1690 did he call his poetic ideal "Lightness."
"Lightness" in Japanese (karumi) is the opposite of “heaviness,” not of “darkness” - however Basho would have welcomed the double meaning in English.
Literary scholars claim that Basho followed in the tradition of “depressing, serious, and monotone” poetry, but actually he rejected that tradition which he called “Oldness” - by which he means “conventionality.” He created a new and original form of Japanese poetry he called “Lightness” which Shirane Haruo defines as
a focus on everyday common subject matter, on the use of ordinary language,
and on a relaxed rhythmical seemingly artless expression.”
Lightness is poetry about ordinary people and ordinary activities, people being people, alive and interacting, without tragedy, desolation, or anything literary. In 1667, 23-year-young Basho wrote:
Japanese poets for ten centuries have dwelled on the sadness of cherry blossoms passing away just one week after they bloom, however young Basho sees only happiness without the sad.
Scholars tell us Lightness first appeared in Basho poetry from 1690, because they ignore the hundreds upon hundreds of Light, happy poems he wrote before 1690. They only consider a few Basho haiku selected for their expression of impersonal nature and lonely desolation. The vast majority of Basho verses – haiku, renku, and tanka – throughout his thirty years as a poet, are full of human life, activity, joy, and wonder. Such is Lightness, the Way of Basho.
In a linked verse composed in the spring of 1665 by six poets in his hometown of Iga, Basho, about 20 years old, wrote his first recorded renku stanza:
The crescent moon on the 3rd day of the lunar month rises in the daytime, is seen in the evening sky, and sets before midnight; it is the perfect shape to draw peach wine from a celestial bucket and serve to us.
The point of young Basho's fantasy is to express the joys of friendship with his fellow poets who later will drink together on this warm Spring day. The verse is Light because it contains no heaviness, no tragedy, no disappointment or yearning, no regrets at growing old or sick; only happiness, camaraderie, and youth. Even at this tender age, Basho realized that poetry does not have to be negative; it can be entirely positive and Light.
Here is another fine example of Lightness from 1680, ten years before he realized the term “Lightness”
Cherry blossoms in Japan are nature’s ultimate expression of Lightness. This woman at a blossom-viewing picnic is “high” on cherry blossoms as well as on what she has drunk. She borrows a padded haori jacket from one of the men at the party, and puts it on, making her arms and shoulders appear large and manly. This is a working class party, so there are no samurai and no swords, so she pretends something long and slender is her sword which she inserts under her kimono sash, as she calls out “Hey, you guys, see how long my sword is!” sending the party into hysterics. Lightness is ordinary folks free from the hardship and misery of life, having fun,
From the winter of 1680 through 1681 and into 1682, Basho went through a heavy phase in which he wrote numerous poems of desolate loneliness -- yet even in the summer of this heavy period, he wrote a letter to his follower Biji condemning the furubi, or “oldness” of poetry:
Basho is so emphatic in condemning “oldness” – but scholars pay no attention to this letter. Haruo Shirane says, “During his journey to the Interior in 1689. Basho became aware of this problem, which he referred to as “oldness” (furubi) and “heaviness” (omomi). Shirane disagrees with scholars who claim that Basho’s “notion” of karumi, or Lightness, first emerged in the final years of his life, in 1693 and 1694; he points to statements that show Basho searching for Lightness as early as 1689. Well. Professor Shirane, what about this letter of 1681? Basho does not use the words “lightness” or “newness” but he clearly and repeatedly rejects “oldness” eight years before his journey to the Interior.
In the letter, Basho presents five points for avoiding oldness. Here are three of these: When Basho says “old-style” he does not mean centuries old, but rather as in the style of poetry a generation old, but still popular in 1681, although still too old for Basho’s taste.
Here is a Basho haiku, written in 1688, which illustrates his mastery of the use of ordinary words to achieve Lightness:
The words are completely, utterly simple. No complications: seven ordinary words with the most basic grammar possible in Japanese and likewise in English. Basho’s verse says absolutely nothing new about cherry blossoms or memories – instead he ‘sums up and conceals’ a thousand years of poetic expression on these blossoms and the memories that pass from one cherry blossom season to the next. The words so plain and ordinary are “realized” through the thousand years of associations of Japanese life with cherry blossoms.
Basho compares an artificial verse by Kikaku with his own naturally occurring verse:
Kikaku’s verse is suitable only for people off in some fantasy world where monkeys shriek. It is literary and masculine. Basho’s verse is REAL and feminine. He said The lower segment, “A fish store,” saying only that, is my style. Any woman in the temperate zone near the sea can see Basho’s haiku right before her eyes when she goes shopping in winter. So Lightness is possible even in the dead of winter.
Basho also introduces the term “resonance” (hibiki) for a sound vibration that occurs when the words are spoken. When words are artificial and unnatural, they stagnate” coming out the mouth – like water in a stream struck behind some sticks and fallen leaves, so that bit of water goes foul from lack of cleansing motion. So a poem becomes old and heavy.
In the letter to Biji, Basho condemned “oldness,” but offered no word for a positive alternative. From the spring of 1686 he emphasized atarashimi, “newness.” Makoto Ueda notes that at this time Basho praised a stanza by Sampu for "discovering something fresh, something no one else has noticed before." This spring Basho conceived the most famous of all haiku:
This haiku exemplifies “newness” because in traditional Japanese poetry frogs have only one role: croaking, whereas in OLD POND the activity and sound of a frog jumping into water take the mind in a new direction. So Basho's most famous haiku exemplifies "newness" which is the word Basho uses for his poetic ideal in 1686, and four years later changed that to "Lightness."
Kyorai also made a haiku about frogs, to which Basho responded in a letter
Usually many frogs croak, but Kyorai isolates one frog who “stops croaking." OLD POND portrays one tiny bit of activity and sound in the midst of the ancient silent pond. Kyorai portrays one moment of silence in the midst of countless croaks.
Basho, like many young people in every era, rejected the traditions important to his elders: he told Kyorai:
The disease of Oldness (also called “heaviness”) is the preference for old-fashioned literary words instead of the modern words young people use, the focus on heavy situations, disappointment and tragedy, dragging the reader down with allusions to the sad past or inevitable dying, the love for mono aware, the pathos of all things and all people passing away, how sad it is. Basho said “Enough!” of that old past. Look rather at Now, what an ordinary child does:
The verse overflows with life and activity: boy standing tall and watching, whale breeching, waves surging, boy blowing into shell, sound travelling throughout the village, adults running to their boats. The sound from the shell is the life-force of this child. The verse is “Light” because it has no tragedy in it, no grief (except to the whale), rather an appreciation of a living child, of his life-breath.
In a letter of 1690, Basho offered this haiku written at New Years as an example of poetry which is
A beggar asleep under a straw mat in the freezing cold New Year’s weather. If not for fortune, I could be him. The verse goes straight to its sociological meaning; it does not “spin about” aimlessly, yet is not “heavy”; it does not shove that meaning at the reader’s face.
Later that spring of 1690, Basho produced the haiku which is often considered the Birth of Lightness, although it actually marks the birth of the term "Lightnress":
The scene the same in Basho’s time as in ours. The cold of early spring has passed, but there is still a chill in the air. Under a canopy of pinkish white blossoms, on ground scattered with petals, we lay out our favorite foods. Namasu is raw vegetables or fish marinated in vinegar, popular at celebrations Amidst the excited chatter of girls and women in their blossom kimono, the songs and laughter of relatives and friends, some more petals have fallen on the food. At the time of this verse, the Master said,
So, this is the first time Basho used the term "lightness" for his ideal; the many, many Light poems of the past 25 years were searching for this consciousness. To those who love Western poetry, Basho’s verses of Lightness will seem so simple and Light they feel like nothing – but they leave the reader feeling good -- as opposed to Heaviness which relies on heavy word associations and allegory to make the reader feel sad. Even without tragedy or sensationalism or negativity, however, Basho reaches into the human heart. In this verse, he reaches through taste sensations – soup which could be so many possibilities and namasu which is raw vegetables marinated in vinegar. The cherry blossoms scatter onto these two taste images; a liquid food and the sour taste of vinegar.
Basho says that Lightness comes from the kakari, or rhythm of words. Shirane, from his native Japanese ear, describes the rhythm in Japanese: the verse “starts slowly with four successive ‘o’ sounds (ko, no, mo, to) and then plunges into a strong consonant beat: (shi-ru mo na-ma-su mo sa-ku-ra) with each new syllable seeming to pick up speed, and then ends on the emotive, exclamatory kana, thus suggesting the inebriated mood of a cherry blossom party.” The final kana is “emotive, exclamatory,” so “hurray!” We are celebrating the season of warmth and new Life. Lightness is Us, real people having fun, sharing food.
Basho’s follower Shado wrote this verse
Focus on the garbage, and the verse is heavy, even gross. Maggots! Yuck! Now, focus on the sunlight and the affection of mother providing for her babies, and it is altogether Light and “cute.”
This next verse is a landmark in Basho’s realization of Lightness:
Mochi rice cakes are eaten during the New Year’s season which lasts up to three weeks. As the days pass, with no refrigerators or plastic wrap, the leftovers get moldy – however if dried in the sunshine, the mold can be wiped off and the mochi eaten – but not if it had bird poop on it.. Usually we hear the lovely song of the bush warbler, but Basho notices something else about the bird. Scholar Kon Eizo says this verse is a “crystallization” of Lightness; it gives a definite form to Basho’s ideal: nothing poetic or philosophic. romantic or tragic, simply life as is, with a touch of humor, to be interesting. Small children will like any verse with pee or poop in it, so this should be a favorite.
Newness is the beautiful part of poetry, the part that gives life.
Basho told Kyorai his ideal for poetry:
In the summer of 1692, Basho wrote the longest of all his letters – the original scroll measures 3.46 meters (11 feet 4 inches) -- to Kyorai. One section is his severe condemnation of the practice of “poetry gambling” in which poets completed for the judge’s favor, so they produced heavy artificial verses to impress and shock.
I guess Basho would not enjoy video games.
The year 1693 was a difficult one for Basho. He suffered throughout the spring from the illness and death of his nephew Toin – who grew up in Basho’s house, like a 17 year younger brother -- and catalogues his misery in Letter 167 to Kyoriku and Letter 169 to Keiko. For one month at the end of summer, he closed his gate to all visitors and refused to go outside; in a haibun, he describes his effort to “tear up involvements” with the world:
This is Basho at the nadir of his spirit, sunk into heaviness. Come winter, however he rebounded from depression to enhance his consciousness of Lightness - and some scholars consider this revival of Lightness in 1693 the true beginning of Basho's "phase of Lightness" in his final year. Muramatsu Tomotsugu says that the change in Basho’s literary style at this time, the focusing more and more on the ordinary life of commoners – as seen in the next haiku from the winter of 1693 - occurred because, “in accord with what we see in these letters, Basho inevitably bowed his head to the depth of human love” – and from this came Lightness.
The leafy stalk of the daikon radish stands as tall as a small child, while the long white radish lodges deep in the ground. Early winter is called ko-haru, “small spring”, for the days are often sunny and pleasant so winter already seems past. One such day, an entire farm family has come out to gather this year’s daikon crop. The youngest son, too small to help pull the thick heavy radishes from the ground, has been set on the horse tied to a tree where he will not get in the way. This is not an actual apprentice monk but rather an ordinary kid whose head has been shaved close; “little monk” is a term of affection. Because ‘daikon gathering’ in Japanese tradition suggests a happy family excursion, I have added in the word “their” – we feel not this is not just any little boy, but “their little monk”— the youngest son loved by the whole family. Basho told Doho:
The image of “little monk” makes the child “stand out,” the bald round head on a child‘s body sitting on the horse high above the horizontal field, watching his elders at work. This “standing out” is what “makes” the verse.
Kon Eizo, pre-eminent Basho haiku scholar of the late 20th century, explains ON THE SADDLE in this way:
‘There is nothing to fear and all is calm and mild. Here is a candid photograph
of peaceful daikon gathering in a simple farm village, its focal point, the little boy.
A fine example of Lightness.
Notice Kon‘s words: “nothing to fear…calm and mild…peaceful… simple farm village…little boy.” Such is the material for Lightness. From the words in Kon’s commentary, I define Lightness as ‘a peaceful feeling of wholeness.’ Instead of bold, exaggerated imagery which shocks the reader, or lonely desolate beauty which saddens, Basho aims for a peaceful feeling of wholeness.
Another fine example of Lightness from the winter of 1693 is this haiku on the traditional year-end cleaning of the house in preparation for New Year’s.
People are so busy cleaning that nobody is building anything new and this carpenter can take the day off. Basho gives Life to him through the Lightness of his view. Can you see him there, doing at home what he usually does at work -- he smiles to himself.
In the spring of 1694, Basho followed with this ode to the Lightness of young girls:
Single layer cotton cloth is bleached by exposure to the sun and spring breeze; overhead a lark sings brightly rising to heaven. The flock of girls in their pretty robes, going to have fun, chatting and laughing with each other, complement the clarity and freshness of the first stanza. Clean white fabric, skylark, cherry blossoms, and group of happy girls, all get high together. Japan idolizes the joyful sparkle of teenage girls – the sparkling quality which the girls in J-Pop groups are selected for –and it is fascinating to see such free-floating joy in Basho 330 years ago. For Basho to write such a poem of young female joy in his last year
shows that far from being the poet of impersponal desolation, Basho is the poet of Lightness and Joy.
Also this year, just before he left on his final journey, Basho defined Lightness to his followers in Edo.
Those who love Western poetry may find Basho’s poems of Lightness so simple and childlike, so lightweight, they feel like nothing, yet they are alive and life-giving, so they please the young and childlike:
Kyorai tells how in Nagoya, Basho defended his new style of Lightness against followers accustomed to more traditional poetry:
Only this, apply your heart to what children do.
Not what children say, or how children appear, but what children do (kodomo no suru koto). Children’s actions are whole – not split up by the conflicting parts of the adult self. Adults struggle to pass a barrier; children hop over it with joy. Children make no effort to be Light; they simply are.
In a letter to Sora, Basho speaks about his followers in Nagoya:
And in his letter to Sampu in Edo,
Basho says “concentrate” on Lightness. Lightness is more than just being flighty. It requires concentration as well as amusement. “Interest” is what is interesting to people, not to scholars.
Another masterpiece of Lightness, in the mid-summer heat of his final year, has the headnote:
Kaka is a rustic word for “old mother.” The word is “vulgar”, meaning “of the common people” but not derogatory; most Japanese consider it a term of affection. Chisou is literally ‘a treat’ but every Japanese knows this word as part of go-chisou sama deshita, the common everyday expression of gratitude to the one who prepared food. Kon Eizo tells us the meaning he sees hidden in this verse:
“Crone waves her round paper fan over the hot food to cool it off. This is an impoverished farm house, so we see her husband has returned from the fields, (taken off his sweaty cloths) and sits in his loincloth. Watching his beloved wife (aisai) bestow her heart (kokoro tsukai) on the food, he enjoys the evening cool and waits for the food.”
Kon recognizes the psychic energy, the love, Maw bestows on the food as she waves her fan over it. The great scholar recognizes that this is a love poem, not the love of young people at the beginning of their search, but the love of an old couple near the end. In the poetry of heaviness, we would grieve over their poverty and misery. However with Lightness we forget all that, and focus on peaceful feelings of wholeness, of love and gratitude, even in old and impoverished country folk. Where others see misery and vullgarity,
Basho, and later Kon, see love which is an expression of Lightness.
In a letter to Sora at the end of summer in 1694,he writes:
Scholars tell us Lightness was only one of the various terms Basho used to describe his poetry - however in Basho's letters and spoken word, Lightness, and its precursor Newness, are predominant.
On September 27 in Iga, Basho wrote to Kyorai about his attempts to encourage Lightness in his hometown followers
Then in autumn, just 18 days before his death, Basho wrote in a letter to Doho and Ensui, his two close friends in Iga:
Here Basho tells his two old friends, “when I was in town, you still had not ‘gotten’ Lightness, but the verses you sent show me that now you have.” Basho’s great wish is for Lightness to appear on this Earth. We can try to fulfill his wish, so even 300 years after his death, his joy does not diminish.
Basho's final and consumate experession of Lightness occured on his deathbed, moments before he died, on November 28, 1694: Shiko in his diary tells us:
Basho maintains Lightness to the very end. The flies “sure” (-rame) “enjoy” (yorokobu) “having” (yadosu) him the way you “have” or “keep” a pet. Basho is the flies’ pet, and they enjoy flying around in the smell of his infection and diarrhea. Even in his final words Basho uses lively specific verbs to create humor. His comment is so light and playful, and he is smiling, that his attendants assume he is not about to give up the ghost at this particular moment, so they continue swinging bamboo swords at flies.
So his Lightness passed from the world, although he left behind seeds of Lightness which can sprout in our minds and hearts.
Basho’s several hundred poems about women, children, friendship, love, and compassion are, I believe,the most pro-female, child-centered,and life-affirming works in world literature. I plead for your help in finding
a person or group to take over this homepage and printed articles, to edit and improve the presentation,
to receive all royalties from sales, to spread Basho’s wisdom worldwide and preserve for future generations