a significant occasion
Kaoru Kubota - 1970's

The Shisan - 12 verses - A Description

The Shisan is a twelve verse sequence consisting of four movements of three verses each. The movements are treated as preface, development part one, development part two, and rapid close. To the extent that the four part division is taken to reflect that of the kasen, the shisan also lays claim to the topical and tonal characteristics of the jo-ha-kyu pacing paradigm.

As with all formal renku the shisan starts with the season in which composition takes place. Unusually the seasons then appear in calendar order with one season featuring per movement. Typically spring and autumn will take a grouped pair of verses, whereas summer and winter are represented by a single verse apiece. However, for sequences begun in summer or winter, the wakiku would also be expected to take that season as the shisan invites a relatively conventional treatment.

The majority of moon and blossom verses will be set against autumn and spring respectively - the order in which they appear, and the characteristics of the relevant movement, being dependent on the demands of the calendar. In more experimental sequences the blossom position may be treated as the more generic flower. In all cases, a pair of love verses will appear in one of the central movements, normally the one that does not feature moon or blossom.

The word shisan may be read in several ways. Primarily shi means four, and san means three. When written in kanji shi may read as tamawari - something bestowed - and san as bansankai - a formal meal. The suggestion is that participants are invited to a significant occasion - reflecting the expectation that all will respect the finer points of style.

side 1
  autumn autumn spring spring summer winter
hokku au mn au sp bl sp [mn] su wi
wakiku au au sp sp [mn] su/ns wi/ns
daisan ns ns ns ns ns ns
side 2
4 short ns/wi wi/ns [mn] ns/su lv ns/su ns ns
5 long wi/ns ns/wi [mn] su/ns lv su/ns au mn sp bl
6 short ns ns ns ns au sp
side 3
7 long ns/sp [bl] ns/sp lv ns/au [mn] ns/au ns ns lv
8 short sp sp lv au au lv wi/ns lv su/ns lv
9 long sp/ns [bl] sp/ns au/ns [mn] au/ns lv ns/wi lv ns/su
side 4
10 short ns lv ns ns ns ns ns
11 long su/ns lv su/ns [fl] wi/ns wi/ns [fl] sp bl au mn
ageku ns/su ns/su [fl] ns/wi ns/wi [fl] sp au
Notes su/ns - (wakiku only) - where the hokku is summer, wakiku may be non-season
- (wakiku only) - winter likewise

or ns/sn - (elsewhere) - whichever is selected first its counterpart is selected after
- non-season (miscellaneous) position
- blossom position
[bl] - alternate blossom position (when season selected) - the choice is either/or
[fl] - alternate flower position (when season selected) - the choice is either/or
mn - moon position
[mn] - alternate moon position (when season selected) -
the choice is either/or
lv - love position, indicative - love verses move as group
The Shisan - 12 verses - An Appraisal
What is the difference between an appraisal and an opinion? Perhaps appraisal sounds more judicious. In which case what follows is an opinion.

Published in 2010, Wind Arrow 2 is a bi-lingual anthology by the Association for International Renku - a forward looking literary organisation based in Tokyo. Wind Arrow 2 is dedicated entirely to the shisan. In part, explains Tateshi Tsukamoto - a leading light - this is because the shisan is an ideal introduction to renku. It is simple. And easy to learn.

In terms of raw form - how many bits of what, where - Tsukamoto-san and his colleagues have a point. The shisan is compact, the seasons are logical, and the fixed topic associations will be familiar to anyone who has read a few haiku. But in practice the shisan is far from easy.

jo-ha-kyu - while the generality of its application may be honoured in such things as avoiding awkward topics for the first few verses, and finishing with a flourish, there are problems. Jo is very crowded. Given that the shisan relies on tradition, each constituent verse has special compositional requirements. Daisan is particularly conflicted, being at once a conventional break-away verse but also, as the last verse of the first movement, being expected to generate a degree of pause.

Ha is also compromised. The short movements make it hard to introduce challenging topics in either of the development sections as there is not enough room to modulate their effect by contextualisation and transformation. Either they become isolated and overly prominent, or they are avoided altogether and we end up with something rather more anodyne.

Kyu may finish boldly, as is the popular perception, or create the lingering resonance of the deep and silent pool, as Master Zeami decreed the true purpose of the elegant ending to be. But, with only three verses to play with, it is difficult to achieve both.

cadences - always assuming that our verses have any cadences in the first place (see Know Yourself), approximately 1000 years of linked verse tradition condition the eye and ear to expect long verse followed by short verse, two by two, until the ark is full. The schematic above confirms that no movement in a shisan retains the traditional pattern. Each movement contains three verses. All are therefore obliged to end with a long verse, or start with a short verse.

seasons - at first sight the logical succession of the seasons is a welcome simplification of the more arcane formulae that reign elsewhere. But the compaction of the shisan means that there is often only one clear verse between designated season positions. Occasional distributions such as au ns wi are inevitable, the virtual synchrony being more likely to generate reversion.

Even where there is a two verse separation the strongly associative pull of natural logic can make it hard to establish sufficient distance to avoid a general feeling of regression. There is also a tendency for the mind to impute chronological or seasonal references to the interstitial miscellaneous verses so that what appear to be thematic chains emerge.

passages - it is one of the defining characteristics of Shofu renku that it moves beyond the rolling recombination of cameo pairs to permit powerful non-thematic linear cohesion over extended passages of verse (see The Mechanics of the White Space). For all that it may be handled lightly, the shisan pauses and relaunches every three verses. It cannot sustain long riffs.

To be clear: these observations are not made in order to illustrate that the shisan is in some way worthless or defective. Rather that, though the activists of AIR clearly hold the contrary opinion, it pushes the boundaries of Shofu renku and can be very hard to handle.

But the intricacies, the differences, and the challenges peculiar to the shisan are also its attraction. It is nothing if not unusual. Done well it is both striking and beguiling. The only caveat is that, for purposes other than the exchange of pleasantries, it is not best suited to the beginner.

Of course the way to find out is to try writing one yourself. Now would be a good time!