Four Things
John Carley - 2010
 The Yotsumono - 4 verses - A Description
First proposed by the present author in 2010, the yotsumono - four things - is a four verse sequence comprising hokku, wakiku, daisan and ageku. The name recalls mitsumono - three things - the medieval practice of attaching particular importance to the first three verses of a writing sheet. The yotsumono, by contrast, is complete in its own right.

The structure of the yotsumono mirrors that of the Tang dynasty discontinuous poem - the jueju. Known in Japanese as the zekku, its four part progression is thought to have influenced both popular song and the emergence of linked verse. Each stanza of the zekku is named according to its function -
kiku, shoku, tenku and kekku, combining the suffix ku - verse - with the elements ki - description, sho - furtherance, ten - break, and ketsu - determination or outcome.

The yotsumono equates these functions to those of the hokku, wakiku, daisan and ageku - shorn of erstwhile greetings or felicitous parting sentiments. Whereas the zekku is written by a single author, and its degree of turn may be no more than a pleasant digression, the yotsumono is dialogic, being intended for an alternating pair of voices. It also breaks and shifts decisively. Most importantly of all, as with all Shofu renku, it is avowedly anti-thematic.

There are no topical or tonal exclusions in the yotsumono. In terms of jo-ha-kyu, the tenor is that of ha rather than jo or kyu. The poem is swift moving, never uniform. Though the seasons are no longer essential to structure, a strong sense of the natural world may be present at any point in the poem. Formal and informal kigo - season words - and classical fixed topics may either be prominent, or notable for their absence.

Excepting those cases where the ageku incorporates deliberate echoes of the hokku or wakiku for specific expressive purposes, great emphasis is placed on the avoidance of any hint of reversion or regression (see The Three R's). This extends to register, grammar and syntax. Poets are encouraged to pay particular attention to the phonic properties of their work, not least in achieving balanced and proportional cadences between verses.

In order to prevent the unwitting development of thematic subtexts, encourage instinctual responses, and ensure that writers have no greater access to additional information than their readers, participants are enjoined to set aside all discussion of their intentions until composition is complete.
more conventional
  autumn autumn spring spring summer winter
hokku au [mn] ns (lv) sp [bl/fl] ns su fl wi (fl)
wakiku au [mn] ns (lv) sp [bl/fl] ns ns ns (lv)
daisan ns au [mn] ns (lv) sp [fl/bl] sn (mn) sn lv
ageku ns au [mn] ns (lv) sp [fl/bl] sn/ns sn mn
less conventional
  open open open open open open
hokku sn lv sp mn+bl ns sn ns wi/su (mn)
wakiku ns lv sp ns ns lv sn lv ns
daisan ns ns sn fl ns lv sp bl ns lv
ageku au bl+mn wi/au au mn sn ns su/wi lv

sn - all-season position - or any other season (where a named season is also present)
- all-season or non-season
- winter or autumn
- whichever is chosen first its counterpart is chosen after
ns - non-season (miscellaneous) position
- blossom position
[bl/fl] - alternate blossom or flower position - either/or at one location only
bl+mn - blossom and moon both appear
fl - flower position
[fl/bl] - alternate flower or blossom position - either/or at one location only

(fl) - optional flower position
mn - moon position
[mn] - alternate moon position -
the choice is either/or
mn+bl - moon and blossom both appear
(mn) - optional moon position
lv - love position, indicative - love verses move together
(lv) - optional love position, indicative - love verses move together

The Yotsumono - 4 verses - An Appraisal

Shofu renku? As the courtesan once remarked to the abbot - it looks rather small. So the obvious question, when faced with a yotsumono, is to wonder if it is renku at all.

It depends on what you were expecting. As the abbot doubtless retorted.

Perhaps the oldest form of linked verse, and still the shortest, is the tanrenga - a single exchange of long and short verse between two poets. The yotsumono comes in at twice the size. It opens, broadens, develops and resolves. So, given that the distinction between renga and haikai is one of tone not form, and despite the courtesan's obvious disappointment, there is no reason why a yotsumono, written in the correct spirit, cannot be haikai no renga - aka renku.

But Shofu?

Certainly. If the term haikai is something of a catch-all - embracing everything from Basho's most refined work to the drasty margins of zappai - Shofu is more easily defined. Above all it is a question of aesthetic values. Fueki ryuko, kogo kizoku, fuga no makoto (see Minimum Conditions), none of these rely on length of sequence. The same is true for karumi - the principal driver of his mature style. And short as it may be, there are some aspects of the yotsumono that make it more mainstream than not.

The emphasis on balanced and proportional cadences between verses, and on the poetics of utterance in general, highlights a vital aspect of renku that has received scant attention as the genre has spread into English. The importance of phonology to individual verse structure, linkage, and the wider sense of cohesion cannot be overstated (see Know Your Enemy).

The yotsumono also obliges a thorough facility with the particular characteristics of each constituent verse. Description, furtherance, turn, and outcome. Head verse, support verse, breakaway, and close. These functions are vital to the success of any renku sequence but the yotsumono certainly concentrates the mind.
The ageku in particular is placed under the spotlight and can no longer escape by mouthing lukewarm platitudes. Though its task remains that of finding a symbolic and emotional fit rather than providing some form of logical conclusion, it is obliged to be much more focused. We are directed away from a generic sense of closure towards ketsu - an overarching outcome.

More problematic is the question of variety and change. Clearly, at only four verses, the yotsumono cannot contain the ten thousand things of Buddhist metaphysics. Yet this objection may be leveled just as readily at a junicho, or at all poems shorter than the kasen itself. In any event, the suggestion that omni-valence is the product of a surfeit of materials is contentious at best (see Thematic Renku). The anti-thematic, all embracing, nature of Shofu renku lies in its aesthetics, not the quantity of scrawl on the page - or else we mistake effect for cause.

The yotsumono side-steps the issue. Participants are directed to avoid all discussion of their intentions, the meaning of any given stanza, or of the linkage between stanzas, either before or during composition. Ergo - the poem cannot be thematic.

Where it is adhered to, this injunction has the welcome effect of boosting the importance of empathy in linkage and heightening the general awareness of phonics. It also gives rise to an intriguing paradox. A skillfully written ageku generates such a strong sense of coherence across the span of the poem that it feels as if it must have been agreed from the outset.
It is a further paradox that any attempt to contrive such an outcome by working to a prearranged plan tends to yield a weaker poem.

Renku is a dialogic form of writing, but it is not just an excuse for some genial chat (see Explaining It All Away). It takes courage to compose a yotsumono on the fly. But the end result may very well surprise.