December 2003, Volume 1, Number 6

The Shisan Pattern
by John Carley, Renku Editor

At only twelve verses the Shisan is perhaps the most compact of all recognised patterns for renku. Though the name is sometimes applied rather loosely to any twelve verse piece of renku it more accurately describes the pattern proposed by the late Kaoru Kubota, a noted renkujin (renku poet). The Shisan 'A Princess is Born', included in this issue, may be safely taken as indicative of the form as Tateshi Tsukamoto, President of AIR (the Association for International Renku) and a close personal friend of the originator, is numbered among the participants.

The word 'Shisan' has several layers of meaning. At a primary level it may be read as 'shi', meaning 'four', and 'san' meaning 'three'. When written in Chinese characters 'shi' (or 'tamawari') may be taken as 'a gift from a higher place', and 'san' (or 'bansankai') indicates a 'banquet' or 'formal meal'. For all its compaction therefore the Shisan is nonetheless an invitation to observe the finer points of compositional style.

The Shisan consists of four folios: preface; development part one; development part two; and rapid close. Each folio, comprising three verses, features one of the four seasons. The poem begins in the season current at the time of composition, and follows the natural calendar. Typically spring and autumn might each be given two verses, winter and summer: one. The customary fixed topics of 'moon', 'blossom' and 'love' each make a single appearance, 'love' often extending over two verses. Because of the wealth of precedent and association, 'moon' and 'blossom' will tend to appear in their classic seasonal settings, autumn and spring respectively, though this is not a requirement.

The Shisan respects the tonal and dynamic requirements of the 'jo-ha-kyu' movement, honours the status of hokku, wakiku, daisan and ageku, and generally behaves in every way like its elder brothers and sisters.

A personal appraisal of the Shisan pattern

When first presented with the outlines of the form by Eiko Yachimoto of AIR (above) I had serious doubts as to its feasibility; was it possible, was it desirable, to compress the vast scope of the Kasen into such a short space?

There are conflicts. It is extremely difficult to establish the calm tone of the preface (jo) when all three constituent verses - hokku, wakiku and daisan - have special compositional requirements of their own. This is nowhere more apparent than for the third verse (daisan) which must at once 'break-away' from the more tightly paired hokku and wakiku, whilst conveying a sense of pause to mark the end of the preface.

The Shisan also obliges both the first part of the development movement (ha) and the 'rapid close' finale (kyu) to open with a short verse (tanku) - a marked contrast to the normal practice of beginning each movement with the, allegedly, more authoritative long verse (chouku).

The seasons too are altered. At first sight the adoption of the 'natural' calendar may appear to be a simplification. In practice it becomes more difficult to establish a clearly non-seasonal (zo) gap between seasonal runs as there is a tendency to impute 'logical' chronological references to the interstitial verses. Most crucially 'spring' is no longer the automatic theme of the final sequence and the time honoured pair of 'spring blossom' (hana no za) and ageku (final verse) can no longer be relied upon to provide a graceful exit.

Finally, the core dynamic of 'link and shift' is pushed to the edge. The desire to include as many materials (sozai) and subjects (shudai) as possible forces the linkage towards the tangential or, failing, cannot prevent each folio from resembling a themed segment.

The Shisan, then, is certainly a challenge, but the difficulties should not be overstated. The thirty six verses of the classical Kasen are not of themselves a formula for success. Renku is poetry, not ratiocination, and the taut demands of the Shisan are an invitation to sabaki and participants (renjyu) alike to find exciting and creative solutions.


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