January 7, 2022

Prompt: Zuihitsu

Painting by Shikibu Murasaki

On this call for submissions, we will consider the Zuihitsu (随筆 zuih-itsu), a genre of classical Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas that typically respond to the author's surroundings. The name is derived from two Kanji meaning "at will" and "pen."

It is neither prose poem nor essay - though it can resemble both. The translation is to "follow the brush" as in painting, letting the brush take control of the hand. The form implies there will be discovery rather than plan. The creation of order depends on some disorder. 

The usually short entries contain juxtapositions, fragments, contradictions, random materials and pieces of varying lengths. It is often personal writing and contemplation. In longer zuihitsu pieces passages that look more like "poetry" (shorter lines, figurative language) also appear. One article I read called zuihitsu a genre in which the text can drift like a cloud.

Zuihitsu might be best known in its first appearance more than a millennium ago in The Pillow Book written by Sei Shonagon, a courtesan of the court of Empress Sadako/Teshi. Sei was a contemporary and acquaintance of another courtesan, Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote another Japanese classic, The Tale of Genji

Makura no sōshi (The Pillow Book) was written around 1000 and like many old personal diaries and journals it gives us reflections on the customs and usages of the time. Sei Shonagon kept a diary that includes the intrigues, dalliances, and habits of Japan's late tenth-century elite, as well as her personal feelings.

I read an abridged translation by Arthur Waley. There is a little thrill in reading the diary of this very young woman. She writes in a time and place that treated poetry as important as knowledge.

Zuihitsu written today by most Westerners is hybrid. A precise definition is hard to give. I would say that the emphasis is not so much on a subject as it is about the movement between the passages. The passages are interconnected but flow from one to the next more by association than any literary logic. The writing process mirrors the author’s mind. Parts may be in verse if that is the best form for the idea. The form changes the content. Another description I have seen of the form is that it is a "lyric essay." 

The first time I was introduced to the form, the modern poem that came to mind was "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens. Looking at it again, it does seem to fit the form. Here are two of Stevens' "ways"

I do not know which to prefer,   
The beauty of inflections   
Or the beauty of innuendoes,   
The blackbird whistling   
Or just after. 

It was evening all afternoon.   
It was snowing   
And it was going to snow.   
The blackbird sat   
In the cedar-limbs.

American poet Kimiko Hahn published her collection The Narrow Road to the Interior and uses this ancient Japanese technique in the writing of her very modern poetry. (Her title is taken from haiku poet Bashō's famous travel diary, Oku no Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior).

Another modern example is "Zuihitsu" by Jenny Xie. Here are just 3 passages.

A Zen priest once told me that without snagging on a storyline, the body can only take loss for ninety seconds. The physical body has its limits, is what I heard.
The imagination can break through them.

Boiled peanuts. Leather of daybreak. Cotton thinning out into thread. Dried vomit. Ice water from the spigot. The sacred and profane share a border. In the desert, small droppings of unknown origin.

Even when I was young, I loved peering at faces in films. The pleasure of watching and of not being watched.

Tina Chang used the zuihitsu form in her collection Hybrida. Here is an excerpt:

Hybrid forms leave fences open. They are wide fields with snow leopards, wolves, and honey bees. The combustion of imaginings forms a lake, water spreading, explosions on the surface of an oil slick. 

Hybrida is the change of properties. Long ago the earth plates shifted, came together in new permutations. New land. New World. It permits a space to be wounded, sutured, broken again, and untied to float to a beyond. 

This mixed presence is a ghost, converses with the living. What lingers sounds like leaves crushed beneath feet, or the light that remains on after you’ve distinctly shut it, the house in the field over there, the one that keeps living whether you view it or not. Lights in the upstairs room. Shadows move when the wind changes its mind. It seems inhabited, doesn’t it?

All those poet interpretations are worth looking at but as our model this month, I chose some sections from The Pillow Book itself. The author often makes lists under headings that could serve as titles. Here are some examples (there are more on the prompt page of our main website).

Pleasing Things

Finding a large number of tales that one has not read before. Or acquiring the second volume of a tale whose first volume one has enjoyed. But often it is a disappointment.

In life there are two things which are dependable. The pleasures of the flesh and the pleasures of literature.

Lighting some fine incense and then lying down alone to sleep. 

Looking into a Chinese mirror that’s a little clouded.


Things That Make Me Feel Nostalgic

Coming across a torn scrap of lavender- or grape-coloured fabric crumpled between the pages of a bound book.

On a rainy day when time hangs heavy, searching out an old letter that touched you deeply at the time you received it.


Write a zuihitsu-inspired poem, collecting a series of random but interconnected thoughts and personal notes about your surroundings. 

I think that a good starting place would be to use Shonagon's organizing method of a heading which can become your title or serve as a kind of stanza. You need to decide on some unifying element even if your pen takes you along a stream of consciousness  to some place unexpected. For example, you could write 12 thoughts, one for each month, or have 7 for each day of the week. The sections might resemble haiku. 

Your submission this month is not a pillow book or diary, but it might be an excerpt from one. There is a free online text version of The Pillow Book if you are looking for more section ideas. 

This is a very open form. Feel free to ignore most essay and poetry rules. We hope you're open to the challenge.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: January 31, 2022.   Please refer to our submission guidelines.


In Greenaway's film version, the protagonist loves having calligraphy put on her body.

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