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Follow the Brush: Making Zuihitsu Poetry

Zuihitsu? What is it? I’d never heard of this strange word before either until I first encountered the work of American poet, Kimiko Hahn, and in particular her mesmerizing collection The Narrow Road to the Interior (2006) in which she employs this ancient Japanese technique in the writing of some startlingly modern poetry.

If you look it up you will learn that Zuihitsu is a Japanese literary form dating from around 1000 A.D. when Sei Shōnagon wrote The Pillow Book, a collection of personal essays woven from fragments of texts, ideas, thoughts, notes and observations.

‘I like to think of zuihitsu as a fungus’ says Kimiko Hahn in an interview with New York poet Laurie Sheck for BOMB magazine, ‘not plant or animal, but a species unto itself. The Japanese view it as a distinct genre although its elements are difficult to pin down. There’s no Western equivalent, though some people might wish to categorise it as a prose poem or an essay.’

Hahn’s introduction to her book, which is also the first poem, is written in the form of a letter and offers itself as a directional guide (it is titled ‘Compass’) as well as a demonstration of zuihitsu.

It begins:


Dear L–
You asked for a little compass. Thank you!
I was looking for a definition of the zuihitsu from my shelf of
Japanese texts, but discovered none gave more than a sentence or
two. None seemed especially scholarly–which might be a good
thing. None offered the sense of disorder that feels so integral.


Zuihitsu is neither prose poem or essay although it can sometimes resemble both. To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan. There is a strong sense in zuihitsu writing that the creation of order depends on disorder. Zuihitsu demands as its starting point, juxtapositions, fragments, contradictions, random materials and pieces of varying lengths. I like this. This, it seems to me, is also how most things in life are, how people are, how thinking is, how poetry should be.

Kimiko Hahn is right, there is no exact Western equivalent, although reading Hahn’s poetry gave me the same feeling of excitement and possibility I remember having when, in high school, our history teacher gave us John Dos Passos’ trilogy, USA, to read.

Dos Passos employs a technique not unlike zuihitsu in this book incorporating different narrative modes; collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics (‘Newsreel’), short labeled biographies and accounts of historical figures (‘Camera Eye’) mixed with fragments of autobiographical stream of consciousness. The trilogy covers the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century and portrays everyday situations of the characters living in it. Fascinating! This, surely, is telling it slant.

The Pillow Book – so called because of a custom amongst courtiers in 10th Century Japan of keeping notes and diaries in a wooden drawer in their pillows – provides us with a glimpse of the mores of aristocratic Japanese society during the Heian period. But Sei Shōnagon’s book of observations and musings also amounts to an astonishingly recognizable and timeless portrait of being human in any century or place, perhaps most particularly pertinent to us poets.

Shōnagon’s list of Annoying Things begins: ‘When one sends a poem or kayeshi (‘return-poem’) to someone and, after it has gone, thinks of some alteration – perhaps only a couple of letters – that would have improved it.’  Cited amongst her Very Tiresome Things is: ‘When a poem of one’s own, that one has allowed someone else to use as his, is singled out for praise.’ Under Miscellaneous she tells us ‘There is nothing in the whole world so painful as feeling one is not liked’.

I love some of the unexpected and arresting images in The Pillow Book like ‘the face of a child that has its teeth dug into a melon’ that emerges top of Shōnagon’s Pretty Things. Separated out, these listings of thoughts, musings, opinions, overheard conversations, and complaints, can seem odd, trivial, random or unimportant and yet, strung together zuihitsu fashion, they take on a vital and wholly absorbing quality.

The chapter headings below taken from A Life of One’s Own (1934) a book by British author and psychoanalyst, Marion Milner (aka Joanna Field) that records her introspective journey over a seven year period in which she sets out to ‘find out what kinds of experience made me happy’ read almost like the list headings in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book written over a thousand years earlier.


1 First questions

2 Keeping a diary

3 Exploring the hinterland

4 The coming and going of delight

5 Searching for a purpose

6 Searching for a rule

7 Two ways of looking

8 Discovering that thought can be blind

9 Watching the antics of blind thinking

10 The escape from blind thinking

11 Fear of a dragon

12 More outcasts of thought

13 Relaxing

14 Cart-horse or Pegasus

15 Discovery of the ‘other’

16 Retrospect


In her own introduction Milner describes the book as ‘a contemporary journal of an exploration which involved doubts, delays and expeditions on false trails, and the writing of it was an essential part of the search.’ (p.xxxiii)

She explains that her method of doing so was:


‘(a) To pick out those moments in my daily life which had been particularly happy and record them in words.

(b) To go over these records in order to see whether I could discover any rules about the conditions in which happiness occurred.’ (p.xxxiii)


The going over these records and weaving together her observations and notes into some kind of collective whole must have involved Milner in a zuihitsu type process, resulting in a   book so poetic in its nature that it won praise not only from her fellows in the psychoanalytic profession but attracted favourable reviews from such notables as W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender.

For a long time I have been in the habit of keeping old magazines, colour supplements primarily, for use in writing workshops. Old magazines are piled high in my writing shed. I have always found visual image a good starting place for ideas – cutting pictures from magazines to construct collages can often helpfully lead to the finding of metaphor, though increasingly I have discovered the same usefulness when cutting up words.

In 1966 artist Tom Phillips set himself the task of finding a cheap second-hand book which he could cut up and alter to create an entirely new version. The book he found was 1892 Victorian novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock – Phillips transformed it into A Humument which he published in 1973 and has continued to transform, revise and develop and publish new versions ever since.

Poets tend to be inveterate note senders, journal writers, diary keepers, letter hoarders. I am no exception. But how often do we think to use those pages of our journals, diaries, letters, notes directly when constructing our poetry?

If you decide to join me on this Poetry School course to explore the Making of Zuihitsu Poetry (and I’m hoping that you will) I hope to turn you all into scavengers, raiding your cupboards and attics for old letters, pages from childhood diaries, your computers and phones for old emails and texts you might source for your writing.

We will look at works like that of John Dos Passos, Tom Phillips and Marion Milner that seem to be doing something like zuihitsu, take inspiration from Kimiko Hahn’s poetry, study parts of Sei Shōnagon’s Pillow Book and learn about other traditional Japanese examples of the form. But mostly we will play with possiblilities – explore what zuihitsu is or can be.

I aim to get you eavesdropping on conversations in buses and tubes and writing down what you hear, looking more closely at the writing on billboards and signs all around us that you might otherwise have ignored. Together we will learn to magpie these treasures and turn them into zuihitsu poetry of our own.


Write poems inspired by Zuihitsu techniques on Cheryl’s new two-Saturday course ‘Follow the Brush: Making Zuihitsu Poetry’Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.



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Image: Zeedieren-Rijksmuseum