On Zuihitsu

Last night at the Poetry Society I helped facilitate poet Kimiko Hahn’s seminar “Zuihitsu: The Running Brush.” Kimiko explained that Zuihitsu isn’t a form (it’s more of a genre of writing) and that famous examples of the genre, like Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book are not themselves zuihitsu, but are actually collections of zuihitsu. What is a zuihitsu? It’s a short piece of writing, not exactly poetry and not really prose, that is characterized by (these are terms Kimiko used, from my notes) “simplicity,” “asymmetry,” “suggestion,” “permissibility,” “free association,” “subjectivity,” “irregularity,” “variation,” and “spontaneity.” A zuihitsu might be a list of observations, an informal essay (punctuated by stray thoughts and observations), a couple of loosely related statements.… I thought this would be useful as I continue to think about the diary as a literary form and prepare to teach my Abron’s class in May.

Kimiko shared this example from Kenko’s Essays in Idleness (tr. Donald Keene):

“Somebody once remarked that thin silk was not satisfactory as a scroll wrapping because it was so easily torn. Ton’a replied, ‘It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed atop and bottom, and the mother-of-pearl has fallen from the roller that a scroll looks beautiful.’ This opinion demonstrated the excellent taste of the man. People often say books look ugly if all volumes are not in the same format, but I was impressed to hear the Abbot Koyu say, ‘It is typical of the unintelligent man to insist on assembling complete sets of everything. Imperfect sets are better.’

“In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable. Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth. Someone once told me, ‘Even when building the imperial palace, they always leave one place unfinished.’ In both Buddhist and Confucian writings of the philosophers of former times, there are also many missing chapters.”

Some of what I wrote during Kimiko’s seminar:

“I bought the table on Craigslist from a woman who lived on top of a mountain, wore rose-colored robes and filled her house with Yankee Candles. I meant to write, ‘who lived in an apartment above a chair lift, on the premises of a ski resort in the Catskills.’ The table was pink-rimmed, said she bought it by accident, dirty little legs and matching chairs, totally unsuitable. Like furniture in a doll’s house. I should have gone snowshoeing one last time.”

“How many unopened packets of soy sauce are there? How many are drifting in the oceans? A tuna eating a packet of soy sauce—here I reflect on whether I understand situational irony. Nothing is easier to take for granted than a packet of sauce. A ‘sort-of’ object, one picks up where the last one left off. One is not enough, while each suggests an infinite total quantity of sauce. My favorite single-serving condiments: ketchup, wasabi, mayonnaise? Dressing your fries with packet ketchup—now, that’s like trying to douse the London fire with a Super Soaker.”