Zuihitsu is a form that originated in Japan, composed largely of interwoven writings in prose and poetry on ideas or subjects that typically respond to the author’s surroundings.
History of the Zuihitsu
Translated from the Japanese, the provenance of zuihitsu means “following the brush.” As a genre in Japanese literature, the form encapsulates a record of the author’s reflection and time of contemplation seemingly at random rather than as a presentation of organized literary construction. The earliest zuihitsu dates back to 1002 AD when the poet and court lady to Empress Teishi, Sei Shōnagon, privately wrote The Pillow Book, a book of personal essays and fragments of her thoughts and observations. The form later gained prominence during the Tokugawa period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due to the Japanese scholars Motoori Norinaga, Yokoi Yayū, and Matsudaira Sadanobu.
Zuihitsu writings signify the issues and attitudes that surround the author at the time of composition. The form is hybrid, neither personal essay nor poem, and falls more so within the category of a prose poem. There are no strict formal rules of meter or rhyme to writing a zuihitsu. Instead, the zuihitsu is written in free verse and can shift formally, depending on the preferences of the author.
In her 2021 article for American Poetry Review, Kimiko Hahn writes on the zuihitsu:
[T]his uniquely Japanese genre is a poetic text lacking the formal structural principles we associate with Western verse. Through a variety of techniques––fragmentation, juxtaposition, varying lengths, disparate forms (observation, anecdote, journal, catalog, [...] and a hybrid text), and an organizing subject––it creates an impression of spontaneity and a quality of “imperfection.”
Zuihitsu in Poetry
Over the centuries, and in particular since the twentieth century, there has been a resurgence in recognizing the zuihitsu as a viable form to grapple with a variety of themes. In 2014, Columbia University Press published The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays: Zuihitsu from the Tenth to the Twenty-First Century, edited by Steven D. Carter, which features a catalog of more than one hundred zuihitsu written by over fifty authors. In 2019, W. W. Norton & Company published Hybrida by Tina Chang wherein Chang examines mixed-race identity, violence, and history through the zuihitsu and other poetic forms. The title poem “Hyprida: A Zuihitsu” begins with:
Once, the past was in dialogue with the future, a hybrid form. The origin of the word hybrida is Latin, from ibrida, or ‘mongrel’—a creature of mixed breeds. Open interpretation of violence, collision of selves, histories, and languages. Is language a movement of spirits or bodies making themselves known through their outward mutation? My parents came from China and migrated to Taiwan, ultimately arriving in the U.S. I was born in America, contributing to a long line of mixed culture, crossed boundaries, the collaborative and combustible nature of words. If I grew up with dual language, dual identity, how can anything feel both one and unified?
The fragmentation of the zuihitsu welcomes me randomness, collage, a piecing (and piercing) of memory and imagination that adds up to feeling akin to liberation. The liberation of imagination is the body’s response to dominance and containment. To build, speak, and write a way through each darkness. Zuihitsu, erasure, re-imagined ekphrastic poems, words in movement, journalism in conversation with invented narrative, fairy tales fused with the lyric imagination, language in dialogue with visual art—much of it isn’t entirely new, but now, written with a singular hand, calls to me. I think of discomfort, creating spaces where one is uneasy in order to change […].
In 2022, more than ten centuries after Shōnagon wrote The Pillow Book, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (AAWW) published online in The Margins the “随筆 | Zuihitsu notebook,” featuring twenty-one poets writing in a zuihitsu style. Among the authors are Kazim Ali, Wo Chan, Tina Chang, Ching-In Chen, Kimiko Hahn, Marwa Helal, Joseph O. Legaspi, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Jenny Xie. The range and possibilities of writing a zuihitsu continue to expand with the next generations of poets employing this form.