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Duo Corpse Exercise

     Sei Shōnagon List Exercise


One of the greatest prose writers in the long tradition of Japanese literature, Sei Shōnagon lived over 1,000 years ago. And though her life’s great work, The Pillow Book is rich in information about the period in which she lived, her own life is somewhat of a mystery. She served as Lady-in-Waiting to Empress Sadako in the last decade of the tenth century and The Pillow Book covers the ten+ years of that service, but this is the extent of what we know about her.


Included in this diary is gossip, vividly descriptive passages, sketches and most importantly, for our purposes, lists. Included in these lists are: “Rare Things,” “Elegant Things,” "Hateful Things," "Things That Should be Short,” "Things That Cannot Be Compared” and “Things that have Lost their Power.”


From The Pillow Book:


          Poetic Subjects


The capital city.   Arrowroot.  Water-bur. Colts. Hail. Bamboo grass. The round-leaved violet. Club moss. Water oats. Flat river-boats. The mandarin duck. The scattered chigaya reed. Lawns. The green vine. The pear tree. The jujube tree. The althea.




You could start by writing a class poem on the chalkboard, asking participants to shout out suggestions.


A SPLAB workshop example:   


Things That Make You Joyful


your family





a soft pillow that you

get to sleep on for a

whole day



new shoes

tv shows


being included







thinking of nothing

sitting down and

thinking of nothing



                            (Rashi Stephens)


If the above had been poem shouted out by students, asking them to be more specific than “toys” would be a good way to reinforce the luminous details notion of writing. Details ARE the life of all great writing and students should always be encouraged to dig deeper and not settle for light verse. Do notice how one entry went for three, albeit short, lines:


a soft pillow that you

get to sleep on for a

whole day


Breaking up the rhythm with a multi-line image is a great way to keep the reader (listener) involved in the poem. Joe Brainard’s I Remember series is a wonderful example of this sense of knowing how to alternate rhythms and go deeper.


Other potential subjects for this exercise: “Things That Fade with Time;” “Things That Come Back” and “Things I Will Never Do Before I Die.”



11:39A – 7.16.09


Work Cited:


Morris, Ivan. The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.  New York, Columbia University Press, 1991.