In one of the many anecdotes that characterizes Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book, Sei, a lady in waiting to the Empress Sadako, (who is the wife of Emperor Ichijo and a niece of Michinaga) goes with the other ladies in waiting to see a particular type of bird by a pond. They pile into a carriage and risk attack from robbers outside of the city. Heian Kyo, (current day Kyoto) or the city of peace and tranquility, was a walled city that only the aristocracy or gentry and royal court were allowed to enter and live in. As a result, leaving the city could result in danger from bandits on isolated roads. Nevertheless, the ladies in waiting to Empress Sadako had to see that bird, which was some type of relative of a Kookibura, and so ventured out during the evening to observe it by a pond.
Upon their return to the royal court, they were met with a singular demand by Sadako: Where are your poems?
Writing, sending, and reciting poems was extremely important in Heian society. One sent them to lovers, friends, and relatives, and memorized the most popular ones for recitation contests at the royal court. When one had a sorrowful, spiritual or beautiful experience in nature, one wrote a standard three line poem to express the emotions felt. However, Sei and her cohorts failed to do this, after having told EVERYONE at court that they were specifically going to see this lovely bird with a haunting cry in the evening by a lake. What could inspire poetry if not that scene?
The ladies all sit and immediately try to recapture the moment, but alas, it’s too late. No one writes a poem of which she can be proud, or which she wishes to share with all of the court. They all feel deep humiliation and shame.
When your friends tell of you their experiences, sights, or feelings, indignantly demand a poem. And how did that NOT inspire you to write a three line poem with the standard conceits?, you’ll ask incredulously. Show me the poems!