Seen and Unseen. $2.50. —Japan and America. $1.75.—Hiroshige. $7.50. New York: Orientalia.
Selected Poems. By Yone Noguchi. The Four Seas Company. $3.
That Yone Noguchi's contribution has been significant admits, I think, of no doubt. It seems rather strange, indeed, that in these past years, when the question of vers libre has engaged the attention of so many commentators, so little heed has been given to this Japanese poet who in the nineties so completely anticipated the imagist manner. It is beside the mark to invoke academic methods for the purpose of proving that free verse is as old as English literature. The phenomenon as we recognize it today had its actual emergence in France some thirty-five years ago, and M. Dujardins has set at rest the question as to who originated the genre by proving quite satisfactorily that it was really the crystallization of a tendency manifesting itself in the work of several poets at the same time. If we are to concern ourselves with the appearance of the genre in our own language—the strictly modern forms of free verse—we must look to the fruitful nineties for the entering mode. In England there were Hueffer (who claims priority), Sharp, Henley, and Symons; in America, Stephen Crane and Yone Noguchi.
It is in his character as a precursor that Noguchi is phenomenal and interesting. His first poems, five in number, were printed in the Lark (a magazine published in San Francisco and edited by Gelett Burgess) in July, 1896. His first book, "Seen and Unseen, or the Monologues of a Homeless Snail," was published at San Francisco in the following year by Mr. Burgess and the present writer. The enterprise, it may be said in passing, was a frenetic, unprofitable, but highly enjoyable adventure. Noguchi's subsequent semi-celebrity may warrant me in here placing on record some information regarding the literary debut of this ante-imagist
The young Japanese exile had been for some time a protege of Joaquin Miller, with whom he lived not far from San Francisco. One day, with no other introduction than a sheaf of manuscript poems, he presented himself at the office of the Lark. I happened to come in while he was there, and found Mr. Burgess in something of an excited quandary. He had been reading Noguchi's poems and had discovered or, rather, had sensed, under their strangeness, something challenging, alluring, baffling. He wanted to know what I thought of them. We agreed, I remember, that there was "something there," and after Noguchi's departure we examined the poems with care and with an increasing enthusiasm. A compelling vividness and beauty emerged from them with each rereading. When we discovered that with certain slight emendations in the interest of correcter diction (the comparative must be allowed here, because we realized at once that absolute precision of phrase would be fatal to the illusive charm of Noguchi's idiom), the poems yielded an exquisite freshness, Mr. Burgess decided to print a few such paraphrases in the Lark. The task of gentle paraphrasis fell in part to me, and here is one of the results—The Brave Upright Rains—which, it has always seemed to me, represents Noguchi as favorably as anything he has ever done:
The brave upright rains come right down like errands from iron-bodied yore-time, never looking back; out of the ever tranquil, ocean-breasted, far high heaven—yet as high but as the gum-tree at my cabin window.
Without hesitation, they kill themselves in an instant on the earth, lifting their single-noted chants—Oh tragedy! Chants? Nay, the clapping sound of earth-lips.
O heavenly manna, chilly, delicate as goddess' tears for the intoxicated mouth of the soil, this gossamer-veiled day!
The Universe grows sober, gaunt, hungry, frozen-hearted, spiteful-souled; alone, friendless, it groans out in the flute of the stony-throated frog.
Resignedly, the floating mountain of tired cloud creeps into the willow leaves-washed hair of palace-maiden of old.
Lo, the willow leaves mirrored in the dust-freed waters of the pond!
I remember that in the penultimate verse the original read, "the washed hair willow leaves of palace-maiden of ancient," by which, as Noguchi explained, he meant to liken the drooping willow leaves to the hair, just washed, of some beautiful, high-caste girl of ancient days. Such eccentric phrases were not, however, typical of his manner, which was, for the most part, only slightly touched by incoherence. As Mr. Burgess says in his sympathetic introduction to "Seen and Unseen": "If our hints and explanations of idiom and diction have aided him, and if our hands, laid reverently upon his writings, have in some places cleared a few ambiguous constructions, how generously has he repaid the debt! We gave him but the crude metal of the language, and he has returned it to us minted into golden coin. He has honored our native tongue by his writings; he has lifted the veil of convention and has discovered fresh beauties and unsuspected charms in our speech."
This poem and many others seem to be in their pattern much more an anticipation of Paul Fort than a reflection of Whitman, from whom Noguchi, because of his avowed admiration, is frequently said to derive. It should not be difficult, however sophisticated, however steeped in imagism one may be, to imagine how arresting these strange and naive poems were when they first appeared twenty-five years ago.
Yone Noguchi has produced in all six volumes of verse, from all of which copious extracts are given in "Selected Poems." I have dwelt upon "Seen and Unseen" because of its historical interest and because Noguchi lacks in his later expressions the integrity of inspiration, the sustained vividness of his earlier pieces. It was, however, through some of his later poems that he gained recognition from Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, Alice Meynell, William Sharp, and was made the subject of an appreciative essay by Arthur Ransome.
To understand Noguchi it is necessary to think of him as typifying the poet of hypersensitiveness, of fluctuant moods, delicate reactions, naif, wistful, aloof. As with Tagore, his attitude, and therefore his appeal, is consistently spiritual. True, the philosophic note sometimes enters impressively in his poems, but he never compasses power or incisiveness. The poems on the Yosemite show an intention of force, but the turgid diction still exhibits the sensitive spirit overawed by aspects of nature more imperious than hospitable.
As a writer of prose Noguchi is at once provocative and provoking. His style is involved, full of strange locutions, and complicated by a seeming prejudice against certain parts of speech, notably the definite and indefinite articles. The essays in "Japan and America" are studies in idealistic analysis and inference. They can hardly be said to plumb any depths or to offer anything illuminating or constructive. He ventures only timidly into the domain of economics, contenting himself with an examination of Japanese and American civilization in terms of literature and of certain external aspects of society. He conjures up the familiar picture of American literature moving like a caravan from the East to the West, and prophesies its ultimate arrival, bag and baggage, at the shores of the Pacific, where it will at last join hands with the literature of Japan. No one in Chicago, or even Kansas City, will deny that such a procession is on its way, but unfortunately for Noguchi's friendly hopes, the era of retroactive influence, as between American and Japanese literature, is rather of the past than of the future. As far as American poetry is concerned, the disease of Japanese influence became almost a contagion some years ago. It has since been followed by Chinese complications, and we are now in the position of waiting for the crisis to be reached and, haply, passed.
In The American Democracy Noguchi redreams the dream of Whitman and draws unhappy and dire conclusions from realist evolvements. In To the Americans he displays an engaging hardihood, telling us, among other things, that our civilization is "feminine." But let me offer the reader a taste of his medicine:
It is true that your women, even with their brains much injured or weakened by magazine-reading and candy-eating, control the larger part of your educational field, perhaps driving the men away like Bret Harte's 'heathen Chinee' with their cheap labor. . . . I am not blind to the fact that it was, in a great measure, the very work of American women, generally speaking, that successfully checked the vulgarization of the country in the hands of men with only monetary aspiration, almost without time for reflection and culture. . . . It is interesting to study how this religion, the 'Woman-worship,' was first inaugurated in America, and how as a useful practice it was respected there. But today as a religion it has lost its original meaning of existence, sadly degenerating into nothing more than mere habit, perhaps like drinking or smoking, or even opium-smoking. . . . It is really sometimes a pretty habit, but you will soon become or have already become, dull, senseless, and numb from long contact with it. . . . I think that your fair daughters are far too civilized and, of course, too educated for your own men. Who patronize the art of your country? Your women. Who support your stages? Your women. And who control your literature? Your women. . . . Let me say again that your men are in the same sense hardly equal to your women spiritually. Your men, whose culture is sometimes doubtful, are not conversationalists, although they might become monologists or preachers, and that is the reason why they fail to become successful lovers in women's eyes. If they fail, as they do in fact, I think and say that it is the fault of their environment and education."
The Noguchi books, though published in America, were manufactured in Japan. Printed on doubled sheets of thin Japanese paper, bound with lacings of silk, and inclosed in folding cases fastened with ivory pins, they are pleasant both to the eye and the hand. Quite fittingly the volume on Hiroshige is more sumptuous than the others. It contains numerous colotype reproductions of great technical excellence, which appropriately illustrate and clarify Noguchi's essay upon the work of his famous countryman. There is little to recognize as criticism or appraisement in the somewhat rhapsodical text, but it is not difficult to understand why the art of Hiroshige should arouse an ecstasy in the poet Yone Noguchi. His enthusiasm, moreover, may serve a good purpose. With the ascendancy of Chinese art there has become prevalent a rather uncritical attitude of impatience or condescension toward the art of Japan. It is now fashionable to dismiss the latter as skilful but unimportant. Now, Japanese art at its best does not, of course, approach the profound loveliness, the noble solemnity, the purity, the absoluteness of Chinese painting, but it is well that our attention should again be drawn by Noguchi to a dexterous but, none the less, original and great artist.
Noguchi enlists our interest, but rather as a poet and precursor of poets. In the light of him earliest efforts, and amide from any question of their actual merit, about which opinions must, of course, differ, it does not seem too much to claim that for independence of prescription, for sheer originality, these underivative utterances have rarely been matched in literature.
I may perhaps be forgiven a final word of reminiscence. It was in 1896 that Yone Noguchi suggested to me a collaboration in translating into English the work of a Chinese poet whom he referred to (without, I am sure, any intentional slight) as "the Chinese Omar." How interesting, not to say gratifying, it would be, had I not allowed the opportunity to slip through my fingers, to have anticipated by twenty-five years, however feebly, the service of Mr. Waley, Mr. Bynner, and Miss Lowell in presenting to English readers the poetry of Li-T'ai-Po!