Yone Noguchi Essay - Critical Essays

Noguchi, Yone


Noguchi, Yone 1875-1947

Japanese poet, critic, essayist, and autobiographer.

Yone Noguchi was a Japanese poet best known for his writing in English. This included not only his poetry itself, which appeared in works such as Seen and Unseen or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail (1897), but also his critical works on both poetry and art. Noguchi's poetic style in English was characterized by a halting quality which, given his proficiency with the language, appears to have been conscious. His words and the way he used them writing nostalgically of Japan in From the Eastern Sea (1903), for instance serve to indicate his abiding awareness that he was operating in a world far removed from that of his upbringing. In The Spirit of Japanese Poetry (1914), Noguchi presented forms of Japanese literature, including haiku or hokku, in a manner comprehensible to western readers; according to Yoshinobu Hakutani, a leading authority on Noguchi, it in part was through such works that Noguchi influenced Ezra Pound's later Imagist experiments.

Biographical Information

Noguchi was born in a village near the city of Nagoya, southwest of Tokyo, in 1875. Japanese society, which a generation before had been closed to western ideas, had in recent times become increasingly open to the influence of the West, and Noguchi took a great interest in the English language. As a preparatory school student in Tokyo in the 1890s, he read the works of historian Thomas Macauley and other British writers. These Anglophile tendencies found greater expression when he enrolled at Keio University, also in the Japanese capital. There he expanded his readings of British writers to include the poet Thomas Gray, the philosopher Herbert Spencer, the critic and historian Thomas Carlyle, the humorist Oliver Goldsmith, and others. In addition, he also began reading the American short-story writer Washington Irving, and after finishing high school, he left Japan for America. In December of 1893, an eighteen-year-old Noguchi arrived in San Francisco, beginning a two-year period in which he worked at a series of odd jobs. He continued to study the works of American writers including Edgar Allan Poe, and in 1896 met poet Joaquin Miller. Miller took an interest in the young man, who lived with him for three years. During this time, Noguchi published his first books of poetry, Seen and Unseen or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail and The Voice of the Valley (1897). Noguchi travelled to the eastern United States and later to England, where in 1903 he published From the Eastern Sea. During his London sojourn, as he would later record, he had the idea of using the Japanese form of haiku to write in English, thus avoiding "the impossibility in translation... [of] a hokku feeling" from Japanese. Around this time, Noguchi married an American, Leonie Gilmour, and they had a son named Isamu, who would later attain international fame as a sculptor. Relations between father and son, however, would be strained throughout their lives: in 1904, the year of Isamu's birth, Noguchi returned to Japan for good, leaving his family behind in America. Back in Tokyo, he returned to Keio University, where he would serve as a professor of English for several decades. During these years, he published dozens of books in Japanese, as well as a number of notable English-language works, including books of criticism and an autobiography. He traveled to the West occasionally, and corresponded with at least two of the era's literary principals, Pound and William Butler Yeats. With the coming of World War II, Noguchi supported the Japanese government; thus like Pound, who sided with the Fascists in Italy, he found himself ideologically cut off from friends in England and America. Amid the devastation that was postwar Japan, Noguchi died in 1947.

Major Works

Noguchi published some half-dozen books of poetry, the first three during his decade-long tenure in the West as a young man. The most well-known of these is the first, Seen and Unseen, which won the praise of Willa Cather. In this and other volumes, Noguchi showed the naturalistic influence of Walt Whitman, and of his friend Miller. Around the time he published From the Eastern Sea in London, he began experimenting with the use of Japanese forms, particularly haiku, which he explored in The Pilgrimage (1908). The Spirit of Japanese Poetry established Noguchi as not only a poet, but as an authority on Japanese literary forms, including haiku and Noh theatre. He also published a number of volumes of art criticism, beginning with The Spirit of Japanese Art in 1915. The period around the beginning of World War I was a particularly fruitful one in Noguchi's career: during this time, in addition to his two principal books of criticism, he also published Through the Torii (1914), a collection of essays that presented comparative views of the East and West; and an autobiography, The Story of Yone Noguchi Told by Himself (1914).

Principal Works

Seen and Unseen or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail (poetry) 1897

The Voice of the Valley (poetry) 1897

From the Eastern Sea (poetry) 1903

The Pilgrimage (poetry) 1908

The Spirit of Japanese Poetry (criticism) 1914

The Story of Yone Noguchi Told by Himself (autobiography) 1914

Through the Torii (essays) 1914

The Spirit of Japanese Art (criticism) 1915


The Bookman (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: A review of 'The American Diary of a Japanese Girl ', in The Bookman, January, 1913, p. 240.

[In the following essay, a review of The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, a critic observes that the book's supposedly naive narrator possesses a knowledge of western culture on a level with Noguchi's own.]

Mr. Noguchi, the poet, we have long admired; he is one of the two Japanese authors who have captivated us in the net of their imperfect, very skilfully imperfect, English. He seemed to us before to be a Japanese butterfly which had strayed somehow into a Hebridean sunset and had grown deliciously intoxicated. At the same time he strayed no more out of himself than did Shelley, and we apprehended that in attempting to depict a Japanese girl on whose untutored mind America thrusts itself [in The American Diary of a Japanese Girl], Mr. Noguchi would bring too much of himself into the sketch. He is indeed far too profound for his heroine, and in some places he goes so far in the direction of naïvité that we look askance at the performance. In other words, it seems to us that the requisite sense of European humour there is no humour worth dignifying with the title American is not easily to be acquired, even by a most gifted Japanese. As an example of observation not unworthy of Tolstoi we have this:

"It is astonishing to notice what a condescending...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Yone Noguchi's Poetry: From Whitman to Zen," in Comparative Literature Studies, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 67-79.

[In the following essay, Hakutani examines critical influences, both eastern and western, on Noguchi's poetry.]


Despite recent interest in American ethnic poetry, particularly that of black poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, very little has been said about Yone Noguchi, perhaps the most gifted Japanese American poet. It is not difficult to find some of the reasons for this neglect. He was not a native American writer; born in Japan in 1875, he came to America as a young immigrant. With little money in his pocket he struggled to live among the early Japanese immigrants in California for two years, but with some prior knowledge of English he swiftly learned the language. Already an aspiring poet, the young Noguchi paid homage to the Western poet Joaquin Miller by leading a hermit's life for three years.

In 1896 he published some of his earliest poems in three ephemeral journals of the day, the Lark, the Chap Book, and the Philistine. These poems attracted attention from some critics, and he brought out in the following year his first collections of poetry, Seen and Unseen or, Monologues of a Homeless Snail and The Voice of the Valley.1 Although he received praise from established writers,2 his literary production became erratic and his fragile reputation was not sustained for long. Like the wandering bard traditional in Japan, the young Noguchi spent his energy walking around and reading in the countryside.3 He also traveled to Chicago, Boston, and New York, and after the turn of the century he journeyed to England, where he published his third volume of poetry, From the Eastern Sea.4 This collection stirred some interest among the English readers, especially Thomas Hardy and George Meredith. "Your poems," Meredith wrote to Noguchi, "are another instance of the energy, mysteriousness, and poetical feeling of the Japanese, from whom we are receiving much instruction."5

Noguchi's wandering journey came to an end when he returned to Japan in 1904 and became a professor of English at Keio University in Tokyo. Among his some fifty books, in both English and Japanese, only two are genuine collections of poetry: The Summer Cloud: Prose Poems and The Pilgrimage.6 The rest of them range from books of literary and art criticism to travelogues.7 In the midst of his burgeoning literary career in Japan, he often came back to America, and once visited England to deliver a lecture at Oxford's Magdalen College. His poetic reputation grew in the West through the early thirties, but World War II severed his ties to the West. In 1947, without quite accomplishing his mission as a poet and interpreter of the divergent cultures of the East and the West, he died in Japan.


Like his famous sculptor son, Isamu Noguchi, he evolved his own distinct style, which drew upon both Western and Eastern traditions. Noguchi's first book, Seen and Unseen, shows that he was initially inspired by Walt Whitman and Joaquin Miller. The poet's affinity with nature, as reflected in these poems, is clearly derived from Japanese traditions, but the sweeping lines and his romanticized self, which abound in his poetry, are reminiscent of Whitman:

The flat-boarded earth, nailed down at night,
rusting under the darkness:
The Universe grows smaller,
palpitating against its destiny:
My chilly soul center of the world gives seat
to audible tears the songs of the cricket.
I drink the darkness of a corner of the Universe,

I am as a lost wind among the countless atoms of high Heaven!8

What unites the two men with different backgrounds is not only their style but their world vision. In "Song of Myself Whitman includes under the name of Self body and soul, good and evil, man and woman. The conclusion of this section in the poem, where he introduces the concept of balance, is a lyrical passage which celebrates the ecstasy of love. Whitman writes: "Prodigal, you have given me love therefore I to you give love! / O unspeakable passionate love."9 After this lyrical outburst he declares: "I am not the poet of goodness only, I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also . . . / I moisten the roots of all that has grown."10 As the poet of balance, Whitman accepts both good and evil; because he moistens the roots of all that has grown, he can call himself "a kosmos."11 Noguchi's kosmos in "My Universe" has similar manifestations:

The world is round; no-headed, no-footed,
having no left side, no right side!
And to say Goodness is to say Badness:
And to say Badness is to say Goodness.

The greatest robber seems like saint:
The cunning man seems like nothing-wanted beast!
Who is the real man in the face of God?
One who has fame not known,
One who has Wisdom not applauded,
One who has Goodness not respected:
One who has n't loved Wisdom dearly!
One who has n't hated Foolishness strongly!12

Like Whitman, Noguchi believes in monism, and his ultimate goal in writing poetry is to achieve the ecstasies of the self in nature. Many of his early poems thus abound in the image in which life flows in upon the self and others in nature. While Whitman in "Song of Myself reincarnates himself into a sensitive quahaug on the beach, Noguchi identifies himself with a lone quail:

Underneath the void-colored shade of the trees,
my 'self passed as a drowsy cloud into Somewhere.
I see my soul floating upon the face of the deep,
nay the faceless face of the deepless deep

Alas, I, without wisdom, without foolishness,
without goodness, without badness, am
like god, a negative god, at least!
Is that a quail? One voice out of the back-hill
jumped into the ocean of loneliness.13

Though he became a different kind of nature poet after he returned to Japan, his later poems still bear out Whitman's influence. The last stanza of Noguchi's religious poem "By a Buddha Temple" reads:

Ah, through the mountains and rivers,
Let thy vastness thrill like that of air;
I read thy word in the flash of a leaf,
Thy mystery in the whisper of a grass.14

Grass, which both poets love, is perhaps the most common and universal image in nature poetry. Such a technique, however, not only reveals the poet's sincere admiration of nature, but betrays his abhorrence of civilization. In "Song of Myself Whitman declares his independence of "civilization," which is represented by "houses and rooms."15 He detests the perfumes that envelop the domestic atmosphere because the fragrance is artificially distilled; the outdoor atmosphere, he argues, "is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless."16 One of the disappointments Noguchi felt upon his return to Japan was the rise of commercialism he witnessed. The beauty of the seashores near Tokyo was often marred by "the bathing crowd." But after summer, "with the autumn mellow and kind, the season of the clearest sky and softest breeze,"17 he was able to recapture what Whitman called "Nature without check with original energy":18

Into the homelessness of the sea I awoke:
Oh, my heart of the wind and spray!
I am glad to be no-man to-day
With the laughter and dance of the sea-soul.19

Noguchi's aversion to people, and to materialism in particular, originated from his mentor, Joaquin Miller, "the Poet of the Sierras," as he called him. It was Miller who urged the fledgling poet to live "amid the roses, quite high above the cities and people." Noguchi pays Miller this compliment: "Never did I think Miller was particularly eccentric, never even once during my long stay with him; he was the most natural man; and his picturesqueness certainly was not a crime." Once Miller brought him a bunch of poppies ("The golden poppy is God's gold" is Miller's song), saying that they were the state flower.20 Then, he recalls, Miller's lecture followed:

"The sweetest flowers grow closest to the ground; you must not measure Nature by its size: if there is any measure, it will be that of beauty; and where is beauty there is truth. First of all, you must know Nature by yourself, not through the book. It would be ten thousand times better to know by your own knowledge the colour, the perfume and the beauty of a single tiny creeping vine in the valley than to know all the Rocky Mountains through a book; books are nothing. Read the history written on the brows of stars!"21

Such an attitude Miller inspired in him led to the art of poetry Noguchi practiced in his early work. Remembering Miller's often repeated statement, "My life is like the life of a bird," he tried to relive the life of a creature, or merge himself into the existence of a natural element:

"Good-bye my beloved family" I am to-night
buried under the sheeted coldness:
The dark weights of loneliness make me immovable!
Hark! the pine-wind blows, blows!
Lo, the feeble, obedient leaves flee down to the ground
fearing the stern-lipped wind voices!
Alas, the crickets' flutes to-night, are broken!
The homeless snail climbing up the pillow,
stares upon the silvered star-tears on my eyes!
The fish-like night-fogs flowering with mystery
on the Bare-limbed branches:
The stars above put their love-beamed fires out,
one by one
Oh, I am alone! Who knows my to-night's feeling!22

Far from being sentimentalized, man's harsh plight in nature is underscored by the images of coldness: the frozen ground, the blowing pine-wind, the falling leaves, the crying crickets, the slowly climbing snail, the silvered stars above, the mysterious night-fogs. This transformation of man into nature enables Noguchi to pose the following question: "When I am lost in the deep body of the mist on the hill, / The world seems built with me as its pillar! / Am I the god upon the face of the deep, deepless deepness in the Beginning?"23 In both poems Noguchi is speculating about the spiritual and transcendental power of man; conceptually at least he is uniting the will of man with the spirit of nature.

What Noguchi learned at the "Heights of the Sierras" was not only Miller's habit "to loaf and invite his own soul" in the presence of nature, a way of seeing nature, but also a way of experiencing love. For Noguchi, Miller was "the singer of "a brother soul in some sweet bird, a sister spirit in a rose,' not the maker of loud-voiced ballads like the tide of a prairie fire or the marches of the Sierra mountains, but the dove-meek poet of love and humanity which . . . grow best and sweetest in silence."24 Interestingly enough, Noguchi's autobiography, written in Japan years later, reprints Miller's favorite poem on silence:


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Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Father and Son: A Conversation with Isamu Noguchi," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 17, No. 1, Summer, 1990, pp. 13-33.

[In the following essay, Hakutani outlines the careers of both Yone Noguchi and his son, sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-88), with whom Hakutani conducted an interview in December of 1986.]

"Isamu Noguchi and the airplane," Buckminster Fuller writes, "were both born in the United States of America in the first decade of the twentieth century."1 Noguchi* was born in Los Angeles to the Japanese immigrant poet Yone Noguchi and the American literary enthusiast Leonie Gilmour, a Bryn Mawr graduate, but the place where the future...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (excerpt date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Writings of Yone Noguchi: An East-West Literary Assimilation, Volume 1, Associated University Presses, 1990, pp. 13-29.

[In the following excerpt, Hakutani provides a short biography of his subject, and discusses the primary influences, both eastern and western, on Noguchi's poetry.]


Yone Noguchi was born in a small town near Nagoya in 1875. In the late 1880s the young Noguchi, taking great interest in English texts used in a public school, read Samuel Smiles's writings on self-help. Perhaps inspired by Smiles, but in any case dissatisfied with his public school instruction, he withdrew from a middle school in...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound, Yone Noguchi, and Imagism," in Modern Philology, Vol. 90, No. 1, August, 1992, pp. 46-69.

[In the following essay, Hakutani discusses the impact of Noguchi's work on Ezra Pound, with whom Noguchi corresponded on several occasions.]

It is commonplace to say that imagism played a crucial role in poetic modernism and that Ezra Pound, more than anyone else, put this poetics to practice in the 1910s. Yet imagism still remains a somewhat cloudy topic. Many discussions content themselves with restatements of Pound's celebrated essay on vorticism, published in September 1914.1 Even Hugh Kenner, the most eminent critic of Pound, says, "The...

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Yoshinobu Hakutani (excerpt date 1992)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Writings of Yone Noguchi: An East-West Literary Assimilation, Volume 2, Associated University Presses, 1992, pp. 13-51.

[In the following excerpt, Hakutani explores the influence of Noguchi's work on that of William Butler Yeats andin a fuller elucidation of topics discussed by Hakutani earlier—Ezra Pound.]


Since childhood, W. B. Yeats felt in his heart that "only ancient things and the stuff of dreams were beautiful."1 It was the rise of science and realism in the Victorian age that directed his attention to the Middle Ages and the world of myths and legends. As he read Certain...

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