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.
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.
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).