BOOK REVIEW: The Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi

The Spirit of Japanese PoetryThe Spirit of Japanese Poetry by Yoné Noguchi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Free Online at Wikisource

This book-length essay, originally published in 1914, discusses the unique style and aesthetic of Japanese poetry. It’s written for an audience of English language readers and advances its objective not only by presenting illuminating translations of Japanese poetry, but also by comparing Japanese poetry to English language poetry.

Noguchi takes a no-holds-barred approach to literary criticism that is both the strength and weakness of the book, sometimes it feels as though the author’s boldness is granting deep insight into the subject, but other times it reads as though the author is tribally narrow-minded and curmudgeonly. By “tribally narrow-minded,” I mean that he takes the view that the Japanese aesthetic and approach to art is always and in everyway superior to non-Japanese art (in this case, English language poetry.) Interestingly, he frequently compliments specific artists, e.g. Walt Whitman, but doesn’t have anything nice to say about English language poetry in general. By “curmudgeonly,” I mean that he takes the popular — if biased –view that the world is going to shit, and – in the section on modern poetry – it is only after discussing how the art has fallen on hard times that he can discuss a few modern poets who’ve produced some poems worthy of adoration [and some worthy examples of the modern form (Shintaishi.)]

One might think this bigoted view would cripple his book (as bigoted views usually do,) but because what he’s promising is depth of insight into the Japanese poetic aesthetic, he is able to succeed just fine. [Also, to be fair, being highly opinionated and pretentious were hallmarks of critics of his era – just usually not so nationalistically.] Noguchi does a great job of selecting evocative examples, providing powerful translations, and illuminating the Japanese mindset as it pertains to art and poetry.

If you’re interested in Japanese poetry and the psychology that influences Japanese artistic tastes, this short book is highly recommended. [Just be prepared to be offended if you aren’t a hardcore Japanophile.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Comparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson

Comparative Literature: A Very Short IntroductionComparative Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Ben Hutchinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

By the book’s end, I had a much better grasp of the field of Comparative Literature, which is a multidisciplinary subject concerned with comparing / contrasting various forms of literature across time and space (among other ways.) That said, it’s not one of the more friendly of books in this series for a neophyte in need of a grasp of the basics of a field. [I’m a big fan of the AVSI series, and frequently turn to it.]

I attribute the book’s problems to two factors. First of all, the first chapter didn’t feel like it really said anything, and I came away from it with the thought, “So, Comparative Literature is all the disparate things I thought it might be, and more.” I understand why there’s a desire for a broad overview upfront, but it would work better for a discipline that was more contained and orderly.

Second, while it might be the necessary way to tell the story of this discipline, the book spends a lot of space discussing comparisons between literary theorists and what felt like little in comparisons of works of literature. The challenge is that most readers come to such a book with an extensive understanding of major works of world literature, but few people outside the field are familiar with literary theorists and critics. A reader might expect to learn why and how “Don Quixote” would be compared to stories of Jorge Luis Borges or Ovid, but one learns more about how the ideas of Roland Barthes compare to those of George Steiner.

Once I got into the second chapter, I felt I was getting a little clarity on the subject and that the chapter was well organized for learning. In subsequent chapters, I found that there were many interesting ways of thinking about translation of literature, the debates in the field, and the competing ideas about discipline’s future. The book also has a useful further reading section that breaks down the various dimensions of comparative literature a little so that interested parties can find a line of attack to advance their studies.

Ultimately, I think the book helps one get a grasp of the subject, but I’d skip over the first chapter and then go back to it once one has a little confidence that there will be clarity rather than obscurity in store.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]

The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.

The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.

The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.

If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.

View all my reviews