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

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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.]


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BOOK REVIEW: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki

The Three-Cornered WorldThe Three-Cornered World by Natsume Sōseki
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel was originally entitled Kusamakura or “Grass Pillow,” and it’s the Alan Turney translation that bears the title The Three-Cornered World. Turney drew from a concept that Natsume presents in the book – i.e. that an artist lives in the triangle created by the collapse of a corner called common sense. It’s a poetic and philosophical novel that is very much character-centric. In other words, if you must have an intriguing story, this book is not so much for you. However, if you find ideas and clever use of language appealing, you’ll love it.

The premise is that an artist takes retreat in the mountain countryside, and becomes infatuated with a local woman with a storied past. As the book tells us of the artist’s experience, it discusses aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and the place of emotion in artistic experience. This book is often compared to Bashō’s travelogue (i.e. Narrow Road to the Deep North) as it involves a great deal of elegant imagery and the occasional interspersed poem.

While the book is light on story, I was wowed by the author’s thought process and his use of language. While I’ve never read the original in Japanese, Turney’s translation is beautiful writing in its own right and I suspect it captures the sparse beauty for which Natsume’s work is famed. It is definitely worth reading.

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