“The Japonisme book is a long time coming,” says Anita Patterson, an associate professor of English who has previously written on Ralph Waldo Emerson and transnational influences on modern American writers including Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, and Langston Hughes.
The daughter of a Japanese-American mother and Russian-Jewish father, Patterson grew up in a household “where Japan was always a presence.” Now she finds herself looking at the country’s influence on American poets, writers, and visual artists through a somewhat unlikely lens: New England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “Because my earlier work was on Emerson,” she explains—a writer who, like many American transcendentalists, was drawn to Eastern religion and philosophy, and who in turn influenced Orientalists at home and scholars abroad—“there’s this sort of neat line.”
“There was a very profound, long-standing, strange affinity between New England and Japan, going back to late eighteenth-century Salem,” says Patterson. “Important intellectuals went to Japan after the country’s official ‘opening’”—marking the Meiji Restoration and the end of more than two centuries of effective isolation from the West—“partly for missionary purposes, but also for mercantile ties.” Collectors brought back art and artifacts that can be seen today at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
What they brought back also inspired new forms of literature, which appealed to modernist writers a generation after Emerson. “Ezra Pound is a wonderful example of the necessity of global and comparative perspectives in American studies,” says Patterson. “His love of Asian literature and art helped him to make his poetry new.”
“There was a very profound, long-standing, strange affinity between New England and Japan, going back to late eighteenth-century Salem.”Anita Patterson
“I’m interested in revisiting an early phase of Pound’s career,” she continues, and particularly “his encounter with Yone Noguchi, whose role has really been obscured in accounts of imagism.” Imagism was a literary movement which, as the name suggests, tried to paint a picture on the page with clear, sharp language. Perhaps Pound’s most enduring imagist poem is “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
That’s the poem in its entirety, and its connections to Japanese haiku—a form which Noguchi, a Japanese poet who immigrated to the U.S., helped to popularize—in terms of length are clear. Patterson suggests that Pound and Noguchi, who corresponded by letter, also shared an interest in “the condensation and suggestiveness of haiku poetry. What haiku is, essentially, is not having to overstate anything, not having to explain.”
By examining Noguchi’s neglected influence on Pound, Patterson hopes to show the poet’s “greatness as a cross-cultural experimenter.” Readers today are put off by Pound’s racism and his fascism, she admits, and understandably so. “He says ‘Jap’ a lot. But there are moments of beauty, bravery, and discovery in his life as well as his poems. And who needs more than that?”