29th Ezra Pound International Conference

Ezra Pound's Japanese Friendships

‘If the east & west are ever to understand each other’, a 25-year-old Ezra Pound wrote to the Japanese poet Yone Noguchi in 1911, ‘that understanding must come slowly & come first through the arts’. Pound’s acquaintance with Noguchi was the first of many Japanese friendships that would prove highly influential during his poetic career. Some have claimed that Noguchi’s ‘Hokku’ poems in the book Noguchi sent to him with his first letter inspired Pound’s interest in ‘hokku’, including his own famous ‘“Metro” hokku’, as he himself described it, ‘In a Station of the Metro’.

By 1915, when Pound had shifted his interest towards developing a ‘long imagiste or vorticist poem’, citing Japanese nō drama as an important model, he met the Japanese dancer Itō Michio and the painter Kume Tamijūrō. They helped him understand nō better by performing it for him and W.B. Yeats that year. Two of the nō plays Pound included in ‘Noh’ or Accomplishment in 1917 are set in Kyoto: Tamura opens at Kiyomizudera, a beautiful Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon; and Awoi no Uye takes place at the Sanjō (Third Avenue) residence of the play’s title character.

Later in 1915, Pound translated four Japanese ‘Sword-Dance’ poems and a children’s song together with another Japanese acquaintance, Uchiyama Masami, whose identity remains mysterious. At a small studio in London, Uchiyama sang the poems while Itō danced and ‘Mr. Minami’ played a ‘weird Oriental flute’. One of the poems is called ‘Honogi’ (‘Honnōji’), about the assassination of one of Japan’s greatest warlords, Oda Nobunaga, at the Honnōji temple in Kyoto. This temple can still be visited near the Kamo river, opposite the Kyoto City Hall.

Pound soon lost touch with Itō after the latter’s move to New York in 1916, but his friendship with Kume intensified in the following years. When Pound moved to Paris, Kume was also living there, and the American poet even held an exhibition of Kume’s paintings at his home. Pound was unsure where he would move to after Paris: he was hesitating between ‘Milan and Japan’. Kume was arranging for him to teach at Kume’s alma mater, Gakushūin university, in Tokyo. But before his plan could come to fruition, Kume was killed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Following Kume’s death and Pound’s decision to move to Rapallo, Pound lost touch with his Japanese friends. He made a new one in 1936, however, when the poet Kitasono Katué wrote to him. Although they never met, theirs was by far the longest of Pound’s Japanese correspondences, spanning three decades. The 2022 Ezra Pound International Conference aims to foster academic friendships as stimulating as Pound’s Japanese ones in the hope that the East and the West’s mutual understanding will continue to develop, as Pound prescribed, ‘through the arts.’

(Andrew Houwen)