Orientalism, Absence, and Quick-Firing Guns:
The Emergence of Japan as a Western Text

(Introduction to the introduction, a remnant of the time this was a would-be PhD thesis, forgive. To go straight to the interesting material click here.)

The first aim of this bibliographical study is to provide a critical data set that will facilitate understanding and promote further study of a remarkable cross-literary and cross-cultural relation. Modern English-language poets have turned to what they have understood of China and Japan more often and to greater effect than to other non-European cultures. Recent critical work such as Zhaoming Qian’s Orientalism and Modernism and Robert Kern’s Orientalism, Modernism, and the American Poem has traced the importance of imaginative interpretations of China in the development of twentieth-century English-language verse, but no recent work in such a way examines the importance of Japan. Yet from the advent of literary Japonisme late in the nineteenth century through the literary and cultural upheavals of the twentieth century Japanese literature, visual arts, aesthetic principles, and landscapes imaginative and real have attracted the attention of many of the most remarkable and remarked upon poets of Britain, Ireland, and the United States, often with results that have altered the course not only of particular careers but also of important literary movements, understandings, and styles.

The twentieth-century poets who have turned to Japan include most famously Ezra Pound and W. B. Yeats, but also others who were associated with the early-century advent of the ‘new poetry’: Conrad Aiken, Richard Aldington, Witter Bynner, John Gould Fletcher, F. S. Flint, and Amy Lowell, among others; also the writers who along with Yeats were associated with the early-century renaissance in English verse drama: Gordon Bottomley, T. S. Eliot, Sturge Moore, John Masefield, Laurence Binyon, and following these Wallace Stevens, Robinson Jeffers, Paul Goodman, Kenneth Rexroth, Ulick O’Connor, and others; also an extraordinary list of British poets who took up academic posts in Japan and in varying degrees mediated the experience in their work: Sherard Vines, R. H. Blyth, Robert Nichols, Edmund Blunden, Ralph Hodgson, and William Plomer in the twenties, Peter Quennell, William Empson, and George Barker in the thirties, G. S. Fraser, D. J. Enright, Anthony Thwaite, James Kirkup, Dennis Keene, Peter Robinson, and others in the years following the Second World War; also American poets who along with Rexroth were associated with the post-war San Francisco Renaissance and the literary movement that came to be called Beat: Cid Corman, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen are the most notable, but there were many others; then other recent writers who have followed these in turning to Japan for subject or form or both: Gavin Bantock, Stephen Berg, Robert Bly, John Cage, Ciaran Carson, Clayton Eshleman, George Evans, Tess Gallagher, Jack Gilbert, Harry Guest, Sam Hamill, Jim Harrison, William Heyen, Tobias Hill, Jane Hirshfield, Garrett Hongo, Michael Longley, Linda Pastan, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Paul Muldoon, Mary Jo Salter, Lucien Stryk, Kenneth White, and many others. Taken together and by any standard this is a remarkable list, encompassing major poetic voices, styles, and movements on both sides of the Atlantic from early in the century to its close.

This study surveys the contours of this landscape, focusing particularly on the first half of the century, when Japan first became a significant presence in English-language poetry. The work aims to identify the ways understanding of Japan has affected the tenors of the voices under study, the ways it resonates in particular works, careers, and movements, and the ways these then turn back on the originating question and themselves shape and generate understanding of Japan. Behind these particularities, however, lies a story that has not been told, without understanding of which the nature of the Japanese intonations in these voices may not be well understood. No study of the imaginative interpretation of Japan in English literature has addressed in a significant way the larger cultural landscape from within which this relation emerged. The neglected starting point of the study, in other words, is cultural history, and relies upon the telling of a tale.

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