Our man, Mr. Pound

How one of Modernist literature's most important figures became a correspondent for The Japan Times in the tumult of 1939

by Edan Corkill

On May 15, 1939, readers of The Japan Times were introduced to a new correspondent — although, in literary circles, at least, he needed no introduction. He was Ezra Pound, then a 53-year-old American Modernist poet who could boast accomplishments that included having launched the career of T.S. Eliot.

Just four months before the outbreak of World War II, the first of 12 articles Pound would eventually write for The Japan Times — from his home in Rapallo, Italy — shared the broadsheet with ominous news from Europe (“Polish-Reich situation said worsening”) and gung-ho reports from China (“Naval planes bomb Ningpo and Hengyang”), where Japan was already two years into war.

At the time, Japan, Italy and Germany were 16 months from signing the so-called Tripartite Pact that would bind them as “Axis Powers,” although they had begun to exchange a range of agreements on trade and culture. Still, the tale of how one of America’s greatest 20th century poets came to serve as “Italian correspondent” for an English-language newspaper in Japan is only tangentially related to the political alliances of the day.

To be sure, the allegiance between Japan and Italy was a necessary condition for Pound’s work with The Japan Times — it meant lines of communication between the two countries stayed open even as war erupted in Europe — but it was not a sufficient condition.

The real seeds of Pound’s relationship with Japan and, ultimately, this newspaper, were sown earlier, around 1909 when he developed an interest in haiku, continuing in the early 1910s when he took on the task of polishing the recently departed Ernest Fenollosa’s notes on noh plays, and finally in the 1930s when he was enthusiastically responding to letters from several Japanese poets.

Not a lot of research has been made into Ezra Pound’s relationship with Japan, as opposed to that which is focused on his noh work. The only book dedicated to the subject is a collection of letters and other writings, “Ezra Pound & Japan,” collated by a Japanese specialist in American literature, Sanehide Kodama, and first published in 1987. The volume includes reproductions of Pound’s 12 contributions to The Japan Times.

Kodama, now 77 and living in Kyoto, having retired as president of Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts in 1998, told The Japan Times that Pound’s first contact with this country probably came in 1909, shortly after the American-born Pound relocated to London.

“He met with (the poet) T.E. Hulme and participated in Hulme’s so-called dining-and-talking society. They spoke about haiku,” Kodama said. “At the time Pound was interested in condensing poetry — reducing it to one line, one word. He realized that Japan had just such a form.”

Hulme’s circle was interested in haiku in particular because of its similarities to their own work, which they called Imagist poetry — a concerted effort to focus on the concise conveyance of imagery. Kodama went as far as to suggest that Pound’s most famous work, “The Cantos,” which he continued writing until his death in 1972, was inspired by haiku.

“The idea with haiku is that you are juxtaposing two different images,” Kodama said. “Pound started expanding on that idea, adding more and more snapshots — the result was ‘The Cantos.’ “

The result is also one of the more difficult pieces of Modernist poetry to read. In parts of “The Cantos,” Pound jumps between unrelated images with each phrase, and often these descriptions are laced with cryptic references — a habit he continued in many of his articles for The Japan Times, which by today’s standards seem to warrant a more heavy-handed edit.

Pound spent several years between 1913 and 1916 largely polishing translations of noh made a decade earlier by Fenollosa and his assistants. Fenollosa had died suddenly in 1908 while still trying to find a publisher for them.

At the time Pound was part-time secretary to Irish poet and playwright W.B. Yeats in London, and the pair became fascinated by the exotic form. “You have there a treasure like nothing we have in the Occident,” he wrote in his first article for The Japan Times. (To one Japanese correspondent, he even said the United States should swap the island of Guam for films of two classic noh plays.)

Yeats eventually wrote his own version of a noh play titled “At the Hawk’s Well,” in 1916, and in that same year Pound published “Certain Noble Plays of Japan,” in which he presented four of his and Fenollosa’s noh translations. (Pound also found time during this period to support several other London-based poets, including a fellow American expatriate, the then-little-known T.S. Eliot, whose “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” Pound recommended for publication and whose “The Waste Land” he later edited.)

Pound’s work on Fenollosa’s manuscripts — and the study of Japanese language that it necessitated — appears to have given him both status and confidence in matters pertaining to Japanese literature. Japanese poets soon started sending him their work — in Japanese and their own stilted English translations — and he enthusiastically responded.

One such writer was avant-garde poet Katsue Kitasono, who first wrote to Pound in April 1936, when the American had already left London for the town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera.

“You will please excuse me that I take the liberty of writing you. For a long time, since Imagism movement, we have always expected you as a leader on new literature,” Kitasono, then 33, wrote.

Over the next few months Kitasono updated Pound by sending copies of VOU (pronounced “vow”), the poetry magazine he and other poets published.

Pound was so impressed that in his Aug. 26, 1940, article in The Japan Times, he announced that “Tokyo has the liveliest magazine of young letters in the world (VOU).”

Of course, Pound’s ability to read the magazine, which was only published in Japanese, was limited. “You must not run away with the idea that I really know enough to read Japanese, or that I can do more than spell out ideograms very slowly with a dictionary,” he wrote Kitasono in May 1936.

Kodama suspects that it was actually the staccato English translations, penned by the young Japanese poets, that really struck a chord with Pound’s taste for bare-bones writing.

In the midst of his correspondence with Kitasono, in a letter dated 23 Oct., 1937, Pound notes that he has taken up a subscription to “The Tokyo Times,” in the hope of “getting a little English and French news.”

In the next breath he muses, “I also wonder if they wd. (sic) print my news or interpretations of Europe. Might be a first step toward getting to Tokyo.” This, it appears, is Pound’s first mention of his desire to write for a Japanese newspaper.

Of course, as Kitasono soon pointed out, there was no such thing as “The Tokyo Times.” “I wonder if it may be a mistake for The Japan Times or The Japan Advertiser,” he wrote back.

Eventually it became clear that Pound was referring to the former. (The Japan Times acquired the Advertiser in 1940.) Having been charged with maintaining Pound’s subscription to The Japan Times, Kitasono became acquainted with its managing editor at the time, Yasotaro Morri, a man with impressive literary credentials of his own. In the late 1910s he had translated Natsume Soseki’s “Botchan” into English. (The “Morri” spelling was his own preference for a surname that these days is generally rendered “Mohri.”)

“I told (Mr. Morri) of your hope of writing culture news for Tokyo as you told me last year.” Kitasono wrote to Pound in March 1939. “(He) agreed . . . with his all heart.”

Within a month, the obviously excited Pound wrote back seeking clarification for his parameters:

“Please salute Mr. Morri, and between you let me know more exactly what you want me to do.

I mean: How often?

How long?

Whether I am to stick to art, music and poetry or whether I am allowed to consider the arts as happening in an ambience, expressive of states of Cultural NEWS?”

The answer was relayed, via Kitasono at first, that Pound should stick to literature and culture, and the articles began.

Kodama, author of “Ezra Pound & Japan” explains that Pound’s enthusiastic and repeated requests for guidance regarding what he should write and the interest he expresses in his articles for his “new public” indicate a genuine attempt to engage readers. In the interests of cultural exchange, he was “trying as hard as possible to provide information that would be useful to the Japanese,” Kodama explained.

Another pre-eminent scholar on Pound described his motivations in slightly different terms.

Based at the University of York, in Britain, David Moody is working on the second and final volume of his Pound biography, “Ezra Pound: Poet — A Portrait of the Man & His Work.”

“Pound had a need, a life-long need, to be in communication, to be communicating with others and to be promoting communications, especially between cultures,” Moody said by phone recently. “Early on he was very concerned to promote communications between Europe and the U.S. and by this time he was thinking of communications between East and West.”

As Pound’s work for The Japan Times continued, it gradually started to move away from cultural to political commentary and particularly to criticisms of the American and some European governments — a shift that prompted Morri to make one albeit gently worded request. In a letter of May 1939, he wrote, “We know you are not on a special mission to iron out the Japan-U.S. relations, if ever there are any jagged surface, but naturally would prefer nothing which will provoke Americans in political issues.”

If anything, this seems to have encouraged Pound’s attacks, which increased in fervor. By his ninth piece (published in August 1940; the fourth article featured here), he is haranguing the U.S. and its allies in a way that would later make him infamous and see him tried for treason: “Churchill, Eden and Co. meant to get into the government and start war,” he writes, while Roosevelt is a “proved servant of Jewry,” by which he meant the U.S. government was a “shop-front” for what he alleged were Jewish-controlled investment bankers.

When that article was published, war between the U.S. and Japan had become a real possibility (although the Pearl Harbor invasion was still 16 months away) and, combined with his 12th article, in September, in which Pound celebrates the appointment of hardliner Yosuke Matsuoka as Foreign Minister (the man who made a famous speech announcing Japan’s resignation from the League of Nations in 1933), one almost suspects that Pound was deliberately playing to what he guessed was a mood among the Japanese against both the British and American governments.

As he wrote to Kitasono, “(the) last artel/ of mine to appear was my whoop of joy for Matsuoka’s taking on his present job. I shd/ have thought paper cd/ stand that//” (sic).

Ironically, it seems, it couldn’t, or at least it didn’t.

There is no record as to exactly why the Matsuoka article was Pound’s last for the newspaper. Correspondence by mail quite possibly was disrupted once the war in Europe gathered steam; France had surrendered to Germany in June, 1940, and Italy invaded Greece in October. Another possible reason is revealed in Pound’s letter to Kitasono of August 1940, in which he recounts his difficulties in dealing with the Japanese cultural relations bureau at the embassy in Rome. “After half an hour one of ‘em vaguely thought I must be someone he had heard of; Fenollosa meant nothing to ‘em,” Pound reported, before noting that the diplomats said, “they hoped to see me again BUT Americans are suspect. Naturally. I do not wonder.”

It’s likely that once relations with the U.S. deteriorated, no amount of expatriate vitriol was capable of enamoring an American citizen to the then-government-affiliated offices of The Japan Times.

Kitasono’s letters to Pound indicate that he was paid ¥30 per article. Taking into account inflation, that comes out at ¥15,400 — “an overwhelmingly small amount,” in Kitasono’s view.

But there are also indications that Pound got more out of the work than the simple satisfaction of knowing he was contributing to cross-cultural communication.

“What would (to me) be useful would be a regular journalists card,” he wrote to Kitasono in January 1940. “At present I am a poet. Poets have no civic status above other mere men. But JOURNALISTS can belong to the press association.”

The request was granted, in March, along with a second one, that he be made the newspaper’s “Italian correspondent.” But Pound’s bylines in the newspaper were never rendered as such. The fifth to the twelfth articles were tagged along the lines of “A Letter from Rappallo, by Ezra Pound.” They generally appeared on the newspaper’s back page along with editorial content.

The famous outcome of Pound’s wartime political statements — particularly the public radio addresses he made in Italy, which were in the same vein as his later pieces for The Japan Times — was his arrest by the U.S. Army and repatriation to the U.S. to be tried for treason. He was eventually found incompetent to face trial and moved to a psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C, where he remained until 1958.

On his release, however, he returned to Italy, where he promptly — and, later, famously — gave the Fascist salute. He never returned to the country of his birth.

In 1968 Kodama visited Pound both in Rapallo and Paris. He recounted with a good deal of laughter his experience of treating the apparently rather gruff poet to a meal at a Japanese restaurant called Tokyo in the French capital.

“He ordered everything on the menu, from the top to the bottom: Miso, sake, tempura, sukiyaki, rice,” Kodama said. “It ended up costing me more than $100 — very expensive for those times.”

Pound’s host asked him how the meal was and his response — if Kodama’s impersonation is to be trusted — was an abrupt shake of the head.

Pound never set foot on Japanese soil. But the impact of his writing here was felt, at least in some quarters. Kodama was particularly sure that Pound’s attention deeply affected Kitasono and his fellow poets, who translated some of his articles for The Japan Times into Japanese and ran them in VOU.

“They were all trying to keep up to date with what was happening in Europe, so to have that information coming from Pound would have been very exciting for them,” Kodama said. He doubted, however, that Pound’s articles had much effect on the nation’s wartime English-speaking audience.

Nevertheless, the interaction remains of interest to a sprinkling of expatriates aware of it, such as British journalist Henry Scott Stokes, a 45-year Japan resident who reminded The Japan Times last year of this episode buried 70 years deep in its history.

As for Pound, he didn’t make much of his work for The Japan Times once it had drawn to a close.

“He simply moved on,” professor Moody said. “(He) put his writing energies into what he was doing in Italy.”

Like Kodama, Moody doubted that Pound’s articles had much impact on their Japanese readers. “But I don’t think he concerned himself with results,” he said. “Pound had spent his life promoting cultural exchange in one way or another. I think he was pretty inured to the fact that there might be no consequences, but he went on doing it just the same.”