A class on Ezra Pound as noh student

The following texts can be integrated into a seminar on Ezra Pound or a course on transnational modernism:

I. Pound’s translation of Hagoromo based on a draft by Ernest Fenollosa published in the influential Certain Noble Plays of Japan (1916) with an introduction by W. B. Yeats (I include this introduction in a syllabus for graduate seminars). The text is more accessible in the expanded volume The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan of Japan, with Yeats’s essay as an epilogue (1959).
II. Royall Tyler’s more authoritative translation if Hagoromo, by an unknown playwright, in Japanese Nō Dramas (1992). They Pound/Fenollosa and Tyler translations are both available online, along with another version of Hagoromo published by Arthur Waley.
III. Pound’s The Pisan Cantos (1948).

I. Pound’s Hagoromo as a Lesson on Imagism

Hagoromo is perhaps the most famous play in the repertory of the noh theater and a favorite of Pound and Yeats. Reading the play helps students understand how Pound used it to teach ideas about Imagism, particularly his developing notion of a long Imagist poem. Scholars of modernism have often been embarrassed by the errors in Pound’s noh translations and considered them examples of modernist orientalism and cultural appropriation or else categorized them as creative contributions to English literature but not translations. I ask students to hold off on such judgments until we have a chance to produce together a close reading of Hagoromo and consider Pound’s pedagogical desires for the play, as well as the lessons it offers on cultural exchange.
A close reading of Hagoromo might proceed along these lines: The play introduces a fisherman named Hakuryō who discovers the feathered mantle of a Tennin, a celestial moon maiden, hanging on a pine bough. Hakuryō and his companion Fisherman enter the stage singing of the beauties of spring, frequently expressed through typically modernist synesthesia or sensory mixing and linkage: “the breath-color of spring” and “Its colour-smell is mysterious” (Pound, Noh 98, 99). The Fisherman claims of the well-ordered layers of waves, mist, and a moon “delaying above,” “Here is beauty to set the mind above itself” (98). He appears to be correct that “we’ve no skill to grasp it,” for rather than “beauty,” Hakuryō takes the feathered mantle of the Tennin, whose presence in the lower world is a manifestation of the “delaying” moon (98). Hakuryō initially claims that he takes the mantle to his house to comfort “the aged,” using modernist synesthesia again to describe its “colour-smell” as “mysterious” (99). When he learns the true nature of the robe from the Tennin, he develops nationalist motivations to make it “a treasure in the country” (100). He relents after seeing her “sorrow” and watching her begin to die the death of a celestial being but says he will only return the garment if she will perform “the dance of the Tennin” (101). She will “gladly” help him “learn” the “dance that can turn the palace of the moon,” but she needs her mantle to perform (101). He refuses to return it, fearing that she might fly off before dancing, but she shames him, “Doubt is of mortals; with us there is no deceit” (102).

Pound’s Tennin teaches sympathy, trust, and a dance, but also Imagist aesthetics. Pound offered noh as the answer to a question he had been asked, “Could one do a long Imagiste poem, or even a long poem in vers libre?” (27). Yes, if the long poem adheres to noh’s “Unity of Image”; “the better plays are all built into the intensification of a single Image: … the mantle of feathers in the play of that name, Hagoromo” (27). Pound never directly stated how this “Unity” was to be achieved, but his translation of Hagoromo used the feathered mantle throughout his version of the play to establish related clusters of images. Pound’s Tennin appears as a vernal spirit whose flowers begin “drooping and fading” after Hakuryō steals her mantle (100). Images of her celebratory dance unite her flowing robe with the season’s blossoms and storms: “The sleeves of flowers are being wet with the rain” (102). “The rustling of the flowers, the putting on of the feathery sleeve; they bend in the air with the dancing” (104). The chorus sings of the “plumage of heaven,” “feathery skirt of the stars,” and “robe of mist” (103-104). As these related images create a structural unity for the play, Hakuryō realizes that nature, humanity, and the spirit world “are doing one step,” and he learns to dance in “unity” as well (102).

The “Unity of Image” Pound celebrated in noh matches Hagoromo’s theme of connecting heaven and earth or the divine being and the fisherman. Hakuryō learns to be in “step” with the ephemeral spirit of nature without the desire to possess her or take her magical garment for his country. Pound learned how to organize an Imagist long poem or play by related images or trope.

II. Tyler’s Hagoromo: Reconsidering Translation and Cultural Exchange

Hakuryō’s theft of the feathered robe as a treasure for his nation mirrors one of the major complaints launched against both Pound and Yeats for their work on noh, they were engaged in cultural theft and orientalist mystification. This is a complaint my students readily embrace, particularly those attuned to the values of cultural difference and political correctness. I ask students to read Royall Tyler’s celebrated translation of Hagoromo alongside Pound’s version, and they enthusiastically pick out discrepancies in the translations, noticing, for example, that Pound excised most of the references to Buddhism, the philosophical center of noh. Comparing translations also helps them see how Pound’s desires to make the play into a lesson on Imagism encouraged him to mistranslate or creatively translate passages into examples of his “Unity of Image” and thereby turn Hagoromo into a template for a long Imagist poem or play. For a graduate seminar including translation theory, Pound’s Hagoromo provides a useful example of what Lawrence Venuti described as a “foreignizing” rather than “domesticating” translation (17). Pound made the English sound more foreign with unusual syntax, unfamiliar names, and stereotypical images of Japan: “Windy road of the waves by Miwo, / Swift with ships, loud over steersmen’s voices. / Hakuryō taker of fish, head of his house, dwells upon the barren pine-waste of Miwo” (Noh 98). The relation between subjects and adjectives is ambiguous: Is the road “windy,” or are the waves following a metaphorical “windy road”? Are the ships “swift,” or do the waves or road seem swift because of the ships sailing there? Hakuryō seems more foreign when described as a “taker of fish” rather than a fisherman.

My students tend to like comparing translations and discovering that Pound took strategic liberties with the source text, but I find it important to disrupt their pieties and complicate some of their more ready-made assumptions about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. Hagoromo itself prompts one possible approach as the play turns the theft of a beautiful thing into a dance lesson that shares an art form with future generations. We can hardly imagine that the fisherman Hakuryō will learn to perform “the dance of the rainbow-feathered garment” with as much grace as the Tennin. But, given the origin myths the play invokes about noh’s roots in a divine dance lesson, Hakuryō was able to learn and pass on the Tennin’s dance to future noh performers.

Opening with a theft and misunderstanding and ending in a dance lesson, Hagoromo inspires a shift in focus from cultural appropriation to collaborative pedagogical transmission. In fact, Pound’s Hagoromo and other noh translations were the product of a series of transnational lessons and partnerships. I am actually imprecise to reference “Pound’s Hagoromo” given the complicated textual transmission of the manuscripts. Pound received Ernest Fenollosa’s draft translation of noh plays, along with some classical Chinese poetry and an unpublished essay “The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry” from Fenollosa’s widow, Mary, in 1913. These drafts were the result of a pedagogical scenario and international collaboration. Hirata Kiichi (1873-1943), Fenollosa’s colleague, accompanied Fenollosa to lessons and produced literal translations before they attended, for example, the production of Hagoromo on 15 January 1899. Hirata is mentioned twice without explanation in the publication of what should be called the Fenollosa-Hirata-Pound translations (Pound, Noh 27, 115).

III. The Pisan Hagoromo

Hagoromo makes a dramatic reappearance in The Cantos, and I use the play help students find a foothold in the infamously difficult, allusive, and transnational work. A fisherman associated with Hagoromo is the first poetic persona in Pound’s initial drafts of The Cantos published in Poetry in 1917, just after his most intense work on noh: “Say that I dump my catch, shiny and silvery / As fresh sardines flapping and slipping on the marginal cobbles?” (“Three Cantos” 113). This Hakuryō has stolen and donned the mantle of artistic inspiration, but doesn’t know what to do with it: “Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on; / Who wear my feathery mantle, hagoromo; / Whom set to dazzle the serious future ages?” (117). Pound was searching for a new form and speaker for the massive poem he would write for the rest of his life, and he turned to the “Unity” he discovered and invented in noh.

Pound composed The Pisan Cantos (1948) in 1945 after being imprisoned by the U.S. military for treason near Pisa. There, in a six-by-six-foot open cage visited by the angel of Hagoromo and other noh characters, Pound wrote a book that was controversially awarded the Bollingen Prize. The Pisan Cantos presents anti-Semitic and pro-fascist ideas along with allusions to Japanese, Chinese, Greek, and Roman literature. The poem is both difficult and disturbing to students, and I help them see that they can follow a strand to analyze some elements of the text while reserving others for another reading. Tracking noh and Hagoromo through The Pisan Cantos reveals the “unity” of the repeated moon images as an organizing poetic trope. In the first explicit reference to noh in the initial poem of The Pisan Cantos; the speaker is visited by the “nymph of Hagoromo… as a corona of angels” (74.180). Pound echoes the question he posed in 1917 just as he was beginning his cantos: “Whom shall I hang my shimmering garment on; / Who wear my feathery mantle, hagoromo.” If that earlier Hakuryō was searching for a new poetic form, this fisherman has lost the magic robe of inspiration and needs the moon maiden’s return along with a coterie of angels including Artemus/Diana, the Greek and Roman moon-goddesses (74.226), the Sino-Japanese spirit of mercy, Kuannon (74.131), and the love goddesses, Aphrodite/Venus/“Cythera, in the moon’s barge” (74.190, 80.596). Pound links the Hakuryō of The Pisan Cantos to Odysseus, renders the greek hero’s Cyclops-evading name as “OÝ ΤΙΣ” or “noman,” and lists it as the caption for the Chinese character mo 莫 (no or not) in the Hagoromo allusion. Pound’s ideogrammic reading of mo 莫found the character for person 人 (see the two “legs” of the character) below the radical for sun日, and read the character as “a man on whom the sun has gone down” (74.178). Moon images unify the speaking subject as Pound-Hakuryō-Odysseus-OÝ ΤΙΣ- 莫 and illuminate his dream of redemptive goddesses. If the sun has gone down on him, this composite, even ideogrammic, speaker looks to the moon.

Students are more likely to appreciate the Chinese characters in The Pisan Cantos once I suggest that they can enjoy the same associative reading pleasures Pound created. The Pound-Hakuryō-Odysseus-OÝ ΤΙΣ-莫speaker takes on a material, visual presence in the text and can quickly add another facet or persona to the list. The speaker becomes the soldier and art patron Sigismundo Malatesta (1417-68) in a moonlit visionary encounter. While standing at a crossing of three paths or triedro, Sigismundo sees the ghosts of three women, including the compassionate lover of troubadour Sordello, Cunizza da Romano (1198-1270) and “la scalza,” a barefoot country woman fleeing the war’s bombs. The latter is linked to Hagoromo’s moon nymph as she speaks one of The Pisan Cantos’s prominent lyrical refrains: “Io la luna” (I am the moon). Just as the Hakuryō-speaker claims, “the nymph of Hagoromo came to me,” the Sigismundo-speaker insists, “they suddenly stand in my room here” (74.180, 76.11). “La scalza” and “the corona of angels” return with each repetition of the phrase, “Io la luna.” Such refrains take on the quality of a choral song, and Pound’s Hakuryō-Odysseus-OÝ ΤΙΣ-莫-speaker wears many masks.

The poem’s second reference to Hagoromo contrasts Pound’s Japanese and Greek literary sources, distinguishing Hakuryō’s return of the feathered mantle from the “Greek rascality” of Odysseus’s opportunistic attack on Ismarus as he was leaving Troy. This didactic stance persists in his third reference to the moon maiden of Hagoromo. Her return is prompted by the darkest of the lunar references, when the barefoot woman, la scalza, recounts an image left out of the previous visions: Her dead son nailed to the ground with arms stretched in the shape of a cross. “Io son’ la luna” (80.247-50). This leads to a parody of pretty, romantic moon imagery in an overblown personification: “the moon’s arse been chewed off by this time” (80.258). Hagoromo returns with the line that shamed Hakuryō: “With us there is no deceit” / said the moon nymph immacolata / Give back my cloak, hagoromo” (80.258-62).

Did Pound learn Hakuryō’s lesson? Did he echo the response, “I am ashamed. I give you your mantle”? The question over whether or not Pound felt shame and apologized for his pro-fascist propaganda have been put to The Pisan Cantos since the book’s early readers argued whether or not the controversial author, having been determined mentally unfit for trial and imprisoned in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane, should have received the Bollingen Prize. Much of the debate about the sequence hinges on whether or not Pound is the speaker of the famous “Pull down thy vanity” chant (81.521-522). Pound’s “ideogrammic” Noman subjectivity renders this question one of the least answerable of the many invoked by The Pisan Cantos. The speaker of the poem is the humbled Hakuryō who has stolen the magical mantle and must return it, and Odysseus who will attack yet another village on his way home from Troy, and the one on whom the sun has gone down, and Pound himself, turning his incarceration into a gripping story.

In spite of Pound’s own bleak position on education (“Teach? at Harvard? / Teach? It cannot be done” (74.302-3)), I find that teaching Pound’s noh translations with The Pisan Cantos provides a challenging and rewarding lesson. Hagoromo creates one track through Pound’s collage of Chinese characters, literary allusions, and personal anecdotes while helping students confront one of the most difficult and important lessons of the twentieth-century, the atrocities produced by fascist political movements and militarization in Europe and Asia. As for the common complaint that Pound is guilty of orientalism and misrepresentation of cultures, I agree. But I believe that is all the more reason to study his work. To discard it for its inaccuracy is to imagine that accurate cultural transmission is possible and to vainly presume we might accomplish it in our teaching.