Write a note on imagism in Ezra Pound’s poetry. Cite instances from his poems prescribed in your course.
Imagism was born in England and America in the early twentieth century. A reactionary movement against romanticism and Victorian poetry, imagism emphasized simplicity, clarity of expression, and precision through the use of exacting visual images.
Though Ezra Pound is noted as the founder of imagism, the movement was rooted in ideas first developed by English philosopher and poet T. E. Hulme, who, as early as 1908, spoke of poetry based on an absolutely accurate presentation of its subject, with no excess verbiage. In his essay “Romanticism and Classicism,” Hulme wrote that the language of poetry is a “visual concrete one….Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence.”
Pound adapted Hulme’s ideas on poetry for his imagist movement, which began in earnest in 1912, when he first introduced the term into the literary lexicon during a meeting with Hilda Doolittle. After reading her poem “Hermes of the Ways,” Pound suggested some revisions and signed the poem “H. D., Imagiste” before sending it to Poetry magazine in October of that year. That November, Pound himself used the term “Imagiste” in print for the first time when he published Hulme’s Complete Poetical Works.
A strand of modernism, imagism aimed to replace abstractions with concrete details that could be further expounded upon through the use of figuration. These typically short, free verse poems—which had clear precursors in the concise, image-focused poems of ancient Greek lyricists and Japanese haiku poets—moved away from fixed meters and moral reflections, subordinating everything to what Hulme once called the “hard, dry image.”
Pound’s definition of the image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” He said, “It is the presentation of such a ‘complex’ instantaneously which gives the sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” In March 1913, Poetry published “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste.” In it, imagist poet F. S. Flint, quoting Pound, defined the tenets of imagist poetry:
- Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
By 1917, even Lowell began to distance herself from the movement, the tenets of which eventually became absorbed into the broader modernist movement and continued to influence poets throughout the twentieth century.
One way of reading the poem would be this: the “instance of time” is the act of the speaker looking at something. This may be a crowd of people in a metro station, which reminds the speaker of a bough of petals; or it may be a bough of petals, which reminds the speaker of a crowd of people; or the speaker may be looking at both things at once in his/her imagination.
The “intellectual and emotional complex” lies in the presentation of the images and their relation to each other. As we have seen above, it is not actually clear what the speaker is looking at. The faces are described as an “apparition” – are they really there? The word certainly gives the impression of a speaker in a dreamy mood. “These faces” is specific, but the speaker does not follow up on this, instead moving on to the image of the petals. The speaker is both observing and contemplating, disengaged from the crowd s/he describes.
But the speaker is not disengaged from us – although we do not know anything about them, we still get a strong impression of their “intellectual and emotional” activity. Pound presents a mind making connections – and also experiencing that weird déjà vu-like feeling we’ve all had, where you’re in one place but you suddenly get a really strong impression of another.
If we look at the poem in terms of the three aims of Imagism, we see how Pound is interacting with these guidelines. You certainly can’t accuse him of using too many words! And he uses a regular rhythm in the first line and then changes it in the second line, beginning with that forceful ‘Petals’. It is not a completely regular beat.
Whether he writes directly about the subject of his poem is a bit more complicated. He certainly goes straight for the image – he doesn’t tell us anything about who the speaker is, why they are there, how they got to the station and which one it is, etc. But by rubbing the two images up against each other with no explanation, and by using words like “apparition”, Pound makes the poem very ambiguous. He is not simply reporting two separate images; he gives us a speaker whose intellect and emotions are subtly affecting the way the images are presented. Would you call this direct writing?
You may well read the poem in a slightly different way – this is just one reading. It’s a very rich poem, and it shows the great potential in Pound’s own description of the image and the aims of the Imagist group. It also shows us that Pound, one of the founders of the Imagist group, is flexible with its guidelines. It may well be that writing directly about the subject of your poem is ultimately impossible. After all, you always have to choose what you include and what you leave out.