Imagism: A View From One Hundred Years On

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

So runs the entire poem, In A Station Of The Metro, by Ezra Pound. The poem was almost surely inspired by Pound’s study of the ancient, Japanese short-form of poetry called Haiku. It is also probably my favorite poem from Pound, whose poetry normally — as we used to say down South– I don’t got much use for.

For a few decades in the early part of the 20th century, Pound was a dynamo when it came to networking with talented poets. He was also quite adept at expressing his vision of what good poetry should be and at giving advice-and-consent to the works-in-progress of his peers.

For a few years, Pound was the ringleader for a group of poets espousing a philosophy of poetry they called “Imagisme” or, later, just plain “Imagism.” I have on my 300-book Reading List for this blog, “The Imagist Manifesto,” but I have found this document impossible to procure. What I have found is some excerpts from that work, along with a few other related documents, most importantly Pound’s 1918 production, Pavannes and Divagations.

According to what I’ve found, the Imagists founded their philosophy in 1912, although the first reference I can find to Imagism is in the March 1913 issue of the journal, Poetry. In that issue appeared both, A Few Don’ts written “by an Imagiste” (Pound), and the essay, Imagisme, also written by Pound but appearing under someone else’s name. By the following year, Pound had already left the group and was traipsing down other literary avenues.

Following, are the main tenets of Imagism as I have discerned them from a perusal of the above-mentioned texts…

Perhaps Imagism’s most important dictum is that the Poet must be pithy, with every word directly contributing to the effect of his poem. I get the impression that in the ideal Imagist poem, every word should be essential. Use no superfluous word,” writes Pound, “no adjective which does not reveal something.” The Imagists felt that the vernacular, or “the language of common speech,” was entirely adequate for the construction of great poetry– as long as “the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely decorative word” is used. “Most of us believe,” writes Pound, “that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

The Imagists also believed that poetical phrases should possess a certain musicality— though rhyme or strict meter were not encouraged. The Imagists delighted in new melodies and unusual rhythms. Pound goes so far to say that “a new cadence means a new idea,” but, personally, I suspect that to be an overstatement.

Of course, Pound admits that whether a poem qualifies as “musical” or not is ultimately “left to the reader’s decision.” He was repelled by the use of meter for meter’s sake, feeling that too many poems have been ruined by having their texts “shovelled-in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound.” On the other hand, he thought that the Free Verse variety of poetry was also problematic, and had already become, even in the early 1900s, “as prolix and as verbose as any of the flaccid varieties that preceded it.”

The Imagists also asserted that subjects should be dealt with “directly.” I have to say, I find this stricture difficult to precisely understand. Pound attempts clarification by stating that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” Though I profess that I do not know exactly what he is trying to convey, if it has anything to do with making poetry less obscure and idosyncratically non-sensical, then I’m all for it.

By way of example of how NOT to turn a phrase, Pound gives us the line, “dim lands of peace.” He doesn’t go on and explain WHY this is bad, but I think I might can see where he’s coming from here… “Dim” is not necessarily bad, but then again, it’s not particularly precise when one considers that it’s the most precise term in the phrase and should be doing the heavy lifting. The mention of “lands” is obviously vague, and the descriptor “of peace” describes no specific image what-so-ever. 

“GO IN FEAR OF ABSTRACTIONS”

The Imagists were additionally dead-set against poetry which dealt in “vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous.”   The Poet should attempt “to produce a poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.”

“Go in fear of abstractions,” warns Pound. “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.” He then goes on to chide those guilty of “chopping your composition into line lengths” as if this were all that were necessary to turn prose into “poetry.” I am hallelujah, 100% behind Pound on this one. As Pound says, himself, such a dastardly maneuver merely disrespects “the unspeakably difficult art of good prose.”  Pound claims that no “intelligent person is going to be deceived” by this little trick– nevertheless, depressingly, the history of the last fifty-plus years proves him wrong in this respect.

One thing we take for granted nowadays is that the Poet is absolutely free to choose his subject-matter. But a hundred years ago, when the Imagists were staking out new territory for poetry, it was a far from settled matter that great poetry could come from the material of the day-to-day or trivial.

CRITICS, SCHMITICS

Pound was pessimistic that the literary philosophy promoted by the Imagists would do much good to improve the state of early 20th century poetry, though he maintained that, whether many or few good poems grew from the ground he and has cohorts had prepared, “it is, on the whole, good that the field should be ploughed.”  He believed that if only a handful of good poems came from the new approach proposed by his group that “it is justified.”

The Imagists were not trying to carve poetry prohibitions into stone or create a new literary dogma (“Never consider anything as dogma,” Pound dogmatically states). What the Imagists offered was no more than what any critic of art could legitimately offer: “a point of departure” and “rules of thumb, cautions gained by experience.” Perhaps their positive suggestions, as well a their list of “don’ts,” could at best “startle a dull reader into alertness.” Most literary criticism, Pound stated, contained little of great value beyond the stray phrase. And he most disdainful of critics-sans-portfolio: “Pay no attention,” he writes, “to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.”

THE IMAGE

Imagist literature does not actually spend a lot of time on the concept of the image, itself. Pound goes as far as to contend that a poetical image should present “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” one that, if done correctly, gives the reader a sense of “sudden liberation” or “sudden growth.”  He felt a Poet was doing pretty well if he could muster even “one image in a lifetime” that attained the level of good art.

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