Image by Wally Gobetz
One hundred years ago, in September 1912 in the British Museum tea shop, London, Ezra Pound described his poet-friends H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Richard Aldington as imagistes.
The imagistes were soon Anglicised into ‘imagists’. The Imagists published four anthologies during the period 1914-1917, and the notion of Imagism soon became well known. Some see it as the starting point of modern poetry. The Imagist poets were turning their backs on the sentiment and romanticism of the nineteenth century, and avoiding poetic clichés like moonlight and birdsong, which Ezra Pound criticised as a “doughy mess”. Unusually for the time, women poets featured prominently within the group.
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)
The four Imagist anthologies included work by Pound and the two original imagistes H.D. and Aldington, and also poets such as Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Some poets referred to themselves as Imagists, others didn’t use the phrase but were sympathetic to the Movement’s aims.
The Imagists were interested in returning to what they saw as the best poetic practices of the past. They did not have strict rules about what to write, but rather general advice for approaching poetry. Their approach involved three aims: to write about the subject of your poem directly; to make sure absolutely every word is necessary to the poem; and to write more in the irregular style of musical rhythm than a completely regular beat.
Ezra Pound, in his 1913 Poetry magazine article ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, defines what he means by image: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instance of time”. It isn’t a clear-cut definition, but it’s a useful and interesting way of looking at poetry. Pound’s poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is one of the most famous examples of this theory of the image, and we can use the poem to explore Pound’s definition.
Ezra Pound – photograph: EO Hoppe/Corbis
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.
If you would like to get properly immersed in Imagism, you could join in with the Poetry Society’s Imagist Walk on 29th September in London. Tickets are only £5 and include a tour of significant locations, led by Imagist expert Robert Richardson, and readings and discussion in the Poetry Café. A great way to get ideas flowing!
Our challenge for you is to come up with your own Imagist-style poem. Choose an image or two and explore them. You might like to follow the form of ‘In a Station of the Metro’, but of course your poem/s can be longer too.
Pound has shown us that the point of Imagism is not really sticking to the rules, more to the spirit of the rules. Make sure every word in the poem is necessary. (This doesn’t mean cutting out all instances of ‘the’! Just make sure that you are not repeating yourself, and that you are not sticking in words for the sake of rhyming or line length.) Don’t try and write in a completely regular meter. And once you’ve chosen what to write about, focus on that. You don’t need to explain who is speaking your poem, or give any details about them. But in exploring your images, you may well give some interesting clues about your speaker.
Submitting your poems
This challenge is now closed – though we hope you’ll still find this feature sparks off a poem, which you could enter to one of the opportunities on our Poetry Map. Have a read of these poems for inspiration:
Church by Yulia Titova
The small red glove discarded on the spear of the railings by Sylvia Villa
Untitled by Travis Yeh
The Journey Home by Shuin Jian
Fireworks by Raffi Pollitt
Two Haikus by James Martin
Bleach by Jake Reynolds
Dawn by Jade Cuttle
Untitled by Henry St Leger-Davey
Garden by Dominic Hand
Blocks by Mary Anne Clark
Untitled by Beth Jerrett
burial of a poet by Anran Yu