ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 8

 - Imagism


The Imagist school is defined, in part through the prose of Ezra Pound. Representative examples of Imagist poetry are examined, particularly Hilda Doolittle’s “Garden,” “Sea Rose,” and “Oread.” Pound’s early poem, “In a Station of the Metro,” and Pound’s comment on the poem’s composition are studied as Imagist statements. His work with foreign languages, particularly Chinese, is considered in relation to Imagism in the poems “Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” and “River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 8 - Imagism

Chapter 1. Introduction: Hilda Doolittle [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Last Wednesday, talking about the poetry of World War I, we were talking about poems written in the period 1914 to 1918, pretty much the period of the First World War. This is a period that we’ve already had a certain amount to say about. It is the period in which Frost starts writing, publishes A Boy’s Will in London and then North of Boston in 1915. It’s the same period in which Yeats’s work undergoes its important stylistic shift in development in the volume called Responsibilities and other books from the teens exemplified in that little poem “A Coat.” It is a period in which, in London itself, are gathered Frost, Yeats, Pound and Eliot – all poets we’ll study – not simply gathered but interacting, talking to each other, reading each other’s work and giving each other ideas and criticism.

Another figure in this milieu and of this moment is the poet H. D. Here, she is in a photo from 1915 with a locket in a poetical pose. Let’s see, I’ve some other photos of the poet here. Let’s see. This is as an older woman and in a familiar place, seated. She’s on the left, well, on your left, my right, with her companion Brhyer right here. And that nice man in the middle is one of my predecessors in this position, Norman Holmes Pearson, a professor of modern poetry: one of the founders of American Studies at Yale and one of the people involved in the creation of the incredible archive of modern poetry in the Beinecke Library, where we have the papers of Ezra Pound; H. D.; lots of materials from Williams; Langston Hughes; and many other figures. Let’s see, there she is on her seventieth birthday in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library. Well, and this is over in the Beinecke, too. That is her death mask.

Well, we’ve gone a long way from that young woman with the locket to this point. Let’s return to her in her youth. This is also over in the Beinecke. It’s a photo of H. D., and it is inscribed, “To Marianne Moore,” her friend and Pound’s friend. On your handout, you’ll see the interesting anecdote relayed from Hilda Doolittle’s Autobiographies:

I had never heard of vers libre until I was discovered by Ezra Pound. [Pound did a lot for modern poetry, including naming H. D.] I did a few poems that I don’t think Ezra liked, but later he was beautiful about my first authentic verses and sent my poems in for me to Miss Monroe. [That is Harriet Monroe, the editor, a very powerful woman, of Poetry magazine.] He signed them for me, “H. D., Imagiste.” The name seems to have stuck somehow. [H. D., Autobiographies]

Well, this is a wonderful anecdote, sometimes told differently, in which Pound and H. D. – as she would come to be known – were conversing about her poems in a coffee shop. And Pound put at the end of H. D.’s poems a new signature to them (“H. D.,” that is) and at the same time named the kind of poet she was (“Imagiste”) and promptly, since Pound is a great entrepreneur, sent the poems off to be published and to found a movement. It’s an interesting and telling story. I suppose if – This was Poetry magazine, its cover, where you see poems by Pound and others that included H. D.’s work in the same volume.

There are a couple of things to be said about this little anecdote. First of all, there’s the kind of complicated literary exchange of a man telling a woman what to call herself, and, in fact, doing it for her and sending it, her name and her work, to be published. The name “Imagiste” is funny. It seems to, well, it seems to evoke something excitingly and pretentiously foreign. And you could remember the force of French painting in this period. You know, everything that was modern came from Paris, it seemed. And here is Pound trying to, in effect, create something, some similar kind of public relations excitement for poetry. “Imagiste” highlights, well, it highlights the word “image,” and it highlights the visual, as if poetry were a kind of painting. That’s important. And then there’s the fact of Hilda Doolittle’s transformation into H. D. I don’t know. Is the name Hilda Doolittle insufficiently poetic? The compression of that kind of wonderfully homely American name into the enigmatic initials “H. D.” seems emblematic of Imagist aesthetics in general, which depend on the radical compression of language and the conversion of, well, the prosaic and everyday to the essential. And you could say that here Pound is trying to do something with the same ideal of extreme economy with H. D.’s name.

Chapter 2. What Was Imagism? [00:08:23]

What was Imagism? This is a, well, these are copies of H. D.’s poems as they appeared in Poetry magazine, the poem “Hermes of the Ways.” H. D. was – and there’s her initials right here, this new pen name she went under – she is writing, even in this very early phase, poems that have classical subjects and antecedents and are sometimes, in fact, translations from classical sources from the Greek anthology and others. Here is one, “Epigram,” after the Greek, and then here’s H. D.’s name followed by the “Imagiste,” in quotation marks, identification that Pound has introduced. Imagism was, initially, marketed – I think that’s the fair word to use – in a series of anthologies that collected this new, exciting, representatively, it seemed, modern poetry in an anthology called Des Imagistes – again French-ified. And then, you can see this is from 1914, and it’s published in London and New York. And then, well, I’ll tell you its table of contents. It’s got poems by H. D.’s friend and lover, also a soldier poet, Richard Aldington, H. D. herself, F.S. Flint and others, including Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams. James Joyce appears here, and Ezra Pound, who here has at least a couple of poems that you’ve read for today.

This was followed a little bit later by this book called Some Imagist Poets in 1915. At this point, Pound is no longer the master entrepreneur, and the movement has rather been taken over by the very amply represented Amy Lowell who has become the primary exponent of Imagism already by 1915. And Pound has more or less despaired of his own creation, Imagism, and now complains of it as being merely “Amygism,” as he referred to it. Amy, well, you can see in this a kind of, oh you know, envy and competition on Pound’s part. He’s unhappy that his little group has been taken over by Amy Lowell, and so he doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. Amy Lowell herself would later become distressed at the proliferation of Imagism and Imagists and attempt to copyright the name, which she was unable to do. Well, this was her longest statement of poetics, presented as a preface to that volume, and I recommend it to you. It’s an interesting statement of Imagism.

And here’s a photo of Pound from the same period. Pound, despite Amy Lowell’s taking over of Imagism, remains the real theorist of Imagism and the one whose formulations we still return to in order to understand what Imagism was and, to an extent, to understand some of the essential aesthetic ideas and criteria of modern poetry. On our handout, you have Pound’s rules – he liked to make rules – for writing an Imagist poem. Happily, there are just three of them, not too many:

(1) Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective. (2) To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation. [We can see even in his telegraphic rules here he’s trying to be economical. And:] (3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Well, these are each suggestive and, as I say, important ideas. And they’re worth dwelling on to understand some of what directs Pound’s thinking and some of Pound’s important influence early on in the development of modern poetry. First of all, that focus on the “thing.” A poem is imagined here as an image of a thing. There’s a kind of empiricism in this, isn’t there? A kind of vaguely scientific language. And if you look in Pound’s retrospect, when he goes back and reprints some of his writing about Imagism and reflects on it in that essay that’s in the back of your anthology, you’ll see Pound talking about his wish to ally poetry with science rather than advertisement. And here you can see him really trying to do so in this stress on objectivity or the aim or objectivity. Notice that the “thing” may be, as he says, “subjective or objective.” But when we call it a “thing,” this has the effect of turning even the subjective into something objective, something oddly objective. And there’s also, in that first rule, a kind of emphasis on directness, you know, direct treatment of the thing. That’s important.

All this leads to, in Pound’s second principle there, the idea of concision, of efficiency. Nothing that does “not contribute to the presentation”: you know, “Hilda Doolittle, your name is too long; H. D.” “Presentation”; Pound doesn’t say “representation.” He says, “presentation.” Again, there’s an emphasis on immediacy, directness, an ideal of presence, if you will. There is, in Pound, a will to override or do away with mediation, to bypass, in a way, the medium; to make the word a thing; to make the word an image and the image a thing. “Direct” also implies a kind of stripping down of rhetorical ornament – the idea, again, that we saw in Frost that the truth is something you arrive at through reduction, or in Yeats’s little poem “A Coat.” And remember that Yeats and Frost are coming to these ideas at just the same time that Pound is finding these formulations for his own poetics. These ideas in Frost, in Stevens – excuse me, in Frost, in Yeats – not in Stevens, importantly – and here centrally expressed by Pound, these ideas all point to a kind of radical skepticism in modern poetry towards imagination and towards rhetoric. There’s a skepticism about poetry’s own illusion-making powers. There’s a kind of linguistic skepticism here. And good poetry has a kind of ascetic dimension for Pound, or so it seems at this point.

Finally, that third point about prosody, that’s important too: what Pounds calls the kind of priority of “the musical phrase” over “the sequence of the metronome,” the musical phrase over a kind of bigger and regularized pattern. That’s a kind of privileging of the part, the smaller thing over the whole and certainly over repetition. It’s a privileging of individual detail over pattern or sequence. It’s a privileging of this idea of the musical phrase over the abstract, or a kind of continuous structure, which is viewed as a kind of mechanical discipline. All of these ideas are rehearsed, again, by Amy Lowell, and given sometimes somewhat different emphases. And you can compare her account.

Chapter 3. Hilda Doolittle Poems: “Garden” and “Sea Rose” [00:18:58]

Well, let’s look at some of H. D.’s poems to see Imagism at work, as it were, at least as practiced by H. D. A number of the early poems here in your anthology come from her book, Sea Garden, a wonderful and fascinating first book that imagines the poems themselves as constituting together a kind of, well, sea garden – a kind of enclosed space – that offers reflection on symbolic objects that suggest a kind of allegory of poetic activity for H. D. in which flowers stand for kind of poems, certainly kinds of feeling. And the garden itself constitutes a certain kind of pastoral, imaginative space. And H. D. has classical sources for this, Greek models for this. And the crucial poet for her is Sappho. And like Sappho, H. D. is a lyric poet of sexual desire. You can see her translation of Sappho’s fragment 68 on page 389. Let’s look at the poem “Garden” on page 396, which gives a sense of H. D.’s aesthetic – ascetic, aesthetic program. Here, there’s an address to the rose, the traditional symbol of romantic beauty:

You are clear
O rose, cut in rock,
hard as the descent of hail. I could scrape the colour
from the petals
like spilt dye from a rock. If I could break you
I could break a tree.
If I could stir
I could break a tree –
I could break you. II O wind, rend open the heat,
cut apart the heat,
rend it to tatters. Fruit cannot drop
through this thick air –
fruit cannot fall into heat
that presses up and blunts
the points of pears
and rounds the grapes. Cut the heat –
plow through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.

The rose, image of romantic beauty: you could compare it to the rose in Yeats’s early poems. But here the image is transformed. H. D.’s emphasis is not on its softness or sweetness or sensual abundance, its richness of color or touch. Instead, the rose is “clear” and “hard,” just as an Imagist poem is supposed to be. It is cut in rock. You could compare it to “Sea Rose” on page 395, the page before:

Rose, harsh rose,
marred with stint of petals,
meager flower, thin,
sparse of leaf, [where again, it seems H. D. is writing about her poem
and its properties]
… Stunted, with small leaf,
you are flung on the sand,
you are lifted
in the crisp sand
that drives in the wind.
Can the spice-rose
drip such acrid fragrance
hardened in a leaf?”

This is a poetry that wishes to convey to us an acrid fragrance in hardened forms. In “Garden,” too, H. D. is interested in a kind of experience that is harsh or astringent, that would open itself to elemental forces – here represented by the wind – forces that suggest human passion as much as weather, and that would transform the poet’s torpor and heat and do so specifically through the action of cutting, which is important. Here, and really in all these early poems, H. D.’s poems take place as a kind of lyric drama of apostrophe: that is, the act of address through which a speaker finds her voice by speaking in some relation to a part of the object world; speaking to a thing, which she identifies with or struggles against or both, as is the case, I think, in the poems I’ve just read. Here, too, you could see these images in H. D.’s poems as, in some sense, things “subjective or objective,” to take Pound’s phrase. The extreme compression of these poems expresses a kind of wish for intensity, as if by compacting things you made them more fierce – sometimes a wish for breaking or cutting, and, you might say, fragmenting of things to get down to essential parts; to do away with the, let’s say, lassitude of mere rhetoric; and to cut to what is essential.

Chapter 4. Hilda Doolittle Poem: “Oread” [00:25:33]

Well, “Oread” is maybe H. D.’s most famous poem from her early work and a poem often presented as a paradigm of Imagism. If so, it makes us see Imagism in somewhat different terms from those Pound presented. It is, like the other poems I’ve just been discussing, a kind of dramatic monologue, which was not something that Pound’s ideas emphasized. Here “Oread” is the name for a wood nymph, and it indicates the speaker of the poem who says:

Whirl up, sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

Again, there’s a kind of lyric act of apostrophe, of address, where what is implored would be a kind of overwhelming experience. Who or what exactly is Oread? Is this nymph addressing? It’s hard to say. Is she speaking, in fact, to the sea as she seems to be? “Whirl up, sea – … / splash your great pines over us.” Or is she speaking to the woods and the pines as if they were the sea? It’s hard to decide. It is a poem that presents a kind of enigma on that level and doesn’t resolve the question it provokes. The very brevity of the poem expresses a kind of wish for intensity that is right on the edge of canceling the poem, you could say, leaving us nothing there at all. A speaker, in this case, who wishes to be covered up, to be subject to a greater force. And the poem leaves us with this cognitive problem, the difficulty of identifying what is figure or ground, what is literal or what is metaphor. That is, whether she is speaking to sea or pines, seeing the sea like pines or the pines like the sea. “The Pool” is another enigmatic poem here, one that poses questions.

Well, this problem that “Oread” raises is, in fact, one that you see in other Imagist poems, the question of what is literal and what is figurative. Pound, again, theorizes this – the effects that I’m trying to describe. In the middle quotation on your handout, he speaks of the idea of instantaneity or suddenness. He talks about the poem as constituting a “complex” of elements held together, made in some sense simultaneous with one another; rather, you know, as “Oread” holds sea and pines together in a way that asks us to see these elements as joined. Pound says:

An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. [And when he uses that word “complex,” it has, perhaps, certain resonances from psychoanalysis and also, perhaps, from chemistry.] It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that 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. [And then he says (one of my favorite quotations):] It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works [Pound, “A Few Donts by an Imagist,” Poetry]

You could see “Oread” as a poem wishing for and seeking that “sense of sudden liberation” that Pound talks about here. It’s important, again, that Pound emphasizes presentation. It is the presentation rather than the representation of such a complex, as he describes it. How is presentation different from representation? For Pound, the literary image is not a memory of a prior reality, a reflection; but is rather something more like a new experience itself. Not an imitation of a thing, but itself a kind of thing. Again, in Pound, as Pound thinks about these things, there’s a drive specifically through technique to arrive at a kind of transparency beyond technique. This is also, it should be emphasized, a Romantic project. The image gives a kind of epiphany, a visionary experience, for both poet and reader; gives us sudden liberation from historical particularities of place and of time.

Chapter 5. Ezra Pound Poem: “In a Station of the Metro” [00:32:29]

Let’s look at Pound’s own poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which is on page 351 as an important test case and example for this poetics. It has the honor of being the shortest famous poem in modern poetry. You can memorize it. “In a Station of the Metro” and wonderfully, when I’ve said the title I’ve already said a third of the poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

“In a Station of the Metro.” “The apparition of these faces in the crowd,” semicolon, “petals on a wet, black bough.” Not many elements. The title – how does it function? It functions as a kind of locator. It places us somewhere. It places us specifically in the Paris underground, in a station of the metro. As I said, that title really is, well, you could understand it as standing outside the poem or really as a part of the poem itself. Lines one and two, again, pose for us this question of, “what is the figure and what is ground?” What is being observed and what is the metaphor it is generating? Are we, in fact; is Pound observing faces and comparing them to petals on a wet, black bough? Is he seeing both those things in some sense? We have here two elements joined and compressed, radically. Probably, it’s wrong to speak here of metaphor or, for that matter, simile. But rather, we can use the word that Pound uses, “image,” or, as he would later call it, “ideogram,” borrowing from his ideas about Chinese writing.

The key to this poem, as to other Poundian poems, is syntax. Syntax is the temporal ordering of language, the ordering of a sentence’s unfolding and consequently the definition of its elements and the relationships among them. Pound has here a kind of abbreviated parataxis, that is, a syntax of series. Here, only two elements are in that series. The series is joined by an “and,” usually. But here there is no “and.” Here, the syntax is compressed in the service of rendering what is, in effect, a new kind of perception: a perception that is modern, urban, of the crowd, momentary; but also, as Pound conceives it, timeless, pointing us allusively to historical and cultural overlays. We’re in Paris, but this literary form draws on Japanese verse models and Japanese pictorial aesthetics. The time is now, the present, “these faces.” This is self-consciously an image or picture of modernity, but it’s also the picture of an underground that inevitably recalls the classical underworld and so also recalls the long poetic history of comparing dead souls to leaves, which you find in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton. Here, it’s as if an epic simile from one of those great poems had been taken out and presented to us in fragmentary form. All of this, this kind of rich, allusive overlay, is created through a kind of stripping down to the poem’s essential, primary elements. Pound gives us the story of the poem’s composition here, which, whether it’s true or not, is an important poetic fable that stands behind this poem. He says:

Three years ago [in your footnote] in Paris, I got out of a ‘metro’ train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, [you know, a whole series] and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. [Again, suddenness.] And that evening… I was still trying and I found, suddenly, [another experience of suddenness] the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation… not in speech, but in little splotches of colour…. The ‘one-image poem’ is a form of a super-position, that is to say, it is one idea getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a 30-line poem and destroyed it…. Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like [haiku-like] sentence.

So there, interestingly, this poem that purports to present – and “present,” again, is the right word rather than “represent” – a moment of intense, vivid spontaneous emotion is arrived at, as Pound describes it, through laborious technique and overtime.

And that technique is concentrated specifically on what? Compression, cutting things down and eliminating words. Again, as in Frost’s “Mowing,” the truth is something you get down to by cutting away rhetorical ornament. Pound takes Japanese and Chinese poetries as models for this aesthetics of compression. And it’s worth stressing that on the one hand Pound is polemically writing in protest against late nineteenth-century drawing rooms that are crowded with bric-a-brac and the ornamental aestheticism of, well, of a poet such as Swinburne or even the early Yeats. And yet, Pound’s taste for Japanese and Chinese art comes right out of Victorian decadence and – well, you can see this yourselves if you look at the paintings of James Whistler and others. Pound is a polemical modernist artist who is also really, as he looks right here, a Victorian decadent.

Chapter 6. Li Po Poem Translation by Ezra Pound: “Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” [00:40:48]

For Pound, compression in Japanese and Chinese poems means implication. And that’s what he’s really interested in getting at.

In your RIS handout, you’ll see his translation of Li Po’s “Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” as Pound renders it. In Pound’s handling, he says:

The jewelled steps are already quite white with dew, [Again, this is a
dramatic monologue]
It is so late that the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

And then Pound, ever the teacher, in his poems as elsewhere, says in his presentation of this poem:

Note. – Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady [is doing the complaining], not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore, he [he for whom she was waiting] has no excuse on account of the weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but soaks her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

Here, as Pound unfolds it for us, does his explaining for us, the human situation is inferred from the scene because it is so exactly rendered. And the power of sentiment is felt, not through its direct expression but rather through a kind of deliberate restraint, “The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.” Narrative here, in this poem as in other instances of Pound’s work, is displaced by the pictorial, or you might say is not so much displaced as condensed in it. All that matters of the story of a lover’s grief can be told in a quatrain.

Chapter 7. Li Po Poem Translation by Ezra Pound: “River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” [00:43:09]

Well, I’m going to finish in just a moment, but I want to suggest a further dimension to this aesthetic that I’m trying to describe. In other translations from the Chinese, Pound – who didn’t know Chinese, and I’ll say a little bit more about that next time – builds a kind of layered narrative out of discrete images and finds a way to, in a sense, not simply create a poetry of radical compression, but rather a poetry that expands out of this Imagistic basis. The “River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” on page 352 is an example, and it’s one of the really great love poems of modern poetry. Like the “Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” it is a dramatic monologue for a female speaker, but these are different poems. By the end of this one, the wife speaks very directly, not in reproach but in self-knowledge and pained desire.

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

Of the paired yellow butterflies, the wife says with sublime simplicity, “They hurt me. / I grow older.” It’s possible to forget that the speaker who says this is sixteen, not thirty-six. But her age makes no difference. She is already grasping – as you too will have – through, in this case, the pain of her separation from her husband that the essential experience of living in time is loss. With this recognition, Pound’s poem reaches out of the confines of its Imagism toward something much larger. And at the same time, you see him carrying forward the Imagist’s “don’ts.” This poem is a direct treatment of feeling. It uses absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation, and it is composed in the sequence of the musical phrase, not that of the metronome, with those dramatically varying line lengths. How Pound developed this poetics on a truly grand scale, and the role that translation played in it, these are things I’ll discuss next time when we turn to the beginning of his epic poem, The Cantos.

[end of transcript]

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