In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ezra Pound (1913)
It is almost one hundred years since Ezra Pound used the phrase ‘Make it New’ (1928), and although current writers and critics may seem more concerned with what it means to write in the present, Pound’s use of the phrase aimed for artists and poets to take up outdated literary traditions of the past and reformulate them into something entirely new. His poem In a Station of a Metro (1913) inspired by the scene of an underground station in Paris had done just that. Today Pound is still recognised as being a leading figure in the Avant-Garde movement of the early twentieth century. His poem was released into a world on the edge of a cataclysmic world war and is one of the best-known poems associated with twentieth century imagism.
In contrast to traditional poetic forms displayed in Victorian poetry published merely decades before, imagism placed an emphasis on brevity and exactitude. It was developed from Japanese Haiku- a short form of Japanese poetry in three phrases. The main emphasis of the movement was on the precision of words to create short poems centred around single images.
What is fascinating about Pounds poem is what is not said. The poem can be thought of almost in mathematical terms, as a cutting out, a subtraction. White faces of the crowd are visible only in relation to the darkness of the “wet, black bough”. One element cannot exist without the other in this peculiar state of negation.
The aesthetic form captures a single moment in time, owing to the lack of verbs, suggesting the moment of temporary illumination is static. The stillness of the image mirrors the instantaneity of the camera snapshot as if Pound’s visual imagination views the scene as a photograph. But it is also possible to view this lack of movement as paradoxically representative of the increasing speed of public life in the expanding metropolis in the twentieth century. Fleeting faces of the crowd are not blurred or distorted but left utterly blank as though the eye is simply incapable of keeping track of the overwhelming visual data presented to it. In keeping with the trend of modernist literature, this image of the crowd serves to highlight the anonymity of the individual in the urban social scene.
Pound was not the only one to be influenced by the movement either. Other examples of imagist poets include Wyndham Lewis and the lesser known poet Mina Loy. As contemporary poetry continues to appear more abstract and unreadable than ever, it is interesting to consider imagism’s lasting impact as well as the lingering echoes of Pound’s call to ‘Make it New’.
By Violet Hatch