A century ago, controversial American innovator Ezra Pound set out to revolutionise British culture – via a new form of poetry.
In 1908, Ezra Pound descended on London’s literary establishment like a black cloud. To the reigning poets of the day, then still stuck in the mud of Victorian didacticism and sentimentality, remaining content to rest within the tired traditions of the romantics, Pound must have appeared, with his arched eyebrows and crow-like face, an American augury of evil. Rightly so – the poet snarled at convention, stamped upon the moralising overtones of “third-hand Keats” and Tennyson, and spat at the slackness he saw in iambic pentameter, overwrought symbolism and gratuitous metaphor. “I bid thee,” he proclaimed, “grapple chaos.” Encouraging, among his peers, the almost entire eradication of traditional poetic law as it stood, lamely as he saw it, at the turn of the twentieth century, Pound was to whittle and sculpt English verse down to the barest of bones, helping to herald the advent of modernism.
So, in a publication that dedicates itself to the underbelly of culture, it is fitting to mention the imagists. This was the group of Anglo-American poets that Pound gathered (possibly ensnared) around him until about 1919, including poets such as H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), F S Flint, T E Hulme and Richard Aldington – those who most fulfilled the theory that drove Pound’s aesthetic revolt, that of “the image”. Taking off from Flint and Hulme’s Eiffel Tower Group, who were already promoting free verse (vers libre), Pound set out to engineer a new form and style in which the poetic image is able to exist concretely, isolated from symbolism and not reliant upon connotation. Not typical representation, then, but presentation, precise and pure. As William Carlos Williams, who became closely involved with the imagists, said, there need be “no ideas but in things”. Words are made to shed their skins, the poem is stripped to essentials and reveals a new and dynamic sharpness of evocation beneath.
If “the image is the word beyond formulated language”, as Pound declared, then the imagists can be seen to be striving for a state more akin to music or painting than the written word would allow. Their poems swallow whole a moment of perception, thus rendering upon the page a reality as immediate as that expressed upon canvas and an experience as sensuous as the cadences of music. Their poems become like pigment, to be felt between fingertips. In their directness of expression they are kind of like the punk songs of poetry – poetically exact and abrasive, no words of rhetoric, no sentimentality, no frill. As such, the most famous imagist poem, Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, totals at only twenty words, title included:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The poem displays an almost Eucharistic type of poetic devotion – the “faces in the crowd” are not like the “petals”, they are the petals – as the words become undressed of abstraction, a transubstantiation of symbol into actual thing occurs. To the imagists, abstraction destroys the vividness of the image, sedates it in vagueness, but the image itself must have a fluid meaning. This is what Pound called his “ideogrammic method”, in which concrete and distinct images can create an abstraction. The images were to be active entities – not static or even rational, but something like a vortex “through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing” as solid objects – the faces – collect up subjective associations: the petals. “The imagists’ images,” writes Pound, “have a variable significance like the signs a, b, and x in algebra.”
Zines and DIY publishing have been covered extensively in both River’s Edge and its yearly anthology, RE. As self-publishing poets, the imagists ought to be given their pioneering place. The unconventional naissance of imagist poetry exists as proof of the enduring necessity of independent publications. Pound, who published his first book of poetry himself and occupied various editorial positions at magazines dedicated to literary subcultures, was able to orchestrate the introduction of imagism into publication, providing the movement with a voice that would have been otherwise silenced. The Egoist – its tagline: ‘An Individualist Review’ – was a London literary publication begun in 1914 by Dora Marsden, lasting until 1919.
What was a periodical then is perhaps a zine now (both terms being equally vague) and, after the intervention of Pound’s heavy hand – which was later to draw thick black lines in, around, all over TS Eliot’s The Waste Land – The Egoist was to become a (probably) the foremost platform for the emerging works of modernism in England. Eliot’s seminal essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) was first published there and, despite the ban placed on the novel itself, sections of James Joyce’s Ulysses were serialized within it. Similarly, Wyndham Lewis’s BLAST! magazine arrived in 1914 as a literary companion to the movement developing as an offshoot to imagism, vorticism. As its title suggests, BLAST! exploded into existence only to quickly disintegrate. Though it lasted for just two editions, its impact, and that of the vorticists, was nonetheless powerful, as a recent exhibition at Tate Britain (The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World) testified.
Another thing for which the imagists must be praised is their acceptance of a feminine poetic sphere at a time when women writers still struggled beneath their literary forefathers. Amy Lowell, Marianne Moore and, perhaps my favourite of the imagists, the Hellenic H.D. – Hilda Doolittle – made up a large part of the imagists’ output and paved some of the way for, for example, the wonderful postwar poet Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote poems about both Moore and Pound. (Although, despite this apparent liberalism of Pound’s, he was later put on trial for treason after spending a little too long with Mussolini, being acquitted only because of his “unsound” mind.)
These were radical new ways in which to write, paint and publish, as laid out in the series of manifestos that emerged, like Russian dolls, from each group, each subgroup, each sub-sub-group… “We recognise no taboos,” proclaims The Egoist; “Go in fear of abstractions,” demands Pound; and from the Vorticist manifesto, as first published in BLAST! : “We fight first on one side, then on the other, but always for the SAME cause, which is neither side or both sides and ours.” (Eh?)
Manifestos are eventually exhausted, perhaps serving ultimately only to suffocate creativity. Those to do with imagism are seemingly endless and increasingly unintelligible, leaving today’s readers behind in a wilderness of entangled “isms”. With its fraught conception and fragmented history, we may begin to wonder how to orientate ourselves to imagist poetry.
But at that point it is important to return to the work itself, to pluck a poem from the weird web of crossed wires. For the poems themselves are all engulfing, cutting to the bone. Readers do not have to overwork to penetrate a true imagist poem, a complaint often pitted against the later monoliths of modernism.
Though the use of language is frugal, the poems are in no way cold- a life stirs and radiates form the starkness of the image – it is shone in your eyes like a torch. These near-naked poems exist to get us in the gut – a first landmark for modernism and the kindling around which many of the soon-to-be-great modernists were gathered.
RECOMMENDED IMAGIST POEMS:
In a Station of the Metro/ Alba / A Girl Ezra Pound
Oread / H.D. (Plus all her other poems.)
A Talisman Marianne Moore
Au Vieux Jardin /October / Richard Aldington
In a Garden/ Streets / Autumn Haze Amy Lowell