Imagism

This page helps set up the little “Whitman sampler” of imagist poetry on the reading list for this week. Imagism was (it’s over now) a coherent school of poetry practiced by relatively few individuals at the beginning of the twentieth century in Britain and America. As you know, this is a general poetry class, and I’m not trying to provide you with a comprehensive knowledge of literary history. Still, a class on visual poetry ought to have some coverage of imagism, since it was the first of a small set of intensely visual movements within poetry. This is only the broadest of intros to imagist poetry anyway.

As the name implies, every imagist poem contains a central image; but of course, poems that we don’t tend to associate with imagism can also convey an image, or even work primarily through imagery. So what separates imagist poems from other poems that are notable for their images? The main answer is that every imagist poem is trying to redefine the way you normally approach imagery. They were all written shortly before or right after the outbreak of World War I, when the arts and sciences were beginning to focus on individual subjectivity in a way they really hadn’t before: Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary writings in psychology, for example, were pushing theorists of the mind to reconceive of their models for personality and character, and to admit that not everybody shared exactly the same sort of consciousness (this may seem like an odd statement to make, but it’s nevertheless true that consciousness had not been an object of study for the sciences in quite the emphatic way it began to be studied in the early 1900s). Furthermore, this new movement called psychoanalysis, which Freud started, based much of its inductive investigation on the language that their patients used to describe their symptoms, and in a sense there was really no distinction to be made between the manifestations of the mind and the language that could convey those manifestations. All of this coincided with largely pseudoscientific theories about decadence, cultural degeneration, and scientific racism – just outright wrong social Darwinist crap – that tied deviant psychology to broad cultural anxieties about national, and in Britain’s case imperial, decline.

So the imagist poets were operating in a climate in which the reading public was readier than they had ever been before to bracket an observation they read in poetry. By bracket, I mean to read a poem ironically and to test the observation against how they themselves might have seen it – and not to use the deviation of the speaker’s senses from their own as a reason to dismiss or reject the poem, but as a “selling point” for the text’s interest. Keep in mind this is only a few years after Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings were created, much of whose interest was created by the artist’s insanity. And for successors in the visual arts like Pablo Picasso (whose cubist paintings are even less like the real referents they – sort of – represent) to reach the artists’ marketplace, there had to be art-buyers interested in showing off works that attested to unique ways of seeing – sometimes, the odder the better.

So when you read an imagist poem, know that you are probably encountering a consciousness that had never existed within literature before, and that part of the “point” of the poem is an implicit argument that this sort of mind ought to be included within English letters. Maybe if you or I had been in the Paris Metro on the day that Pound’s speaker felt that all of those faces mingled together as an “apparition”: but he did, and it’s our job as readers to figure out how that might have happened. Maybe if we looked down from whichever mountain the oread in H.D.’s “Oread” is looking down from, we would not similarly have felt the need to taunt the sea; but then, I’m not an immortal Greek nymph made out of mountain, so it might take me some adjustment to figure out how she sees things. Maybe I really needed to have been there on the scene to figure out why so much depends on that red wheel-barrow in the William Carlos Williams poem of the same name; maybe I needed to have been standing in three feet of snow in Connecticut to “get” the speaker’s emotional state in Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” etc. Nevertheless, it’s also true that every imagist poem gives you enough information to make an informed judgment about what’s going on, who the person is, and how they probably differ from you in an appreciable way that will force you to adjust what you would normally do with their images once you figure out how you and the speaker are different.

Having said that, it’s also true that imagist poems are as a rule very short. This doesn’t mean that they are lacking in evidence. But it does mean that the things we are provided with are supercharged with meaning, if only because there seems to be so little to work with. In Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” for example, it’s not a guess that he’s standing in Paris looking at the subway. This was before the DC Metro was constructed, and the Paris subway is the only one on earth in 1911 that went by that name (London, where Pound was living at the time, called their subway the Underground or, unaffectionately, the “Tube”). It’s important to take that hint. Similarly, H.D.’s “Oread” does not make sense if you don’t bother to look up “oread.” It just doesn’t. Imagist authors leave you clues and expect you to puzzle out the image. In that sense, even though the brevity of the lyric might suggest that more license is left up to the reader to picture the scene, there’s actually a lot less left up to us, since our role is to reconstruct the original situation rather than to vicariously inhabit it ourselves. The point is that we’re probably not all that much like the speaker.

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