Did you know that one of the most famous poems in the English language is only fourteen words long? In this lesson, explore the poetic complexity of Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro.
Who Was Ezra Pound?
One of the most dynamic periods in English literature was the modernist movement. Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, modernism broke away from traditional styles, structures, and themes in literature. In terms of poetry, modernism broke free from the formal restrictions of rhyme and meter, resulting in what is known today as free verse. The famous motto of modernism, coined by poet Ezra Pound, was ‘Make it new.’Ezra Pound clearly took this motto to heart in his own work, refusing to repeat himself throughout his career. Because Pound’s style oscillated between minimalist (using as few words as possible) and epic (working on a massive scale), it is difficult to connect him to one particular style.
However, one of Pound’s most enduring poems was created in the early stages of his career.
This phase of Pound’s career is known as his imagist period. As part of the early modernist movement, imagism was launched in 1912 by Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle, although a style similar to imagism already existed among European poets. In an essay published in the 1913 issue of Poetry magazine, Pound defined the three principles of imagism:
- Direct treatment of the thing whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Instead of trying to elaborate upon these principles with more poetic jargon, let’s look at a poem that exemplifies all three aspects of imagism: Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro.
In a Station of the Metro
Here is the text of the poem:The apparition of these faces in the crowd:Petals on a wet, black bough.At first, you might ask, ‘Wait;is that it?’Yes, that’s the whole text of In a Station of a Metro, which first appeared in the 1913 issue of Poetry. You may also be wondering how such a short poem (just two lines and 14 words) could be so important to the history of poetry.
To get a better understanding of why In a Station of the Metro is significant, let’s analyze it using the three principles of imagism.First of all, we have to ask ourselves whether this poem is a direct treatment of its subject. To answer that question, let’s consider another way Pound could have approached the subject of this poem. Here’s an alternate, made-up version of the poem:The apparitions of these faces in the crowdare petals on a wet, black bough.As you can see, these lines are about the same subject, and (except for ‘apparitions’ and ‘are’) the words are basically the same. Yet, somehow the effect is very different. Unlike Pound’s lines, these lines use a traditional sentence structure: subject (‘apparitions’), verb (‘are’), and object (‘petals’).
This makes us see the poem as a sentence that runs over two lines, which makes us read it in a linear way (as a straight line running from start to finish).Fortunately, Pound’s original lines use a non-linear structure, which doesn’t make us rush through the poem in a straight line. To use Pound’s words, the poem isn’t a description but an equation. Because there’s no traditional grammar to push us in one direction or the other, the parts that make up this equation (the ‘apparition’ and the ‘petals’) are given equal value.
In this sense, this is the most direct treatment possible.Secondly, we have to ask ourselves if there are any words that do not contribute to the presentation of the poem. To answer that question, let’s look at what kinds of words the poem uses. Most of the words in this poem are nouns: ‘apparition,’ ‘faces,’ ‘crowd,’ ‘petals,’ and ‘bough.
‘ There are only two adjectives, and they are both used to describe the last noun of the poem (‘bough’). The remaining words are articles (‘the,’ ‘these,’ ‘the,’ and ‘a’) and prepositions (‘of,’ ‘in,’ and ‘on’). All of these words ‘contribute’ to the poem (either by adding to the imagery or the structure); so Pound has achieved the second principle of imagism.Finally, let’s consider the third (and probably the most confusing) goal of imagism: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. The metronome that Pound is talking about is the traditional use of meter (a set pattern of weak and strong syllables) in English poetry. Just as Pound’s abandonment of linear sentence structure draws more attention to the poem’s imagery, so does his departure from the metronome of traditional meter draw more attention to each musical phrase in the poem.To illustrate this point further, let’s talk more about how In a Station of the Metro was first printed.
Originally, Pound inserted extra spaces between certain words, phrases, and punctuation marks in the poem. To show where these extra spaces were located, we’ll use underscore symbols (for example, four spaces will appear as ‘_ _ _ _’). Here’s how the poem looked with Pound’s extra spaces:The apparition _ _ _ _ of these faces _ _ _ _ in the crowd _ _ :Petals _ _ _ _ on a wet, black _ _ _ _ bough _ _ .Just for fun, let’s replace those extra spaces with line breaks:The apparitionof these facesin the crowd:Petalson a wet, blackbough.When the poem is broken into these lines, it resembles a pair of Japanese haiku poems.
Typically, a haiku consists of three short lines that describe an image. Pound drew inspiration from Japanese poetry throughout his career, and In a Station of the Metro is an excellent example of that influence. However, instead of giving each musical phrase in the poem its own line, Pound used extra spaces to create pauses within the poem’s 2-line structure. In this way, Pound was able to keep his poem compressed and direct without falling victim to the metronome of traditional poetry.
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned about Pound’s In a Station of the Metro. Modernist poet Ezra Pound composed this poem during his imagist period, and it was published in 1913 in Poetry magazine. In a Station of the Metro is an excellent example of imagism because of its direct treatment of its subject, its lack of unnecessary words, and its avoidance of the metronome of meter.