Last month was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Imagism. In September 1912 Ezra Pound was in the British Museum tearoom with Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), a girlfriend from his University of Pennsylvania days, and her English fiancé, Richard Aldington. He was busying himself editing one of her poems, as usual cutting words and lines he felt didn’t work, and at the bottom wrote “H.D. Imagiste”. He had been appointed Foreign Correspondent of Harriet Monroe’s influential Chicago magazine, Poetry, and he offered to send H.D.’s poem to her with some others.
This was the first time Pound had used the word ‘imagist’ publicly. He had used it in notes while correcting the proofs of his next book of poems, Ripostes. T E Hulme had already written the first imagist poems without using the word and Pound was to publish them as an appendix to this collection
The word came at a crucial time and the idea was explosive. Pound had already realised that the stranglehold of rhyme and metre could only be broken by writing irregular verse (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave” as he put it later), but his experiments with Anglo-Saxon and Provençal models seemed to be leading nowhere. He knew the French symbolist poets, but they normally wrote in regular forms. Following Hulme, he grasped the need to write short irregular poems in a language with no tradition of short poems; in English, short poems were limited to the witty (epigrams, limericks) and the formal and sombre (epitaphs). Pound now realised the way forward was through images that created the poem, as in Hulme’s Autumn:
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded,
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.
He started sending imagist poems to Harriet Monroe who published them issue by issue culminating in March 1913 with an essay on ‘Imagisme’ and ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”, both written by Pound. (Until now, literary movements had originated in France and Pound instinctively gave Imagism a French name, referring to it as “le mouvemong”.)
The idea spread very fast – it’s hard to think of any poetic idea having such impact these days. William Carlos Williams, another friend of Pound’s from Pennsylvania days, set out to simplify his style. James Joyce sent Yeats an imagist poem, I hear an Army, which Yeats passed on to Pound and Pound accepted, beginning the relationship that saw Pound championing the publication of Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses. D H Lawrence sent in imagist poems including the remarkable Brooding Grief, and Pound himself was shortening his poems, focusing intently on image and line, so that two-thirds of the poems in his next collection, Lustra, are under 14 lines, including In a Station of the Metro:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough
which became a touchstone of the movement. By 1915 he had edited an anthology, Des Imagistes, which had immense influence. Sitting bored at his desk in a temporary office job, E E Cummings took the obituary of William Cody (Buffalo Bill) in the day’s newspaper and reworked it in ways that would set aspects of his style for the rest of his life. And Wallace Stevens, already an established insurance lawyer, turned from longer Keatsian meditations to shorter intense poems such as Tea.
Imagism’s moment was short – within two years Pound has moved on to the greater intensity of Vorticism, leaving Amy Lowell to edit and finance the next imagist anthologies (‘Amygism’ he sniffed). But the focussed power of the single image was a permanent addition to poetry, appearing in unexpected guises. Working on a set of short poems about Spring, after twenty-one unremarkable sections William Carlos Williams wrote:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
which set a standard of simplification to which he aspired ever afterward. Wallace Stevens saw this intended simplification as a fallacy from the start and had mocked it in Metaphors of a Magnifico. In Harmonium this poem immediately follows Nuances of a Theme by Williams, the only poem by Stevens with a title referring to another poet. Stevens had an uneasy relationship with Williams, half-admiring, half-scornful, writing “What Columbus has discovered is nothing to what Williams is seeking”. But while he mocked Williams as a magnifico, Stevens like Pound and Williams had realised that imagist poems had to be short. Refusing to be limited, he wrote a sequence of thirteen short poems about a blackbird (‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird‘). Within five years Pound’s insight in the British Museum tearoom had led to an imagist masterpiece.
I wonder if imagism has anything to teach us these days. Is anyone writing imagist poems (other than haikus and tankas)?