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After a hundred years, does Imagism still matter?

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 Griefand 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)?

This Post Has 16 Comments

  1. A nice piece, Laurie. Stevens’ mockery of Williams’ simplification reminded me of what Donald Davie had to say about the ‘cuteness’ of the red wheelbarrow poem (see Ch 10 of ‘Two Ways out of Whitman’) and the similar ‘plums in icebox’ endeavour:

    ‘the expanses of white page around the printed words enforce …a hushed portentousness that the words in themselves, whatever the tricksiness of spacing and lineation, do nothing to earn.’

  2. I found this intriguing and thought provoking, having always loved the Imagists. It has set me searching for successful contemporary examples and to re-consider my own work.

  3. As Angela Kirby says, “thought provoking”. It made me realise that a lot of my poems (those that don’t start from a happenchance grouping of words) start with a single image which I then prolicise to death. Once more I am indebted to Pound (will his usury never end?). Anoher thought arises – should Giacometti be called an Imagist Sculptor?

  4. Joy and joy to get this article. Thank you, Laurie Smith. I’m always battling to get my students out of writing plain abstractions which ought, by poets, to be hidden in images.

    In Hulme’s ‘Autumn’ I’d cut ‘I walked abroad / and saw’.

    And I’d get rid of ’round about’ and rework the last two lines without that dull phrase. These are the sorts of challenges that Imagism give us, the reduction of language.

    Thank you so much for the essay. Terrific. Love it.

  5. really interesting because i have now made the connection between my poetry and my paintings- they are both imagist in the sense of singular defined images with limited use tight brushstrokes and words. xdonna

  6. I love imagist poetry and have read much about it. It is interesting that many of the poets involved with this movemt still wrote work that was complex and long. THe so-called polyphonic prose of Amy Lowell, for instance, and the symphonies by John Gould Fletcher. Anyone interested might try the work of F. S. Flint, available in a ‘Selected’. Christopher Allan

  7. Excellent essay, Laurie, thank you. It filled in many gaps.

    I don’t think I’d side with the mockers of the cold, sweet plums (or the wet black bough). I’ve remembered both for decades. The term ‘image’ is one which I often feel is not quite appropriate to poetry. What these intense short poems can certainly do is to set off lasting echoes.

  8. As an artist the visual impact of the red wheelbarrow as well as the spatial concepts in the written word is intriguing. Thanks for the article

  9. Inspiring essay Laurie – accessible & informative –
    the poems uplifting

    my room imbued with starlight…!

  10. Image, I think, is the main feature of poetry – without a proper image no idea or emotion can transmit itself. Every poet struggles to find an appropriate image for the sensibility that grips him in the moment of creative zeal. It’s the image in words which substitutes for the emotive experience that he passes through in such moments and till he finds it his whole person feels restless.

  11. Thanks very much for this article. It’s the clearest and most informative piece I’ve come across on the theory, history and influence of Imagism.

  12. This is a wonderful tour of the period. I enjoyed it. I think, and this essay well articulates, that Imagism is the best development of modern verse and legacy. Images communicate massively. This is true even as displayed in The Waste Land, where the imagism bridges the fragmentation without papering over it. Many writes 100 years later use fragmentation without other devices (like Eliot’s behind the scenes intellectual work) to produce nonsense. However, in this essay, I can’t quite see Stevens’ Metaphors of a Magnificio as an attack on Williams. I see the poem as positive, not an attack. In fact, Williams stressed things not ideas while Stevens as in this poem stresses perspective not things. I find the poem quite sincerely furthers the Stevens’ philosophy of the irreducible, yet impossible, task of expression that somehow ends with “the the” (The Man on the Dump”). Stevens, though he wrote longer poems, is the ultimate imagistic writer. His images are amazing.

  13. Recording the happen-experience is the key to poetic response to life. We live life in images and not thoughts. ‘Emotions recollected in tranquility’ give rise to images in a state of internal perception of those emotions. These images should make the bulk of our poetic expression.

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