The Imagist PoemWilliam Pratt, ed.
Review by Ginny Short
The Imagist movement took place primarily in the years 1908-1917, a movement which William Pratt describes and explains in his thorough introductions. His purpose in writing this book was to showcase this movement which gave birth to the modern poetry form we recognize today as “free verse.” His introduction(s) provides a thorough backdrop to understand and approach the revolutionary change that this movement brought to English verse. According to Pratt, no poet of the modern era is untouched by this movement, founded by Ezra Pound, H.D. Richard Aldington and F.S Flint with significant influence by an number of other poets.
The “rules” of the imagist form were simple, as dictated by one of the chief protagonists of the movement, Ezra Pound, and consisted of three main elements: 1) concrete words showing verbal images, 2) verbal economy and brevity, and 3) verbal rhythm through free verse. Influenced by Greek and Japanese and French poetry, the Imagist movement changed the face of English verse. This book brings together a critical overview of the fundamental principles of the form as well as a compilation of poems that illustrate the main principles of the genre.
This book acts, in a poetic sense, as a biography of an era, an era of change and violence, a world torn by the first world war, and an upheaval of poetry and art, and presents a simplified overview and sampling of some of the best of the movement that changed the world of poetics. This is an anthology, so unlike a work that may have a single theme running through the poems, this does not, unless you count the fact that each of these represents a snapshot of an “image” as seen and described by its observer/poet. Thus “imagism” is the theme that runs through, and the wide range of subjects and concentrations is delightful and stimulating.
Most of the poems are short – a hallmark of the Imagist form – but each one is a window into the mind of the poets that populate this volume. Greek references and cadences flow through many of the poems (“Dorian Girl”, “Hermes of the Ways”, “Lesbia”, and “Venus Transiens”). Japanese influence is less obvious (though evident in Pound’s work), but its spare verse is apparent (“Ts’ai Chi’h”, “Curfew”, and “Autumn Rain”). There is very little simile employed in these works, but a great deal of metaphor, again a hallmark of the Imagistes. Each poem pinpoints a single moment or image and describes that, concentrates on it, if you will.
Each of the poets is unique. T.E. Hulme uses very simple language to describe his vision: of beauty, death, and lovely vignettes of nature. His poem “The Poet” strikes me particularly. Here he describes the artist both in nature and in mind, in imagination seeing the world around him, bringing them in to the “smooth table”, or clear, smooth mind and arranging, rearranging, dreaming them into a poem.
F.S. Flint, on the other hand, uses language that is more elevated, lofty and his poems are longer with a bit more pathos. “The Beggar” shows a mean, degraded individual who creates beauty from his suffering: “wind from an empty belly/wrought magically/into the wind.”
The poetry of Ezra Pound shows a wider diversity than the others and is perhaps why he was considered the leader of this group. Obvious Greek and Chinese/Japanese imagery and syntax abound in these works. “In a Station of the Metro” contains only two lines: these are succinct and direct and very Japanese, very Zen. One of my favorites is Gentildonna. Gentildonna is an Italian word for gentlewoman. In this poem she “passed” which could mean she died or she passed by. Now those who walk in the world where she once walked and was not noticed, now these “endure” a gray world without sunlight. It is a sad poem, but the images are graphic and gripping. I am personally drawn to the Japanese influence more that the Greek or Italian. It is obvious Pound studied Japanese or Chinese texts. His “Fan-Piece” is clearly oriental in both its subject and its diction: clear, sparse, and delicate. In three lines one can see the lady set aside by the lord, the fan stands in as her surrogate.
I particularly liked Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. This poem contained a series of vignettes in which blackbirds appeared. It is striking how one thing can evoke so many different emotions and take so many different stances, and Steven’s classic piece does this masterfully, evoking thought and feeling. Reading e.e. cummings brings me to my original romance with poetry: it was he who first captured my poetic imagination. The way he plays with form is fun and meaningful. His 1(a simply shows a leaf falling, and ends with an archaic word “oneliness” which simply means the state of being one. e.e. cummings is known for his word play and word imagery.
Although the term “free verse” is used to describe the imagist ideal, it was interesting to note the wide variety of forms used by the artists. Many were strictly free, but “forms” were used as well. All of the examples of Adelaide Crapsey’s work was in the form known as cinquain, while 1(a by e.e. cummings was written in the style known as calligram, or “shaped” poem. Some poems exhibited rhyme, or were written as couplets. This is an illustration of the further examination of the credo, which Pratt states as the “form should spring from the inner control of the impression or image” and is not simply without form.
One of the precepts of the imagists, according to Pratt, was that the symbolic meaning should be inherent in the image and not be forced onto it. I believe these examples succeeded in showing that. This I believe is one of the precepts of Zen thought, and is part and parcel of every image herein.
Pratt states that the imagist concept was aimed at concentration on and illumination of an image, to use clear and precise language to do so without the use of rhetoric or sentimentality. Over all, the poetry here was startling in its imagery, and inspirational in its complexity and simultaneous simplicity…I was delighted to read these. The wide range of focused images, from people to fish to lizards to landscapes shows an inspirational variety of effects and ways to use images. This will be a book I will return to again and again!