Breaking the Pentameter: Imagism's Radical Break with Tradition


Imagism was a radical new form of poetry that was created by Ezra Pound and his contemporaries, around 1912. In his essay “A Retrospective” Pound set out the three main criteria for Imagism:

1.      Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective o objective.

2.      To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3.      As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.[i]

These criteria, in addition to Pound’s suggestion of limited rhyme, gave rise to a movement of poetry that changed the way poetry was written in the 20th century and established a new literary tradition that future poets, like Charles Olson, would work within. Imagism broke away from the unrestrained, meter-oriented poetry of the nineteenth century and gave room for poets like Pound and William Carlos Williams to expand what poetry could be, by greatly restricting it. Pound and Williams worked in contrast to poets like Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symonds, two poets a part of the Decadent movement of the 1890’s. Looking at Pound’s own parameters for Imagism, it is evident how radical a change he intended to make, when compared to the Decadent poets that came only 20 years before. The radical innovation is on full display when comparing two Imagist poems; Pound’s “In a Station at the Metro” and Williams’s “Summer Song”; with two Decadent poems; “Mandoline”, by Symonds, and “Nihilism”, by Johnson.

Direct treatment of “the Thing” is Pound’s first stipulation as to what makes an Imagist poem. This was a result of Pound’s distaste for the flowery language and “aesthetics of pre-1914 Edwardian England”,[ii] as is his second stipulation regarding economy of words. The second grows out of the first, to be discussed later. Direct treatment of “the Thing” is apparent in “In a Station at the Metro” in the form of “The Apparition”.[iii] The whole of the poem stems directly from “The Thing”, “The Apparition”. The petals in the second line are directly linked to the first line by the punctuation of a semicolon. This intimate mark implies that “The Apparition” and the “petals on a wet, black, bough” are reflections of one another, almost a part of the same thing. While the positioning of the items could be reversed, it is only by Pound’s decision to place “The Apparition” first in the poem that it becomes “the Thing” of the poem. “The Apparition” is an independent image, yet directly linked to the second. The second stems directly from the first and would not exist without it.

“Mandoline”, on the other hand, reads like four different pseudo-imagist poems. Each of the four stanzas deals with a new subject and there is much indirectness that Pound would disapprove of. Each of the four stanzas could be taken on their own and still be edited down to something that would eventually be considered Poundian. There are essentially four different “Things” being treated in “Mandoline”: taking one from each stanza, there are the singers, Damis, “Their elegance” and the mandolines. It is not unreasonable to assume a Poundian editing of “Mandoline” would read much shorter than the published version. It is not unlikely that Pound would remove the bulk of Symonds poem, leaving fragments that might read:

               The mandolines…swoon…

               Into the ecstasy of

The moon

“Mandoline” contains excess that stems from Symonds’s desire to convey not only a specific moment, but the feeling that specific moment would give. Where Pound strives to convey an image as it is, Symonds attempts to understand the “Soul of visible things”.[iv] And while it is an evocative phrase, it was far too romantic an idea for Pound to embrace. So, he broke it.

The second statute for an Imagist poem is the economy of words, which grows out of the first statute of direct treatment. If a poet treats an object as directly as possible, there will be no “superfluous” wordings or words that do not “contribute to the presentation”.[v] There is not a single dispensable work in “In a Station at the Metro”. Each word solidifies the presentation. Simple articles and demonstrative adjectives like “the” and “These” add a defining dimension to the poem. These words in the line “The apparition of these faces in the crowd” create urgency.[vi] The word “these” takes what could have been “some” faces or “those” faces and places them directly in from of both the reader and poetic speaker. This lends to a more vital image. Instead of using a connecting word between the two lines, Pound instead uses a semicolon. This circumvents what would have been an unnecessary word, while connecting the images of “The Apparition and “The Petals” in a more concrete way. Pound conjures a complete image with tight, economic language, thus fulfilling imagist principles. Because of this, “In a Station of the Metro” has become a lasting example of imagist poetry.

“Mandoline” suffers from an unfocused image. Symonds tries to display the sensation of a mandoline rather than the mandoline itself and in doing so, ends up describing a room full of people and sights that are not relevant to the object, like the “…Fair listening maids | under the singing boughs”.[vii] Pound said the object is “always the adequate symbol” and that the object must be used on its own rather than trying to conjure symbolism around it.[viii] Symonds, of course, does not share the sentiment, nor do Johnson and his contemporaries. The Decadent movement fulfils its name in word choice alone when compared to Imagism. One must simply look at a page from each movement to see the radical difference of word economy. “In a Station of the Metro” is composed of two tightly woven lines, whereas “Mandoline” is a goliath by comparison; a brick wall next to a butterfly. Symonds’s surplus of words comes from his attraction to the “artificially charming”.[ix] Where Symonds wanted to enjoy the artifice of life, Pound and the Imagists wanted to do away with artifice and focus on the truth. Truth that came from stripping all unnecessary indulgences away.

The third Imagist guideline relates to rhythm and how to use it. Pound states that a good poet should “behave as a…good musician” when dealing with rhythm.[x] It one of the major goals of Imagism to break the pentameter and compose in rhythms outside traditional schemes. William Carlos Williams’s poem “Summer Song” accomplishes this. There is no discernible meter in the poem. The poem is in free verse and uses punctuation and breath to determine rhythm. There are no iambs and no pentameter. This is a poem alive with human breath rather than a poem that fits into nicely measured lines. Rhythms spill over line breaks and produce a musically exciting piece, as can be seen in the lines:

               Wanderer moon

               Smiling a

               Faintly ironical smile

               At this

               Brilliant, dew-moistened

               Summer morning[xi]

These angular rhythms are held together by a twice repeated rhythmic cadence that is found in the Lines “Wanderer moon” and “Wanderer’s smile”. This repeat of rhythm anchors the poem and keeps it from becoming rhythmically jumbled, while displaying rhythmic variation.

Lionel Johnson’s poem, “Nihilism” takes a different approach to rhythm. Johnson’s poem is full of lines in iambic pentameter. Johnson rarely breaks pentameter in the sixteen lines of the piece. It even opens of two lines of perfect iambic pentameter, “Among immortal things not made with hands | among immortal things, dead hands have made”.[xii] The rhythm continues throughout the poem because of this, the poem loses momentum very quickly. Momentum only returns when rhythmic variation is introduced. This is the rhythmic trap The Imagists wanted to avoid. Iambic pentameter was so closely associated with English tradition that Williams wanted to avoid it altogether and focus instead on rhythms of a more “Thoroughly American art form”.[xiii] Using these new rhythms in American speech, Williams expanded the musicality of poetry and breathed new life into the poetic traditions of both America and Britain.

Pound said that “a rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure, it need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all”.[xiv] Williams does not place a single rhyme in “Summer Song”. In place of traditional rhyme, Williams, like many Imagists, uses assonance and consonance to attain a lyrical quality that rhyme was so useful for. In doing so, Williams achieved a more refines musicality of language. The assonance between “moon” in the first line and “dew” in the fifth line are an example. This is an assonance that works well in an American accent, as certain British accents would alter the sounds and strip away the musicality. The consonance of the “D” sound in “a detached | sleepily indifferent” gives the lines a lyrical bounce while emphasising rhythm.[xv] The “S” sound that appears throughout the poem ties the piece together in a ribbon of consonance that appears even in the title.

Johnson’s poem uses an ABAB rhyme scheme in each stanza throughout the piece. While forms of alliteration are present, it is the rhyme scheme that is the most prominent lyrical feature. This repetitive rhyme scheme in conjunction with the repetitive rhythm gives the poem a square feeling when compared to the lyrically dynamic Imagist poems. Where the Imagists treat rhyme as an ornament only to be used when needed, The Decadent poets used rhyme as a necessity without which their poetry would be incomplete. It is this urge to move away from established tradition, particularly European tradition, which caused Williams to embrace the Imagist movement. Where Johnson was interested in capturing a “poetics of nostalgia”, Williams was interested in forging ahead to create something innovative.[xvi]

These new ideas, mapped out by Pound, are what the Imagists used to separate themselves from the literary movements that came before them, like the Decadent movement. Closing in on a more focused object allowed the Imagists to present a clear and poignant image to their readers to the point of clarity which had not been done before. This led to a sparse use of words, new rhythm structures, and more musicality that have the Imagists their own expansive soundscapes to play with. The Imagists achieved a new kind of freedom by doing away with the conventions of the past. Where the Decadent poets used description filled language that “dulls the scene”, the Imagist where producing sharp, clean language that brought the piece to life. These new techniques, allowed Pound, Williams, and their contemporaries to fully embrace the future and create a new poetics that left the past behind and shaped the future of the art.

[i] Ezra Pound, “Extract from ‘A Retrospective’” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8

[ii] Jason Coats, “Part of the War Waste: Pound, Imagism, and Rhetorical Excess” in Twentieth Century Literature (Vol. 55, 2009)

[iii] Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” in Imagist Poetry, Ed. Peter Jones (London: Penguin, 2001), P. 95

[iv] Catherine Maxwell, “Whistlerian Impressionism and the Venetian Variation of Vernon Lee, John Addington Symonds, and Arthur Symonds” in The Yearbook of English Studies (Vol. 40, 2010) p. 221

[v] Ezra Pound, “Extract from ‘A Retrospective’” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound Ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8

[vi] Ezra Pound, “In a Station of the Metro” in Imagist Poetry Ed. Peter Jones (London: Penguin, 2001), P. 95, emphasis added.

[vii] Arthur Symonds, “Mandoline” in Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, Ed. Lisa Rodensky (London: Penguin, 2006) p. 47

[viii] Ezra Pound, “Extract from ‘A Retrospective’” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8

[ix] Russel Goldfarb, “Arthur Symonds’s Decadent Poetry” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 1 (1963)

[x] Ezra Pound, “Extract from ‘A Retrospective’” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8

[xi] William Carlos Williams, “Summer Song” in Imagist Poetry, Ed. Peter Jones (London: Penguin, 2001), P. 103

[xii] Lionel Johnson, “Nihilism” in Decadent Poetry from Wilde to Naidu, Ed. Lisa Rodensky (London: Penguin, 2006) p. 130

[xiii] Stephen M. Park, “Mesoamerican Modernism: William Carlos Williams and the Archaeological Imagination” in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 34, (2011), pp. 21-47

[xiv] Ezra Pound, “Extract from ‘A Retrospective’” in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound ed. T.S. Eliot (London: Faber, 1954), pp. 3-8

[xv] William Carlos Williams, “Summer Song” in Imagist Poetry, Ed. Peter Jones (London: Penguin, 2001), P. 103

[xvi] Murray G. H. Pittock, “The Poetry of Lionel Johnson” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 3 (1990) p. 43

Ryan De Leon was born and raised in Southern California before moving to the UK and earning his BA in English Literature and Music and his MA in English Literature, both at Newcastle University. He is now back in California and is the founder of Sons and Daughters.

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