A Brief Guide to Imagism  

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough. –Ezra Pound

The Imagist movement included English and American poets in the early twentieth century who wrote free verse and were devoted to “clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images.” A strand of modernism, Imagism was officially launched in 1912 when Ezra Pound read and marked up a poem by Hilda Doolittle, signed it “H.D. Imagiste,” and sent it to Harriet Monroe at Poetry.

The movement sprang from ideas developed by T.E. Hulme, who as early as 1908 was proposing to the Poets’ Club in London a poetry based on absolutely accurate presentation of its subject with no excess verbiage. The first tenet of the Imagist manifesto was “To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly- exact, nor the merely decorative word.”

Imagism was a reaction against the flabby abstract language and “careless thinking” of Georgian Romanticism. Imagist poetry aimed to replace muddy abstractions with exactness of observed detail, apt metaphors, and economy of language. For example, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” started from a glimpse of beautiful faces in a dark subway and elevated that perception into a crisp vision by finding an intensified equivalent image. The metaphor provokes a sharp, intuitive discovery in order to get at the essence of life.

Pound’s definition of the image was “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Pound defined the tenets of Imagist poetry as:

I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective. II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation. III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome. An Imagist anthology was published in 1914 that collected work by William Carlos Williams, Richard Aldington, and James Joyce, as well as H.D. and Pound. Other imagists included F. S. Flint, D. H. Lawrence, and John Gould Fletcher. By the time the anthology appeared, Amy Lowell had effectively appropriated Imagism and was seen as the movement’s leader. Three years later, even Amy Lowell thought the movement had run its course. Pound by then was claiming that he invented Imagism to launch H.D.’s career. Though Imagism as a movement was over by 1917, the ideas about poetry embedded in the Imagist doctrine profoundly influenced free verse poets throughout the twentieth century.

A Brief Guide to Modernism

“That’s not it at all, that’s not what I meant at all” –from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T.S. Eliot

The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change “on or about December 1910.” The statement testifies to the modern writer’s fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.

“On or about 1910,” just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life, and Einstein’s ideas were transforming our perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavor. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the most influential banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Matisse and Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture.

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The Waste Land in the shadow of World War I.
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