May 26, 2011

Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro": How Much Is Enough?

I wonder how often writing, or all art, succeeds or fails because the artist hasn't sensed how much is enough.  And to what extent is that knowledge a conscious, rational strategizing as opposed to an intuitive grasp of matters like rhythm, tone, connotation, emotional ebb and flow?

The other day I once again came across Ezra Pound’s oft-anthologized “In a Station of the Metro,” a two-liner that survives, perhaps, because it illustrates the movement toward Imagism in the early 20th century:

In a Station of the Metro

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

Petals? Or Cincinnati Reds Fans?
I respect and sometimes cry out for restraint and understatement in poetry, but Pound's miniature has always left me indifferent. It’s a pleasant enough metaphor, the faces compared to petals, but I it leaves me uninvolved, even as I feel I'm seeing the picture clearly.  I think of someone painting by the numbers, and I’m skeptical concerning the artist’s care for his subject, including any big ideas or emotions the pictures might create. 

In terms of Pound’s place in intellectual history, I guess I can go only so far with the argument that “we had to get there to get here.” That's probably true in terms of the big, big, and purely academic context. But if “here” means poems that succeed in evoking thought and emotion as well as painting pictures, there might be a problem. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. I like that orientation, which may have been necessary at one time, but it’s a bit extreme.

Let's not forget that a few folks have given us images every bit as precise and palpable as Pound’s, but with the added benefit of emotional or intellectual power. I think immediately of  Keats' and Coleridge's shorter poems, plus Hopkins, Dickinson, and, even in prose, Fitzgerald's imagery in The Great Gatsby. In the best work of those writers, there is plenty to see, simply in the gifts of word pictures, but there's also plenty in the way of ideas, verbal music, and emotional impact.

Once again, maybe some smart, talented people have backed themselves into a black-and-white, either-or corner.


slowmo said...

Pound sure packs a lot into a few words!

Anonymous said...

Ounce for ounce, I like a Pound from time to time. A poet who was a friend and champion of other poets. That in itself is rare.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I've never heard of imagism. Wiki = "The focus on the "thing" as "thing" (an attempt at isolating a single image to reveal its essence) " I was having trouble understanding William's quote. The above helps clarify.

I wonder why someone like Pound gets a break from the heavy hand of judgement where as folks such as Ayn Rand and Leni Riefenstahl don't. Am I wrong?

btw: nice illustration of the rose petals. I was in a group show of installation art where one of the participants took rose petals and covered the industrial window paynes with them. It was incredibly "poetic"

Banjo52 said...

I need to read more about Pound's life, but I remember that he was a head case and a Fascist, at least for a while.

I also recall that T.S. Eliot said something along these lines: I sent [a draft of] 'The Wasteland' to Pound for his editing; he took the blue pen to it and sent back a poem.

Maybe this is another defense for The New Criticism's position: look at the work, not the artist. But what if Hitler had been a skillful poet?

I'm not aware of any Hitlers among our luminaries, but there's been some startling lack of enlightenment on race and gender, and I don't know if we can attribute ALL of that to the times people lived in. There were, after all, abolitionists, pacifists, and suffragettes. How did they GET what they majorities did not?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

but "abolitionists, pacifists, and suffragettes" did get it because of their times.
Pound seems to have dodged the bullet of judgement much like Martin Luther King has. We as a culture, often excuse bad behavior if the author's brilliance is worth preserving. Some of the best artists are the most narcissistic. I know a few.

btw: Hitler was a skillful artist and it could be argued if he'd been accepted to the academy, he'd have been a forgotten commercial illustrator.

Is The New Criticism the literary equivalent of Theory based practice as seen in conceptualism?

Brenda's Arizona said...

He paints a picture, but what of it?

Your photo - petals or Reds fans? - paints a better picture. Your photo gives us something to dissect, to look upon. Pound for pound... I'll take the photo.

Banjo52 said...

PA--I just don't know enough about "Theory based practice as seen in conceptualism" to respond. What you say about other major figures sounds indisputably accurate. I've become at least a little skeptical about purists. I'm not sure they exist, and if they do, I'm usually skeptical about their motives and understanding.

Brenda, thanks. That's exactly what I was driving at, perhaps stupidly with the Reds fans. One risk in our reaction is that we write off, in effect, so much of the poetry of the Far East, which so many major poets, West and East, have found so valuable. And who's to say when an image achieved real power for most good readers? So in my rare reasonable moments, I try to stop at, "This one's not doing much for me. I'm sure it's all my fault." If I can remember, I'll post a haiku I came across the other day; I found it really stirring.

Banjo52 said...

P.S. Can you see why students sometimes are exasperated at the subjectivity involved in creating and responding to poetry and all art? I've never understood teachers who didn't understand that about students.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Looking forward to the haiku!

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