Hugh Kenner: On "In a Station of the Metro"

He tells us that he first satisfied his mind when he hit on a wholly abstract vision of colors, splotches on darkness like some canvas of Kandinsky’s (whose work he had not then seen). This is a most important fact. Satisfaction lay not in preserving the vision, but in devising with mental effort an abstract equivalent for it, reduced, intensified. He wrote a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and afer another year, with, as he tells us, the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which needs every one of its 20 words, including the six words of its title. . . .

We need the title so that we can savor that vegetal contrast with the world of machines: this is not any crowd, moreover, but a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Korè saw crowds in Hades. And carrying forward the suggestion of wraiths, the word "apparition" detaches these faces from all the crowded faces, and presides over the image that conveys the quality of their separation:

Petals on a wet, black bough

Flowers, underground; flowers, out of the sun; flowers seen as if against a natural gleam, the bough’s wetness gleaming on its darkness, in this place where wheels turn and nothing grows. . .

What is achieved, though it works by the way of the visible, is no picture of the things glimpsed, in the manner of

The light of our cigarettes

Went and came in the gloom.

It is a simile with "like" suppressed: Pound called it an equation, meaning not a redundancy, a equals a, but a generalization of unexpected exactness. The statements of analytical geometry, he said, "are ‘lords’ over fact. They are the thrones and denominations that rule over form and recurrence. And in like manner are great works of art lords over fact, over race-long recurrent moods, and over tomorrow." So this tiny poem, drawing on Gauguin and on Japan, on ghosts and on Persephone, on the Underworld and one the Underground, the Metro of Mallarmè’s capital and a phrase that names a station of the Metro as it might a station of the Cross, concentrates far more than it ever need specify, and indicates the means of delivering post-Symbolist poetry from its pictorialist impasse. "An "Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time": and that is the elusive Doctrine of the Image. And, just 20 months later, "The image . . . is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing." And: "An image . . . is real because we know it directly."

That is pure Pound. It is validated by the fact that he wrote numerous poems to which it applies before he had formulated it. . . .

All the confusion about Imagism stems from the fact that its specifications for technical hygiene are one thing, and Pound’s Doctrine of the Image is another. The former, which can be followed by any talented person, help you to write what may be a trivial poem. The latter is not applicable to triviality.

. . . .

This setting-in-relation is apt to be paratactic. "In a Station of the Metro" is not formally a sentence; its structure is typographic and metric. Words, similarly, without loss of precision, have ceased to specify in the manner of words that deliver one by one those concepts we call "meanings." "Apparition" reaches two ways, toward ghosts and toward visible revealings. ‘Petals," the pivotal word, relies for energy on the sharp cut of its syllables, a consonantal vigor recapitulated in the trisyllabic "wet, black bough" (try changing "petals" to "blossoms"). The words so raised by prosody to attention assert themselves as words, and make a numinous claim on our attention, from which visual, tactile and mythic associations radiate. Words set free in new structures, that was the Symbolist formula. And as we move through the poem, word by word, we participate as the new structure achieves itself.

From The Pound Era. Copyright © 1971 by Hugh Kenner.

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Criticism Overview
Title Hugh Kenner: On "In a Station of the Metro" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Hugh Kenner Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Pound Era
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