J.T. Barbarese: On "In a Station of the Metro"

Imagism's enabling text, "In a Station of the Metro," appeared in the April 1913 issue of Poetry and in a slightly different form in Lustra. In the original version Pound spaces the words apart and stops the first line with a colon: "The apparition      of these faces       in the crowd." "In the 'Metro' hokku," he writes to Harriet Monroe, "I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed." His directive is stark in its implications: the spaces between phrases are recovered as units of sound, the eye having first been persuaded that each (spatiotemporal) unit reposes in isolation from those surrounding it. The eye, in other words, and not the ear, governs meaning. But what is this poem supposed to sound like? The metrical habits we learn in school help us to assimilate poetry to familiar anticipatory patterns that yield means of enjoying or at least of analyzing what's new. Yet this two-line poem--decisively not haiku--comes without directions. Instead, it has a physical design that distracts from what one normally expects of poems--recurrent patterns of sound. Scanning the first line is useless because it yields either a line of dactylic trimeter (if the scansionist is ready to elide the first two words and swallow the last syllable of apparition) or some bizarre enforcement of the pentameter (if he is tone-deaf). Accepting either, moreover, what about

Petals on a wet, black bough,

a line clearly less dactylic than spondaic? Making the point this way (to borrow a phrase of Pound's) is like dragging your own heroic corpse around the walls. Each case cancels the next because the poem deliberately sets out to "break the pentameter" and disable the scansion routines learned in Latin class. Conventional strategies are useless because they are blind to a poem’s physical shape---how do we scan the spaces?--yet the unconventional one demanded of us here is somehow too precious. Is it creditable to give a sonic value to the spaces between the sounds without defining the pause's duration? The "pause" can be in fact either one of vision or of hearing, Kenner's "perceptual units" and "speakable units" or Pound's "rhythmic units" at the same time.

What, moreover, about that hinted off-rhyme (crowd / bough)? And last, what about the tendency of the typology to blur syntactical assignments? After all, the most confounding element, the one that finally defeats traditional analysis, is that the poem has no verb. The action that takes place between the seeing of the crowd and the seeing of the petals is unpredicated in the two senses of the term. No one elementperforms in both lines to bind them: as with Pound's aphorism, agency (human or nonhuman) is suppressed. Nor can any element in the strict sense be inferred from the sight of the crowd to the petals: what is there about apparition to suggest "petals" rather than, say, "raindrops" or "ghosts"? There is no unific Blakean imagination at work: on one side of the ledger are the crowding "faces," on the other the "petals." What follows the colon is a configuration of objects physically and psychologically independent of what comes before. Not only is it difficult to describe what goes on but it is almost impossible to decide what the precise nature of description has come to involve. The destination or direction of what Philip Wheelright, compelled by this poem to neologize, termed its "semantic motions," is equivocal: the critic cannot say what the poem says because speech and ordinary telling seem to be but a part of its operations.

I mount this polemical analysis only to demonstrate the scale of real vexation that this two-line poem has provoked since it appeared. Aside from the wars undertaken by critics foxed in their attempts to find a place for it in the materia of tradition or the taxonomies of metaphor (the card includes Northrop Frye, Hugh Kenner, Philip Wheelright, Terrance Hawkes, and Aristotle: nobody's happy with "one-image poem"), there is the problem that the poem is obviously about something, though about what, none is dead sure. Kenner saw a classical topos in the juxtaposed interior (train station) and exterior (petalled bough), a vague fingerprinting of Persephone's chthonian and ouranean natures. Davie rises to another level of ingenuity with the idea that the two lines deliberately transpose technical strategies, making the poem be about its own technique. Distressingly, however, Pound had none of the devices of poetry, speech, rhythm, or measure in view when he experienced his "metro-emotion." Or so he admits in the passage in Gaudier-Brzeska that has become Modernist homiletic, where he recounts his reaction to getting off the Paris train one day in 1912 and stepping into the steamy crowd of "beautiful" faces. "I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation not in speech, but in little splotches of colour" (my italics). The emotion, he goes on to explain, required over a year to discover its proper verbal shape. To describe the shaping dynamic, he fetched out the term "super-position," again from graphic art. To risk putting too fine a point on it, this slide show of visionary mattes had no literary precedent and apparently translated so directly from inspiration into visual form one wonders what "reading," here anyway, amounts to.

From "Ezra Pound’s Imagist Aesthetics." In The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini and Brett C. Miller. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Criticism Overview
Title J.T. Barbarese: On "In a Station of the Metro" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author J.T. Barbarese Criticism Target Ezra Pound
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Columbia History of American Poetry
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