In a Station of the Metro

James F. Knapp: On "In a Station of the Metro"

"In a Station of the Metro" relies on just two images, both presented in a simple, direct way, plus the catalyst of one word which is not straightforward description: "apparition." Through the metaphoric suggestion of that word, Pound fuses the mundane image of "faces in the crowd," with an image possessing visual beauty and the rich connotations of countless poems about spring. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of surprised discovery which such a vision in such a place must evoke.

From Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1979 by G.K. Hall and Co.

Ralph Bevilaqua: On "In a Station of the Metro"

Recent critics, commenting on Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," have invariably referred to the connotative power of the word apparition in the first line of that poem. Accordingly, one critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." Many have commented upon the various connotations of the word. It has been stated that the word suggests "the supernatural or the immaterial and a sudden unexpected experience"; that it "first establishes the sensation of unreality and the lack of precision which is then reinforced by the metaphor, and which, therefore permeates the mood of the poem," and that through its use Pound seems to suggest that life "can be made to seem bearable only by the metaphor of an 'apparition,' a ghost of the bright beauty of things that grow freely in the sunlight." All of these remarks direct our attention to that fortunate lack of precision inherent in the word apparition which results in its particular richness within the poem. While I agree that in the context of the poem several connotations of the word apparition are possible, I should like to suggest the probability of Pound's having a particular and very specific idea in mind that he wished to convey by the use of this word. Once this meaning is made evident, furthermore, it should become apparent that the poem is a clear example, in verse, of Pound's own conception of the manner in which the Image poem operates, which he later defined in a prose essay for Poetry magazine.

That Ezra Pound has a sophisticated knowledge of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is a well-established fact. Accordingly, it should be assumed that he is well aware of the subtleties and nuances in the vocabularies of those languages. Of major concern to us here is a particular nuance of the French word apparition, which is one of a large group of words known technically as a false cognate, a word the orthography of which in one language is the same as that in another, but which carries a different meaning from that similarly-spelled word. In French apparition can and often does carry the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived (italics mine). It is my contention that this French word, in addition to its false cognate in English, was in Pound's thoughts as he composed the poem. That Pound knew French well and that the poem was written in France about a French subway station make this contention all the more plausible. Furthermore, not only does this particular sense of the word suit what seems to be the intention of the first line (to suggest the unique way in which the faces appeared to the viewer at the precise moment of their being perceived), but it also enhances with its notion of suddenness that stimulus-response transferral suggested as objects perceived are metamorphosed by the creative imagination into their metaphorical counterparts. If we accept this sense of the word, then the poem seems to exemplify perfectly Pound's notion of the Image (stated in Poetry, March 1913) of an "emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time." Equally significant is Pound's own discussion of the genesis of the poem in question in which he placed substantial emphasis on the precise moment when the objects that moved him dashed before his eyes:

Three years ago [1911] in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. . . . [Italics mine. ]

Later in the same essay Pound speaks of the Image in terms that are significant to an understanding of his conception of this type of poem :

The "one-image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion.

I wrote a thirty-line poem and destroyed it because it was what we call work of the second intensity. Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later [1912] I made the following hokku-like sentence:

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

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective. [Italics mine.]

What could be more illustrative of the effect Pound speaks of than the function of the word apparition with its connotations of suddenness and first perception? In addition, the word enriches the quality and effectiveness of the entire metaphor illustrating, to be sure, Pound's understanding of what Elizabeth Sewell speaks of as the "good metaphor," that which "from its very fittingness and precision should emanate in the mind a divining impetus which communicates to the organism receiving it, hints, unformulable yet convincing, of future interpretative power." It was Aristotle who declared that the faculty for analogical invention and thought was the hallmark of the poet. Surely "In a Station of the Metro" evinces Pound's mastery of this faculty and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il migilior fabbro.

From "Pound's 'In A Station of the Metro': A Textual Note." English Language Notes 8.4 (June 1971).

Ezra Pound: On "In a Station of the Metro"

Three years ago in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation . . . not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that - a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.

That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, of even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour.

And so, when I came to read Kandinsky’s chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that someone else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly. It seems quite natural to me that an artist should have just as much pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures, as in painting portraits of fine ladies, or in portraying the Mother of God as the symbolists bid us.

When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the "ice-block quality" in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only "the shells of thought," as de Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others

Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours.

Perhaps this is enough to explain the words in my "Vortex": --

"Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of this form."

That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint. If instead of colour I had perceived sound or planes in relation, I should have expressed it in music or in sculpture. Colour was, in that instance, the "primary pigment"; I mean that it was the first adequate equation that came into consciousness. The Vorticist uses the "primary pigment." Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary application.

What I have said of one vorticist art can be transposed for another vorticist art. But let me go on then with my own branch of vorticism, about which I can probably speak with greater clarity. All poetic language is the language of exploration. Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. The point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.

I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch as say, "Mamma, can I open the light?" She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art. It was a sort of metaphor, but she was not using it as ornamentation.

One is tired of ornamentations, they are all a trick, and any sharp person can learn them.

The Japanese have had the sense of exploration. They have understood the beauty of this sort of knowing. A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet. The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

"The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:

A butterfly."

That is the substance of a very well-known hokku. Victor Plarr tells me that once, when he was walking over snow with a Japanese naval officer, they came to a place where a cat had crossed the path, and the officer said," Stop, I am making a poem." Which poem was, roughly, as follows: --

"The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:

(are like) plum-blossoms."

The words "are like" would not occur in the original, but I add them for clarity.

The "one image poem" is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence: --

"The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals, on a wet, black bough."

I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. I a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.

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