Daniel Tiffany: On "In a Station of the Metro"

What difference would it make to the history of Anglo-American poetic modernism if we were to read Pound as a poet whose progress begins and ends in the realm of the dead, the author (and protagonist) of a literary odyssey culminating in a political inferno haunted by his earliest poetic principles? What if we were to read Pound essentially as a poet of mourning—not elegiac precisely, but fetishistic and transgressive. . . .

[. . . .]

Pound is unable. to part with the. "cadaverous dead," to complete the task of mourning. The. poet's lost male companions become remote and inexorable fathers to his writing. In a very real sense, death both quickens and captures Pound's writing. "The work of the phantom," Nicolas Abraham writes, "coincides in every respect with Freud's description of the death-instinct" ("Phantom" 291). Haunted by a series of ghosts, Pound continually seeks to return to a place he has never been, to converse with the dead. His experience of the dead (which is the experience of the unknown or the impossible) and his conception of memory converge with the poetics of the Image. If, indeed, Images and the phantoms of memory are analogous in Pound's mind (as in the phrase "resurgent EIKONES"), then we should view the poetic Image as the return of a lost or dead object, a moment in which the subject is haunted by reality .The Image is life imaged as death, a living death) as the Egyptian Book of the Dead taught Pound and others (including Yeats and Wyndham Lewis) around the turn of the century.

[. . . .]

Pound's infatuation with the dead was not lost on his contemporaries, or on his later critics. Wyndham Lewis, for example, wrote of Pound, "Life is not his true concern . . . His field is purely that of the dead . . . whose life is preserved for us in books and pictures" (Lewis, Time 87). Elsewhere, Lewis described Pound as "a bombastic galleon " with "a skull and crossbones" flying from its mast. Richard Aldington's parody of the famous "Metro" poem also registers Pound's necrophilic bias:

The apparitions of these poems in a crowd: 

White faces in a dead black faint. (SC 191)

As tor Pound's critics., Hugh Witemeyer has described "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" as aIl "elaborate autopsy" ( Poetry of Ezra Pound 162 ), and Humphrey Carpenter describes Pound's fifth volume of poetry,Canzoni, as "the last twitch of a poetic corpse, the body being recognizably that of the Pre-Raphaelites" (SC 157).

[. . . .]

Distilled to a handful of syllables, the Imagist poem derives its power from its resistance to language, from the perilous condition of its own medium—a form that is inherently self-destructive. Thus, the influence of ]apanese haiku on Imagism, for example, can be understood as an exotic means of formalizing and dignifying a poetic suicide. The remains of Victorian poetry assume the haiku form as a cipher of ritual death (hence the arduous and protracted deletion of "In a Station of the Metro"—reduced over a period of six months from thirty lines to fourteen words).

[. . . . ]

Imagism's entanglement with the idea of death portrays allegorically the mortality of poetry itself, as well as the essential negativity of the Image: language is consistently deployed against itself in the name of the Image.

[. . . .]

Pound worked on the poem sporadically from 1911 to 1913, a period of tremendous ferment and change in his poetry ( and, incidentally, the period in which he produced his translations of Cavalcanti ). Pound reprints the poem in his memoir of Gaudier:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: 

        Petals, on a wet, black bough. (GB 89)

Bearing in mind Pound's affection for medieval concepts of memory, the "station" of the metro can be compared to the locus of memory in which the "apparitions" (imagines) appear. What's more, Hugh Kenner argues that the poem records a descent "underground," and recalls Odysseus' encounter with the souls of the dead in Hades. The "faces in the crowd," like the "EIKONES" of memory, are "apparitions": they emerge into visibility (as images), yet they are also phantoms. Obviously, this poem, which is cited by Pound (and everyone else) as a paradigm of the modern, formalist Image in poetry, is haunted by other conceptions of the Image. Indeed, Pound portrayed the "Metro" poem as a crucial turning point in his career, a work that forced him into an "impasse" ( GB 89). He struggled during a period of a year and a half to complete the poem, and cut it down from thirty lines to a single sentence. Pound leaves no doubt that the "Image" of the poem is ultimately a product of shaping and carving resistant materials. The Image is made, not received. Yet the content of the poem alludes to the Image as phantom, even as its mode of creation identifies it as an artifact. Hence, we can understand the "Metro" poem as the moment in Pound's career when the Image as phantom begins to assume the artifactual properties of the formalist Image.

[. . . .]

Images pieced together like mosaics, "in little splotches of color" (as Pound described the genesis of the "Metro" poem), arise from a place that hides its identity as an Image, a place that is no place: the crypt.

[. . . .]

One discovers in Pound's "Metro" poem (the most famous of all Imagist poems) a striking illustration of the principle of sublimation informing the Image. In his "Vorticism" essay, published in the Fort nightly Review in September 1914, Pound offers his readers a detailed account of the origins and compositional history of the "Metro" poem, as an exposition of Imagism in practice. He dates the genesis of the poem to a moment three years prior to the writing of the "Vorticism" essay, which would be 1911—the same year he wrote "Silet," the opening poem of Ripostes. Following what Pound calls "the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion" ( GB 89 ), he writes a series of drafts of the poem, each more condensed than the previous one. By eliminating what he calls material of "second intensity," Pound shrinks the poem from thirty lines to a single sentence. Clearly this process, whose principles Pound formulates during the "impasse" between 1911 and 1913, represents the essential negativity of the Image—that is, the regime of elimination and prohibition that I have described as fundamental to the "objectivity" of Imagist poetics.

The sublime aspect of the Image derives from its irrepressible "substance"; indeed, the negative practice of Imagism serves not to eliminate but to preserve the "life" of the crypt: its elegiac feeling, its eroticism, its fatality. The remains of language—the Image—render the volatile materiality of the crypt; the ascetic mode of the Image draws attention to the body by making it disappear. Though Pound presents the "Metro" poem as a paradigm of modernist practice, its reference to an apparitional event in an underground "station" quite obviously links it, as I indicated in the previous chapter, to the Decadent properties of Pound's crypt poetry. Indeed, the archaic dimension of the "Metro" poem is more pronounced than Pound suggests. He dates the origin of the poem to 1911, without indicating any possible precedent in his earlier published poetry. K. K. Ruthven has demonstrated, however, that the specific "image" of the "Metro" poem derives from a very early poem of Pound's, "Laudantes Decem Pulchritudinis Johannae Templi," published in Exultations (1909). One section of the poem, addressed to "my beloved of the peach trees," describes "the vision of the blossom":

the perfect faces which I see at times

When my eyes are closed—

Faces fragile, pale, yet flushed a little, 

            like petals of roses: 

these things have confused my memories of her. ( CEP 119 )

The essential features of this vision" survive intact in the "Metro" poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: 

        Petals, on a wet, black bough. ( GB 89)

It is essential to emphasize that the original "vision" occurs with eyes closed, and that the visuality of the Imagist poem must therefore be described as highly ambiguous, if not dependent on a kind of blindness.

By 1913 (if not from the outset) the "vision of the blossom" becomes associated in Pound's mind with Japanese poetry (haiku). Indeed, the "vision of the blossom " continues to circulate in his work in a manner that eventually discloses its specifically archaic, or nostalgic, dimension. An early manuscript of Canto 4, composed in 1918, contains the following lines: "the thousand-year peach trees shed their flakes / into the stream, out of a former time." These lines suggest that the apparitional petals of the "Metro" poem should be viewed as drifting "out of a former time," as ghosts. The "peach trees in magical blossom" appear in yet another context, in Pound's essay on Remy de Gourmont, published in March 1919: "I do not think it possible to overemphasize Gourmont's sense of beauty . . . His pays natal was near to the peach-blossom fountain of the untranslatable poem" (L 343). The "vision of the blossom," which we now understand to be an apparition of the dead, is described here by Pound as "an untranslatable poem." Indeed, we could argue that the "pays natal" of the modernist Image is an "untranslatable poem"—a poem encrypted in the Image, a vision preserved and concealed by the negative praxis of Imagism. Yet the phantasmic "substance" of the "Metro" poem differs not at all from its antecedent, its forgotten ancestry, in Exultations. Thus, the "Metro" poem emerges as the nucleus of a constellation of apparitional poems spanning the entire Imagist period, from 1909 to 1919.

The figure of the crypt mediates the divergent symbolic economies that lay claim to the modernist Image. On the one hand, the crypt is the symbolic site of modern literary positivism, and the Image is what lies within the crypt: corpse, fact, word-thing, symptom. The irreducible materiality of the Image, in this case, poses a challenge to the hermeneutical concept of meaning itself, which is based on a distinction between surface and depth, the manifest and the latent, history and divination. Yet the Image, like the figure of the crypt, harbors figurative debts to this hermeneutical model, and must therefore also be understood as reviving the phantom of meaning from the dead letter of the crypt. That is, the Image, as an emblem of hermeneutical understanding, is not an inscrutable yet all-too-obvious "thing" in the crypt, but the crypt itself and its spiritual "content."

From Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. [Note: This little collage of passages is meant only to suggest the outlines of a more complex argument detailed in Tiffany's book.]

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.

Luigi A. Juarez: On “The Great Figure”

Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red





to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city.[1]


Often anthologized beside other poems of Imagism, William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” (1921) features a number “5 / in gold,” cast into relief by the surrounding “red” of a hurtling “firetruck” (3–6) and the chiaroscuro of night.[2] Williams renders this image so sharply that he must have seen it in person,[3] and even assigning a speaker to the poem—which I will now do—doesn’t really change that. My primary concern, however, lies with the poem’s dramatic situation and how it awes, unsettles, and humbles the speaker. Yes, the poem is extremely visual, composed in free verse, and takes place during modern times. But it has more in common with early Wordsworth than early Pound. “The Great Figure” ultimately uses these imagist graces to direct us to when and how its dramatic situation asks of­­ the speaker’s sentiment amid an increasingly non-sentimental world.

We begin in media res, significant since the pre-existing movement it ushers in recalls epic poetry: “Among the rain” (1).[4] The preposition “among” indicates an image already in the process of being seen since it’s used here as a locator of something appearing in the “rain,” and we are thrust into that observance through the mere act of reading. This movement speeds up with the next line: “and lights” (2). The syllables of these opening lines fall in perfect iambs, the enjambment between the two impels vocal delivery, and we go from dimeter to mono.

Suddenly, the three feet of “I saw the figure 5” (3) staggers the overall momentum and prevents the rhythm—however briefly—from gaining traction. Although the common reading of the poem is to go through it quickly (since its formal qualities are meant to assume the speed of its content), the trimeter asks us to rest on this line a bit longer. Doing so rewards us in a couple of ways: First, the “I” here harkens back to romantic poetry in that it personalizes matters. Because of that “I,” we as readers are at once distanced and also made privy to the intimate knowledge of the speaker. Recognition and interiority thus intersect. This is no longer an experience we can fully imagine ourselves living through since it’s obviously someone else’s, but moving forward, at least we’re allowed access to the speaker’s take on the whole thing. Let us also note that line 3 quotes the “figure” from the poem’s title. That word is double-faceted, as well: it’s a number but also implies shape. The speaker could have just said “I saw the number 5” and generated the same literal meaning. However, the speaker’s chosen diction emphasizes movement, since a “figure” often needs to “take shape” in order to be seen clearly. He or she understands the problem in trying to capture a fast-moving image: its parts will almost always emerge before the whole.

The next four lines reveal the titular “figure” in this careful way. Like the speaker, we are supposed to perceive that it’s “gold” (4) before we perceive that it’s painted onto the side of a “red” (5) “firetruck” (6) that’s “moving” (7). A moving firetruck provides great context given that it provides a source for the “lights” from line 2 (they are its headlights), a setting (it’s a darkened street), and exposition (it’s going somewhere). But the primary importance of these four lines is to accelerate the poem again and confirm that whatever the speaker sees can be only as clear as the synchronic space within each line allows it to be. We can now conclude that the gold-colored “5”—as a synecdoche for the red firetruck—is in motion, and something about its sudden identification in relation to the position of the speaker connects inwardly with him or her. Is the speaker too close to the curb? Or perhaps the firetruck is traveling at top speed—or both?[5]

Either way, it’s “moving” as we “move” onto line 8: “tense.” If this word gives us pause, it should. The past two words, “firetruck” and “moving,” were also lonely in their respective lines. The next, “unheeded” (9), is as well. But “tense” is monosyllabic and therefore stressed.

This, in addition to its emotional currency, vies for our attention. “Tense” denotes a tightening up due to the nervousness or anxiety of a situation. It is, therefore, a relational word by definition; any one situation can only be considered “tense” if there’s someone else there, a willful subject who could observe, recollect, and respond to it as such. But like free indirect discourse in prose, we are not quite sure to what or to whom “tense” is attributed here. The “5” can be “tense” because the speaker has every right to personify it in such a way. The larger situation can be “tense” since it involves a firetruck brushing past the speaker. The speaker him or herself can feel “tense” for any of these reasons and more. All of these are possible conclusions, but the one truth is that we are meant to land and stay on this word for some time. We are meant to wonder about these things. We are meant to “tighten up.” Thus, line 8 adheres to Pound’s imagist tenet of funneling readers into a single instant in time.

But there’s one major departure from Pound: “tense” has no image. Sure, one could envision a body straining in front of a charging fire engine. But the speaker’s tone wants us to read it as a word, which beautifully points to other words, across the entire emotional spectrum. In this modality, “tense” has much more in common with the famous “Oh!” moments of romantic verse. The poetic utterance coincides with a self-reflexive turn on the part of the speaker, a Wordworthian overflow of feeling. Most of Williams’s imagist poems don’t hinge on such emotional responses, opting instead to leave that task up to readers (e.g., “The Girl,” “This Is Just to Say”). Either that or his poems hinge on just one—wonderment—which is often the most immediate response one has to a striking image (e.g., “To a Poor Old Woman,” “The Red Wheelbarrow”). “The Great Figure” begins in wonderment, but with “tense,” the speaker can feel anything, from admiration to fear, distress to relief. At last we can see the poem itself “take shape.” The vehicle is a modern experience pedaled by structured, controlled free verse. Its tenor? Sentiment.

The next line, “unheeded,” sets the staggered movement of the poem into motion again. Like the work itself, this figure 5 must soldier on regardless of the speaker’s heed, regardless of his or her sentiment. If there really is an emergency, the firetruck needs to get there no matter what. Thus, “unheeded” alerts us to the speaker’s realization that the encounter is much bigger than him or herself.

The last four lines protract the scope of the poem as the “5” moves away. “Gong clangs,” “siren howls,” and “wheels rumbling” add sound to the still-moving image. They also strengthen context (there really is an emergency) and re-introduce metrical feet to the poem. However, the main purpose of adding these words is to marry the poem’s aesthetic “shape” with the “sound” of its dramatic situation. Concretely, the poem inverses the rising and falling pitch of the firetruck’s Doppler effect, and we might be inclined to read the poem aloud in this manner (increasing our volume until “tense,” and reducing our volume thereafter). Like the noises heard by the speaker, the final line (the longest of printed text[6]) trails off the page—“through the dark city,” past the speaker, into the distance. That it includes a preposition like the opener is not a coincidence.

The poem’s single yet heavily enjambed sentence finally end-stops with a period, but its incident begins and continues on outside the thirteen lines. The enjambment between all those lines is cut like speech[7] but is also meant to simulate the difficulty in articulating the various parts of a rushing image. As a motionless observer, the speaker needs to versify movement in this way, and as a modern human being, the speaker might feel powerless when met with a roaring, “unheeded” fire engine. But it doesn’t matter if he or she utters the verses in “real-time” or if they’re “recollected in tranquility” afterward. The poem proposes a dramatic situation that requires a solitary speaker to confront the reality of modern life—and feel it, too.

The person in “The Great Figure” figures out this affect. Maybe that’s why it’s so “great.” As for Williams himself? For being such a brief, imagist poem, it contains multiple traces of epic, romantic, and sentimental verse. Perhaps it’s also a self-reflexive turn for him, as he “figures” out his legacy from the poetic tradition he has inherited.[8]

Works Cited

Williams, William Carlos. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1967.

———. “The Great Figure.” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, 1909–1939. Vol. 1. Ed. A. Walton Litz and Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions, 1986. 174.




[1] This is the revised version of the poem included in The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams and the version that is most anthologized. It omits (rightly) the line “with weight and urgency,” which only appears in the first printings of Williams’s Sour Grapes (1921) collection.

[2] In 1928, Charles Demuth responds directly to this visual with his painting The Figure 5 in Gold.

[3] The secret’s out on this one; in his Autobiography, Williams writes: “Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden’s studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it” (172).

[4] Like Williams’s own Kora in Hell: Improvisations (1920).

[5] Questioning his position on the street might bring to mind one of the “axioms” from “XXV” in Spring and All: “Don’t get killed” (Collected 232).

[6] And second longest in terms of syllables (at five).

[7] Williams’s “American grain.”

[8] Williams’s first collection of poetry—1909’s Poems—is actually so indebted to the ghosts of two literary giants that he quotes both of them on the cover. Throughout Poems, his use of compound adjectives recalls Keats (“balmy-blossomed” [“June”], “hush-throated” [“The Uses of Poetry”]), while his syncopes (“n’er” and “o’er”), Shakespeare. But the influences don’t stop there. He also plays with couplets (“Innocence”), test-runs a ballad (“Ballad of the Time and the Peasant”), and reimagines Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (“Imitations”) and Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” (“Love”). The result is poetry unable to telegraph free verse because it’s deeply tied to so many poetic traditions. However, Williams does begin to experiment with irregular rhyme scheme in his second book, 1913’s The Tempers, and finally wields free verse poetry as his own in his third, 1917’s Al Que Quiere!

Peter Halter: On "The Great Figure"

For Williams's friends, "The Great Figure," with its sensitivity to things completely outside the confines of Art, Beauty, and Culture, was a paradigmatic achievement. It was this poem in particular that Kenneth Burke singled out for praise in one of the earliest appraisals of Williams's art in 1922: "What, for instance, could be more lost, more uncorrelated, a closer Contact, a greater triumph of antiCulture, than this poem" ("William Carlos Williams," p. 50). . . .

The image of the firetruck racing through the city in the midst of the frenzy of "gong clangs" and "siren howls" evokes the enthusiasm of the Futurists for the dynamic chaos of the modern urban civilization. The poem is, together with a few others (e.g., "Overture to a Dance of Locomotives"), clearly related to the fascination that the metropolis held for the Futurists, the epitome of a teeming life force with myriad nodes of energy. . . . 

The golden 5 in Williams's poem is the focal point in a dynamic contemporary environment and embodies the technological nature of the things that make up this world. . . .

In Williams's poem. . . the environment is the dramatic setting that enhances the epiphanic effect of the golden figure on the "I," the individual whose special sensitivity enables him to be thrilled by something that is "unheeded" by all the others around him. As the 5 flashes by, large and prominent against the red background of the racing firetruck, it produces an intense moment of revelation. The golden figure is suddenly much more than a mere number; it becomes one of the new heraldic signs that are part of the specific beauty of the modern age.

"The Great Figure" is also one of the poems that recall Duchamp's influence, in particular that of his ready-mades: The golden figure 5 is a veritable objet trouvé, discovered by the poet among the innumerable things that belong to the neglected "soulless" present-day technological environment so systematically bypassed by the more traditional artists. It is evident that Williams's poem belongs within the wider context of Duchamp's praise of American technology and the new self-confidence that this praise instigated in the American avantgardists. In addition to that, as pointed out earlier, the Frenchman's provocative ready-mades undoubtedly helped Williams to come to the conviction that a poem, like any other work of art, "can be made of anything." The very title of "The Great Figure" contains this conviction in a nutshell: In 1920, when the poem was published for the first time, a reader probably expected it to be about a figure of public importance rather than about a number, or immediately realized the clash between what one could generally expect to find in poetry and what one found here - a poem that violated the basic poetic conventions by almost any standard.

Apart from influences from the visual arts, there are of course also literary ones. Al Que Quiere! and Sour Grapes, shows how Williams adopted Imagist techniques for his poems of discovery, as one could call them. It reflects some of the basic tenets of Imagism, such as the utmost concentration on one or a few images, and the total absence of "verbiage" or outworn poetic diction. But here, too, there are differences; it is characteristic of Williams that he refuses to invariably "poeticize" the details on which the poem focuses by means of overt metaphors and similes. Hence Williams hardly ever takes up the Imagists' haiku-inspired practice of linking up an "outward" image to an "inward" metaphorical one but tries to remain as faithful as possible to the immediate sensory experience. This might, but as often did not, necessitate the introduction of overt metaphors and similes. . . .

Thus in "The Great Figure" only one word--"tense"--is used metaphorically: The poet,in an empathetic identification with the tenseness of the firemen and the whole situation, projects it onto the firetruck and the golden 5 itself.

The short lines are another device that can be related to Imagist tenets, since they direct the attention to each single detail; only when these details stand out in utmost clarity can they fully display their "virtues of form and color." The effect, however, is not noticeable to the same degree throughout the poem, as the various lengths of the lines indicate. Even in this short poem there is a clear progression from beginning to middle and end. The opening lines focus on two details of the city and night - "rain" and "lights" - and in very few words create the atmosphere of a specific setting. Then the poem moves on quickly to the center of interest. Once its focus is fully on the number 5, the even shorter lines slow it down and arrest our attention by throwing each detail of the seemingly trivial object into relief. The most striking element is, of course, the gold, which "jolts the poem into life," as James Breslin remarked in his excellent analysis of the poem, "seeming to leap out at us and demand our attention." Part of this effect is rhythmic: If we take the first two lines as a unit - "Among the rain and lights" - we get, together with the third line, two completely iambic lines with three accents in each of them:

Among the rain / and lights I saw the figure 5

Coming after this, the exclamatory "in gold" receives the greatest possible emphasis, with the sole beat of the line on "gold" and a pause after it (or a fermata, musically speaking) that adds to its impact. In addition to this, the lines following ("on a red / firetruck") mark a complete rhythmic change; "in gold" thus becomes the climactic endpoint of the first iambic part of the poem, which is followed in the second part by a more complex and tenser rhythm.

This change in rhythm coincides with the change in focus - the view is gradually enlarged from the gold to the "red / firetruck" and from the truck to the hectic movement and the nerve-racking sounds; in a series of powerful syncopated double-beat lines:

to gong clangs siren howls and wheels rumbling through the dark city.

In the end, when the dramatic moment is over, the poem is also over, with the firetruck disappearing into the night. Thus the last line takes us back to the beginning; the poem opens and closes with a wide-angle shot, so to speak, of the dark city with its rain and lights, a background which very effectively frames the sudden appearance of the golden figure in an exciting flash of color, sound, and movement.

Peter Halter. From The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams. Copyright 1994 By Cambridge University Press.