The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough. (Pound)
Ezra Pound is often described as one of the most influential Imagist poets, and is known for using only words and punctuation to create a visual image. However, there are visual artists who do exactly the same thing. Where, then, does one draw the line between what is poetic art and what is visual art? Perhaps Imagist poetry lies somewhere in between poetic and visual art, and can be seen as a merging of the two art forms. In an effort to illustrate such a merging, this essay will discuss the formal qualities of Pound’s poem “In a Station of the Metro” in relation to visual aesthetics. Arguably, Pound creates a painting with language, using words instead of brushstrokes to present an image. However, as the artist he acts only as a conductor, forcing readers to compose the image on their own, with their own resources and memories. The images are constructed in our heads instead of on a canvas. Further, by using Kantian theory, I argue that Pound’s work can be evaluated and critiqued by borrowing aesthetic theory traditionally used in the visual arts system. This essay examines the struggle that artists face with the limitations of a given medium. Through investigating artists from different backgrounds, such as the musical composer John Cage and performance artist Yoko Ono, one can recognize that they, like Pound, choose to challenge the system and push the boundaries of their own media, previously determined by historical and ideological structures. Pound evolves the poem to such a point where it can be evaluated as something other than literature; ultimately, he attempts to leave the pen behind.
It is important to clarify the meaning of image in terms of literature and the visual arts. Whereas in the visual arts, an image is defined through line, shapes, space, colours etc. compiled in relation with each other on a surface, the definition of an image in literature is vastly different. Encyclopedia Britannica defines image in two ways, optical and psychological. The optical image is the apparent reproduction of an object involving “reflected, refracted, or diffracted light waves” (image). These images are often visible on a screen or piece of paper for example, whereas psychological images are not. This latter kind is the type of image Pound is dealing with, one in which memories are mediated by a schema. The definition the encyclopedia provides is that the image is a type of cognitive unit, in other words a mental picture that Pound is creating by reconstructing the schema in order to preserve the moment in time in his memory (image). Pound’s personal understanding of image is different from both of these, but his poetry invokes both.
In 1913, Pound defines image as:
An image, therefore, can occur in a moment in time where one experiences extreme emotional connection to a piece of work. Herbert Schneidau, in his book Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real, explains this moment when he says, “each poem seek[s] to register an experience, an emotion, or a state of mind with what might now be called ‘presentational immediacy’” (27). Therefore, Pound’s interpretation of an image greatly differs from that which exists in Visual Arts culture. It is more concerned with a moment of epiphany as Schneidau explains. However, these two definitions are not completely disjointed: they each present an idea or image that would not exist outside of personal thought. Each definition relies on an active viewer. This viewer is called upon to compile the forms or structures presented by the artist and to create the whole, completed image within themselves. Whether it derives from the cognitive schema present in the words, or the visual image or representation that is created, the mind brings these components together in relation to one another. It is vital to note that each individual will create his or her own distinctive interpretation of the same image. This is due to the fact that our own minds, experiences, and thoughts are used in the formula of creating an image.
A personal involvement with the work is key to creating an image because once the visual or textual information has left the page or the canvas, it is up to the viewer to piece the information together. Even though Pound has a distinct image in his head that he is trying to relate to the viewer in this poem, it is hard to argue that he expects his viewer to grasp exactly what he envisioned. He is instead trying to convey a feeling, rather than the exact arrangements of figures, shapes and colours within his memory. Because he could not express himself clearly with the words of the language, he ends up with what he describes as “nothing but spots of colour” (Chilton 228). The formal qualities of his poem, such as his well thought-out punctuation, also add to its visual qualities, the mimesis or representation that is being created visually in the mind. The introduction of the semi colon instead of the colon is significant as you can see here in how the poem is presented in print:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Chilton and Gilbertson, in their essay on this particular poem, “Pound’s ‘Metro Hokku’: The Evolution of an Image,” are not clear if the change was due to careless editing or made by Pound himself. They know it was not changed again after it was published, suggesting that Pound did in fact do this intentionally (229). The semi colon even further complicates the stylization of the poem, removing it from traditional writing styles. They argue:
Therefore Pound is presenting us with separate distinct images. These images are not intended to be an extension of one another, but to be read in relation to one another. Pound is exploring what they call, “a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another,” (230). This can be seen as Pound’s interpretation of parataxis: the layering of two distinct images. With his refusal to conform to what would have been the norm at this time – creating metaphors, logical discourse, and logical syntax – Pound forces the reader to interpret the poem outside of these constructs of language (229). Due to the deliberate changes in grammar, the way of interpreting the poem stands out in poetic history. Because it reads neither as traditional logically-organized poetry, nor as a narrative, Pound moves beyond the formal structures of his medium. He tries to isolate and just work with words that create an image. Pound sets himself apart from other poets in the canon in terms of his formal style.
Now that I have established an argument suggesting that Pound wanted this text to stand on its own outside of the rules and structure of the history of poetics, one can start to think of what this poem would be if it were not classified as poetry. If it were not written by a well-known literary hand, many readers may be unaware that this is poetry at all. Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment” can provide a framework with which one can evaluate this imagist text as if it were a form of visual art. In the seventh section of this text, Kant argues that the “truly beautiful” is a disinterested subjective judgment of taste. Although it is subjective, the judger is nonetheless entitled to demand universal agreement. We can locate this same impulse to create a social aesthetic in Pound’s use of his own memory of a beautiful image, which he translates into poetry so that others may find their own identity in it. Kant writes:
If Pound’s poem described a personal image to which no others could relate, it would not be considered part of an elite art form. Kant’s argument might be used to show how it is vulgar or common rather than beautiful. This also speaks to the fact that the work itself is not what is beautiful, but rather how the work brings into harmonious interplay one’s mental faculties of imagination and understanding. Kant states, “were it not for being present to the mind it would never enter into any one’s head to use this expression” in reference to the term “beautiful” (105). In other words, for Kant, beauty exists in the mind rather than the eye. Beauty consists in the reaction one has to the colours and shapes in visual art or to the feelings evoked by words and grammar in poetry. This relates to Pound’s work because although it can be argued that grammar, metrics, and syntax are not used traditionally in his poem, perhaps making it seem untidy or disordered, the poem does not have to be beautiful on paper; it must only produce an experience of beauty in the reader’s mind. The aspect of Kant’s theory of the beautiful that can be most usefully applied to Pound’s work is his “first moment” in the judgment of taste: the moment of quality. Kant argues that “The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical, but is aesthetic — which means that it is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective” (96). The subjective, disinterested, and aesthetic nature of this judgment helps to illustrate why Pound’s images, which may seem arbitrarily put together, make sense aesthetically, but not as a logical narrative. Kant argues that a successful work functions through a purposiveness without purpose. This concept helps us to think about Pound’s work, which does not follow a logical formula to produce a predictable outcome, but maintains structure in a way that suggests an inherent internal logic. Many readers find it hard to rationally deconstruct Pound’s words in order to find meaning or narrative. Finding meaning is difficult because this is not what the author expects of his reader. Pound asks the reader to digest each poem on its own and then experience the totality of the image it conjures for its aesthetic value. Whereas in literature, most texts can be logically broken down in terms of grammar or narrative to find meaning, Pound’s poetry is not to be broken down into parts; a poem’s parts are supposed to layer, overlap, and compile, creating a final image. The reader/viewer is meant to derive an aesthetic appreciation of the poem in its entirety, and not in its segmented forms. His or her experience should be supreme, on a level separate from reason. In this view to the dually textual and visual whole consists another way in which Pound separates himself from those adhering to traditional literary constructs.
Many artists have tried to achieve what Pound has encapsulated in his poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” He started with a thirty-line poem and narrowed it down to half that length. In the language of visual art, Pound can be said to be employing minimalist qualities to convey a certain message, or in this case an image, with as little information as possible. Might this be similar to the manner in which visual artists approached minimalism? Clement Greenberg, an influential postwar art critic, argued that painting should transcend everyday life, eschewing detail, narrative and illusionism, and in so doing should move towards what he termed “the flatness of the canvas.” For Greenberg, a style of painting that refused to deny the two-dimensionality of the surface achieved what he termed a “purity” that was inimical to both the kitschy capitalist popular culture, and the Socialist propaganda that he was criticizing. In many ways, Pound follows Greenberg’s theorems, by reducing thirty words to fifteen, presenting the least amount of words possible to describe one image. Just as Pound uses less text, and painters use less paint, musicians too follow stride. Very influential to the Minimalist movement in visual arts, composer John Cage created a piece entitled “4’33”.” In this piece, Cage gathers an orchestra on stage and cues the musicians to start playing but the orchestra sits in silence, and no music is made. The piece then becomes the sounds that are created by the audience by shuffling chairs, chewing gum, and sneezing (Cage). Like Pound, who argues there is a lack of adequate language to express what he really wants, Cage too leaves sound behind to communicate an idea.
It is evident that there are artists in various disciplines exploring means of communication to the viewer outside of what their medium will permit. It is interesting also that in most of these events the artist becomes secondary and the viewer takes on a more active role. In “In a Station of the Metro,” Pound uses the audience to find the beauty of the image within their own minds, and Cage’s piece consists of the sounds that the audience makes in lieu of the silent score. In visual art, Yoko Ono does something similar, employing the audience and minimizing her role as the artist. She writes down phrases consisting of one or two sentences that instruct the creation of a painting. She merges the ideas of poetry and painting in her work Painting in Three Stanzas:
She is the creator but leaves the experience up to the audience. Her work very much mirrors that of Pound, but exists in the constructs of fine arts as opposed to poetry because she is known first and foremost as an artist. What then is there that separates the two? Ono’s and Pound’s work is so similar that they cross the borders of their specified disciplines. How could we differentiate which is poetry and which is a form of painting if they did not appear in the gallery or in a book? Artists are still struggling to separate themselves from the confining parameters of the medium. It is easy to leave past traditions and ideologies behind when they are inadequate. What proves to be of more interest is the crossover between mediums. Ultimately one has to question why humans have been so obsessed with the classification and categorization of art movements throughout history. Perhaps it is a question of who is creating the artwork that determines its classification.
Cage, John. “4’33”.” Performance.
Chilton, Randolph and Carol Gilbertson. “Pound’s ‘Metro Hokku’: The Evolution of an Image.” Twentieth Century Literature 36 (1990): 225-236. Print.
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Kant, Immanuel. “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment: Sections 1-14, 16, 23-4, 28.” Ed. David Cooper. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1997. Print.
Pound, Ezra. “In a Station of the Metro.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Ltd, 2006. 2008. Print.
Schneidau, Herbert N. Ezra Pound: The Image and the Real. Louisiana: Louisiana State UP, 1969. Print.