Why is Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" so widely anthologized?
December 27, 2005 8:50 PM   Subscribe

Imagism experts: why is Ezra Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" so widely anthologized?

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

Okay...I understand that the poem is an experiment in Imagism--distilling an experience down to two intense, superimposed images. And I think they're great images, don't get me wrong. But I just don't get why this is a "great" poem, or why it is in every poetry anthology I have ever owned (a considerable number, by the way). There just doesn't seem to be very much there, and I don't just mean in terms of word count.

I actually sort of like the poem; I find it haunting, at least. So I'm not just arguing that it isn't a "great" poem because I don't like it much. I also realize that the canon is not entirely agreed upon by all scholars. I just want some insight into why this particular poem is so widely considered "great." I've been thinking about it ever since I had to write a paper on it in high school, and I haven't figured it out yet.
posted by feathermeat to Writing & Language (13 answers total)
It gives an easy-to-grasp example of Imagism as a sort of Western "haiku," it's an easy way to anthologize Pound, most of whose work is incredibly long and arcane, and it does a lot with a little, as Imagism asks.

I like H.D. better for Imagism, although the Imagism generally doesn't do to much for me. Regardless, it was a "big" poetry movement, so anthologizers typically want to include an example. This one is short, to the point, gives a clue about the style, and also fills the Pound quota, which is surely necessary, but difficult because of his typical style.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:26 PM on December 27, 2005

I'd say it's great because it manages to be so haunting with so few words.

I'm not trying to be reductive or unhelpful. Short poems are hard to write; the more you cut out, the higher the odds that your reader will miss what you're trying to say. But almost everyone who reads "In a Station of the Metro" gets it — gets that jolt of recognition as they see the connection between the images. To get a reaction that powerful and universal in just two lines is almost unheard of.

(And you say you've been thinking about it since high school. For what it's worth, that's another sign of great art: it sticks with you for a long time, even if you're not sure why.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:47 PM on December 27, 2005

To read Pound is to dislike him on some level, whether for his anti-semitism, his literary self-indulgence, or what have you. Even more so if you delve into the Pound's whole Imagism vs. Vorticism shebang or try to untangle the Cantos.

Therefore, I would posit that the poem is anthologized as much for being unobjectionable as for any other reason, as a way to present Pound at his best without dragging in all the (almost necessary IMO) biographical complications that's really outside the scope of classes for which anthologies are the primary textual source (which is common, since nobody can be expected to have read everything, even for literature students).

In retrospect, one might conclude that this particular Pound poem almost seems to have been deliberately written for anthologies, for all the reasons Joseph Gurl cited.
posted by DaShiv at 10:04 PM on December 27, 2005

Not all Pound is long and impenetrable; Fanpiece for her Imperial Lord is short, and rather forgotten; The River Merchants Wife: A Letter is often anthologised and is a masterpiece; compare it with the clumsiness of other translations
posted by Pericles at 1:10 AM on December 28, 2005

I think several things make the poem a critical text. It's one of the very earliest modernist texts (pubished in 1916, one of the few first editions I wished I owned). Think of the worst excesses of Romantic poetry: rank sentimentality, tortured syntax, excessive length -- "In a Station of the Metro" slices through them all with a clean cut. It was a highly influential, important poem in its moment.

As a representative of Imagism itself, which emphasized concrete imagery and brevity, it is difficult to do better. It's also a good representative of what became known as Orientalism, a general Western literary interest in Eastern poetic tradition. Haiku is an enormous source of Imagist inspiration; most of the Imagist poets worked in or borrowed heavily from the form.

Within Pound's own career, it's important as a signal work. Pound's career began in translation, and what he learned from it made his original work possible: meticulous attention to language, precision, formal constraint. As mentioned, this translation work also did much to popularize Basho and other masters of the haiku form for Western writers and audiences.

To be a bit more poetic about it, there are few poems that have this unmistakable quality of inspiration. It's like a clear high note. There's the power and beauty of the language itself, how it forces the mind to transform the mundane image of people moving on a train platform into a garden. I'd call that general poetic insight. But then there's the more specific and rarer acheivement of expressing that insight in a new form, one that became not merely important in the poet's own work but in the development of the most important poetic movement of his century. It's easy to say make it new. It's damn hard to make it happen, and that's what Pound did.

(By the way, Pound apologized to Allen Ginsberg for his anti-Semitism, and was forgiven. That doesn't make it any less odious to find in his work, but I appreciate a good recantation.)
posted by melissa may at 5:44 AM on December 28, 2005 [2 favorites]

Shortness is a major benefit. The editors of anthologies have page counts to consider. Let's see, I can put in one Rime of the Ancient Mariner or 500 different two-liners... which choice makes my anthology a better book?

The editors of "The Top 500 Poems", an anthology of the 500 most widely published poems, note that their book is heavily biased towards short poems because those are what get reprinted over and over.
posted by jellicle at 6:21 AM on December 28, 2005

I forget the details, but isn't the story that this poem was originally hundreds of lines long, and was progressively whittled down to this?
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:33 AM on December 28, 2005

I was going to say pretty much what melissa may said, but I wouldn't have said it nearly so well, so I'm glad she got there first. In summary: it may not be a "great" poem, whatever that means, but it's a damn good one, and it had a tremendous impact that justifies its inclusion.

A comparable poem in Russian is Valerii Bryusov's single-line poem «О, закрой свои бледные ноги» [O zakrói svoí blédnye nógi] 'O cover your pale legs,' which scandalized the Russian reading public in 1894; it too is a standard anthology piece. (Bryusov was a fascinating and repellent character, unable to love but a master at ruining women's lives, driven by a fierce need to be the unquestioned master of the poetic scene, ending as a pathetic lackey of the Bolsheviks; you can read about him in this bilingual pdf—scroll down to the English.)

one of the few first editions I wished I owned

I don't have that, but I do have the March 1915 issue of Poetry with "Exile's Letter" ("So-Kin of Rakuho, ancient friend...") and six other poems by Pound, including "Provincia Deserta" and one of my favorite of his early poems, "The Spring" ("Cydonian Spring with her attendant train..."). I bought that and the Summer 1951 issue of Origin, featuring Robert Creeley and including poems by Paul Blackburn, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov, during the brief period I frequented Hugh Miller's antiquarian bookshop in New Haven before deciding I couldn't afford to get into that sort of thing. Just thought I'd make you jealous.

posted by languagehat at 7:44 AM on December 28, 2005

What melissa may said.
posted by willpie at 9:53 AM on December 28, 2005

See also.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:56 AM on December 28, 2005

Because its easier than the Cantos. And yeah it's way overrated, but don't tell that to a balding windbag!
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:46 PM on December 28, 2005

Response by poster: All these answers are helpful...thanks.
posted by feathermeat at 1:04 PM on December 28, 2005

The fact, and the way, in which you ask this question shows that Pound's poem is a great one, whether you like it or not. It sticks with you. It makes you think.

It's a great example of what Imagism can be. And unlike most Imagist poems, this one manages to not violate many of the tenets of Imagist poetry.

For many folks, this will be one of the only poems they remember from their exposure to Modern poetry. And it's also a very useful poem in that it encapsulates a lot of the history of the time. It is a great jumping off point for the history of that period, Modernism, the lunacy of Pound, etc.

It's no problem to anthologize at all, as it's only two frickin' lines.

It's become canonized for the above reasons, and thus has a momentum behind it.

In short, it's a no-brainer for a Modern poetry anthology.
posted by teece at 1:25 PM on December 28, 2005

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