Subhra Bhattacharya has provided the following prompt this week:
Imagism is simultaneously one of the shortest lived as well as one of the undying movements in the history of poetry. As a formal poetic movement, its lifespan was less than a decade – three years (1914 – 1917), by some accounts. However, it continues to influence poets today.
The movement was born as a reaction to the way English poetry was traditionally written, using language that was archaic, highly embellished and loose. While the early authors of the movement differed in their definition of imagism, some common characteristics that poets who follow this style strive to include :
1. direct treatment of the subject
2. using exact, as opposed to the near-exact or decorative words
3. word economy – to not use words that do not contribute to the presentation
4. allow absolute freedom in choice of subject
5. to produce poetry that is hard and clear
6. to present an image and to avoid becoming a ‘cosmic’ poet
7. to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase and not in the sequence of the metronome. (we will explore this last one later in ‘triadic line variable foot’)
In 1911 Pound saw a series of beautiful faces while stepping out of a Paris metro train. He wrote a thirty-line poem to describe the scene, and then destroyed the poem because it seemed to be of ‘second intensity’ to him. Six months later he took another shot at it and reduced the poem to half the length. He still wasn’t satisfied. Another year later he condensed it into two lines, one of the most famous imagist poems.
Criticisms of pure imagism are many and valid. To name a few : language is not mathematics and poetry is not a formula, hence, striving for the ‘exact’ word is futile. Further, every expression is indirect. Poets experience the world through their senses, and then interpret in their minds and express through words. Subjectivity is inherent in this process. Personally, even if we were to grant the foregoing objections, I find that strict imagism – one with the only goal to present an image – often renders a static poem that is limited in its expressive power.
However, every poet is influenced by imagism. The principles of using common language, precise expressions and economy of words are what make our poetry interesting, unique and refreshing.
In today’s exercise we will use these principles to write a poem. It can be of any length, not just limited to two lines as in Pound’s example, but try to use the following guidelines :
1. describe an image or a set of images
2. be concrete and direct, rather than vague
3. use precise expression, avoid words just because they sound good
4. keep in mind the word count and use the least number of words you can to describe the image(s) successfully.
5. use metaphors that are unrelated and hence refreshing – the way Pound uses ‘petals on a wet, black bough’ to describe human faces.
Here are links to a few imagist poems to inspire you :