The transition from the Romanticism and Victorianism into Modernism was one of the major shifts in the history of poetry, and some critics credit the imagists with beginning this great change. The romantics were marked by their idealism and embellished language, while the imagists proclaimed that they were realists who would write in a simple vernacular. The romantics were behind the times, the imagists believed. The older poetic form appealed to audiences that were usually made up of the upper social classes. The modernists wanted to communicate with the masses.
“Imagism has been described as the grammar school of modern poetry,” writes Perkins. The imagist poets were responsible for creating some of the basic instructions for Modernism, which included clear and precise language and suggestive and visual imagery. Modernists would experiment with ways in which to relate poetry to the other arts.
Modernism implied that the population was tired of the past and wanted to see things as they really were in the present or to think about how they might be in the future. The past was old, and the ancient casts should be broken and discarded. Modernists wanted to create something new. Experimentation and exploration were the new focus. There was a breaking away from patterned responses and predictable forms. Modernist themes often included the feeling of alienation: the individual having difficulty placing him- or herself in time because the traditional has been discarded and the present is in a state of redefinition. Other themes of the modernists were the beginnings of an exploration of the inner self, life as experienced in large urban centers, and the effects of rampant materialism and industrialization....
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Amy Lowell was the imagist poet who was most heavily influenced by the practice of polyphonic prose, a term coined by Fletcher (who also enjoyed using this technique), but a practice that Lowell learned from the French poet Paul Fort (1872–1960). Lowell interpreted this form to be similar to free verse but only freer. She called it the most elastic form of poetic expression, as it used all the poetic “voices” such as meter, cadence, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance. When writing in this form, the poem is printed out in prose form, but the sound of the writing reflects the modes of poetry.
Lowell described this technique in an essay she wrote, “A Consideration of Modern Poetry,” for the North American Review (January 1917). She employed this technique for the first time in her collection Sword Blades and Poppy Seed (1914), to which Aldington wrote an article in the Egoist commending the collection and suggesting that all young poets should read Lowell’s poems to learn the technique. Aldington writes (as quoted in Hughes’s book), “I am not a bit ashamed to confess that I have myself imitated Miss Lowell in this, and produced a couple of works in the same style.”
Although Lowell’s poetry was often criticized for lack of depth, many critics praised her for her use of language, especially her proficiency in using polyphonic prose.
Pound was responsible for creating six tenets of what he believed would help poets understand what Imagism was all about and how it differed from other forms of poetry. Of these six, one of the main tenets was free verse, which, according to the manifesto, would best express the individuality of the poet. The exact wording of this tenet is quoted in David Perkins’s book, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode: “We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.” Free verse was one manner of escaping the need to rhyme. Pound thought that by releasing poets from this need to rhyme, he would create an atmosphere in which they could better focus on the image.
Pound was not original in this idea, as various forms of free verse had been used in classical Greek literature, in Old English literature (such as Beowulf), as well as in French, American, and German poetry. However, Pound and the other imagist poets took the meaning of free verse to new ground. They believed that rhythm expressed emotion, and the imagists understood, according to Perkins, that “for every emotional state there is the one particular rhythm that expresses it.” Therefore, limiting rhythm to the fixed stanzas, meters, and other rhythmic standards of conventional poetry disallowed a full rendering of those emotions. In other words, the individuality of the poet’s emotions...
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Of the six major imagist poets, four of them (Lowell, Doolittle, Pound, and Fletcher) were born in the United States, and all four, upon deciding to dedicate their lives to writing, and more specifically to poetry, traveled throughout Europe. There was a void, as far as poetry is concerned, in America at that time, and those who had a passion for creating poetry felt that they needed to go abroad to find out more about it. The American poetry that did exist in the early part of the twentieth century, according to Pound, was mediocre. As quoted in Perkins, Pound states: “Only the mediocrity of a given time can drive intelligent men of that time to ‘break with tradition.’” Thus, the American poets, tired and frustrated by the conventional poets of the previous century, traveled to Europe and helped to open the gates of the modernist period, influencing it with their own credo of Imagism.
Interestingly, once these American poets became involved in creating the imagist movement, some of them (mostly Lowell and Fletcher) tended to veer in different directions from their British contemporaries in their attempts to give the language of their poetry a more American slant.
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Compare and Contrast
Early Twentieth Century: Women win the right to vote after a long period of political activism in both Britain and in the United States.
Middle Twentieth Century: Gloria Steinman, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan join forces to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, encouraging women to use their political power to gain equal rights.
Today: Although proposed at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Equal Rights Amendment has failed to be ratified in a majority of state legislatures in the United States.
Early Twentieth Century: China and Japan open their cultural doors to the West, influencing Western literature with various forms of classical Asian poetry.
Middle Twentieth Century: After the musical group the Beatles are influenced by the Eastern practice of meditation, Asian spiritual practices such as Buddhism spread across the United States.
Today: The Japanese economy reaches its highest point as Japanese cars and electronic devices flood the U.S. markets.
Early Twentieth Century: Over 57,000 American troops are killed in World War I.
Middle Twentieth Century: Over 55,000 American troops are killed in World War II; over 33,000 troops are killed in Korea; over 58,000 are killed in Vietnam.
Today: Over 300 troops are killed in the Gulf War. America’s “War on Terrorism”...
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Topics for Further Study
The controversy over what constitutes a poem remains unsolved. Research the topic of free verse (or vers libre). Consider including a historical perspective, the differences in various definitions and proposed applications of this style, as well as aspects of the controversy of the prose poem.
Both Amy Lowell and Hilda Doolittle were involved in lesbian relationships. Study their poetry and compare how they handled these issues in their writing. You might also want to read some of their prose to give you a fuller background on this issue. For a more complex paper, you could include information on the social implications of lesbianism during the time frame of their relationships. You might also want to read some...
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Ezra Pound, although a prominent definer and great promoter of Imagism was not a great practitioner of poetry with an imagist bent. The closest he came to incorporating purely imagist tenets in his poetry was a collection called Cathay (1915), which includes poems translated from the eighthcentury Chinese poet Li Po (also referred to as Rihaku). By working with these translations, Pound displays the interest and the influence that classical Japanese and Chinese poetry had upon the imagist.
Critics agree that this collection is one of Pound’s finest, at least of his earlier publications. The collection significantly marks not only Pound’s connection to Imagism but also the beginning of the Western...
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Ezra Pound Reads is an audio tape that contains Pound reading several of his “Cantos,” as well as his poems “The Gypsy” and “The Exile’s Letter.” The tape is available from Harper Audio.
There are several interesting websites that contain biographical information, as well as some of the poems, of imagist poets. These include: http://www.americanpoems.com with poems by Doolittle; http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/ poets/m_r/pound/bio.htm with an explanation of some of Pound’s works; http://www.poets.org with some of Pound’s poems; http://www. english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/amylowell/ life.htm with background information on Amy Lowell.
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What Do I Read Next?
Imagist Poem, edited by William Pratt and revised in 2001, is an expanded anthology of imagist poetry first published in the 1960s. This collection is a good place to start for getting to know and understand imagist poetry.
A comprehensive collection of Japanese haiku from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century can be found in The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa (1995), edited by Robert Hass. Basho, Buson, and Issa are the most proficient poets of haiku. This anthology contains three hundred of their poems.
The Women’s Movements in the United States and Britain from the 1790s to the 1920s (1993), by Christine Bolt, offers an extensive historical perspective of...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Crawford, Fred D., British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna University Press, 1988.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, H. D.: The Career of That Struggle, Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 12–13.
Friedman, Susan Stanford, “Hilda Doolittle (H. D.),” in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, Gale Research, 1986, pp. 115–49.
Harmer, J. B., Victory in Limbo, Imagism 1908–1917, St. Martin’s Press, 1975.
Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagists, Humanities Press, 1960.
Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Harvard...
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