What are the characteristics of imagism?

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Imagism is an early 20th Century poetry movement started by Ezra Pound and a few other contemporaries in Europe.

The poets involved actually met and wrote papers about this movement and came up with three primary characteristics:

  1. The poet must "simply present" an image
  2. The poet "does not comment"
  3. The poet should use the words necessary to paint the image, not to fit some type of rhythmic pattern (free verse)

Perhaps the best way to think of Imagism is to this of a photograph. The photographer captures a single, still moment in life. Is the photo saying something? Maybe. But it says something according to how the viewer looks at it and the meaning he or she puts behind it, not because there is a secret message in there from the photographer.

The best way to discuss these characteristics is to look at Pound's quintessential imagist poem "In a Station on the Metro":

The apparition of the wet faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough

This poem does not instruct. It does not force the reader to conjure up some moral lesson. It sounds just like ordinary language. This is Imagism.

However, before anyone thinks Imagist poetry is simple, a deeper look into "In a Station on the Metro" is warranted. This 15-word poem creates a perfect snapshot of this moment while calling to mind certain themes, including, possibly, the temporariness of human life. The word "apparition" conjures up many ideas about ghosts and temporariness. Then he compares the "faces in the crowd" to "Petals on a wet, black bough," again suggesting death at its most dramatic and temporariness at the minimum. Where do petals from a tree usual end up after a rain storm? On the ground.

Pound, although one of the movement's founders, left the Imagist movement after it became too sentimental. Still, Imagism is considered highly influential as it provides the foundation for much Modernist poetry.

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The imagists also focused on the "image," hence the name, by using very carefully chosen and revealing language. Look at the William Carlos Williams' poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow":

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.
So few words, but such sharp images.

 

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Some of the main characteristics of imagist poems are free verse and lack of rhyming pattern.  It was a modern movement, so there was an attempt to move away from traditional poem forms and conventions.  The idea was also to transform poetry from the sickly sentimental poetry that came before.

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