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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.
World War I
World War I was a traumatic event for Europe and the United States. Previous wars had involved the upper social classes more so than the general population. World War I was also the first war to involve gas warfare and heavy artillery. The physically and emotionally wounded soldiers were brought home, most of them in shellshock, most of them filled with bitterness. They found themselves alienated from their own optimistic views of the promises of the machine age that they had held prior to the war. European and American authors writing during and after the war spoke about the horror of war and its attendant disillusions more than any generation had before them. Their styles became more introspective, less idealistic, and more cynical. In an attempt to heal their inner wounds, they tried to explain the effects that the war had upon them and to analyze and criticize the society that had sent them there.
In 1903, the women’s suffrage movement in Britain took a turn toward the militant under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. They had grown tired of being silenced and were determined to grab headlines with their acts of arson, destruction, and general mayhem in the streets. Many of the leaders of this group were often imprisoned, at which time they would then go on hunger strikes. After World War I, limited suffrage was granted to them. In 1928, eight years after their American sisters, British women were granted the right to vote.
With political awareness of their rights, women also gained the courage to speak out not only for public freedoms but also for independence in their personal lives. Everything from clothing to sexual relations was undergoing close examination as women began defining their lives in terms of what they needed and wanted rather than what the male-dominated society dictated for them. This can be seen in terms of Lowell’s mannerisms, in particular. She liked to wear men’s clothes and often smoked cigars. She, like Doolittle, was involved in a lesbian relationship. Doolittle was also very free in determining her relationships with men. While married to Aldington, she had affairs with other men, one of them resulting in her getting pregnant. Although both these women were courageous enough to demand their rights, Doolittle often suffered mentally from the emotional impact of her actions. She was well ahead of her time in terms of women’s liberation and often sought the care of psychiatrists, including Sigmund Freud, to help her come to terms with her emotional needs and the social confines of the early era of women’s rights.
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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 would be thwarted by following traditional rules, and thus the overall effect of the poem would become inauthentic or insincere. Thus, the imagists were encouraged to let go of the old standards and open up their emotions to the freer flow of words that was allowed in the use of free verse. Of the imagist poets, the Americans, more so than their fellow British cohorts, readily took advantage of free verse. The traditional rules of poetry had been created in Europe and therefore had a European character. Through the use of free verse, the American imagists felt that they could compose more individualistic poetry that spoke in an American voice.
There was controversy around this form, as many critics had trouble distinguishing the differences between so-called free verse and actual prose. So the question arose: What makes a poem a poem? Poetry, most critics argued, required form. Aldington defined his use of free verse as poetry in this way: “The prose-poem is poetic content expressed in prose form” (quoted from Hughes). Whereas Fletcher took a more visual and more general approach in attempting to express his understanding of the difference between prose and poetry, believing that all well-written literature could be referred to as poetry, so that it did not matter if poems were written according to very traditional rules or in free verse. In Hughes’s book, Fletcher is quoted saying: “The difference between poetry and prose is . . . a difference between a general roundness and a general squareness of outline.”
Common and Precise Language
Another tenet in the imagist manifesto dealt with the specific use of language. Imagist poets were told to use the language of common speech, more like the language one would hear in conversation rather than the formal or decorative language often used in traditional poetry. Imagists were also told to be spare in their use of words, to practice using only the words that were needed to describe an image. They should be concrete in their language, to stay away from abstraction.
Pound’s definition of what an image was in terms of imagist poetry is rather vague. He stressed that the language should be precise and concentrated in expressing this image, but he never quite defined what the image of the imagist movement was. One of the tenets of the imagist manifesto was the freedom of the poet to choose any subject that he or she wanted. So image was not related to subject matter. However, it is stated that one of the main purposes of poetry is “To present an image” (quoted from Hughes). This image should not be an abstraction. If an abstraction, such as an emotion, is to be expressed, indeed, it should be told, through an image.
Aldington, as stated by Hughes, tried to be a little more specific in his definition of an image by stating that poets should try to create “clear, quick rendering[s] of particulars without commentary.” William Carlos Williams, who wrote an occasional imagist poem, may have defined the image best. Ideas are best expressed through things, Williams believed, and there was no better way to express things that contained ideas than through images. The imagists’ intent to focus on one image led them to embrace the poetry of Japan, especially haiku, which presented single images in each of its poems.
Japanese haiku is an ancient form of poetry, originating almost seven hundred years ago. Haiku is a very precise poetic form, consisting typically of seventeen syllables in three lines. The Japanese language, which is syllabic rather than based on individual letters of an alphabet, is better suited to this form than is the English language. Therefore, even though the imagist poets became enamored of this form, they technically never wrote an authentic haiku. However, haiku greatly influenced their work. Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) is one of Japan’s best-known haiku poets. His most famous poem of this type is a good example:
An old pond . . .
A frog jumps in—
The sound of water.
In comparison is Doolittle’s “Oread” (also taken from Harmer’s book), which demonstrates the imagist attempt to practice haiku by writing simply and focusing on one image:
Whirl up, sea—
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.
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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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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 University Press, Belknap Press, 1976.
Smith, Richard Eugene, Richard Aldington, Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Bergson, Henri, An Introduction to Metaphysics, translated by T. E. Hulme, Liberal Arts Press, 1949. Hulme is credited with creating the initial philosophy behind the Imagism movement. His inspiration came from two sources, the symbolist poets in France and Bergson’s metaphysics philosophy. This could be considered the book that started it all.
Carpenter, Humphrey, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound, Houghton Mifflin, 1988. After meeting with T. E. Hulme, Pound formulated Hulme’s ideas and organized the Imagism movement around them. Although Pound’s poetry is not totally representative of the imagist tenets, his writing was influenced by the movement that he started. As one of the most noted American poets, the reading of his life story offers an interesting background for the study of American poetry.
De Chasca, Edmund S., John Gould Fletcher and Imagism, University of Missouri Press, 1978. De Chasca studies Fletcher’s poetry and offers his interpretations and criticisms of this American imagist poet.
Doolittle, Hilda, HERmione, W. W. Norton and Company, 1981. This is a semi-autobiographical novel about Doolittle’s life during her twenties. At this time she was torn between old definitions of herself and her newfound world that included living in a foreign land, working with very powerful poets, and experimenting with sexuality. In this work, she discusses her relationship with Ezra Pound and her bisexuality and offers a vivid portrayal of her inner psychology.
Eliot, T. S., Aldous Huxley, and F. S. Flint, Three Critical Essays on Modern English Poetry, 1920, reprint, Folcroft Library Editions, 1974. The word modern in the title of this book can not be taken at face value as it was originally written in 1920. When these three exceptional and wellrespected writers refer to modern poetry, they mean the beginning of the modernist period, which means that imagist poetry is discussed. Eliot offers a brief criticism of poetry in general; Huxley discusses the subject matter of poetry; and Flint writes about the art of writing, especially as affected by the tenets of imagism.
Healey, E. Claire, and Keith Cushman, eds., Letters of D. H. Lawrence and Amy Lowell, 1914–1925, Black Sparrow Press, 1985. Lowell was the major spokesperson for the Imagism movement, and Lawrence, although not one of the major imagists, was affected by the imagist poets. Their correspondence offers the reader an inside look into their private discussions about American and British poetry at the turn of the century as well as their reflections on the movement.
Kirby-Smith, H. T., Origins of Free Verse, University of Michigan Press, 1996. One of the major controversies both in Britain and in the United States concerning the Imagism movement was the discussion of the use of free verse. This book offers an overview of the use of this form and tries to answer some of the questions that free verse has aroused: can free verse be categorized? or what is a prose poem?
Quennell, Peter, Baudelaire and the Symbolists, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1954. To better understand what Imagism was all about, it is best to comprehend the forces and influences that preceded this movement. Most of the imagist poets were heavily influenced by the French poets, and this book offers a historic perspective of some of the best of the nineteenth-century French poets and their Symbolism movement.
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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” follows the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York, where more than 3,000 were killed or remain missing.
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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 world’s appreciation of Asian poetry. Not fully understanding the Chinese language, Pound worked with previously translated poems completed by Ernest Fenollosa. Being unfamiliar with the language gave Pound the freedom of arranging words and creating rhythms and sounds according to his own understanding and knowledge of poetry rather than being heavily influenced by the original intent of the poet.
The wording of Pound’s interpretations is clear and direct. Each line presents a spare image, and the emotions are expressed in understatement. These are hallmark descriptions of Imagism. Pound would go on to study Chinese more seriously after completing these poems. He later incorporated what he had learned about this ideographic language into some of his subsequent poems. Studying the Chinese characters, or ideograms—abstract pictures used to convey meaning rather than individual letters in an alphabet—inspired Pound to create new poetic forms.
Goblins and Pagodas
John Gould Fletcher published his Goblins and Pagodas in 1916, after a visit back to his childhood home in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then to Boston, where he had previously attended school. His Goblins and Pagodas collection is divided into two parts: “The Ghosts of an Old House,” in which he writes several poems that reflect on the large home in which he lived in Arkansas, as well as on family members who influenced his development during those early years. The second part of his collection is called “The Symphonies,” which, according to Hughes, “represents an ambitious attempt to arrange the intellectual and emotional life of an artist in eleven separate movements, each movement being dominated by a color-harmony.” In other words, Fletcher created poems that intertwined poetry, music, and art in an attempt to use the aesthetics of each form to express his understanding of his emotions.
The poems in the first section, reminiscences of Fletcher’s youth, are, according to Hughes, “not a great performance,” although Hughes does later recant this position by stating that taking the first section as a whole, rather than evaluating the poems individually, produces a more powerful “mosaic.”
It is the second section of this collection that most critics believe to be Fletcher’s most clearly influenced by the imagist mode. Hughes describes this section of poems as reflecting “beauty and mastery of form, and several are consistently excellent.” These poems are longer and more complicated than the ones in the first section, and Fletcher works with concepts for which there was little precedent. In these poems, one way in which he is able to combine poetry, music, and art is by giving colors different emotional values. Some of his attempts lean toward the conventionally accepted, such as using blue to express sadness; but other emotional values that he conveys are completely his own, as in his relating the color orange as the color of war. Of the poems in this section, “Green Symphony” and “Blue Symphony” are the most often anthologized.
Images of War
One of the strongest influences in Richard Aldington’s life was his time spent in World War I. The experience made him bitter and cynical. His Images of War (1919) is a collection of poems that he wrote both during the war and afterward. He spent fifteen months on the front lines of this brutal combat, and from that came what some critics refer to as some of the most beautiful war poems ever written. The beauty comes from the poems’ intensity and Aldington’s ability to make the reader feel as if he or she were undergoing the same emotions that Aldington was suffering from.
The poems transport the reader to the trenches and allow them the privilege of hearing Aldington’s thoughts on life and death, love and pain, fear and loneliness. Ironically, the poems that Aldington wrote during the war are less cynical than the ones that he wrote several years later. The space of time that occurred between the end of the war and Aldington’s writing the later poems allowed him to reflect more on the overall picture of war: the reasons behind war and the consequences of such action. While entrenched in the war, Aldington thought of survival. These poems are very personal accounts of emotional intensity. Once he is removed from the action, however, and suffers from the emotional impact of having survived as well as objectively analyzing why nations would ever employ such drastic means, his poetry becomes bitterer. This collection marks the end of Aldington’s purest use of Imagism. From this point on, his writing took on other aspects and influences.
F. S. Flint published his last collection of poems under the title Otherworld: Cadences in 1920. Most of the poems in this collection center on the effects of war, and thus he dedicates this volume to his fellow imagist poet Aldington, whose own writing was greatly influenced by the experience of World War I.
Not all of the poems in this collection are written with a specific reference to World War I. Some poems stress a more personal war, such as in the title piece, “Otherworld.” In this poem, Flint reflects on the battle that he encounters on a daily basis, having to wake up to a world that demands that much of his attention be focused on material details. In contrast, he would much rather sit in his garden and meditate on the beauty of the world, the love of his family, and the goodness of his compatriots. Hughes writes of this poem: “The poem continues, and pictures the deadening routine of the day and the return of the worker at night to his home, weak and disheartened.”
Hughes states that some of the poetry in this collection is “soft poetry. It is much softer than most poems written by the imagists. But it is absolutely human.” Hughes concludes that even though Flint also writes poems with more of an edge, he is unlike his fellow imagist poets in that he “finds it impossible to conceal his tenderness.”
Flint published two collections of poems with similar titles: both had the word cadence in them. Cadence was very important to Flint, believing, as he did, that cadence was one of the most important marks of imagist poetry. In the preface to Otherworld: Cadence, Flint proposes that unrhymed cadence truly marks the difference between traditional and modern poetry.
Hilda Doolittle’s first collection of twentyeight imagist poems, Sea Garden (1916), has been referred to, by J. B. Harmer in his Victory in Limbo: Imagism 1908–1917, as representative of one of two of “the chief memorial[s] of the Imagiste group.” The poems in Doolittle’s first collection are the most influenced by the imagist movement, and according to Harmer, after publication of this book, Doolittle “began to retreat” into more traditional poetic form. Thus, this collection marks both her entry into the movement as well as her exit.
Susan Stanford Friedman, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 45: American Poets, 1880–1945, compares many of the poems in this collection to Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, stating that like O’Keeffe, “H. D.’s flowers indirectly suggest an intense eroticism, whose power comes precisely from its elusive, nonhuman expression.” Friedman also states that it is through these poems that Doolittle expresses traits of her personality, such as her “pride in her difference, and her separation from the conventional.”
This pride is best witnessed in the poem “Sheltered Garden,” in which Doolittle writes that she is tired of the pampered, neat garden and longs to find a fruit tree upon which the fruit is allowed to stay on the branch to naturally whither and die.
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, writing in H. D.: The Career of that Struggle, mentions that in Doolittle’s poems about flowers, she rebels against convention by depicting the flowers in harsh environments, praising them for their wounds: “These flowers of the sea gardens are of a harsh surprising beauty, slashed, torn, dashed yet still triumphant and powerful.” Such is the case with the poem “Sea Rose,” in which Doolittle does not praise the flower for its delicacy but rather for its ability to stand against the winds. She repeats this theme in her poem “Sea Poppies,” in which she describes the roots of the flower as being caught among the rocks and broken shells and praises it for its endurance.
Sword Blades and Poppy Seed
Amy Lowell spent several years in London, meeting imagist poets and eventually taking over the promotion, education, and organization of this movement. When she returned to the United States in 1914, she published her own collection of imagist poetry, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed. The poems in this collection reflect all the theories and philosophies that had been espoused by the imagists, as well as by the French symbolist poets who had greatly influenced the Imagism movement. It is in the preface of this collection that Lowell discusses her interpretation of free verse and what she refers to as polyphonic prose, two concepts that were used by some poets in the imagist movement.
Although Lowell was to become a popular poet, she was often criticized for her lack of originality. In this first collection of hers, the influences of Pound, Doolittle, and Fletcher are very apparent. Lowell was mostly known and praised for her business sense, especially in promoting the movement and finding ways to have the other poets published. However, it is her ability to use polyphonic prose, one of the major aspects of this collection, that impressed many of the other poets. Aldington, in fact, was so impressed with Lowell’s ability to use this technique that he wrote an essay in which he recommended that all young poets study this collection of Lowell’s.
Polyphonic prose is a type of free verse that uses alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds), assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), as well as other poetic devices to create a poem that is ap- pears like prose, but that reads or sounds like poetry. Although Lowell did not invent polyphonic prose, she is given credit for popularizing it, and it is in this collection that she best displays her ability to use this form.
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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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