The short poem “In a Station of the Metro” is an example of Pound’s artistic theory of Imagism, which he advocated for a brief while in his career and which had a lasting impact on his writing and modern poetry. During his time in London, just before World War I, Pound developed a theory of poetry, which he termed Imagism, that stripped away the rhetorical excesses and vagueness that he believed obscured so much of contemporary poetry. In their places he advocated precise, careful presentation of specific images accurately rendered. Although Pound would later move beyond this rather limited concept, he retained the essential parts of it, and many of the passages in the Cantos are basically Imagist in their style.
An Imagist poem, by the very definition of the term, was brief. Seldom has the concision been carried so far as Pound’s 1913 verse, “In a Station of the Metro,” which consists of only two lines. The poem appears to be a translation of some Japanese haiku, and while Pound was undoubtably influenced by that tradition, his poem was completely original.
He has left a description of how he composed it. One evening, while coming out of the London subway (the “metro” of the title), Pound was struck by the sight of a beautiful face, then another and yet another. Seeking to express this experience, he began writing a poem which ran to thirty-two lines. After much paring and revision, he finally achieved the image and effect he sought: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd;/ petals on a wet, black bough.”
Although at first reading the poem seems to be about very little (and even that little is mysterious), a second glance shows how well it fits into Pound’s theory of imagism and just how Imagism works. To begin with, there is the single image, designed in this case to reproduce an experience not literally but emotionally and psychologically. Further, the image is presented in a specific literary form, the metaphor, recognized since ancient Greece as one of the most powerful devices of poetry. Aristotle, for example, termed the proper use of metaphor the supreme test of a writer. This use of metaphor is worth noting, because Pound is often considered a poet who rejected past conventions and techniques. Actually, he delighted in the poetic devices and scorned only their inferior use.
In keeping with Imagist theory, the words in the poem are, with one significant exception, concrete and specific: “faces,” “crowd,” “petals,” and “bough” are all common English nouns, strung together in conventional English syntax. The two adjectives, “wet” and “black,” are hardly unusual, and are just the sort of precise words to modify a noun such as “bough.” Moreover, the metaphor is logical: Beautiful faces seen against a rainy London evening are like flower petals on a dark, wet branch. Through a careful selection of relevant images, Pound has re-created for the reader the effect impressed upon him that night.
The one word that is not a concrete noun is “apparition,” and its unusual nature is highlighted by its placement at the beginning of the poem. By using this word, suggestive of ghostly sightings or supernatural experiences, and linking it with a string of commonplace nouns and modifiers, Pound is again re-creating what happened and what he experienced: a seemingly ordinary climb up a flight of subway stairs that turned into a vision.
In only two lines and fourteen words, Pound managed to re-create an entire experience by careful use of a specific image. A brief poem has been made to carry more emotional and psychological weight than Pound’s contemporaries would have thought possible. His poetic successors would find the techniques used here essential in writing the poetry of the rest of the twentieth century.