by Pericles Lewis
Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” of 1911, reads, in its entirety:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The juxtaposition of two images, the travelers on the subway platform and the flower petals, offers what Pound called “direct treatment.” The sparseness of the poem, its lack of verbs, and its rhythmic quality (a long, iambic line followed by a short, heavily accented one) fulfill other tenets of imagism and suggest Pound’s interest in Japanese haiku.
The poem is structured paratactically: two images are juxtaposed and the relationship between them, presumably a metaphorical one, is left implicit. The reader is to understand that the faces of the subway riders are like petals on a wet black bough, but the word like does not appear in the poem. The lyrical “I” is absent too; the poem seems to describe an observation without an observer.
Pound’s faces in the metro are already ghostly: “apparitions.” The replacement of the underworld with the underground suggests modernity, but it is a modernity distinctly imbued with a literary heritage. Although petals and boughs figure importantly in Japanese art, the poem draws on the long European poetic tradition of comparing souls to flowers, blossoms, or fallen leaves. Homer wrote that “Very like leaves / upon this earth are the generations of men: / …. one generation flowers / even as another dies away.” Virgil added the bough: “As leaves that yield their hold on boughs and fall / Through forests in the early frost of autumn.” Dante wrote of the bough that “sees all its fallen garments on the ground,” and Milton imagined the fallen angels “thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks / In Vallombrosa.” In Pound’s poem, it is unclear whether the “petals on a wet, black bough” have already fallen onto the forest floor, or whether they remain clinging to a still living bough. Perhaps the Metro Station is not yet the underworld but only a way-station at which Charon’s boat may arrive momentarily.
The poem demonstrates that while imagism might appear to rely on an ideal of transparent language that conflicts with the non-representational character of much modern art, an emphasis on language as medium carries into poetry some of modern art’s concern with the way that all representations are constructed out of previous representations.
- ↑ This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis’s Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp.84-85.