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What Is Imagism?
Imagism was an early twentieth century poetic movement that emphasized clear, direct language. It was considered a reaction to the traditions of Romantic and Victorian poetry, which emphasized florid ornamentation of language. The Imagists, by contrast, were succinct and to the point. Language could be symbolic and allegorical, yet it also had to be succinct. If the essence of an object, setting, or cultural movement could be reduced to a few words, then a verse of Imagist poetry required only those few words and nothing more.
What Are the Origins of the Imagist Poetry Movement?
Literary scholars trace the origins of Imagism to the poetry of T.E. Hulme. Two specific Hulme poems, “Autumn” and “A City Sunset,” are considered particularly foundational for Imagists. These poems, both published in 1909, display an economy of language that was rare for the time period. Here is “A City Sunset” in its entirety.
Alluring, Earth seducing, with high conceits
is the sunset that reigns
at the end of westward streets. ...
A sudden flaring sky
troubling strangely the passer by
with visions, alien to long streets, of Cytharea
or the smooth flesh of Lady Castlemaine. ...
A frolic of crimson
is the spreading glory of the sky,
heaven's jocund maid
flaunting a trailed red robe
along the fretted city roofs
about the time of homeward going crowds
— a vain maid, lingering, loth to go. ...
Hulme’s verse is concurrently florid—with phrases like “heaven’s jocund maid” that could have been lifted from a Tennyson poem—and economical, with only fourteen lines and limiting itself to a single description. It bridges the divide between the expansive, sentimental poetry of nineteenth century Victorian and Romantic traditions with the more terse, spare style that would come to define the twentieth century.
Hulme was widely read by future Imagists, and in less than a decade, they would be pushing his sensibilities even further into a modernist direction, as twentieth century poetry began to come into its own.
What Are the Characteristics of Imagist Poetry?
Imagist poetry is defined by directness, economy of language, avoidance of generalities, and a hierarchy of precise phrasing over adherence to poetic meter.
The concept of Imagist poetry as it is known today largely spans from two Imagist anthologies compiled by Richard Aldington and Ezra Pound.
Pound’s anthology, which came first, titled Des Imagistes and was published in 1914. The concept of what poems are “Imagist” largely springs from the poems contained in that anthology. The most featured poets were Aldington, Aldington’s wife Hilda “H.D.” Doolittle, and Pound himself. Also included were Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, F. S. Flint, Skipwith Cannell, Allen Upward, and John Cournos.
One year prior, Pound had offered particular aesthetic points in the March 1913 issue of Poetry magazine (founded by Harriet Monroe). In essays titled A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste and Imagisme, Pound laid out some ground rules for what an Imagist poem contains:
- Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
In 1930 Aldington published his own volume of Imagism, titled Imagist Anthology. While the movement itself had peaked during the World War I years of the mid-to-late 1910s, this 1930 publication helped solidify Imagism as a style worth preserving.
What Are Examples of Imagist Poetry?
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The foremost Imagist poet who is still actively read in the twenty first century is Ezra Pound. An American by birth, Pound spent much of his adult life in Europe and was particularly enamored of fascist politics, which has dampened his personal reputation. However his poetry endures in the English-language canon. Pound had a gift for being succinct, as is evidenced by his two line poem “In a Station of the Metro.”
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
More reminiscent of a haiku than of Pound’s Anglo-American poetic forebears, this poem packs enormous meaning into a mere fourteen words. In just two lines, Pound describes both a setting and an unspoken mood, as well as a speaker’s perspective. Symbolist language and unflinching honesty characterize Pound’s verse.
Another prominent Imagist poet is Hilda Doolittle, better known by her pen name H.D. (or H.D. Imagiste). H.D. combined free verse with common speech in her particular brand of Imagism. She also offered frank discussion of gender and sexuality, something unimaginable in the sex-negative Victorian era. A strong example is H.D.’s poem “Cassandra.” H.D. toggles between a heartfelt emotional confession and the blunt physical description of a woman’s body, thus merging the emotional core of nineteenth century poetry with the boundary-pushing aesthetic of the Modernist era during which she lived.
How to Write Imagist Poetry
If you’re seeking to compose your own Imagist poetry, here are a few tips to connect you with the spirit and aesthetics of the 1910s Imagist movement:
- Use language of common speech. The Imagists made a clean break with Romantic poets like Keats and Shelley and Lord Byron. The poetry of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams is like the verse equivalent of Hemingway: direct and economical, using common words and phrases.
- Embrace free verse. Before the Imagist movement, blank verse was perhaps the most prevailing style of poetry. Blank verse does not rhyme, but it does contain precise iambic pentameter. To compose like an imagist, do not worry about poetic meter. Rather, focus on the rhythm of your phrases—something that the Imagists called “new rhythms.”
- Your choice of subject should reflect real life. Imagists don’t write about mythology and ancient heroes. They write about the worlds they personally inhabit. They describe real people and real places, whether or not they directly name them. This comports with an overall Imagist value of direct language. As Pound himself says: Value “direct treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective.”
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