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Imagist Poetry

Imagism was a short-lived poetic movement centered in London at the dawn of the 20th century. It signaled the birth of Modernism and its effects are felt in all British and American poetry since that time.

The Poets Club

Imagism began as a reaction to the sentimental poetry of versifiers such as William Watson and the Laureate Alfred Austin. Tennyson, Longfellow, and the pre-Raphaelites were imitated. In the United States, Whitman’s influence was not yet felt and the most popular poet was Edmund Clarence Stedman who offered sentimental sonnets such as "A Mother’s Picture".

Into this maelstrom of overworked versifying stepped the brash young Ezra Pound. Pound had a firm grasp of what was happening in the arts everywhere, particularly Symbolist experiments in French literature and the writings of Mallarme. The stuff of Anglo-American poetry, when compared, must have seemed pallid indeed.

T.E. Hulme and a few of his contemporaries had formed a group called The Poets Club, which met in a London Soho restaurant in 1908-1909. The club came under the influence of F.S. Flint and Pound joined the group in April 1909. The talk, according to Flint, was about poetic technique and a variety of foreign verse forms such as vers libre, tanka, haiku, and Provencal songs (which Pound greatly admired and which seems to have been his main contributions to the discussions). Flint also recalled that Hulme was the one who insisted on "absolutely accurate presentation - and no verbiage": again, according to Flint, "– there was a lot of talk and practise among us – of what we called the ‘Image’ - ", and it was Hulme who would "spend hours each day in search of the right phrase."

Flint later wrote that Edward Storer was the first man to publish a book of Imagist poems. The claim seems doubtful now and no copies of the volume are extant and the only example offered doesn't show much in the way of the precision demanded of this kind of poetry.

The Birth Of Imagism

The Poets Club soon dissolved and there is no mention of the term "Imagist" until November 1912 when Pound published a collection titled Ripostes, to which he attached an appendix consisting of five short poems, "The Complete Poetical Works of T.E. Hulme".

In an explanatory note, Pound mentions "– The school of images, which may or may not have existed–," and he uses the word "Imagiste" for the first time. He was soon promoting the work of his friend Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), along with Richard Aldington and Flint, in the pages of Poetry Magazine published in America. He went on to draft his much-quoted manifesto:

  • 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 the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
He added: "An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

A simpler way of putting this is found in the introduction to The Imagist Poem (William Pratt, Dutton, 1963): "Essentially, it is a moment of revealed truth, rather than a structure of consecutive events or thoughts". A verbal picture. Narrative development was out and the analogical was in, juxtaposing ideas and images across the page.

The new poetry was welcomed immediately. In the United States, young poets – such as William Carlos Williams - who had long chafed under the restrictions of traditional poetic forms, quickly took their cue from the Imagists. In London, the Egoist, devoted solely to Imagism, began publication in January 1914.

Soon, the first Imagist Anthology was published. The poems themselves offered a variety of types and influences – everything from vers libre to rhyming and prose poetry, but all were short and bore the stamp of three main influences: classical Greek lyric, Japanese haiku, and recent French Symbolist poetry. Imagism, in a matter of a short time, had forced a sea-change in attitudes towards poetry in America and Britain. What was most important, "Vers Libre" – free verse– was here to stay. The death knell had sounded for the mighty iambic pentameter. By 1915-16 the revolution the Imagists fostered was complete.

But friction occurred between Pound and other members of the group. Flint, in particular, saw little room for new forms of expression within the confines of the Imagist doctrine – and new forms of expression was what the revolution was all about.

What was being written was very good minor poetry. But there was no way to make a major work of it.

Imagist Anthologies continued to be issued until 1917 and one collection even as late as 1930. But the arrival of Amy Lowell in London - who brought what Pound called "Amygism" – signaled an end to his connection with the movement. When she assumed leadership sometime in 1915, bringing in such a different writer as D.H. Lawrence, the cohesion of the group quickly disappeared.

Imagism's Lasting Influence

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Imagists to the poetry of the 20th century. After all, they championed free verse and freed poetics from the tyranny of the pentameter. Perhaps no single document is as important as Pound’s Manifesto in understanding the poetics of Modernism.

Every important poet who followed – from T.S. Eliot, a Symbolist who was never associated with the group - absorbed the lessons and acknowledged a debt to Pound, as did younger poets, the likes of E.E. cummings and Allen Ginsberg.

By the latter half of the century, a counter-movement had developed. It was felt that free verse had gone too far. The New Formalism called for a return to recognized poetics.

But even these traditionalist poets have been touched by the Imagists. They are, after all, free to write what they would and in a free manner - their poems seldom ruined by the maudlin sentiment that haunted the works of Stedman and his contemporaries.

In the end, that is the legacy of Imagism: freedom in subject matter and manner coupled with presentational clarity. Vers Libre is still a hallmark of contemporary poetry and The Poets Club along with Imagism have left a lasting mark as well.

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