Ezra Pound’s: In a Station of the Metro

Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro, both in terms of its handling of narrative and for its use of poetic form.

In keeping with the “rules” of Imagism, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” seeks to use complete economy of words. Though brief (the poem totals only three lines, including the title) the tone is both poignant and pensive. Pound’s idiographic description of an experience on the Metro resembles a Japanese Haiku and breaks away from typical rhyme schemes (found in sonnets of the time) and pioneered the notion of form reflecting meaning.

The structure of “In a Station of the Metro” is pivotal in understanding the poem fully. Being so concise (using only the “exact words”) we are forced to inspect Pound’s meaning closer, an intent which is highly evident due to the many revisions Pound made to his work; telling Harriet Monroe “I was careful to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed”. The spaces separating the words help to set the scene and are purposefully vague as to fit all interpretations of the poem – giving the reader an illusion of the train stopping, picking up passengers and moving on as well as possibly portraying the “wet, black bough” off which the petals hang.

The original poem, resembling an Eastern Haiku, separated the two lines with a colon, in keeping with other imagistic poems which Pound wrote at the time. However, when it was reprinted in 1916 it had been replaced by a semicolon – making the syntax even more irregular. Despite the fact that the change may not have been made by Pound, the error remains – highlighting the ability of the lines to, as Randolph Chilton and Carol Gilbertson propose, “borrow associations and emotional responses from one another”. The poem’s syntax denies any ability to turn the second line into a metaphor and, in keeping with Pound’s reasoning on Vorticicm, the two sentences exist in unison, presenting “one idea set on top of another”. By juxtaposing the phrases the poem lacks an explanation of their relationship and allows Pound to create two contrasting images – an urban scene of a crowded metro and a natural image of petals falling in the rain and sticking to the wet branches below. This “one image poem” exemplifies the imagist idea of the two concepts being superposed.

Compliant with traditional haikus Pound both conjures an image which contains careful reference to location and expresses a wave of emotion without the use of abstract ideas. In doing this he has carefully chosen each word to express this “sudden emotion”7. The poem has minimal rhetoric and little grammar, choosing to use it only when absolutely necessary. Pound speaks of “these faces” but defines the bough only as “a bough”. This exemplifies the specific, closed feel of the first line compared with the soft, ambiguous second – yet another juxtaposition presented by Pound.

The tempo of the poem slows down at two distinct moments, “these faces” in the first line and the “wet, black petals” at the end of the second, this not only adds emphasis to the spaces in between the words but encourages the reader to rest a moment on the conjured images. Strong assonance gives the poem a distinct round, natural feel. However, Pound does not allow the reader to fall into a steady rhythm, in keeping with the imagist dogma of writing “in sequence of the musical phrase (and) not in the sequence of a metronome”, and breaks up the many vowel sounds with sibilance in the first line, “these faces” and alliteration in the second “black bough”. Having no rhyme scheme, metre or any verbs the poem has a very static tone, which further highlights the contrast between the busy scene in the Metro station and the natural, still depiction of the bough in the rain.

“In a Station of the Metro” presents a scene experienced first-hand by Pound – adding poignancy and giving the poem a firm ground in reality. Though neither image is subordinate to the other the first line resonates much more strongly due to the presence of Pound. Despite the fact that, as David Bradshaw states, there is no specific “I” in the poem, Pound addresses the crowd as “these faces” implying he is there in the station with them. Compared to this the “Petals on a wet, black bough” that exist in a non-specified location are left with a much more ambiguous and slightly eerie tone.

Pound’s narration leads us in to the station, setting the scene in the title and going on to place the “apparition” of the faces firmly in our minds. Once this image is formulated, by the end of the first line, we are then left alone with the idea of the wet petals falling against the bough and find the scene transformed from the loud, hectic city – without the “faces in the crowd” and, indeed, without Pound.

In leaving his reader alone in the second sentence he gives them time to dwell on the true juxtaposition of the images in their entirety. Carefully constructing the two images so that they themselves become apparitions before us, Pound enables the reader to distort both scenes. They then become personalised images in which the reader can imagine him or herself present in both, stirring the contrasting emotions within their minds. By placing himself in the metro station Pound narrates the poem without imposing too much on the reader. Guiding us from the first idea to the second Pound’s intention was not to sit both images alongside one another, but to allow one image to be transformed into another by what Willard Bohn refers to as a “sudden metamorphosis”.

Pound stated that his intention was to try and record “the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself…into a thing inward and subjective”. Of the two notions presented, only the “outward and objective” can be narrated. In his absence from the second line, Pound allows his reader to transform the Paris metro station into a scene of their own creation, their own “inward and subjective” bough which may, and probably will be, entirely different from his.

“In a station of the Metro”, being closely tied to Pound’s own experience, inspires the reader to try and relate to the author. Pound describes this experience as “[seeing] suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another” going on to say that he “tried all that day to find words for what this had meant” . Pound’s original thirty-line poem, which was destroyed due to being “of second intensity”, may have charted the entire journey from one image to another, however, the brevity of the poem, combined with its distinct lack of any formal structure, is what makes the poem so moving, forcing the reader to look closely into the few words that are there. Using his position as narrator Pound guides the reader into the station with him, evokes the image that he once saw, and then leaves them alone with the second image. In not spoon-feeding the reader with his exact intention the poem gains a much more mystical feel as not knowing whether to recover the “like” that could sit between the two clauses, to “recover this deletion of similitude” (as John Steven Childs suggests), the reader allows these two polar images to exist simultaneously in their minds, inspired by the contrast of emotions that they present.

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