Volume Five, December 2004

home » articles » Silvia Florea


The English novelist Virginia Woolf declared that human nature underwent a fundamental change "on or about December 1910." The statement testifies to the modern writer's fervent desire to break with the past, rejecting literary traditions that seemed outmoded and diction that seemed too genteel to suit an era of technological breakthroughs and global violence.
"On or about 1910," just as the automobile and airplane were beginning to accelerate the pace of human life, and Einstein's ideas were transforming mankind's perception of the universe, there was an explosion of innovation and creative energy that shook every field of artistic endeavour. Artists from all over the world converged on London, Paris, and other great cities of Europe to join in the ferment of new ideas and movements: Cubism, Constructivism, Futurism, Acmeism, and Imagism were among the most influential banners under which the new artists grouped themselves. It was an era when major artists were fundamentally questioning and reinventing their art forms: Matisse and Picasso in painting, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in literature, Isadora Duncan in dance, Igor Stravinsky in music, and Frank Lloyd Wright in architecture. The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war's end in 1918, the centuries-old European domination of the world had ended and the "American Century" had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when the avant-garde experiments that had preceded the war would, like the technological wonders of the airplane and the atom, inexorably establish a new dispensation, which is called modernism. Among the most instrumental of all artists in effecting this change were a handful of American poets. With the death of Walt Whitman in 1892, American poetry came to a longer pause. In the second half of the nineteenth century American life changed rapidly and with it the language and the conditions of modern life were changing radically, too. A new poetry seemed ineluctable. With few exceptions, however, the poets of late nineteenth century America wrote an artificial verse, derivative of Romantic, essentially British, models, full of classical allusions and lofty ideals, with little reference to the changing social and political realities. What America needed at the turn of the century was a poet, or group of poets, to carry on the tradition of earlier American writers, such as Emerson, Hawthorne and Whitman and to translate that tradition into modern terms. Those writers had seen themselves and their fellow Americans as the new men who would create a new world; the poet was not only an Adam, a newly created and self- creating pioneer, but a prophet and a rebel, warning his culture and, if necessary, opposing it. The poetic mainstream of the day was considered to be obsolete in its presentation of experience, insular and untrained in technique and flabby in its use of language. The verbal currency coined by both their British and American predecessors had by now become unacceptably worn and dulled and, language, the central issue in modernist thought, had to be impoverished and revived because this time it was used as an instrument.
American poetry became independent sometime between 1910 and 1920; 1912 is the year often mentioned. That year Robert Frost went to England, where he published his first book and there he met and was promoted by Ezra Pound, already busy forging transatlantic modernism. Imagism, the most important single literary movement of the 20th century is usually dated back to 1912.
The extraordinary outburst of poetic activity that was taking place in America in the work of poets like William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore had links and parallels with the literary movement that developed from 1912 to the end of the 1920's in London; a remarkable assimilator of the experimental ideas and techniques, Pound was the prime mover in the evolution of the "new poetic"; in fact, without him, it seems totally unlikely that the British and American traditions would have come temporarily in a volatile mixture that would completely radicalize them both.
The suddenness with which international modernism was introduced into England and the slowness of its acceptance had much to do with the fact that many of the writers were in fact not English: Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford in fiction, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in poetry; George Bernard Shaw, Barrie Synge and Samuel Beckett in drama. Partly for the same reason, the modernists, especially Pound and Mac Diarmid, could be said to have forced British poetry away from its ' natural', or, at least, indigenous, development, represented by the Georgian "week-end poets" Walter de la Mare, Robert Graves and Edward Thomas whose poetry was considered to be "an Indian summer of romance". Instead of imitating them, the Imagists attempted to reproduce the qualities of ancient Greek and Chinese poetry, aiming at clear, brilliant effects instead of the soft, dreamy vagueness or the hollow Miltonic rhetoric of the 19th century tradition.
With characteristic brusqueness, Ezra Pound remarked that the common verse...from 1890 was a horrible agglomerate compost, “not minted, most of it not even baked “, all legato, a doughy mess of third- hand Keats, Wordsworth, fourth-hand Elisabethan sonority blunted, half- melted and lumpy. In reaction against all this, a group began to gather around T.E.Hulme and F.S. Flint in London dedicated, among other things, to the aim of reproducing “the peculiar quality of feeling which is induced by the flat spaces and wide horizons of the virgin-prairie” and to the belief that poetic ideas are best expressed by the rendering of concrete objects. The group was joined in April 1909 by the young expatriate Pound who had already outlined his own ideas about poetry in a letter to Williams Carlos Williams six months earlier.
Pound was in the habit of meeting Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington in a tea shop in Kensington to discuss their verse with them, and it was at such a meeting that he informed them that they were Imagistes, suggesting by the French version of the term a connection with modern French poetry. In 1914, an anthology of verse appeared in which H.Doolittle and Aldington were the centrepieces, but it also included the work of Williams Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, F.S.Flint and Ford Madox Ford. Later, Pound was to declare that, in fact, the whole business of Imagism and the Imagist anthology was invented to launch H.D. and Aldington before either had enough stuff for a volume, which is only partially true, because his interest in Imagism antedated and clearly survived his enthusiastic promotion of the two poets. By 1916 Pound lost interest and abandoned Imagism, leaving clear way for Amy Lowell to assume control of the movement and to publish the two anthologies of 1916 and 1917; he dismissed the movement as "Amy-gisme", an excuse for brief, mediocre descriptive pieces, written in free verse and modulated into pleasant fancy.
The most important thing about Imagism was, in his view, not the way in which the movement articulated itself, but rather the practical focus it managed to provide; it helped crystallise, define and promote certain tendencies and notions about the nature of poetic experiment. In 1913, Pound wrote that the point of Imagisme "is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image itself is the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language." This idea suggests the primary Imagist objective, that is, to stick closely to the object or experience being described, and hardly ever, if any at all, to shift from this too more explicit generalisation. It also articulates the belief in the primacy of a condensed, intense, and above all, intuitive form of communication; the observation of the concrete allows the observer to catch the wonder that surrounds simple things in imaginative rather than rational discourse. T.E.Hulme sees the poet as gliding through an abstract process, in an effort to make the reader discover for himself and intuit the meaning of the poem from the reverberations and resonance of the image.
In his 1913 Poetry essay Pound insisted that one should not use any superfluous word “no adjective, which does not reveal something". This, the second of Flint's rules, was perhaps what Amy Lowell had in mind when she said that the Imagist principles are not new; they have fallen into desuetude. They are the essentials of all great poetry. It follows then, that the test of the artist became a preoccupation with functional speech, that is, a speech that achieves a maximum effect with the minimum possible resources, in Marriane Moore's view: Precision, economy of statement, logic employed to means that are disinterested, drawing and identifying and which liberates imagination. Flint's third rule, expanded upon by Pound in his typical fashion, adds another touch to the written word: the tough, sinuous, sharply etched rhythms that describe the contours of the individual experience — a hidden but nevertheless clearly audible music that captures the pace, poise and tone of the personal voice.
The Imagists believed in a flexible verse form, which was in fact the symptom of a broader commitment to an open, unpremeditated structure; the free verse was by no means new as an occasional recourse; it derived from many sources, including Whitman and Mallarmé and it basically gave up the subtleties of spoken rhythm counter-pointed with metre, in exchange for a single rhythm defined only by line length and line break. As he saw it, Pound believed that poetry should be at least "as well written as prose", but with the possible difference that in poetry, words are infused with something more than their prose meaning- with a musical quality that gives them substance and thrust; "To break the iamb, that was the first heave", as he put it in The Cantos, meant first and foremost shaking off the tyranny of predetermined verse forms, not in the direction of Amy Lowell's "fluid, fruity, facile stuff", but rather in that promoted by idiosyncratic rhythmists like Yeats and Eliot and later by Williams Carlos Williams and the Black Mountain poets.
The most influential aspect of Imagism was, above all, its scrupulous devotion to the craft of poetry, Pound never abandoned those values and became impatient with Imagism’s studiously miniature world and he set out to find whether a diminished aesthetic–one that eschews discursive breadth in favour of obsessive precision and radical condensation—can produce a long poem; at this time he was already at work on The Cantos, a brilliant mixture of condensation, concrete expression and lyric intensity forged into a mythopoeic expansive “multiverse”.
Around 1914, Pound moved on to Vorticism, a stricter form of Imagism that emphasized the dynamic nature of the image. Vorticism reveals a certain iconic dimension of imagist poetry and relates it to painting in general and to Cubist painting in particular; this conception of form is indebted to an aesthetic of space developed by modern art and expressed in the works of Brzeska, Lewis, Epstein and Brâncusi. In fact, several Cubist techniques are to be found in imagist poetry, such as: the tendency to focus on banal, ordinary objects, the foregrounding of isolated details and the backgrounding of outer form, the visualisation of the essence of an object or of an abstract representation of the thing. Cubist- influenced semi- abstract painting and poetry were linked and shaped anew under the span of Vorticism, Pound's neo-futurist alternative to Imagism demanded a transforming modern explosion in the arts and was meant to start a whirl of artistic creation. In terms of the visual arts, Vorticism represented an original variant of elements borrowed from Cubism and Futurism. What Vorticism meant in terms of poetry is less clear. Pound's only obviously vorticist poem is considered to be "Dogmatic Statements on a Game of Chess: Theme for a Series of Pictures", whose angular shapes and abrupt movements could describe a vorticist painting. Unfortunately, the movement and its lead review, Blast, filled with belligerent manifestoes and a typographical style that signalled its origins all too plainly, was greeted with a revealing lack of critical acceptance; contrary to what later critics have urged, contemporaries were neither shocked nor provoked by it, but simply bored – and not because it represented an incomprehensible novelty, but because, as one reviewer remarked, "it was an all too familiar attempt at being clever". However, for all its faults, the movement remains a notable attempt to address and provoke an audience through a programmatic polemical onslaught, and ultimately, as far as Pound is concerned, an explicit attempt to distinguish his imagist poetry from symbolist poetry.
Pound's poetic principles remained essentially imagist: sharpness of observation, economy of phrasing and organic rhythm. He successively refined his theory of the image and of its functioning, in the form: image > vortex > ideogram, until he reached a stage where he felt that language itself could be made to work presentationally, entirely free of discursive content in which the crucial catalyst is the vital world of intuition and to which he added his discovery of the possibilities of Chinese as a language which still worked, he claimed, to a significant measure, pre-discursively.

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