In a Station of the Metro | Study Guide

Ezra Pound

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In a Station of the Metro | Context

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Poetic Form

"In a Station of the Metro" is inspired by Japanese haiku. This short, nonrhyming poetic form features three lines with the syllable count of five, then seven, and then five. A haiku usually describes an image or comparison in nature. Although Pound's poem does not precisely follow the typical 3-line, 17-syllable structure of the haiku, it presents its ideas the way a haiku does. That is, it communicates a great deal within a highly condensed space, wasting no words, and it introduces a surprising comparison by using an image from nature. Pound, who struggled for 18 months to write "In a Station of the Metro," described the comparison in a haiku as "a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of the other."

In "In a Station of the Metro," these ideas are set on top of each other: first, an image of ghostly faces appearing out of a subway station crowd and, second, an image of petals sticking to a branch:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

In juxtaposing the two images, Pound uses the poetic device of parataxis. That is, he places two phrases next to each other without using a conjunction—or, for that matter, any other words. Pound does not say the faces are like petals, nor even that they are petals. Indeed, he says nothing to guide the reader between these two ideas. Rather, he presents as clearly as possible two things to see and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions from there.

Imagism

Ezra Pound was one of the founders of the literary movement he called "imagism." He and a group of like-minded, early 20th-century poets rejected the elevated language and abstract thinking they found in other writers. In 1912 Pound, along with the poets H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Richard Aldington, and F.S. Flint, helped describe a succinct poetic style in which an image or feeling stands alone to do all the work of the poem. Imagist poetry does not comment on or interpret its subject.

Pound and his contemporaries outlined three basic rules for writing poetry.

  • Poems should present a "direct treatment of the 'thing,'" or subject of the poem. The "thing" can be a physical object, a feeling, or anything else—it does not have to be concrete.
  • Poets should avoid any word "that does not contribute to the presentation." In other words, they should use no frills, no fancy language expounding on themes, no interpretation at all.
  • Poetry should resemble the musicality of speech "in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome." Thus, imagists rejected prescribed rhythms of the past—like no 14-line sonnets in iambic pentameter.

Pound was associated with imagism from 1912 to only 1914, when poet Amy Lowell gained influence and guided the movement in a direction different from what Pound had envisioned. At that point, Pound turned to a new movement he named vorticism. However, "In a Station of the Metro," first published in 1913, is often held up as the prime example of an imagist poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This poem demonstrates all three tenets of imagism. It tackles its subject directly although its subject is not, as it might seem at first glance, the faces glimpsed in a crowded subway station. Instead it is the "apparition" of those glimpsed faces. Regardless of how the reader interprets this slippery word, it places the subject of this poem firmly in the realm of the subjective. Pound is not presenting readers with something seen but with the feeling associated with the seeing. The poem also has a second subject: the image of petals flowering on a wet branch, which are perhaps pale and ghostly like the faces in the crowd at a subway station. In keeping with the first tenet of imagism, Pound makes no attempt to link these ideas or comment on them beyond placing them together. The interpretation belongs entirely to the reader.

The poem adheres to the second tenet of imagism in that it wastes no words. This economy of language is most obvious in the connection between the two lines. Pound does not use the word like to indicate comparison between the two images presented, nor does he use a word like is to indicate a metaphor. If a metaphor does exist here, the reader is responsible for discerning it. Elsewhere, too, the images are presented without unnecessary frills or flourishes. Pound gives only the words necessary to render the subject with clarity.

Finally, the poem uses the pacing of "the musical phrase" of natural speech. When people talk, they often use fragments. They do not necessarily explain or introduce their ideas. The poem uses speech-like language, omitting verbs, letting the reader play catch-up to figure out what is going on, as listeners often must do in real life. The phrase these faces in the first line stands out particularly as being like speech—and particularly like words people might speak to themselves. Grammatically, the determiner these indicates something close at hand. The speaker is noticeably not setting up the scene the way a storyteller would by saying, "I was in the crowded subway, and I saw some faces." Instead, the words seem almost whispered as the speaker sees the fleeting image. The reader is invited to slip into the speaker's mind and share the vision.

The language of literary movements can be confusing. "In a Station of the Metro" is both an imagist poem and a modernist poem. Today the term modernist literature is a general label that applies to most writing from the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s. This period brought many social and technological changes: the world was urbanizing quickly, important new technologies were appearing, and political upheaval was creating both bloody warfare and unprecedented freedom. The term modernist refers to any writers who consciously challenged traditional forms to represent the new, freeing, confusing, and sometimes frightening world they lived in.

Still, modernism is a broad, overarching label invented and applied by scholars after the fact. Terms like imagism and vorticism are much narrower. The writers themselves coined these terms as they tried to describe what they wanted to do and how their work differed from that of their contemporaries. There are several reasons poets like Pound are not referred to by the labels they chose. First, disagreements like the one between Pound and Lowell make it difficult to agree on who actually qualifies as a member of a movement and who does not. Second, poets evolve throughout their careers. Although Pound wrote imagist poetry, he also wrote poetry that was not imagist. Third, readers and scholars have the benefit of hindsight, which often allows them to see and describe similarities between writers of the same era who saw themselves as very different from each other.

The Paris Metro

The title "In a Station of the Metro" refers to a subway train station, Metro, being the name of Paris's subway system. From history and from Pound's writings, readers and critics know Pound was writing specifically about the Paris Metro station at Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris.

When Pound published this poem in 1913, subway trains were still a new phenomenon. The Paris Metro, which opened its first line in 1900, was among the earliest subway systems in the world to open its doors to passengers. The first was in Liverpool, England, and Budapest, Hungary, and Chicago, Illinois, also opened subway systems slightly before Paris did. It was one of the fastest-growing and largest systems of the period. By the time Pound published "In a Station of the Metro," Paris had 10 functioning subway lines sprawling underground throughout the city.

The Metro transformed the way people traveled in Paris. Before its construction, people got around in double-decker omnibuses pulled by horses. These traveled about five miles per hour on streets that were crowded and frequently blocked. The Metro, in contrast, zoomed people all the way across town in a few minutes. It was a far more efficient, safer, and probably more comfortable way to get around.

The creation of the Paris Metro is just one aspect of a larger phenomenon of fast-paced changes revolutionizing life throughout Europe and North America in the early 1900s. To Pound and others of his generation, such changes would have been exciting but also overwhelming, perhaps even worrying. Although the Metro gave people freedom of movement, it also disconnected them from nature and traditional modes of travel. Descending into a dark tunnel might have felt oppressive, even frightening. Plus, the vast size of the crowded system—the Metro carried 467 million travelers in 1913—may have seemed alarmingly impersonal.

To poets of Pound's era, new inventions like the Metro seemed incompatible with traditional forms of poetry. Reacting to the transformative technologies of modern life using the same poetic forms that described a much different life for the past generations did not seem possible for writers of this time, and they didn't want to do so. They preferred to find new ways of expression, which is what appears "In a Station of the Metro."

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