Imagism: Essays on its Initiation, Impact and Influence.

Eds. John Gery, Daniel Kempton, and H. R. Stoneback. U of New Orleans P, 2013.


by David Ewick






     My initial reaction to hearing of a new collection of essays on Imagism was a question: do we really need another book on it? In one of this volume’s very few demonstrably wrong contentions, the editors write in the Foreword that Imagism has been “little studied” (xii). This invites a contrarian footnote.1 Imagism: Essays on its Initiation, Impact and Influence, nonetheless, has answered the question in the affirmative. The volume, which has as its origin a 2010 conference on Imagism, is smart, nuanced, and lively. I cannot name many collections of academic essays which were a joy to have read closely, but this one falls into the category. Any serious student of Imagism or of Pound should read it, and it will be of interest also to students more generally of the literary and cultural history of Anglophone modernism.

     Helen Carr’s Introduction, “Imagism: A Hundred Years On,” provides sound contextualization, and to Carr’s credit she does not simply dust off analyses from her Verse Revolutionaries of 2009, the work which, as the editors rightly note in the Foreword, “has become, and will be for the foreseeable future, the definitive critical history of the Imagist poets” (xiii). Carr’s Introduction, in fact, is a welcome extension of her earlier work. In Verse Revolutionaries she largely avoided rumblings which have been discernable at least since Donald Davie wrote in 1952 that “the development from imagism in poetry to fascism in politics is clear and unbroken” (99). In Verse Revolutionaries Carr noted and briefly responded to “some [unnamed] critics” who have seen “modernism as proto-Fascist from the start,” but this came in the final paragraph of 880 pages of text.Here Carr picks up the thread from that paragraph and turns directly to Davie and also, more importantly, I think, to Daniel Tiffany, whose 1995 Radio Corpse: Imagism and the Cryptaesthetic of Ezra Pound echoes Davie and others but in a practiced contemporary idiom, reading Pound’s “image” as a “‘radiant’” “cadaver” or “corpse” which “becomes the voice of fascism” (21, 228). I was glad to see Carr engage in this way, even if she does tread softly. She argues that Imagism, “conceived on the eve of four dark decades of western history” is “surely rather a critique of what led to those terrible years than a prefiguration.” In “its reach of influences and sources,” Carr writes, Imagism “implicitly rejected nineteenth-century nationalism, imperialism, and the belief in the superiority of western modernity” (5). Emphasizing particularly the “Far Eastern sources” of Imagism, Carr finds that the degree to which the Imagist poets turned to translation, or at least “the reworking of . . . poems” from languages other than English, in effect made Imagism “imaginatively internationalist” (6). This is a point with which it is impossible responsibly to disagree, however one chooses to read, or not to read, for example, Tiffany.

      Christos Hadjiyiannis’s “Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, Edward Storer: Imagism as Anti-Romanticism in the Pre-Des Imagistes Era,” which opens section I, “Initiation,” is the thorniest of the essays in the volume, but largely because of contradictions inherent in the subjects Hadjiyiannis addresses. Gery writes later in the collection that Hulme “was an unhesitating proponent of sometimes contradictory principles” (112), and these are in evidence in Hadjiyiannis’s reading of the central texts of Hulme and Storer’s proto-Imagism, particularly in the links both Hulme and Storer made between politics and poetics. Hadjiyiannis shows that Hulme and Storer were both passionately opposed to what they called “Romantic” politics, by which they meant liberalism and socialism, “terms [they] used interchangeably” (22), and that from this political position, both advocated a radically anti-Romantic poetics. Hadjiyiannis is clear on the nature of the “ideological rejection of Liberal England” (18) in Hulme and Storer’s political writing, and he is careful not explicitly to conflate Hulme and Storer’s politics with Pound, limiting positive claims to echoes in Pound’s anti-Romantic poetics. Hadjiyiannis’s essay does not answer once and for all how Storer, for example, got from “a political Monstrosity like Socialism” (qtd. 22) to the “monstrosities of rhythm or rhyme” (qtd. 21), but it does in clear terms demonstrate that political views of the sort Carr called a “seedbed of later totalitarianism” were part of the early stirrings of what would come to be Imagism, and along with many other works raises interesting questions about the relation of anti-liberal politics and modernist poetics.

     In “Editorial Images: Des Imagistes and Ezra Pound’s Imagist Presentation of Imagism,” Justin Kishbaugh refines and extends John G. Nichols’s 2006 discussion of the ways Pound’s editorial decisions in arranging the poems of Des Imagistes represent in themselves, by example, a “poetic manifesto” (Nichols 177). Kishbaugh reads past Nichols, though, and offers a more nuanced analysis of the point. Nichols, drawing heavily on John Gage, had found that Pound arranged the poems “by their thematic and stylistic qualities” so that, for example, “poems imitating classical or Asian verse traditions are grouped together.” But where Nichols found in this juxtaposition a “clashing of traditions” (177), Kishbaugh argues that “Pound’s editorial strategies … were both more involved and intricate” than simply arranging poems according to their geographic or temporal affiliations (31-32). Kishbaugh finds in the end that the arrangement of poems in Des Imagistes “obliquely acknowledges the origins of and influences on Imagism, both ancient and modern … to demonstrate that … Imagism operates as a confluence of . . . poetic techniques,” to such a degree that “even prior to its … name change” Pound’s “concept of Imagist practice already existed as a ‘Vortex’” (41-42).

     Anderson D. Araujo in “‘I cling to the spar’: Imagism in Ezra Pound’s Vortex,” following closely on Kishbaugh’s closing observation, tracks the interstices between Pound’s Imagism and Vorticism. Araujo argues that Pound’s affiliation with Vorticism “was informed by a strong residual Imagism, which he would never quite let go of” (47). The essay closely reads Pound’s poems in both issues of Blast and also the “Vorticist Manifesto” to argue that Pound did not “‘surrender’ his … artistic identity to the trans-aesthetic of the Vorticist brand” or “cast off the poetic primacy that Imagism afforded.” Instead, “his Imagist phase … evolved” and found “a local habitation and … name in Vorticism,” to such a degree that by way of Pound “Vorticist heterodoxy in the arts assimilated the prosodic tenets of Imagism” (51).

     In “Image, Vortex, Radiant Node: Ezra Pound as Lens,” Shelley Puhak begins with the observation that the Imagist poets “were born during an era of optimistic belief in the power of science and an unprecedented interest in artificial lenses such as the microscope and telescope” (63), and from this sets forth a case that Pound “was so struck” by these “that he began to see himself as functioning as one of these lenses” (64). Puhak shows that from 1909 forward, the idiom of science frequently began to enter Pound’s critical writing, and her reading of poems from Pound’s verse of the period shows that his sense of poet-as-lens “emerges in his Imagist poems and grows increasingly sophisticated in his Vorticist poems” (64). Following this, Puhak carries the line of argument through to the emergence of Pound’s much-discussed concept of the “radiant node.” Drawing primarily but not only upon a 1928 essay on Cavalcanti in which Pound equates the “radiant node” with “a world of moving energies … magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border on the visible” (“Cavalcanti” 154), Puhak allies the “radiant node” with the high-powered lens of her reading and by way of this tracks Pound as poet-as-lens through late Cantos, particularly 91, 93, 106, and 116 (73).

     Opening section II, “Impact,” Alex Shakespeare’s “‘Poetry Which Moves By Its Music’: Keeping Time with Pound’s Imagism” adds to the growing list of works on the degree to which Pound’s interests in music intersect with his poetics, the tempos and rhythms of the former echoing in the latter. Anticipating Gery’s essay later in the collection, Shakespeare turns to the discussion of Pound’s “technical triumvirate” of melopoeia, “imagism” (i.e., phanopoeia), and logopoeia, as outlined in Instigations,2 drawing attention particularly to melopoeia, which in Instigations Pound defines as “poetry which’ moves by its music, whether it be a music in the words or an aptitude for, or suggestion of, accompanying music” (234). Anticipating H. R. Stoneback’s “Afterword,” Shakespeare discusses the importance of singing for Pound, in reference particularly to Yeats, Florence Farr, and Arnold Dolmetsch (80), carrying the argument through to the suggestion that Pound’s poem “The Return” (Ripostes 53-54) “effectively anticipates Pound’s future in The Cantos,” the “music” of which signals “a … revolution of how a poem sings”(88).

     “Imagism vs. Impressionism: Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford,” by Max Saunders, author of what is and for many years will remain the definitive biography of Ford, is a sharp reading of the degree to which the “improbable Imagist” Ford’s “relation to Imagism is best understood in terms of a productive conflict between the ideas of Imagism and the Impressionism with which Ford came to identify himself” (94), and also the degree to which Pound, by way of Ford, came to revise his own understanding of Impressionism. Pound’s early “critique” of Impressionism, Saunders writes, found it “too visual, too superficial, too relaxed and discursive, and too passive” (96), and from this Saunders argues that Pound’s “recurrent” early criticisms of Ford’s Impressionism are off the mark, particularly in relation to The Good Soldier (98-99). Saunders demonstrates that eventually, at “around the moment of Imagism,” Pound began “relaxing his strictures against what he had diagnosed as ‘the flaw of impressionism,’” both “allow[ing] a place for the kind of visual verse he thinks Impressionism conduces to” and “distinguishing Fordian Impressionism from more problematic versions” (99). Saunders shows that among Pound’s well-known debts to Ford may be included helping to “define … Imagist or Vorticist poetics” in relation to Impressionism (101). The essay closes with the well-earned observation that while literary Impressionism has faded from contemporary critical discourse, it “was … much on Pound’s mind in these years of … aesthetic and literary ferment,” and “for Pound and Ford … continued to be the term through which or against which their poetics were defined” (103).

     John Gery’s “‘Radiance to the White Wax’: The Imagist Contradiction between Logopoeia and Phanopoeia” is the most recondite essay in the collection. I do not intend this as criticism. Pound called Noh “recondite” just after he called it “unquestionably one of the great arts of the world” (“Classical Stage” 201; “Noh” 4). Gery’s “‘Radiance’” also is the essay here which most fully opens possibilities for a rethinking of Pound’s poetics, by way of the 1929 essay “How to Read.” Gery’s insight is that if we read backwards from “How to Read,” in which Pound returns to his conceptions of melopoeia, logopoeia, and phanopoeia (25-26), through to the “original” three “rules” of Imagism (Flint 199), the former may be grafted onto the latter with interesting results. In Gery’s reading, “How to Read” “recasts Imagism” (110), and while I cannot help noting that “How to Read” does not in fact mention Imagism and contains only one reference to “images” (25), Gery’s reading of “How to Read” as a retrospective recasting of Imagist principle and practice is smart. His point is that Pound’s discussion of phanopoeia, logopoeia, and melopoeia may be seen as existing in a symbiotic relation with the three guiding principles of Imagism, “[d]irect treatment of the ‘thing,’ whether subjective or objective” (in relation with phanopoeia), “[t]o use absolutely no word that [does] not contribute to the presentation” (read here in counter-relation with logopoeia), and “[a]s regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not . . . of a metronome” (melopoeia). This alone would make for an engaging essay, but Gery follows through with close readings of three poems which allow him to argue that the three “kinds of poetry” in “How to Read” uncover a contradiction in the three Imagist principles, specifically that logopoeia turns back on “to use no word that does not contribute to the presentation” in a way which sets it in a contradictory relation with phanopoeia, “direct treatment of the thing.” The essay is a convincing presentation of the point that “the Imagist aesthetic” has at its heart a “contradiction between perception and cognition” (110), or “sensation and sense” (118) or, in lines from Canto 110 which frame Gery’s argument, the “marble form in the pine wood, / The shrine seen and not seen” (118, Cantos 110/801).

     J. T. Welsch’s “The Formalistic Grounds for William Carlos Williams’s Critique of Imagism” is a straightforward reading of the ways Williams retrospectively distanced himself from Imagism. Welsch begins by noting that the “deceptively unadorned images” of early Williams poems “often are introduced to new readers as straightforward examples of Imagism,” but “beyond his loose affiliation and inclusion in the first Imagist anthology … Williams’s own opinion of the movement was increasingly negative” (123). Welsch traces three “historical points” which characterize Williams’s relation with Imagism. First came his “commitment to ‘orthodox’ Imagism” by way of Pound’s “poetic, philosophical, and personal influence on him” (124). Next came his association with “the Others group” in New York, which brought Williams into contact with the artists associated with Alfred Kreymborg’s circle. Welsh follows several writers, including Williams himself, in placing the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, colloquially known as “The Armory Show,” as central to Williams’s awakening to the visual arts, and positions the decade after the Armory Show “as a time of … fundamental changes in Williams’s poetic practice and thinking about art generally,” which culminated in what Welsch calls, in reference to Spring and All of 1923, “the first full articulation of Williams’s post-Imagist cubist-inflected principles” (126). The next major turning Welsch notes comes years later yet, in the thirties and beyond, in Williams’s affiliation with the Objectivist poets, by way of which, “with self-assured hindsight,” Williams was able to announce in 1941 that “Imagism ‘lost its place finally because as a form it completely lacked structural necessity’” (qtd. 127). Welsch closes with well-formulated thoughts about Williams’s Objectivist “concept of structure as the foundation of [a] poem’s very existence” (127-30), which “articulate[s a] revealing and legitimate response” to the “stated principles of Pound’s Imagism” (130).

      Section III of Imagism, “Influence,” is the least satisfying of the sections, although this is not because the essays by Brad McDuffie and Roy Verspoor on Pound’s influence on Hemingway or Ian S. MacNiven on James Laughlin’s Pound- and Williams-inflected Imagism are not in themselves insightful and responsible. One cannot expect a collection of essays on Imagism to be comprehensive on a subject as rich as its later influence, but the influence of Pound and his Imagism is so much deeper and more widely-dispersed than what we have here that surely, despite all good intentions, two essays on Hemingway and one on Laughlin invite attention to much else which is not here.

      McDuffie, looking primarily at Hemingway’s In Our Time, and Verspoor, considering Hemingway’s parodic and “purposefully horrendous” (150) Torrents of Spring, demonstrate that “Pound’s Imagist poetics shaped Hemingway’s writing both stylistically and … thematically,” as McDuffie puts it (137), or, in Verspoor’s terms, that “Hemingway’s parody shows how useful the propositions of Imagism can be by illustrating how disastrous fiction can become when they are ignored” (155). Both essays are intelligent in their exposition, and both include marvellous quotes from Hemingway, which remind of his unstinting support of Pound and his generosity in demonstrating it in print.

      MacNiven in addition to the essay here is author of a new biography of Laughlin, as indeed the new 1,200 page Collected Poems of James Laughlin appeared late in 2014, Laughlin’s centennial year. MacNiven notes that “[w]hen a person’s poetic lineage begins with … Pound and … Williams, and that person goes on to produce a Collected Poems … that will run to 1,200 pages, it should come as no surprise that many traces of the Imagism in verse practiced early on by both Pound and Williams will appear in the work of their acolyte” (157). From this MacNiven demonstrates a shift in Laughlin’s verse after he “had enrolled at the Ezuversity” and learnt “by imitation” and from “Pound’s stabbing pencil” (159-60). In the end MacNiven finds in Laughlin’s later verse an idiosyncratic Imagism which combines “concrete image patterns after Williams; innovation and message after Pound; [and] conversational speech patterns echoing Eliot, Pound, and Williams” (165).

      In his Afterword, “On Imagism & Hymnagism: Singing Hymns with Ezra Pound in Indiana and Robert Winter in China,” H. R. Stoneback closes the collection by proposing to “offer … small additions and corrections to the historical record … primarily through anecdote” (170), which he does. The “Afterword” is admirable for its amiable informality, the “Crawfordsville gossip” picked up in 1959 from a Hoosier girlfriend about Pound’s tenure at Wabash College, and most of all for its introduction of the charming Robert Winter, Pound’s student from the banks of the Wabash whom, as the story goes, Pound in 1908 sent off to China. He was never to return: in 1984, when Winter was ninety-five, the young(ish) Stoneback met, sang with, and discussed Pound with him in China (172-77). Stoneback’s “Afterword” is admirable also for its jovial correction of errors in earlier critical writing on Pound, no small matter, either the corrections or the joviality in making them.