Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Imagists

By the early twentieth century poetry needed a makeover and Ezra Pound was just the person to give it one. Pound's brilliance wasn't so much in his own poetry (although some of it is brilliant) as in his ability to recognize what change was needed and to connect a group of people capable of making that change happen. The Imagists were looking to strip away the rote structure and sentimentality that had come to define poetry of the Victorian era. It was clear to Pound that “truth” in poetry wasn't going to be found by piling on more maudlin rhyming couplets and forced iambs. Pound's prescription wasn't just to upend the status quo in search of clarity or to find something that satisfied us linguistically—it was to sparingly use the tools of language to reach for some deeper meaning (and I don't mean that pejoratively).

So I disagree with poet Kenneth Rexroth when he says, in his essay The Influence of French Poetry on American, that Gertrude Stein's “syntax is simply a development of tendencies latent in typically American speech.” I think it is much more than that. Stein is touching, through and throughout her syntax, word choice, and repetition, on the deeper workings of the human mind—that vast part of the brain that exists outside of language and deals with entities, spacial concepts, and causal relationships. Stein probes those places with her poetry and creates something far more substantive than “syntax derived from latent tendencies in speech” (and much of the verse the Imagists were rebelling against). If poets prior to the Imagists were concerned with creating beauty from language then Stein, et al. were using language to get at something else. For those earlier poets words and syntax were the stone—for Stein they were the chisel. Stein chose function over form (paradoxically, the form worked itself out) and, out of a single poem, scratched more “meaning” than a thousand stale sonnets ever could.

William Carlos Williams, in a different way, plumbs our inner workings. Williams was far more concerned with the material world than Stein was. “No ideas but in things” rings true enough that it seems reasonable to base a life's work on. I agree with Rexroth when he says, regarding Williams, that “His long quest for a completely defenseless simplicity of personal speech produces an idiom identical with that which is the end product of centuries of polish, refinement, tradition and revolution.”

Stein's A BOX. and Williams' The Manoeuvre both, in their own way, affect me every time I read them.


Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same
question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful
cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is
something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so
rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so
earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.


I saw the two starlings
coming in toward the wires.
But at the last,
just before alighting, they
turned in the air together
and landed backwards!
that's what got me— to
face into the wind's teeth.

Both Stein's repetition (which defies and denies closure) and Williams' imagery never fail to create a visceral reaction in me—sublimating, perhaps, a part of my lizard brain (or maybe I just need to quit drinking turpentine). Stein satisfies my rationalist side while Williams sates my empiricist. So it isn't that I just think the imagists were on to something, I know they were.


Mo said...

I totally agree, Stein's poetry oozes emotion, life, and vitality. Rexroth's reading is such over simplification of her work. Fuck that dude. Although I do (partly) agree with him on Williams. Although his emphasis on tradition is something I think all these writers strove to break free from.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

A model post, Michael: detailed and incisive.

K. Silem Mohammad said...

I will add, though, that I think Rexroth's comment comes off as more reductive than it is intended because of the word "simply." Quoted somewhat out of context, it makes it seem like he's dismissing her, but I don't believe that's the case. I think he's just trying to identify one of the things that makes her innovative as a poet: the extent to which she's tuned in to a rapidly changing vernacular.