Imagism: Poetry of Directness, Distillation, Tradition

The Works of Pound, Lowell, Joyce and Williams Are Examples of Imagism

Make It New
circa 1967: Portrait of American poet, editor, and critic Ezra Pound. Horst Tappe / Getty Images

In the March 1913 issue of the magazine Poetry, there appeared  a note titled "Imagisme," signed by one F.S. Flint, offering this description of the “ imagistes”:

“... they were contemporaries of the post-impressionists and the futurists, but they had nothing in common with these schools. They had not published a manifesto. They were not a revolutionary school; their only endeavor was to write in accordance with the best tradition as they found it in the best writers of all time — in Sappho, Catullus, Villon. They seemed to be absolutely intolerant of all poetry that was not written in such endeavor, ignorance of the best tradition forming no excuse ...”

At the beginning of the 20th century, a time in which all the arts were politicized and revolution was in the air, the imagist poets were traditionalists, conservatives even, looking back to ancient Greece and Rome and to 15th-century France for their poetic models. But in reacting against the Romantics who preceded them, these modernists were also revolutionaries, writing manifestos that spelled out the principles of their poetic work.

F.S. Flint was a real person, a poet and critic who championed free verse and some of the poetic ideas associated with imagism before the publication of this little essay, but Ezra Pound later claimed that he, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and her husband, Richard Aldington, had actually written the “note” on imagism. In it were laid out the three standards by which all poetry should be judged:

  • Direct treatment of the "thing," whether subjective or objective
  • To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation
  • As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome

Pound’s Rules of Language, Rhythm, ​and Rhyme

Flint’s note was followed in that same issue of Poetry by a series of poetic prescriptions titled "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," to which Pound signed his own name, and which he began with this definition:

“An ‘image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

This was the central aim of imagism — to make poems that concentrate everything the poet wishes to communicate into a precise and vivid image, to distill the poetic statement into an image rather than using poetic devices like meter and rhyme to complicate and decorate it. As Pound put it, “It is better to present one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.”

Pound’s commands to poets will sound familiar to anyone who has been in a poetry workshop in the near-century since he wrote them:

  • Cut poems down to the bone and eliminate every unnecessary word — “Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something. ... Use either no ornament or good ornament.”
  • Make everything concrete and particular — “Go in fear of abstractions.”
  • Do not try to make a poem by decorating prose or chopping it into poetic lines — “Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.”
  • Study the musical tools of poetry to use them with skill and subtlety, without distorting the natural sounds, images and meanings of language — “Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft ... your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words or their natural sound or their meaning.”

For all his critical pronouncements, Pound’s best and most memorable crystallization of imagism came in the next month’s issue of Poetry, in which he published the quintessential imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro.”

Imagist Manifestos and Anthologies

The first anthology of imagist poets, "Des Imagistes," was edited by Pound and published in 1914, presenting poems by Pound, Doolittle and Aldington, as well as Flint, Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward and John Cournos.

By the time this book appeared, Lowell had stepped into the role of promoter of imagism — and Pound, concerned that her enthusiasm would expand the movement beyond his strict pronouncements, had already moved on from what he now dubbed “Amygism” to something he called “vorticism.” Lowell then served as editor of a series of anthologies, "Some Imagist Poets," in 1915, 1916 and 1917. In the preface to the first of these, she offered her own outline of the principles of imagism:

  • "To use the language of common speech but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly exact, nor the merely decorative word."
  • "To create new rhythms — as the expression of new moods — and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist on 'free-verse' as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea."
  • "To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911."
  • "To present an image (hence the name: ‘imagist’). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of art."
  • "To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite."
  • "Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry."

The third volume was the last publication of the imagists as such — but their influence can be traced in many strains of poetry that followed in the 20th century, from the objectivists to the beats to the language poets.