Haikus and Ezra Pound’s Imagism

“You know only a heap of broken images”, T.S. Eliot writes in his poem The Waste Land[1], making us readers aware of how small, isolated images constitute a huge proportion of our knowledge. We use these images, in different combinations, to make sense and give meaning to what we see. We also use and reuse these images in the stories we tell and the images we paint. Placing this multitude of images together and fusing them to create a larger picture, is what the imagists attempted to do in the early twentieth century. At its crux, imagism is an aesthetic philosophy which holds that something moving, beautiful and robust can be created simply by isolating and focusing in on a particularly captivating and evocative image. Ezra Pound, often credited as being the founder of imagist poetry, believed that “imagisme” is “absolute metaphor” and that “”in a poem of this sort, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing objective an outwards transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”[2]

Ezra Pound’s interest in Japanese poetry has long been acknowledged, but only as an eccentric sort of literary relation which has little understandable connection with his critical theory or his poetry. However, critic Earl Miner assures that the haiku form of traditional Japanese poetry has influenced Pound’s theories of poetic imagery, and has offered him techniques, which have exfoliated into all his writing[3]. As Pound later wrote in an essay, Imagism would revolve around three principles: “Direct treatment of the ‘thing'”, using “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation”, and composing like a “musical phrase” and not like a “metronome”[4]. The development of these principles was heavily influenced by the Japanese haiku, a form of poetry that has non-traditional verse and removes unnecessary verbiage. Pound later published these three principles in his Ripostes[5], a collection of 25 Imagist poems, in 1913. This publication marked the first time the word “imagisme” was used publicly. According to critic R.E. Smith, having no understanding of the language, and little knowledge of the culture, Pound’s understanding of haiku has been confined to the imagistic technique and to the consideration and suggestiveness that are so much a part of the method of haiku.[6]Pound and the other imagists, who formed their theories of imagism by taking into account Japanese art and poetry commonly regarded the image in a pictorial or a visual sense. It can be said that Pound used the Japanese poetry as starting points and points of reference in developing his theories of the image.

The quintessential imagist poem, written by Pound and published in a literary magazine in 1913, is In a Station of the Metro.[7]

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

The poem is exactly 14 words, showing both Pound’s dedication to conciseness and his fascination with brief Japanese poems like haikus. It lacks a verb, thus focusing the attention on the pure image rather than the setup of the poem. The poem also lacks any verbose expression of sentiment; instead, it leaves it open to the reader to link, and then interpret the significance of the linking, faces and petals. Critics believe that it could have possibly been inspired by a Japanese ukiyo-e print by Suzuki Harunobo.[8]The speaker, in a station at the Paris Metro underground system, observes that the faces of the crowds of people are like the petals hanging on the “wet, black bough” of a tree. The central image of the faces as petals is clear and simple, and can instantly be visualized. It draws together the urban world of the Paris Metro with the natural world, the world of leaves and tree boughs. The influence of the Japanese haiku form, which utilises images from nature to connect the momentary with the timeless, the miniature with the transcendent, is evident here. Pound likens people’s faces to “petals”, suggesting their fragility and the brevity of life. The other thing worth highlighting about Pound’s use of images is the relation he draws between them. There is no straightforward simile (the faces aren’t described as like the petals on the bough), nor is there metaphor (e.g. ‘the faces are petals’). Instead, punctuation is used to bring the two images together with as few words as possible. Such a technique is less about juxtaposing, or placing side by side, the two images, and more about superposition, that is, placing one on top of the other. 

Woman Admiring Plum Blossoms at Night, Suzuki Harunobu (Japanese, 1725–1770). The print which supposedly inspired ‘In a Station of the Metro’.

The haiku  by Moritake that ostensibly inspired this one-image poem also consists of a metaphor based on a coincidental visual similarity:

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.[9]

The petals of the flower fluttering through the air to settle on a branch resemble a butterfly in both shape and colour as well as behaviour. This resemblance suggests the verbal metaphor of the first line, and then the complete transformation effected by the second. However, the visual superposition of two natural objects in the haiku follows the Oriental sense of the unity and harmony of nature. Such an image is more shocking to the modern Western mind, which has less faith in such a unity. Also, Pound’s poem is more disturbing, and more unifying, because the human is being transformed into the natural. In his essay on ‘Vorticism’ in the September 1914 issue of The Fortnightly Review, Pound explicitly credits the technique of the Japanese “hokku” in helping him work out the solution to a “metro emotion” – “The Japanese have evolved the… form of the hokku… I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work ‘of second intensity’.”[10]

Another poem worth examining is Pound’s Fan-Piece for her Imperial Lord:

O fan of white silk,
Clear as frost on the grass-blade,
You are also laid aside.[11]

As a haiku consists of seventeen syllables, this poem is made up of seventeen words and these in the haiku pattern of five, seven and five in three lines. Here, images of silk and frost on grass are superimposed to create a holistic picture – that of a wife or mistress being deserted by “her Imperial lord”. Pound here brings attention to the transient nature of all things on Earth. Just as the frost on blades of grass melts away with the morning sun, so does a woman’s beauty wither away after a set of seasons, reducing her to simple a “fan-piece” cast aside by her master.Pound has achieved a poetic success in this lament or complaint, although traditional haikus usually exclude such topics as love complaints. Still, the imagery, rhythms and suggestions fuse here to produce a unified moving poem. 

What is noteworthy is thedegree to which Pound emulated the techniques of haiku and the skill with which he reproduced the tone of melancholy and restrained the plaintive sense that is common in Oriental poetry but rare in Western poetry. Thus, haikus made an important contribution to Pound’s theory and practice. They gave him material and examples for much of his theory concerning imagery, and a flexible technique which he called the “form of super-position.” It may also be asserted that he was attracted by the suggestive, allusive, condensed and concrete qualities of Japanese poetry. The extraordinary aspect of the use of this technique lies in the clarity, the logic and the assurance with which Pound developed and promulgated it from poetry written in a language he neither read nor spoke.


[1]Eliot, T.S. 1922. The Waste Land.
[2]Skaff, W. 1985.Pound’s Imagism and the Surreal. Journal of Modern Literature.
[3]Miner, E. 1958. The Japanese Tradition in British and American Literature.
[4]Pound, E. 1918. A Retrospect.
[5]Pound, E. 1913. Ripostes.
[6]Smith, R. 1965. Ezra Pound and the Haiku. College English.
[7]Pound, E. 1913. In a Station of the Metro. Personae.
[8]Zhao, A. et al. 2016. Imagism. Unspoken ModernitiesAvailable online at http://complit60ac.blogspot.in/2016/10/imagism.html
[9]Hakutani, Y. 2001. Modernity in East-West Literary Criticism: New Readings.
[10]Pound, E. 1914. Vorticism. The Fortnightly Review.
[11]Pound E. 1913. Fan-Piece for her Imperial Lord.

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