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Freedom out of discipline

On the great number of literary movements that flourished and folded in the first two decades of the 20th century, one -- the "Imagist" movement -- continues to exert a powerful influence on contemporary poetry. This influence derives from the fact that Imagism strikes to the heart of poetic craft: it seeks "to use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exactm word , not the nearly-exact, onr the merely decorative word."

The quotation is from Amy Lowell's six rules of Imagism in the preface to her first anthology of Imagist poets, which appeared in 1915. As potent as when it was written, this rule declares that writer's freedom from the everyday trampling of language by the advertising slogans, the "bureaucratese," by vague dissembling. It affirms that words can transform a reader's outlook, and that language should reflect the nature of revelation -- sudden, scintillating, absorbing, and authentic.

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Among the Imagist poets, this precise use of language was linked with an appreciation of the world asm world. Poetry should present its subject in concrete terms, they reasoned, for only in this way could the poem become an undeceiving foundation for the reader's own meditations. As a companion of exacting clarity, the poem would blend itself with the reader's intensely personal experience of reveal moments of extraordinary range and depth in life. The problem with spiritually visionary writing, as the Imagist poets knew, was that it so easily left the secrets of the world behind. These poets wanted more discipline, more reality -- wanted to know, both in terms of the observed and the observer, what it really meant to see.m

The interesting paradox of this demand for discipline is that it results in enormous new freedom. Consider, for example, this celebrated poem by Ezra Pound , In a Station of the Metro:m

The apparition of these faces in the crowd: petals on a wet, black bough.m

Pound tells of reducing this poem from over 30 lines to two -- and saying everything he meant to say in those two lines, releasing the poem from a cumbersome length. The poem is electric in its conciseness; the juxtaposition of the two seemingly unrelated images urges the reader to reevaluate the mundane experience of waiting in a subway station. The faces are not anonymous ciphers; they are equated with "petals," reminding the reader of the delicacy, beauty --These humans are part of their dark environment, yet utterly in constrast to it -- "petals on a wet, black bough." In these two lines, so demanding in their precision, Pound frees himself from a number of poetoc conventions which, if taken as virtues in themselves, can be severely limiting. He demonstrates that a poem does not have to be a "respectable" number of lines long; it does not have to be in a standard meter; it does not have to rhyme; it does not have to confine itself to certain topics. It must,m in fact, conform only to one principle: it must be an authentic presentation of an object, a scene, an experience, or an idea, in electrifyingly lucid language. Almost 70 years after Pound wrote In a Station of the Metro,m we still have hardly begun to fathom both the freedom and the difficulties inherent in this requirement of authenticity and lucidity.

Although most of the Imagist poems were short -- and although many contemporary poets frequently compose short lyrics --simply the short poem. Rather, the Imagists bequeath an illuminating attention to detail, urging the contemporary writer to examine the world that both surrounds and eludes him. Many contemporary poems relying on Imagist techniques are extremely long by the movement's standards. Yet they invite the reader to reflect on experiences rendered, not with embellishments or generalities, but with essentials. For example, Elizabeth Bishop's longish poem The Moose,m published in Geography III in 1976,m rejoices in detail. Goodbye to the elms, to the farm, to the dog. The bus starts. The light grows richer; the fog, shifting, salty, thin, comes closing in. Its cold, round crystals form and slide and settle in the white hens' feathers, in gray glazed cabbages, on the cabbage roses and lupins like apostles; the sweet peas cling to their wet white string on the whitewashed fences; bumblebees creep inside the foxgloves, and evening commences.

Lines such as "Its cold, round crystals/form and slide and settle/in the white hens' feathers" are vivid, almost tangible perceptions. They enable the reader not only to witness, but to participate in an event -- whether that event involves observation, action, or thought alone. They enable the reader to share the author's world. This sharing involves no great magnanimity on the author's part; for the reader and the author do, in fact, share the same Earth. Yet the acute perceptions of an author can make this world come alive for his or her readers. These perceptions are likely to make us feel that we know a place, or an experience, better than we did before: they are likely to make us feel at home. Hospitality, in the truest sense of the word, is one of an author's greatest gifts, as Bishop's poem demonstrates.

Her succinctly descriptve language reflects the enduring influence of the Imagists' desire to know the world, and to identify the human place in the world. Clearly the Imagists had no monopoly on this desire; yet their methods, demanding from artists a new willingness to see the world as much as possible as it was, also demanded that poetry return to daily human experience, and make that experience its starting point. The essential, immensely refreshing honesty of Imagism rings through the work of many writers who have employed its techniques: Bishop, Roethke, Heaney, and a great number of others. Such honesty performs a crucial service: it invites us to begin to know what we are doing and what we are thinking. It invites us to begin to know who we are, welcoming us home to that knowledge

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