Mike Meyer says that "images give us the physical world to experience in our imaginations. Some poems...do just that; they make no comment about what they describe." This definition of images fits perfectly the images found in Ezra Pound's poem "IN A STATION OF THE METRO." The concise two line poem also is an example of Pound at work fulfilling his own dictum for what the ideal Imagist poem should be. In the February 15, 1912 issue of The New Age, Pound said:
We must have a simplicity of utterance, which is different from the simplicity and directness of daily speech...This difference, this dignity, cannot be conferred by florid adjectives or elaborate hyperbole; it must be conveyed by art and by the art of the verse structure, by something which exalts the reader, making him feel that he is in contact with something arranged more finely than the commonplace. (Nuwer)
Just months later, in April, 1913, he published his famous haiku in Harriet Monroe's Poetry.
Pound, in "IN A STATION OF THE METRO," cuts words to the bare bone. The adjectives are far from florid and the hyperbole is nonexistent. Yet there is something in his lines which "exalts" the reader lifting him above the "commonplace." In this haiku Pound demonstrates how a poet using concrete images about which he makes no comment at all can create a lasting memorable picture in the imagination of the reader that reverberates with individual meaning depending on the perceptions of the individual.
In the first line a specific physical image is presented. From the title we already know that we are in a station of the Metro, and from general knowledge we are aware that the Metro is the underground subway in Paris. Now Pound allows us to see: "The apparition of these faces in the crowd."
It is amazing what this few words manage to suggest through imaginative imagery. Just knowing that we are in a Metro station suggests a wealth of imagery including city, dirt, grime, underground, dullness, conformity, darkness, artificiality, unpleasant odors, work day routine. The word "crowd" adds connotations of herd mentality, with humanity packed together. A cityscape in a crowded subway or metro station connotes both a sense of the too real and the unreal. Masses of humanity elbow to elbow with scarcely room to breathe suggests dehumanization and the loneliness of the individual. People jammed close enough to smell each other's body odors, but avoiding eye contact, so together, yet so separate. The fact that Pound shows us only faces at the metro station, not whole bodies, offers us another possibility to develop the image. The person doing the seeing and the describing may be inside the train, passing quickly through a station, seeing only a blur of impersonal faces.
The word "apparition" added to this mix brings in a sense of the strange and ghostly, building the impression of inhumanity. These are not individual humans waiting in the metro station. They are ghostly faces. Furthermore, they are just faces, not bodies. They are undifferentiated, dehumanized, unalive faces. With a variety of possible meanings, the word "apparition" expands the imagery in multiple directions. First, once you have heard these lines the faces will always be a returning apparition in your mind. Secondly, the faces could appear to be ghosts even though they are alive, which would be appropriate to the idea that the city scene with its underground railway makes people appear to be dead. Also, apparitions could be ghostly remembrances of people no longer alive, whose faces peer at the watcher from among other more or less dead or alive faces in the crowd. Or the metro station could be closed now and the apparitions could be all the people who used to wait there as part of their daily routine. If you have ever been one of those anonymous faces waiting for the subway, you will understand the reverberations of imagining yourself losing your identity among the crowd where you stood every day on your way to an equally anonymous job in a city where you felt barely alive in a daily deadly routine. To add an additional dimension to Pound's already layered image, critic Hugh Kenner, sees "In a Station of the Metro," as a poem that evokes "a crowd seen underground, as Odysseus and Orpheus and Kore saw crowds in Hades" (Lyons). This possibility adds a vast classical universality to the faces, increasing the dimensions of the ghostly apparitions and introducing enlarged interpretations of hell and hell on earth.
In the second line Pound presents a strongly contrasting oriental image from nature: "Petals on a wet, black bough." Petals are separated from the flower. They can scarcely be called alive after they are plucked. They are stuck randomly on a black bough. The bough is wet. That's why the petals stick. The bough is wet, possibly, because it has been rained upon, or it's detached from it's tree and floating in a river. Rain and water are usually associated with life, but in this case we begin to question the image. A bough is a branch of a tree, usually associated with a living tree, but this bough is black, the color of death. We don't know what color the petals are. We do know that they are in stark contrast to the dark bough, just as the second line of the poem is in stark contrast to the first line. The faces of the first line become the petals of the second line. The juxtaposition of the two images causes a shock, producing a collision or clash, as if one metro train slams into another. It is a radical switch of viewpoint, presenting an alternative view against what conventional logic would have expected to follow that first line. Yet if the petals and the faces both stand for death, then there is unity after all.
Going back to the first line now to consider the modifier "these" used with faces helps to tie the two lines together and to see the larger meaning of the poem. Once we acknowledge the word "these" we must also acknowledge that the faces seen are particular faces, which may signify that no matter how anonymous they may be, they are special, independent faces belonging to individuals who are significant at least to themselves and as related to the great world of humanity. One critic who writes about Pound makes it seem plausible that even in this brief haiku, Pound uses his startling imagery to expand the boundaries of poetry to enable the reader to see from a double point-of-view. He does this "in order to demonstrate that there only exists one race on Earth, the Tribe of Man" (Goya). In the case of "IN A STATION OF THE METRO," Pound is giving us the double viewpoint of the European and the Oriental as he presents in the two starkly contrasting lines the heavy underground image of the Metro and the fragile image of the bough as if painted by a Japanese artist.
Pound's most amazing achievement in this brief masterpiece is the extreme condensation of the poem's imagery. As an Imagist Pound brings to our attention that "it is essential that we use no superfluous word, (nor any) adjective which does not reveal something." For Pound, poetry demands that every word has an "exactness of presentation" (Goya) which is exactly what "IN A STATION OF THE METRO" has. As he fits so much imagery into the space of so few syllables we cannot help but admire his artistry and to applaud his adherence to his own famous definition of 1913: "An 'image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time" (Goya). The two lines of "IN A STATION OF THE METRO," do certainly hit the reader with a complex intellectual slap in the face in "an instant of time."
The obvious next question is:
Does it excite our emotions? If we are honest with ourselves and give these lines a chance to develop in emotional complexity as they do in intellectual complexity, most readers will have to admit that this poem reverberates emotionally as it does intellectually. The emotions evoked by "IN A STATION OF THE METRO," emerge directly from the images created by the words The ghostly faces touch our hearts as well as our minds and the fragile oriental image of the petals on the wet black bough may cause us to suddenly intuit that the wetness of the bough may be the result of tears that have fallen from the eyes of one who knows the sadness of heart of all the ghostly faces of all the underground hells of the world.
Ezra Pound was one of America's modernist writers who grew up during the decades of "their country's most fervid and romantic cultural engagement with China…