Saturday, June 07, 2008

One or Two Images

This week's New Yorker has a perfectly good piece on Ezra Pound. Louis Menand obviously knows the subject. He also provides (given the space) a good, standard account of "In a Station of the Metro". But then he tells us that "the form 'made new' here is, of course, the haiku: two images juxtapositioned to evoke a sensation" (126).

Though Menard gets most of it right, Pound's account is not quite the same. He quotes the following example of haiku:

The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:


He calls this a one-image poem: "a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another." While it may not make much of a difference in the context of an article in the New Yorker, whether it is one image fashioned by a super-position of two ideas, or simply two "images" juxtaposed, it gives me pause.

Are we talking about the image of faces (or footsteps) alongside the image of petals (or plum-blossoms), or are talking about the image of a faces as petals (footsteps as plum-blossoms)?


Kirby Olson said...

Nice page of links. Sadly, I think the Japanese officer's piece is a thousand times better than Pound's poem. It is just psychotically beautiful: evidence not so much of an original mind, as of a startling tradition.

The footsteps of a cat upon the snow:
plum blossoms.

The reversal of colors, the bizarre linkage between the footsteps and the flowers, a delirious linking between two images is what creates the explosive third image, which is where Breton argued that poetry really lies -- I don't that that Pound understood this at all.

In the First Manifesto of surrealism, Breton lays this out, and I think this is what makes the surrealist tradition so much stronger than the imagist tradition. Breton had a much more powerful aesthetic mind than Pound.

But I think the Japanese naval officer was better than either Breton or Pound or even Carl Sandberg in the actual act of poetry.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I obviously don't think you give Pound enough credit. I don't know enough about Breton (I do side with de Chirico against his Freudianism, but on a flimsy basis).

In any case, I think there is a strong (even bizarre) contrast between petals and faces. I don't think there is a reversal colors in the haiku. Plum blossoms can be white, and this is most likely what was meant. (A google image search confirmed this for me.)

Kirby Olson said...

Perhaps it's the softness of the cat's feet versus the softness of the petals, and how the toes of the cat's footpad are like the petals of a flower.

We don't know the precise color of the snow, or the precise color of the plum's flower (do you know the wonderful poem by Orrick Johns called Wild Plum at Night, which you can also google, and which is one of my favorite forgotten poems?).

Breton is drawing up Reverdy's poetics in The First Manifesto.

He sets up not so much a third image, as the ARC of a spark between two images, as the basis of the surrealist image.

He says it is the BEAUTY of the spark that matters.

La beaute de l'etincelle...

The poetry of the metro is something that comes out of Baudelaire and Rimbaud -- the hell beneath the earth, and the notion that one must be completely modern. And yet Pound fits this into the haiku format. That is interesting, in and of itself.

I still prefer the Japanese officer's haiku -- more lovely still! Perhaps also because of my prior acquaintance with the Orrick Johns poem.

Johns was a major modernist at one time, but his work has been completely forgotten. I think that at least one poem is incredible: Wild Plums at Night.

In that piece, the flowers of the plum are described as silvery, but this may have to do with their having been touched by moonlight.

Kirby Olson said...

Here's the poem. The title is simply:

Wild Plum

THEY are unholy who are born
To love wild plum at night,
Who once have passed it on a road
Glimmering and white.

It is as though the darkness had
Speech of silver words,
Or as though a cloud of stars
Perched like ghostly birds.

They are unpitied from their birth
And homeless in men's sight,
Who love, better than the earth,
Wild plum at night.

By Orrick Johns. Published in The New Poetry: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Verse in English. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923. The MacMillan Company, New York, 1923.

mark (the ideophone) said...

One thing that bugs me about Pound's 'In a station of the metro' ever since I first came across it is that it is not fully independent. Whereas the Japanese naval officer's haiku is self-contained, Pound's image includes an outward reference ('the apparition of these faces in the crowd') which to my mind is a just a tiny bit too dependent on the context sketched before. (I'm thinking of Pound's acount in Vorticism, though I know that the poem has appeared in other places.)

Still, the poem occupies a special place in my heart because the simple beauty of the imagery strikes me in just the same way, I imagine, as these faces struck Pound.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Good point, Mark. I hadn't thought of it, but it strikes me as a simple way of installing an observer.

Instead of saying, "I saw the footsteps of a cat..." or (which isn't actually altogether bad) "I saw some faces in a crowd", the word "these" (instead of) "The apparition of faces..." implies that these faces are appearing before someone.

On the other hand, the haiku does talk about "the" cat. Would "this" cat, or "these" footsteps have changed very much?