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Imagism is a literary movement and a type of poetry. It is a subset of the Modernist movement.
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Imagism is a literary movement and a type of poetry. It is a subset of the Modernist movement.
To find out more about Imagism and what it means, we will first look at the meaning of Imagism, what the themes of Imagism are, and some of the characteristics of Imagism. Finally, we will explore some examples of Imagism.
Modernism is a movement in art and philosophy which emerged in Europe at the end of the 19th century and continued until after the second world war. Modernism sought to capture the fast-paced development of the modern world. Works of modernist art and literature used new forms of expression that were radically different from what was known before.
What is the first word you think of when you hear the word Imagism? Images. This is exactly what imagism is about.
Imagism is a literary movement in which Imagist writers/poets describe images with clarity and focus.
Imagism was viewed as a reaction against Romantic (1800-1850) and Victorian (1837-1901) poetry, which encouraged long, embellished descriptions of events and things. In contrast, Imagism stressed simplicity, clarity and precision in the description of images.
Imagism was influenced by the Modernist movement.
A few Modernist poets started to pay particular attention to imagery in their poems, and they believed that using simple language to describe events, objects, and subjects was a better way to write poetry. This was in comparison to previous poets who described images at great length with many words and linked it to some sort of philosophical concept.
These Modernists poets did not want to analyse the themes that an image presented; they wanted the image to be the centre of attention in the poem.
Imagist poetry's origins start with T.E. Hulme (1883-1917). His poems' Autumn' (1909) and 'A City Sunset' (1909) are written in simple and clear language which was unlike the poetry that was written at the time.
In Hulme's essay 'Romanticism and Classicism' (1911), he wrote that the language in poetry should be a:
visual concrete one….Images in verse are not mere decoration, but the very essence. 1
Ezra Pound (1885-1972) is known as the founder of Imagism, as he used Hulme's notions on poetry for his literary movement. He introduced the term 'Imagism' in 1912.
Now we will explore the defining characteristics of Imagism.
Ezra Pound's three principles of creating Imagist poetry include the following:
Direct analysis of the subject (no decorative language should be used to describe the subject).
Simple language (using no extra words that do not add to the description of the subject).
Imagist poetry must be written in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in the metronome (basically meaning that Imagist poets had to write in new rhythms).
Pound never really described what the image in the Imagist movement was and what it meant. He emphasised how it should be written about but not what it was.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) has perhaps presented the best definition of what the 'image' is. He said that ideas are portrayed through things, and the best way to portray these things is through images.
The Imagists' desire to focus on one sole image led to their interest in Haiku, a type of Japanese poetry that presents one image in each poem.
As part of the tenets of Imagist writing, Imagist poets used common language to write their poems rather than the formal, idealistic language used in previous traditional poems. Imagists had to use concrete language, not abstract language, which meant that they chose to use words sparingly and only used the ones that would help describe the image.
In Ezra Pound's tenets of Imagism, free verse is one of the tenets he believed allowed a poet to express their individuality. Free verse was a way for Imagist poets to explore new sounds and escape from conventional rhymes and even the need to rhyme. Doing so would allow the poets to focus more on the image.
Poets in the Imagism movement, however, used free verse on a whole new level. Imagist poets believed rhythms allowed one to express emotions and that for every emotion, there is a rhythm to match it.
Therefore, forcing rhythms into a certain number of stanzas and other rules of conventional poetry did not allow one to fully express their emotion. As a result, Imagist poets used free verse to present their individuality and their true emotions so as not to create a poem that was insincere.
Free verse: Poetry that doesn't follow a particular rhyme, rhythm or meter.
The term 'polyphonic prose' was coined by John Gould Fletcher (1886-1950) but was mostly used by Amy Lowell (1874-1925), who learnt it from the French poet, Paul Fort (1872-1960).
Lowell viewed polyphonic prose just like free verse but thought it was a freer way of writing; she believed it allowed a poet to employ all 'voices' in their poetic expressions such as alliteration, assonance, rhyme, meter, and cadence. While on paper, polyphonic prose made a poem look like it was printed in prose form, when read out loud, it sounded like poetry.
Polyphonic prose: A form of prose that is free from the rule of having to create rhythms but contains poetic devices such as assonance and alliteration.
Assonance: The repetition of similar vowel sounds.
Alliteration: The repetition of similar consonant sounds at the beginning of words.
Cadence: The rhythm of a poem which imitates the natural rhythm of speech.
Japanese Haiku began approximately seven hundred years ago and is an extremely precise form of poetry consisting usually of three lines and seventeen syllables.
As the sound of the Japanese language is different to the English language in that it is syllabic instead of based on individual letters, Imagist poets never could write genuine Haiku.
Let's take a look at the main themes of Imagism.
World War I played a huge role in Imagist writing. World War I caused many tragedies in people's lives, such as death and great emotional distress resulting from heavy artillery and gas warfare. Many soldiers came home feeling alienated from their previously optimistic views of the assurance of the new machine age that they had before the war.
American and European writers during the war and after the war wrote about the terrors of it and the emotional distress of the soldiers. Their style of writing became less embellished and idealistic and more cynical and introspective. They used their writing to critique the society that had led them to the war.
An example of this is Images of War (1919) by Richard Aldington (1892-1962), where he relates his experience in the trenches in World War I. The book contains poems that were written after the war. They have a cynical tone to present his anger towards a society that had allowed the war to take place.
Images of nature are used widely in Imagism and Imagist poems.
John Gould Fletcher's 'Blue Symphony' (1914) is influenced by Japanese Haiku and uses the imagery of trees to present an overall image of the change of season.
In 'Sea Garden' (1916) by Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), she uses flowers, oceans, beaches and other forms of nature to present complex emotions and feelings (such as isolation, alienation and pain).
'The Swan' (1909) by F.S. Flint (1885-1960) follows the Imagist conventions of preciseness, clarity and suggestiveness. The poem includes imagery of the colours of nature and portrays a swan swimming through dark water in a few short lines. In the end, the swan acts as a symbol of Flint's sadness.
By rejecting the extravagant language Romantic and Victorian poets used in their poetry that appealed to the upper class, Imagists wanted to appeal to the masses.
Imagist poets influenced the principles of the Modernist movement, which was to write in clear and simple language and to present visual and allusive imagery. Imagist poets in the Modernist movement as a whole were interested in exploration and experimentation and wished to discard the ways of the poets of the past.
Modernist themes included the exploration of alienation (as an individual must find difficulty in placing themselves in a society where traditions were changing), the analysis of the inner self, and the effects of industrialisation and life in urban populations.
Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington, two pioneers of Imagism, often referred to classical poets and Greek mythology and literature to follow a model of absolute excellence when writing.
Doolittle, in particular regularly referred to Sappho (c. 630-c. 570 BC) in her work and was most inspired by Greek poetry.
Settings and places have a great impact on Imagist writing. When John Gould Fletcher returned to the United States from Europe, it helped him look at his home with a fresh pair of eyes. Breakers and Granite (1921) portrays Fletcher's connection with the Imagist movement as he experimented with polyphonic prose and free verse. His poems in Breakers and Granite mention various places and images, such as farmlands in New England, the Grand Canyon and towns near the Mississippi River.
Below are two of the most famous examples of Imagism.
Hilda Doolittle was another founder of Imagism and was even engaged to Ezra Pound (though they never got married). One of her most popular poems is called 'Oread' (1914) and is about a nymph ordering the sea.
Whirl up, sea -
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us -
Cover us with your pools of fir. 2
What characteristics of imagism does 'Oread' follow?
For one, it is written simplistically, and it also focuses only on the image (which, in this case, is the sea). This poem also demonstrates Doolittle's attempt at writing Haiku through simple language and focusing on a single image.
Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro' has only fourteen words and is just two lines long, yet it follows all the three tenets of Imagism. In this poem, he takes out verbs, and the two sentences (which are two fragments of individual scenes) are connected through subjects, not action. This allows him to present a specific moment in time and to express an emotion (that the faces in a crowd are similar to petals in that they are small and momentary).
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Another important point to note would be that this poem does not instruct the reader to feel a certain way; it simply presents an image that allows the reader to imagine it in the way they want.
1 Poets.org, 'A Brief Guide to Imagism,' 2017.
Imagist poetry is a 20th-century movement branching off from the Modernist movement in which poets used free verse and clear and precise writing to describe images.
The characteristics of imagism are simplicity, clarity of writing, polyphonic prose, focus on an image and free verse.
The purpose of imagism was to present emotions and notions through one image. It aimed to use simplicity and freedom from previous poetic conventions to express ideas.
The role of imagism in modern literature is to create an experience of objects/ subjects through simplistic language.
An example would be Hilda Doolittle’s ‘Oread’ (1914).
What movement did Imagism branch off from?
The Modernist movement
What does Imagism mean?
Imagist poetry is a 20th-century movement branching off from the Modernist movement in which poets used free verse and clear and precise language to describe images.
What was Imagism reacting against?
Victorian and Romantic poetry
What is the difference between Victorian/ Romantic poetry and Imagist poetry?
Victorian and Romantic poetry encouraged long, embellished descriptions of events and things while Imagism stressed simplicity, clarity and precision in the description of images.
What Is the central focus of an Imagist poem?
From whom did Imagism start?
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