By Dr Oliver Tearle
Modernist poetry in English never had an official manifesto, but there are several documents which conceivably have a claim to the de facto title: T. E. Hulme’s ‘A Lecture on Modern Poetry’ (1908), for instance, or T. S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919).
Another potential claimant is Ezra Pound’s short essay ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, which was published in Poetry magazine in 1913 and does have the right to the title ‘Imagist manifesto’. Since Imagism was the starting-point for much modernist English poetry, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ is worth exploring, summarising, and analysing here. You can read the full text here.
Imagism: a short introduction
‘Imagisme’ (the final ‘e’ was Pound’s attempt to give the word a French sound, after Symbolisme; it was quickly, and quietly, dropped) began in the British Museum tea-room in 1912, when Ezra Pound declared to his ex-girlfriend Hilda Doolittle and her new boyfriend Richard Aldington that they were both ‘Imagist poets’, and the co-founders of a new poetic movement. (Pound also suggested Doolittle sign her poems simply as ‘H. D.’.)
By 1913, when Pound wrote ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’, Imagism had made a splash in literary circles, and Pound wrote this short essay (or manifesto) largely to address and correct certain misconceptions surrounding the movement, which H. D., Aldington, F. S. Flint, and Pound himself were coming to exemplify.
Imagists were often influenced by similar people and ideas. The Japanese forms of the tanka and haiku were important, especially for Pound (these poems are brief, rhymeless, and seek to capture the experience of a moment in time, through use of vivid images), but perhaps the most important influence was Symbolism, a late nineteenth-century French movement in the arts, especially poetry. Indeed, Pound even coined the word ‘imagism’ as a counter-response to ‘Symbolism’.
‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’: summary
Pound begins ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ by defining what he, and the Imagists, mean by the term ‘Image’: ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’ Imagism deals with the fleeing and the immediate, and carries both intellectual and emotional force.
This can be clearly seen in Pound’s own miniature Imagist masterpiece, ‘In a Station of the Metro’, which juxtaposes or ‘superposes’ the image of the faces of Parisian commuters in the Metro and the image of petals on a tree. Pound makes it clear that by using the word ‘complex’ he intends for the reader to think of recent psychology (think of Freud and his ‘Oedipus complex’).
The instantaneous presentation of the Image – Pound’s image of the commuters and the petals is divided only by a semi-colon, not by unnecessary words such as ‘as’ or ‘like’ – is designed to convey a sense of liberation, taking us outside of space and time for a moment. It’s as if everything has been paused, or slowed down as in some cinematic effect.
Pound then directs the reader to the three ‘tenets’ of Imagism which his fellow Imagist, the poet F. S. Flint, had advanced in a short essay, ‘Imagisme’, which appeared earlier in the same edition of Poetry magazine.
These three tenets or commandments can be boiled down to:
1) direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective;
2) use no word that does not contribute to the presentation; and
3) in terms of rhythm, don’t write in regular metre (which is like the beating of a metronome) but in irregular rhythms (as in music).
In short: be direct, stick to the point, and write in free verse.
Pound says not to treat these guidelines as ‘dogma’ but rather as ‘the result of long contemplation’. All three of them are in part a reaction against the long-winded and derivative romantic poetry being produced in the early twentieth century.
The rest of Pound’s essay is divided into two sets of ‘don’ts’ or pieces of advice for Imagist poets: a set of don’ts about language, and some don’ts about rhythm and rhyme. For language, Pound echoes Flint’s guidelines that the poet should use no superfluous word: every word should contribute to the meaning of the poem, and unnecessary repetition is to be avoided.
He also says that the poet should avoid vague abstractions that are mixed with concrete images, such as ‘dim land of peace’. Indeed, the Imagist poet should ‘Go in fear of abstractions’.
On the issue of influence, Pound says that the poet should try to absorb the influence of as many great artists as he can, but either to acknowledge his or her debt to an artist, or ‘to try to conceal it’. In other words, nothing is worse than feeble imitation which half-sounds like a mediocre ‘cover version’ of a great work of art. Either make it obvious an image or phrase is ‘stolen’ or try to transform it into something.
‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’: analysis
In terms of rhythm and metre, we can analyse Pound’s position, or set of ‘don’ts’, as follows: foreign cadences are the best place for the poet to go to learn a new rhythm for verse, since they will be novel and different from the familiar English ones (iambic pentameter, ballad metre, and other such old favourites). Don’t be descriptive or ‘viewy’: present rather than describe.
This is a version of the creative writing mantra: ‘show don’t tell’. Don’t feel you have to end-stop each line of poetry: use enjambment or run-on lines to vary the movement of the verse. If you’re going to rhyme at any point in your poetry, then the rhyme should have ‘some slight element of surprise’.
(If we were to make a crude comparison, we might proffer the example of the limerick: in a dirty limerick, if the first line ends with the word ‘Hunt’, then one might be expecting a certain off-colour four-letter word to end the last line, but some of the best dirty limericks will evade this, in order to subvert our expectations. This is our example rather than Pound’s, though it’s worth adding an aside to our analysis by mentioning that Pound’s first published poem was a limerick, when he was 11 years old.)
On the issue of poetic influence, we can see a good example of Pound’s argument in the work of Pound’s friend T. S. Eliot, whose poetry contains outright borrowings from Shakespeare, Spenser, and others which would be obvious to anyone well-versed – as it were – in English poetry; but Eliot also smuggled many lines from French poets such as Baudelaire and Laforgue into his own poetry, which only somebody who was fluent in relatively recent French poetry would have been able to spot.
In short, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ offered a bold break with much English poetic tradition, and helped modern poets to find a new ‘voice’ through turning to foreign poetry, writing in free verse, and writing in a clear, concise way using direct and memorable images.
Any analysis of Imagist poetry should bear in mind some of the guidelines Pound set out in ‘A Few Don’ts’: in setting down these pearls of poetic wisdom he helped to create an unofficial manifesto for Imagism. Many of the features we still associate with modern poetry were first found here, set out in lucid, spirited prose. As Pound said it even more succinctly elsewhere, ‘Make it new.’
Continue to explore modernist literature with May Sinclair’s experimental imagist novel, Ford Madox Ford’s free-verse poem about WWI, and our brief introduction to William Empson’s poetry. To discover what Pound did after imagism, read our introduction to his long poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Ezra Pound photographed in Kensington, London, October 22, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, first published in Coburn’s More Men of Mark (New York: Knopf, 1922); Wikimedia Commons; public domain.