By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Pool’ is, along with ‘Oread’, Hilda Doolittle’s finest achievement as an Imagist poet. The poem was first published in the 1915 anthology Some Imagist Poets. You can read ‘The Pool’ here (all five lines of it), before proceeding to our analysis of this curious little poem.
‘The Pool’ is one of the most famous and widely discussed Imagist poems, and in many ways it conforms to the central ‘tenets’ of that movement as set out by Ezra Pound in his unofficial manifesto, ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’. It’s unrhymed, it has no regular metre, it uses no superfluous word or phrase, and it has at its centre a strong, clear image, an ‘image’ being defined by Pound as ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.’
It is at once easy and difficult to summarise what is going on in ‘The Pool’. We know the setting of the poem is a pool, probably a rock-pool given the fact that the speaker of the poem is carrying a net. The speaker spots something in the pool, wonders if it is alive, touches it, making the thing quiver like a fish; she then covers the thing with a net. The poem ends with her still wondering what this thing is.
‘The Pool’, like much modernist poetry, poses more questions than it provides – indeed, literally, given the first and last lines of this five-line Imagist masterpiece. How should we analyse Doolittle’s poem? What is the thing she finds in the pool? It’s clearly not a fish, since it quivers like a sea-fish, suggesting it is something else.
One possible way to interpret or analyse ‘The Pool’ is suggested by the setting. If the speaker is in a rock-pool, or standing over one, she can probably see her reflection in the surface of the water. Is ‘The Pool’ a poem about self-discovery – or, rather, failure to self-discover? (She remains unsure of ‘what’ she is at the end of the poem.) Why is she ‘banded’? Is this simply because she has it (her own face) covered with the ‘bands’ of her net?
However, another reading is also possible and perfectly persuasive. It was suggested by an IL reader in response to a previous piece of ours, and sees the rock-pool encounter in light of Hilda Doolittle’s pregnancy.
When analysed this way, ‘The Pool’ might be interpreted as dramatising an encounter between Doolittle and her as-yet unborn child. Tragically, in May 1915 – two months after the poem was published – the baby, the first and only child with her husband Richard Aldington, was still-born.
Both readings are tenable. Despite inviting such open-ended interpretation, the style of ‘The Pool’ is, however, plain, clear English. It is written entirely in words of one or two syllables. Indeed, the poem can be rendered in ‘text-speak’ as follows: ‘R U alive? I touch U. U quiver like a C-fish. I cover U with my net. What R U, banded 1?’
The poem is 23 words long (if we count the hyphenated ‘sea-fish’ as two words), 12 of which can be rendered as a single letter or digit.
This is telegrammatic poetry taken to the extreme: short, sharp, to the point – and yet, for all that, ‘The Pool’ remains an enigmatic and elusive mystery of a poem, evading any final interpretation or analysis.