Sunday, March 10, 2013

To the Lighthouse: Haikuesque Reading of Ezra Pound’s “Metro Poem”

Throughout the history of English poetry, there seldom is a poem like Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (hereafter referred to as “metro poem”) that has been endlessly researched by scholars, literary critics, and poets alike. 1 Most of his readers are familiar with at least two versions of his metro poem: the original version published in the April 1913 issue of Poetry as follows:

 In a Station of the Metro

The apparition    of these face    in the crowd:
Petals      on a wet, black bough.

and one of the revised versions published in his 1916 book entitled Lustra as follows:

 In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Everyone may have his/her own reading of this ever-famous poem from different perspectives. But due to the limited space of this chapter and for readers who are interested in the Asian poetic traditions, I will discuss two major popular readings – the haikuesque and ideogrammatic ones -- in the following sections.

In his most widely-read book, The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, William Higginson rightly emphasizes that Ezra Pound’s metro poem is the “first published hokku in English” 2 and “very important to its author‘s development.” 3 In his essay on “Vorticism” in the September 1914 issue of The Fortnightly Review, Pound “explicitly credits the technique of the Japanese hokku in helping him work out the solution to a ‘metro emotion:’” 4

The Japanese have evolved the… form of the hokku… I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work "of second intensity." Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
       Petals, on a wet, black bough.

Higginson first points out that the main effect of the change between the 1913 version and 1914 one is “to smooth the rhythm, making the poem less choppy,” 5 and then he focuses the discussion on the most recognizable version by haiku readers, the one that was published in his book, Lustra, as follows:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

From the perspective of a haiku poet, Higginson singles out the most important change Pound made: that is the one from the colon at the end of the first line to a semicolon. In his view, a colon tells the reader that the statement made in the first line introduces the statement made in the second, making one a metaphor for the other. Conversely, a semicolon shows that two statements are independent of each other, though maybe related, and that both images -- “faces” and “petals” -- portrayed in the poem are real and stand out against its own background. 6 As Higginson stresses, “by revising the poem Pound turned an otherwise sentimental metaphor into a genuine haiku… This is a haiku that Shiki would have been proud to write.” 7

However, Higginson’s reading of the metro poem is chiefly through the haiku lens. He doesn’t consider the contexts of Pound’s struggle with a new kind of poetry, not just with one poem, but of the growing impacts of the Chinese language in general, and Chinese poetry in particular, upon his view of writing poetry. Outside the haiku community, the metro poem is viewed as a haiku-like, yet new kind of poem: the most influential imagist poem based on his ideogrammatic poetics. In the introduction of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Volume D), it firmly states: "Pound first campaigned for 'imagistic,' his name for a new kind of poetry. Rather than describing something -- an object or situation -- and then generalizing about it, imagist poets attempted to present the object directly, avoiding the ornate diction and complex but predictable verse forms of traditional poetry." (for further information on the ideogrammatic reading of Pound's metro poem, see my Magnapoets essay, "Three Readings of Ezra Pound’s 'Metro Haiku',” which can be accessed at

Note: In the future "To the Lighthouse" posts, I will offer an contextualized analysis of Pound's view of haiku as a “form of super-position,... that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another.” (Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, p. 103), and an in-depth review of his "metro haiku" from the perspective of  haiku poetics (yugen and kire).

1 comment:

  1. For anyone who is interested in getting a glimpse into the different readings of Pound’s metro poem, MAPS offers a helpful webpage entitled “On In a Station of the Metro," which can be accessed at