Saturday, May 21, 2005

In a Station of the Metro

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

    Ezra Pound

Surely "In a Station of the Metro" wakens Pound's mastery of this talent and suggests that Eliot was not without justification in calling him il miglior fabbro. It begins a bit flat: a place, underground, of public transport and as simple as pedestrian directions. Only there is something Eastern beneath the Western veneer. One of the secrets of superior literature: there's always more to be measured beyond than what is before us bookworms. Pound has called upon the gods and Confucius translated Homer.

Frequently curt and irascible, Ezra Loomis Pound was an incessant talker, "a barbarian on the loose in a museum." He drew his themes from Confucian ethics, classical mythology, economic theory and other seemingly disparate sources and worked on this verse periodically from 1911 to 1913. He might have been only a difficult neighbor, but it was between 1908 and 1920 when he published a group of books that established his literary standing and enabled him to turn to journalism for a living. This particular structure of In a Station at the Metro is from the 1916 edition of Lustra. As the others in this node attest this is a startlingly visual piece of verse possessing the ability to leave readers thinking for a long time.

The Metro is the Paris subway system and this is certainly one of the finest and perhaps the first true Imagist poem. He explained that the poem was the effect he felt when he "saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman" as he was getting off a train at the metro. Initially Pound composed a 30-line poem and destroyed it; after six months he wrote a shorter poem, also destroyed; and after another year, with the Japanese hokku in mind, he arrived at a poem which requires every one of its twenty words, including the six words of its title.

Through several publications spaces and commas appeared and disappeared until the poem turned radically on its semicolon to overlay the two images. This marks Pound's first use of juxtaposition as a structural device in his poetry. There is a distinction to be made between its various stages of composition as one expert explains:

    (Some have) neglected to consider the care that Pound himself took to indicate to the reader how that gap should be "imaginatively leaped." The earliest printing of "In a Station" in the April 1913 issue of Poetry was spaced and punctuated thus:
      The apparition     of these faces     in the crowd
      Petals on a wet, black bough .
    The same version of the poem then appeared in the New Freewoman on 15 August 1913. In the meantime however, Pound had published an account of the genesis of the poem in T.P.'s Weekly, on 6 June 1913, where the poem is quoted as follows:
      The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

      Petals on a wet, black bough.
    In other words, the poem has now assumed the format it has in each of its appearances in book, as opposed to periodical, form, from the Elkin Mathews edition of Lustra (1916) onwards, with the exception of the colon as opposed to semi-colon at the end of the first line. That this version was still regarded by Pound as provisional, however, is indicated by his reversal to the earlier spacing and punctuation for the poem's appearance in the August New Freewoman, two months after his piece in T.P.'s Weekly. It seems likely that the latter publication's lay-out of three narrow columns to the page meant that the spacing of "In a Station" had to be closed up and regularized, whether or not this was Pound's intention at the time; the New Freewornan version would indicate, in fact, that it wasn't.
His revolutionary idea was deep and broad. Pound had telescoped the poem from thirty lines to a single sentence and later offered a detailed account of the origins and compositional history of the "Metro" poem a year later in his article "Vorticism," The Fortnightly Review 571 (Sept. 1, 1914):
    "Three years ago (1911) in Paris I got out of a "metro" train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying, and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation ... not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that -- a "pattern," or hardly a pattern, if by "pattern" you mean something with a "repeat" in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.
    "That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realised quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of "non-representative" painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour. ....
    "That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint ...
    "The 'one image poem' is a form of super-position, that is to say it is one idea set on top of another. 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.'
    "I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.
    "This particular sort of consciousness has not been identified with impressionist art. I think it is worthy of attention."
Its construction is both typographic and metric and as Wharfinger alludes to there is a connotative power to the word apparition in the first line. One critic has called it "the single word which lifts the couplet from bald statement to poetry." With one word Pound packs an amazing metaphor. That he has a refined understanding of several European languages, especially French and Italian, is an unshakable fact. In French apparition commonly carries the special meaning of the way something appears to a viewer at the precise moment it is perceived. Since the poem was written in France about a French subway station it's plausible that Pound played on its false equivalent in English as he composed the poem. And because "apparition" means what it does, he is able to convey the feeling of amazed discovery that such a mental picture in such a place must induce. It seems to demonstrate flawlessly Pound's notion of the Image.

Meanings are not so important and we must move on as Wharfinger suggests and look at another interesting aspect of the power and energy lodged into this small phrase. What is important is the effect, the mood. "In the 'Metro' hokku," Pound wrote to a friend, "I was careful, I think, to indicate spaces between the rhythmic units, and I want them observed."

By 1913, if not from its beginning, the "vision of the blossom" became associated in Pound's mind with Japanese haiku. The image that comes to mind for this poetry lover is oriental in nature and is much like the Japanese art of ikebana the decorative form of flower arranging. An art that seeks to create a harmony of linear construction, rhythm, and color. The purpose is to emphasize the linear aspects of the arrangement and the art includes the vase, stems, leaves, and branches, as well as the flowers. The entire structure of a Japanese flower arrangement is based on three main lines that symbolize heaven, earth, and humankind. In the poem petals are people stationed upon a stem in a screaming jam-packed dirty eared 'jug jug.'

This is an underground train envisioned as a horizontal and blackened branch side by side with beautiful faces in the windows that passed the poet who likens them to flower blossoms. This calls to mind several ancient haikus like Flowers Faded and Blossoms Left Behind. They all share a simple montage of one concrete image, which attempts to share with the reader the poet's rare perception. The heart of the poem lies neither in the apparition nor in the petals, but in the mental process, which leaps from one to the other. While it merely hints to an off rhyme in crowd / bough, the modern meter of the metro moves Pound's rhythmic idea into an organic space. What is even more astonishing about the distilled handful of syllables is that even though there are no verbs one can hear them echo.

I would like to think of Pound not as a neighbor but as an uncle. Uncle Ezra. He'd be a grand embarrassment to most of my gentler family, a hotheaded uncle self-exiled to London, Rapallo, or Paris. He'd hurdle his beauty into the midst of ugliness with big pronouncements for saving society, usually wrong, often revolting and scandalous. I would have to feel baffled and terribly embarrassed. But he'd be like no one else's uncle, and there's that thing he can do with words to wonder about. He would not sit on the front stoop and tell the neighbor kids about it; he would in fact shout to them just what's wrong with global banking. And if he was my uncle he just might, one day, show me those thirty lines and tell me why he really threw them away.


Public domain text taken for the the article Vorticism is from RPO -- Ezra Loomis Pound : In a Station of the Metro
Jan 17 2004.

On "In a Station of the Metro"
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Public domain text taken for the poem is from The Poetry Corner
Accessed Jan 17 2004.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"

Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"

Highway 61 Revisited
Bob Dylan

The Great War served as a watershed in modern history. Beginning in 1914 the war lasted until 1918 and it was the first time chemical weapons were used, the first mass bombardment of civilians from the sky was carried out, and the first genocides of the century occurred. No preceding conflict had mustered so many soldiers and the sociopolitical consequences of the outcome of the war heralded the "literary war" serving as a crucible for "modernity." It produced an astonishing pinnacle of great poetry. Surrounded by the likes of Thomas Hardy, Rupert Brooke, Harold Monro and Siegfried Sassoon, stood the humble Wilfred Owen(1893-1918). Like so many of his fellow soldier-poets Owen felt a profound revulsion in the face of war, but had to resolve this with a sense of duty to fight. He shared with his generation the feelings of resentment of the apathy from the "men in power" to the agony bourn in the trenches, and the apparent ignorance of the "civilians." He also repeated the widespread opinion on the front that young men were being inanely butchered by the older generation of politicians and generals and they were worthy of far more scorn than any German soldier.

His total war experience lasted four months with five weeks on the line. After enlisting in the Artists' Rifles on 21st October 1915 he spent a little over a year training in England. By 1917 he was drafted to France during the worst winter of the entire war. Shell shocked by the horrors he experienced he was sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. In August of the following year fellow war poet and friend Siegfried Sassoon had been severely injured. He too was sent back to the war hospital in England where they met and collaborated on several poems.

One of Owen's most effective methods was to end a poem in an unexpected way by creating a feeling of disorientation. The last and most powerful line pulls no punches when it comes to focusing the truth on what is happening to Owen and his brothers in arms. Some versions have notes explaining that when Sassoon came to edit his friend's work he removed the final line.* Even though only four of his poems were published in his lifetime several collected editions were issued in 1920, 1931, 1964, and 1983. Two years after his death Siegfied Sassoon noted in the 1920 volume Poems by Wilfred Owens, "This Preface was found, in an unfinished condition, among Wilfred Owens' papers:"

    This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak
    of them. Nor is it about deeds or lands, nor anything about glory, honour,
    dominion or power,
    except War.
    Above all, this book is not concerned with Poetry.
    The subject of it is War, and the pity of War.
    The Poetry is in the pity.
    Yet these elegies are not to this generation,
    This is in no sense consolatory.

    They may be to the next.
    All the poet can do to-day is to warn.
    That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
    If I thought the letter of this book would last,
    I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives Prussia, --
    my ambition and those names will be content; for they will have
    achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.
He was just 25 years old when he died yet his poetry endures as some of the most influential and well-known in the English language. A legacy that remains a matchless witness to the appalling shock of the First World War on an entire legion of young soldiers. The official canonization of Owen, which Sasoon began and was picked up again after the Second World War--has done much to distort the complexity of his work. The General Notes from Project Gutenberg say:
    Due to the general circumstances surrounding Wilfred Owen, and his death one week before the war ended, it should be noted that these poems are not all in their final form. Owen had only had a few of his poems published during his lifetime, and his papers were in a state of disarray when Siegfried Sassoon, his friend and fellow poet, put together this volume. The 1920 edition was the first edition of Owen's poems, the 1921 reprint (of which this is a transcript) added one more -- and nothing else happened until Edmund Blunden's 1931 edition. Even with that edition, there remained gaps, and several more editions added more and more poems and fragments, in various forms, as it was difficult to tell which of Owen's drafts were his final ones, until Jon Stallworthy 's "Complete Poems and Fragments" (1983) included all that could be found, and tried to put them in chronological order, with the latest revisions Parable of the Old Men and the Young: A retold story from the Bible, but with a different ending. The phrase "Abram bound the youth with belts and straps" refers to the youth who went to war, with all their equipment belted and strapped on. Other versions of this poem have an additional line.

But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?

The poet uses assonance, consonance and alliteration to integrate the iambic pentameter found within The Parable of the old man and the young. Owen starts by drawing a comparison to the story of Abram and Isaac. He connects the idea that all of the young men who died are somebody's sons. The poet paints his masterpiece with belts and straps and constructs parapets and trenches. Instantly the reader gets a picture of the horrors of the front line. Owen's Ram is pride personified and Youth experiences the sacrifice taking place in defiance of the celestial message from the angel. Designed to evoke a strong sense of indignation it puts the scenery of the war firmly in place in the mind of the reader. Owen wants the reader to draw the same conclusion he has, the pity of war.

Owen seeks to compare the story of Abram and Isaac to the start of World War I and some say that Abram symbolizes Germany or perhaps Wilhelm II, while many mention it most likely corresponds to the European nations and their governments. But Owen never faults any person or nations in his other poems, so others explain that there is little rationale to suppose that he does so in this one. Instead he criticizes all those in power who took their countries to war and think that killing the Ram is too high a price to pay. The final two lines--the only ones that rhyme, paint a chilling image of an old man systematically slaughtering the Europeon youths. It is this image, set apart from the rest of the poem, that makes it one of the finest war poems ever written.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?

What makes this poem relevant today is that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are referred to as the "Abrahamic religions." All three share the ancestor Abram or Abraham. Aqedah is the Hebrew word for "binding" and the story of God's testing of Abraham by commanding that he sacrifice his son Isaac. 1 With no reason given in the text, Abraham agrees to do this without argument. He arives at Moriah ties Isaac up and when he is about to kill him an angel tells him to stop. Abraham then offers a ram that is trapped in a bush nearby as a sacrifice in Isaac's place. Although the Aqedah is the climax of the narratives about Abraham as a demonstration to his faith in, obedience to, and fear of God, it is not talked about elsewhere in the Hebrew bible. Isaac surfaces as both the model of martyr and a perfect sacrifice whose act brings merit with a redemptive value for his own descendents.

Rather than a redemptive sacrificial death the New Testament refers to the Aqedah as an example of faith. 2 3 4 Even earlier indications to sacrifice as redemption can be found in Paul's understanding of the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus and the Septuagint of Genesis may be alluded to in three New Testament scriptures.5 6 7 The divine testing of Abraham and the subsequent near sacrifice of his son appears in the Qur'an too (37.101-113). Early Muslim exegetes vary as to whether the son, unidentified in the Qur'anic passage, is Isaac or Ishmael. Some of the original traditions assert that it was Isaac but by the 9th or 10th century the consensus was that Ishmael, who was progressively linked with Mecca and recognized as the forebear of the northern Arabs, was the voluntary sacrificial offering. Muslims celebrate the event on the day of Eid ul-Adha.

Like Owen observes in his poem this story is meant to be an incentive for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike to live up to their heritage and Abraham is to be looked upon as a foundation of unity and harmony rather that dissent.

Another name writ in water

In October 1918 Wilfred Owen wrote, "I came out in order to help these boys-- directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can. I have done the first." On 4th November 1918 while attempting to get his men across the Sambre Canal Wilfred Owen was killed in action. Historians say that, "The bells were ringing on November 11, 1918, in Shrewsbury to celebrate the Armistice when the doorbell rang at his parent's home, bringing them the telegram telling them their son was dead. "

*There is a scan of Wilfred Owen's handwritten manuscript for this poem on my homenode.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Wilson, Owen," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Holy Bible; King James Version.

minstrels-- The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Oct 29 2004.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993.

Accessed Oct 29 2004.

The Parable of the old man and the young
Accessed Oct 29 2004.

The Project Gutenberg Etext of Poems, by Wilfred Owen

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Major General

    from Pirates of Penzance

    I am the very pattern of a modern Major-Gineral,
    I've information vegetable, animal, and mineral;
    I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical,
    From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
    I'm very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
    I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical;
    About binomial theorem I'm teeming with a lot o' news,
    With interesting facts about the square of the hypotenuse.
    I'm very good at integral and differential calculus,
    I know the scientific names of beings animalculous.
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-Gineral.

    I know out mythic history -- KING ARTHUR'S and SIR CARADOC'S,
    I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox;
    I quote in elegaics all the crimes of HELIOGABALUS,
    In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.
    I tell undoubted RAPHAELS from GERARD DOWS and ZOFFANIES,
    I know the croaking chorus from the 'Frogs' of ARISTOPHANES;
    Then I can hum a fugue, of which I've heard the music's din afore,
    And whistle all the airs from that confounded nonsense 'Pinafore.'
    Then I can write a washing-bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
    And tell you every detail of CARACTACUS'S uniform.
    In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-Gineral.

    In fact, when I know what is meant by 'mamelon' and 'revelin,'
    When I can tell at sight a CassepĂ´t rifle from a javelin,
    When such affairs as sorties and surprises I'm more wary at,
    And when I know precisely what is meant by Commissariat,
    When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
    When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
    In short, when I've a smattering of elementary strategy,
    You'll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee --
    For my military knowledge, though I'm plucky and adventury,
    Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century.
    But still in learning vegetable, animal, and mineral,
    I am the very model of a modern Major-Gineral.
    W.S. Gilbert

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General," Gilbert's words and Sullivan's tune are inseparable, and anyone who has heard the song knows that it owes its existence to both men, Sir William Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan, as its creative originator.

Indeed this song is a clever algamation of caricature and a real show stopper! There is plenty of truth and humor to entertain in this Comic Opera. It may interest you to know that many of the terms were obscure even when Gilbert and Sullivan composed it. The Pirates of Penzance "tells the story of a young pirate apprentice named Frederic who has come to the end of his indentured period. However, Frederic was indentured by mistake. His half-deaf nurse gets her instructions mixed up and apprentices him as a pirate instead of a pilot". Frederic decides to leave the pirate life forever and, though he loves his comrades dearly, he devotes his life to the extermination of their kind. Apparently, all a captive must do is plead to being an orphan and he is immediately released! But somewhere in this potted plot the Major General has lied saying he is an orphan among other things by way of introduction. In this song he impresses on the pirates his many virtues, and in so doing thoroughly skewers the common British phenomenon of the Gentleman Officer, whose commission was more often bought than earned on the battlefield.

How quaint the ways of paradox
At common sense I will gaily mock!

Oops! Got caught up in the moment there, my apologies. For your enjoyment the next time or even the first time, you hear this song, I would like to present to you a small glossary of terms:

    calculus -- Army officers were expected to be well versed in math, but "integral and differential calculus" probably seemed extremely theoretical at the time. beings animalculous -- animals invisible to the naked eye.
    Sir Caradoc -- an ancient British chieftain, son of Cymbeline.
    acrostics -- cross-word puzzles.
    elegiac - a classical verse form
    Heliogabalus -- a corrupt Roman Emperor (204-222 AD).
    conics -- solid geometry.
    Zoffany-- Johan Zoffany a German painter that often included hidden religious and political symbolism.
    Raphael -- an Italian painter.
    Gerard Dow -- Gerard Dow a Dutch painter.
    Aristophanes - ancient Greek playwright who parodied politicians as croaking frogs
    Pinafore -- H.M.S. Pinafore, an earlier, and highly popular, Gilbert and Sullivan production.
    Babylonic cuneiform -- at the time, the earliest known form of writing.
    Caractacus -- chief of the ancient Britons (who fought nude)
    mamelon -- a rounded hill, such as might be useful for artillery emplacement.
    revelin -- ravelin, a type of fortification.
      Both mamelon and revelin are features of Marshal Vaubain's a military engineer famous for his fort design system under Louis XIV of France.
    sortie - a short military raid
    commissariat - the military branch in charge of food supplies
    gee - a horse
The Major General from the Pirates of Penzance is a classic and oft parodied classic of social commentary. You may enjoy the ones about E2 called the I am the very model of a modern E2 editor and The Pirates Of Everything
Yo Ho! Yo Ho! It's a pirates life for me!! oh dear me, I got carried away there again didn't I? It is the kind of exercise that so delighted W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. How silly can one be? It's a case of allowing logic to run away with the logician into a never-never land of unreality. hmmmmm I feel another song coming on ..... What's left to say about the many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse....?


Blair, Bob
Accessed Dec 21 2001

CoCare GT Packet - Educator 2
Accessed Dec 21 2001

Public Domain text taken from the Poet's Corner.
Accessed May 16, 2005