(1885 – 1972)
Ezra Weston Loomis Pound was an American expatriate poet, critic and intellectual who was a major figure of the Modernist movement in the first half of the 20th century. He is generally considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry. The critic Hugh Kenner said of Pound upon meeting him: "I suddenly knew that I was in the presence of the center of modernism."
In the early teens of the twentieth century, he opened a fruitful exchange of work and ideas between British and American writers, and was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of such major contemporaries as Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., Ernest Hemingway, Wyndham Lewis, and especially T. S. Eliot. Pound also had a profound influence on the Irish writers W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.
His own significant contributions to poetry begin with his promotion of Imagism, a movement in poetry which derived its technique from classical Chinese and Japanese poetry-stressing clarity, precision, and economy of language, and forgoing traditional rhyme and meter in order to, in Pound's words, "compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome." His later work, spanning nearly fifty years, focused on his epic poem The Cantos.
In a Station of a Metro
In a Station of a Metro: A man sees a bunch of faces in the subway and thinks they look like flowers on a tree branch.
The apparition-zjavenie, prízrak of these faces in the crowd;
•The poet is watching faces appear in a crowded metro (subway) station.
•You wouldn’t know it only from reading the poem, but we’re in Paris, which means that everyone looks really nice.
•The poet is trying to get us to see things from his perspective, and the word "apparition" suggests that the faces are becoming visible to him very suddenly and probably disappearing just as fast. They almost look like ghosts. If you’ve ever been in a crowded subway, then you’re probably familiar with this phenomenon.
•By calling them "these faces," he puts us right there in the metro station, as if he were pointing his finger and saying, "Look!"
•The station must be pretty full, because there is a "crowd."
Petals on a wet, black bough-vetva, konár.
•Although he doesn’t say so, the words "looks like" are implicit at the start of this line. The faces in the crowd "look like" flower petals on a "wet, black bough."
•A "bough" is a big tree branch, and the word, in case you’re wondering, is pronounced "bow," as in "take a bow."
•When is a tree branch wet and black? Probably at night, after the rain. A Paris subway, on the other hand, is always wet and black.
•Now, we’re going out on a limb here (pun!), but he may be seeing the faces reflected in a puddle over black asphalt. Or it could just be a more general sense of wetness. At any rate, the faces in the subway are being compared to flowers on a tree branch.
•Another fact to keep in mind is that Japan is famous for its beautiful flowering trees, and considering that this poem is written in Japanese haiku style . . . well, heck, he might just be thinking of a Japanese tree.
The poem appears to be set in some kind of wooded subway in the springtime where there might be ghosts. Weird. The title locates the poem within the metro station, underground. Then, in the first line: an apparition! This is a word that usually hints at the supernatural, especially ghosts. No wonder that when the characters in Harry Potter books teleport from one place to another, it’s called an "Apparition." For this reason, some critics of the poem think the metro station is supposed to suggest a journey to the Underworld, of the kind that occurs in classical epics like Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.
Then, the second line shifts (or in Harry Potter’s terms, Apparates) to a peaceful, Japanese garden. All the people in the metro turn into delicate flowers, and the dirty asphalt they’re standing on turns into a wet tree branch. It’s all very Zen. If you had to ride a subway, this would be the one to pick. Instead of smelling like garbage and stale water, it smells like flowers.
Rhyme, Form & Meter:
The poem is a variation on the Japanese form of the haiku, a very short poem divided into three sections with a certain number of syllables in each section. In English, haikus are often written as three-line poems. The first line has five syllables, the second seven, and the third five again. The haiku is really short, but it packs a big punch.
It’s hard to achieve the same effect when writing in a language other than Japanese, which is probably why Pound doesn’t follow strict rules in creating this short poem. For example, Pound’s poem has two long lines instead of three short ones. So, how can we tell that the poem is a haiku? For one thing, the Japanese version often features a contrast between two events or images; Pound’s poem clearly contrasts the two images of the faces in the crowd and the petals on the bough. The poem attempts to fuse these images into one. Second, the Japanese haiku usually has a word that lets the reader know the season of year. It’s not super-obvious, but Pound’s poem also has a word ("petals") to indicate the season – springtime – in which it takes place.
Point of view:
Our speaker likes to tell ghost stories. He's sitting around a campfire with a flashlight on his face, finishing his latest tale of horror. Our speaker is more like a person who seems maddeningly peaceful and meditative while riding the public bus or subway. He's got his eyes closed, and takes deep, cleansing breaths. His head sways gently back and forth. His secret is that he reads a lot of Asian spiritual poetry, which has given him an intense love for the rhythms of nature. He has an intense imagination and the patience to think about a single image for a long time until he figures out exactly what it means. What's more amazing is that he can keep his cool while living in the big city. He doesn't have to go out into the forest or the countryside to find natural beauty. He sees it all around him. Even when the crowd jostles him around, he never gets angry or frustrated. Whatever he's having for breakfast, we want some.
Versions of Reality - The poem blends two images into one. In the process, it seems to downplay the reality of everyday life as an "apparition," while the spiritual life of memory and the imagination is heightened. Pound thought that a great image could reveal the "higher" reality of something that already seems real to us, like people getting on a subway.
Man and the Natural World - In the poem, people and nature literally become one as the faces in the subway become flowers on a tree. The analogy between faces and flowers is not just a simile, which would say that one thing is "like" another. Rather, it is metaphor: the poem implies that the faces are petals on a tree.
Modernization - If you were a person living in Paris near the beginning of the 20th century, there would be a lot of reasons to be afraid of the metro. The crowd of anonymous strangers pushing past one another, blank stares, the dirty wet ground. This poem, though, presents the new technology as the scene of a mystical experience, in which the poet and his readers are reminded of the serenity and calm of a Japanese garden.
The Supernatural - One of the central mysteries of the poem is, why are the faces the poets sees an "apparition"? This word usually refers to ghosts or supernatural spirits. Pound seems to be comparing the beautiful strangers in the subway to ghosts who appear suddenly and then disappear from your life just as fast. You catch a glimpse and that’s it. Plus, the subway is underground, which could make a reader think of epics like the Aeneid, the The Odyssey, and the Inferno, which all include journeys to the Underworld.
Symbolism, allusions, myth:
The Crowd of Faces
Line 1: The entire poem is basically a single metaphor. If you were ever confused about the difference between a metaphor and a simile, and the difference it can make to use one instead of the other, this is a great poem to look at. Pound could have said that the faces "look like" flower petals, which would have produced a simile. By leaving this expression out, the poem reads as if it were saying that the faces are petals. Textbook metaphor. The two images are fused into one.
Line 2: The success of the comparison between the human faces and the flower petals depends upon making the second image seem very life-like. So Pound uses some intense natural imagery to describe the "wet, black bough" to which the petals are attached. This image connects to our sense of sight and touch, so the reader feels like he or she could reach out and pluck the faces out of the scene like a flower from a tree. He also uses some alliteration with "black" and "bough," as if the words on the page and the images in our head were fusing together at the same time.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.