In a Station of the Metro

As we were going to school this morning, my son and I were listening to reports from the South by Southwest event in Austin this week. The guy on the radio was explaining that while SXSW has broadened over the years, it’s still the place to go for Alternative Music.

“I wonder where you go if you’re looking for an alternative to Alternative Music?” I asked out-loud. Not the most original thought, but I’ve never liked labels even though we all use them.

My son—who’s reminded me for several years now that he is not a Millennial—replied “Well, I only listen to lowercase!”

Proud of that boy.

Well of course, Alternative Music or Indie music, or whatever you call it isn’t really a Millennial thing. It’s more of an outgrowth of Generation X* in the last century. And that in itself was just the next name stuck on whatever Dave and I were doing 40 years ago when someone thought Punk was the label. And then, scratch-off the sticky paper from a Punk from those days and most likely you’d find someone who was once a young Hippie. And Hippies were just kids that Beats thought hadn’t wised up yet.

I don’t know all that much of what Ezra Pound thought of the Beats, but I recall in the 1950s Allen Ginsberg wrote Pound in St. Elizabeth’s hospital where he was serving his commitment as crazy, the alternative to his prison cage for WWII treason.**  Ginsberg later met him in 1967 and Pound sorta-kinda apologized for the—you know, anti-Semitism and stuff.

But back in 1913, before either world war, Pound was trying to figure out modern poetry in English. If it would be, what it should be. He had some materials to reuse: medieval vernacular poetry, classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, some of the modern French poets, and he wasn’t the only smith at the poetry-forge either, Brits T. E. Hulme and F. S. Flint were working at this too.

Late 19th Century English poetry tended to be enwrought in the cloths of heaven, lofty abstract metaphors and repetitions of what were considered the usual Romantic poetic sentiments. Those poems sounded poetic, sure, but were they? But if so much of that was thrown out, what would be left, what could replace that?

In such a mood, in such preparation, Ezra Pound stepped out of a subway station in Paris. Something in the urban crowd he saw there struck him and he wrote a modest 30-line poem that is unknown to you and me. Pound did not like his 30-line poem. It may have sounded poetic, it may have looked poetic, but it seemed false. He wrung out the false and the result was two lines, the famous Imagist poem “In a Station of the Metro”  that begins “The apparition of these faces…”

Young Ezra Pound bundled up

Ah dude, nice marmot! The young Ezra Pound

 

I’ve used an excerpt of an account that Pound published three years later about his experience and aims in creating “In a Station of the Metro”  to begin today’s audio piece. I sometimes think of Pound as gruff, inward looking, full of unusual words and quotes from various languages I do not speak, a portrayal of a learned hermit that both of us want to leave alone. But if I’m to take him at his word as he tells this story, he is the transit-riding 20-something Pound, struck by ordinary daily beauty and not wanting to betray it with ordinary poetry.

What do the 14 words of “In a Station of the Metro”  tell us? It’s spring—for tree blossoms, like Meng Haoran’s famous short Chinese poem, are the central image. Perhaps there’s been a rain-shower while Pound was in the subway. He climbs up the stairs and unexpectedly the faces in the street are not cast down out of the no-longer rain. Perhaps the sun is peeking through. They are beautiful without saying, as blossom flowers are. As blossom flowers are, some would have been knocked down by rain, some nourished, and none will be even spring-forever.

To hear my performance of Pound’s account of how he came to write it, followed by the poem itself, use the player below.

 

 

 

*Has anyone fully blamed Billy Idol for that name? Idol claims he took his first band’s name from a 1950s book, but conceptually I’ve always wondered if Richard Hell and his song “Blank Generation”  was the fountainhead.

**Pound had remained in Italy where he had settled before WWII. Enamored of various esoteric theories he thought congruent with Italian Fascism, he recorded radio broadcasts which were characterized as propaganda for the enemy during the war. Captured after the fall of Mussolini, he was at first imprisoned as a traitor in an outdoor cage.

Advertisements

St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils

Metaphor, that stuff that helps make the music of thought in poetry, is the linking or liking of things. This is like that. This stands for that. The sensation of this is like the sensation of that. This reminds us of something else. The way I say this recalls the way one says that. Metaphor recombines the stuff of our world even though it’s a combination that only exists in the imagination.

Metaphor can make something clearer to an audience. It’s so useful in that way that one can barely explain anything challenging to an audience, even in the most prosaic day-to-day business world, without falling into metaphor. In poetry however, the bounds of increased clarity can be stretched, broken, and abandoned. Depending on one’s mood as a reader, this can be frustrating or a pleasing play of the mind. With the Parlando Project we perform the poems with music. One hope from this is that you can relax and let the beauty or strangeness of the words carry you over gaps in meaning. Sometimes you can enjoy a poem before you understand it.

William Carlos Williams who wrote the words in today’s piece, gives us Spring weather with Spring flowers and fruit blossoms, gardens and orchards, and all under a title that combines a famous saint with his era’s most famous scientist. He gives us almost no help in combining that title with the poem, other than yoking them together. The linkage of metaphor is much strained here, even when he further explains his title by adding a sub-title: “On the first visit of Professor Einstein to the United States in the spring of 1921.”

How are we to make the connection that will construct the metaphor?

William Carlos Williams with typewriter

Just another hipster with his typewriter. William Carlos Williams throws off his covers.

 

My best understanding so far is that the connection is wonder and change. Recall our last post, where in his “Queen Mab”  Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic early-19th Century poet, gave us a vision of the wonder of an immense cosmos, which Shelley’s own notes tell us he could also sense through the poetic/mathematical meter of the speed of light. The theoretical scientist and the visionary poet each seek to grasp some new metaphor of the world. Einstein was changing physics in the time that Williams and his fellow Modernists were seeking to change the apparatus of art. Williams elaborates on this theme mostly by vivid descriptions of the change of Spring. In the only mention of Einstein in the body of the poem, Einstein is “tall as a violet.” He is the Spring’s new growth.

There are a couple of obscure literary references in one section, the sort of thing T. S. Eliot or his imitators would have used. Who is “Samos, dead and buried?” I’m not sure, but my guess is that it’s Pythagoras of Samos, the famous classical Greek philosopher for whom science and the arts were one. And Lesbia? Catullus’ Roman poetic beloved, who we’ve met here in Elizabethan guise. It may be enough that they have ancient sounding names, and of such ancient classical modes, Williams, who is in some ways the Anti-T. S. Eliot, says “Sing of it no longer.” He moves right back into a present day of Spring. Pythagoras is dead, Catullus’ Lesbia is dead, and so is a black cat buried in a newly planted garden. Awhile later in the poem we may get one more connection to that cat part of this buried trio. A chicken-raising man who puts out poisoned fish-heads to keep the cats from his chickens. That man becomes like the Modernists, needing to kill the ancients to protect the new flock he’s raising.

As a side note, this poem’s chicken farmer, the white-haired negro, was quite likely the man whose rain-glistened red wheelbarrow sat next to the white chickens in William’s famous poem of admiration.

The poem closes with a sensuous image of Spring change, a night that grows warm as an orchard owner opens his windows and throws off the covers that were needed in the cold. In an earlier version of the poem, Williams had woven Einstein by name in and out of those Spring images explicitly, including this last one where Einstein was named as that man with the blossoming orchard, another grower of renewed things. In this later version, all these stated links to Einstein are removed (save for that one Einstein as a violet).

Professor Einstein Narcissus

Not a violet, but the “Professor Einstein Narcissus.” Has “great curb appeal” and “deer won’t eat” says this garden center.

 

Was that a right choice? The resulting poem is shorter and more mysterious, but it also doesn’t make it easy to see what Williams is getting at. He’s using metaphor, but he’s removed all the connections. I decided to perform the later version. I think it performs slightly better, and perhaps the music makes the obscurities less taunting.

A simple musical arrangement this time, just acoustic guitar and subdued electric bass. To hear my performance of William Carlos Williams’ “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils,”  use the player below.