Note: This is merely an academic paper that I’m posting here because finals are upon me, and my inspiration runs dry due to the taxing nature of academic writing! My apologies for the incoming read.
Petals on a wet, black bough .
Many Views of a Metro Station
During his time in France, Ezra Pound witnessed a singularly normal event while standing at La Concorde train station; he saw the faces of people passing by in a crowd waiting to board the arriving train. Yet, this placed an image within him, and he translated that image onto paper, penning the poem “In a Station of the Metro.” At first glance, the poem seems simple due to its meager verbiage and seemingly excessive gaps, but Pound may, perhaps, have actually been using the imagery of the poem to ponder the aspect of individualism in modernity. Having led a life that had traversed the depths of human esteem and attained the heights of literary distinction, Ezra Pound was no stranger to the image of the individual within the context of society. The poem renders a subtly stirring image of the impact of the individual to the reader. The image of the individual and the emphasis on the individual is intensely present throughout the poem in the words that Pound chooses, the various images that arise from those words, and the gaps that relate the images together. From these literary devices that Pound employs in the poem, he provides a brief stay against the confusion of losing the individual among the masses.
While poetry is generally dependent on the words chosen to fully give the poem meaning, Pound’s approach to poetry, with influence from the Japanese haiku, allows the reader very little to work with in order to truly present an unmarred and objective image. His imagism removes the dependence on adjectives to contain the original portrait of the picture that he saw, effectively removing any background associations the reader might have with those adjectives. Having understood this, it necessitates the close examination of each word that he chooses. The first noun that occurs in the poem is “apparition.” One found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is, “[t]he action of appearing or becoming visible,” and this is the first image that Pound would have us see depicting what he saw in the train station. The appearance of the faces is what Pound is directing our focus to, and the fact that it is the first noun in the poem affirms this. However, a more obscure definition of the word found in the OED is, “[a] deceptive appearance counterfeiting reality; an illusion, a sham.” This definition adds a deeper facet to the portrayal that Pound provides; it speaks to the deceptiveness of the appearance – how the appearance of these faces might make it seem like they are standing out of the crowd, but questioning the reality of this individualism. In regards to individualism, it is worth noting the word “crowd” at the end of the line. It is the poetic foil to the individual “faces” that he speaks of because the crowd is the aggregate society in which faces hold no defined identity. Again, the definition of “crowd,” which reads, “[t]he people who throng the streets and populous centres; the masses; the multitude,” reinforces the notion of individualism in the setting of the lone individual, the flaneur, trying to determine his place among the many.
In the second line, the poem evolves into a nature poem as he chooses to begin the line with “petals.” There is no color, count, or quality of the petals provided; we are merely given the word. However, the freedom the reader has to determine what the petals look like and in varying degrees of abundance reflects the control the individual has on how he makes himself known. Just as the petals will be what they will be in the reader’s mind from past encounters with petals, the individual desires to find who he is and discover his own identity by way of experience. Pound only uses two adjectives in the poem, “wet” and “black.” The two words modify “bough” and are entirely simplistic in their descriptions as well. They represent exactly what they are, and again, leave little room for interpretation from the audience. These static adjectives are used to describe the static conditions that the petals find themselves in, and they lend an air of coldness to the poem due to the darker connotations of both words. “Wet” and “dark” can both be associated with a rainstorm, and the choice of adjectives here only serves to strengthen Pound’s poetic intent as opposed to weakening or obscuring the main picture. These adjectives refer to “bough,” which actually empowers the notion of individualism. Although “petals” itself is plural, which seems to run askance of the individualist theme, the notion of individualism is reinforced, in a similar way to the “faces,” by contrasting the last word of the line, which is “bough.” The bough is one of the main branches of a tree, and it is bound to have varying clusters of petals all along it. So, in a sense, the word “bough” enhances the individual clusters of “petals,” and therefore, the petals become nature’s metaphor for the individual among the collective mass.
These images that are produced of the “one in the many” and the “petals on a wet, black bough” are all images that Ezra Pound intended for the audience to contemplate. Having written this poem right around the advent of the silent film in popular culture, Pound’s poetry, when read, has the effect that a silent film would have. The “apparition” of the faces is a typical scene from a film, and it employs the knowledge and understanding of human perception to subtly have the audience focus on those individual faces as he mentions their appearance. However, the blur that is the moving train eventually comes to a standstill; he ends the first line with “crowd” to produce the image of the train slowing, which is when the instinctual tendency to isolate faces becomes surmounted by the sheer number of faces. In the modernist setting, the scenes of the crowd and the individual are still present in the films currently produced. There is a tacit focus on how the individual easily can be lost in the sea of faces, and in order to preserve his identity, the individual must be constantly moving, searching for his own identity to hold onto.
When it comes to the images purveyed in the second line, a similar message behind the images is seen. The silhouette of “petals on a wet, black bough” is especially reminiscent of cherry blossoms, and that connection is supported by Pound’s proclivity for the Japanese culture in more than a few aspects of his poetry. The symbolism of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture is one that represents the transient, ephemeral brilliance of life, and Pound places this unique characteristic in a damp, dark setting. The petals themselves, when in bloom are brilliant, just as the individual, when fully aware of who he is, is luminous; however, that radiance is short-lived, as the bough, which can be taken for the aspect of “the rest,” is wet and black, producing an image of futility and despair. When the bough is wet, regardless of the lighting, it is impossible to use it as firewood – the passion or fire simply cannot be ignited, both literally and figuratively in the poem. In the dark, it is difficult to fully ascertain the majesty of a cherry blossom, or any other flower for that matter, and it is Pound’s reinforcement of the notion that the individual is always at the risk of having his identity swallowed up by bland, dim qualities of his environment as a willing or unwilling participant of the masses.
Finally, the odd gaps between phrases of the poem are a way of having the sight of the poem itself be telling of what Pound was attempting to convey. In the combination of form and function, structural image of the poem and mental image of the poem, Pound places spaces in between certain phrases throughout the poem. He puts spaces between all of the nouns in the first line, and between phrases that can stand alone as pictures in the second line. The reason he places these gaps in between the nouns of the first line is to demonstrate distinction and opposition between all of them. “The apparition,” as mentioned before, is only the illusion or deception of being an individual; the “faces” phrase labels a group of individuals that stands out, but are constantly under the pressure of being “in the crowd” and losing their identity. The first phrase is a reflection upon the potential conditions of the second phrase in relation to the third, and testing whether it is a true appearance of individualism, or just individuals deceiving themselves into believing that they have managed to escape the many.
The next set of gaps is more interesting in that not all of the phrases contain nouns. However, the device that is at work in the second line is the physical separation of images; Ezra Pound uses words that are poignant enough to generate separate images, and he goes to separate them physically within the poem to create a greater contrast effect. Upon the sole word “petals,” a multitude of vivid images may flash through the reader’s mind; at once, Pound removes the assumed, flowery images with a completely incomplete scene of “wet” and “dark.” The image that occurs mentally at this junction of the poem is perhaps one of a storm or after a storm. Finally, he ends with the bough, the natural representation and remind that there are others on the bough, begging the question of what sets one set of petals apart from any other set. Again, the gaps set the phrases at harsher contrast than if they were spaced regularly; the pleasant ambience of the petal image in contrast with the gloom and uncertainty concluded by the ongoing question of whether or not the latter image will drown out the former.
Ezra Pound’s poetry is simply one of the most efficient uses of the language available in literature. While utilizing the imagism that he was so fond of, he also manages to imbue a completely different kind of image into his poetry. Whether intentional or not, Pound knew better than most where the power of words lay, and he exhibits the multifaceted nature of the language in this poem. A poem written about something seen in a metro station has the nuanced influence of being a message in support of individualism and the individual’s plight against the crowd. It is this influence is a testament what the individual can achieve when he overcomes.