Image in Modern(ist) Verse

by Janusz Semrau (Volume editor) Marek Wilczyński (Volume editor)
©2016 Edited Collection 170 Pages


This collection of essays is a tribute to Andrzej Kopcewicz, the first professor ordinarius of American literature in the history of English studies in Poland. It coincides with the centenary of Imagism and what would have been Professor Kopcewicz’s 80th birthday. The title alludes to his first book which was devoted to the image and the objective correlative in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry. Image in Modern(ist) Verse opens with a revised and abridged version of that publication. Kopcewicz’s study can be still read as a useful historical, theoretical, and practical introduction to modern poetry. The bulk of the volume is made up of contributions by contemporary academics – Paulina Ambroży, Joseph Kuhn, Paweł Stachura, Jørgen Veisland, and Miłosz Wojtyna – who discuss various facets, strands and sub-strands of Imagism, as well as its ongoing legacy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • The image and the objective correlative in modernist verse
  • Dead end or a change of direction?: One hundred years of imagism
  • Imagism as a modernist poetics. Erasing the border between subject and object in 20th-century poetry, fiction, and drama
  • Southern Dinglichkeit: The theory of the image in the work of John Crowe Ransom
  • Dialectical and dialogical images in the poetry of Vachel Lindsay and T. S. Eliot
  • The vicinity of things – Ezra Pound’s imagism in the poetry of Basil Bunting and Simon Armitage
  • Notes on contributors
  • Index of names and titles
  • Series index


It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

(Pound [1913] 1960a: 4)

A short-lived romantic relationship of two young and as yet unknown poets at the turn of the first decade of the 20th century gave modern literature one of its most vibrant defining names/terms as well as a significant and handy historiographic point of reference. Hilda Doolittle (quoted in Hughes 1960: 111) would recall how her erstwhile boyfriend Ezra Pound did not appear to have liked her early writing – “but later he was beautiful about my first authentic verses … and sent my [three] poems in for [publication] … sign[ing] them for me ‘H.D., Imagiste.’ The name seems to have stuck somehow…”. Even if the full multi-functionality of the term with its various formal, aesthetic, existential, and ideological implications did not become apparent for some time, it turned out rather quickly that the seemingly offhand plume de nom gesture did not introduce a mere fad and that by no means was it all a simple matter of technicality. In 1914 Ezra Pound launched the thirty-seven piece anthology Des Imagistes (published nearly simultaneously in New York and in London), and the following year Hilda Doolittle co-edited the next collection entitled Some Imagist Poets. Their mutual friend Amy Lowell effectively took over the new movement with the publication of two more anthologies of imagist verse in 1916 and 1917. With the growing interest in and eventual rivalry over ‘Imagism’, Lowell was even rumored to have attempted to copyright the name.1 As she was unable to do so, ‘image’ and ‘imagism’ became common property and entered into wide literary and cultural circulation. Although as a formal group it proved to be a phenomenon of sur ← 1 | 2 → prising volatility and short duration, “[t]hat the Imagists are the most important poetic school to emerge in the English-speaking world since the Romantics is now a fact” (Pratt [2001] 2008b: 17).

Besides the basic recognition as an Anglo-American development that grew out of free verse, even a very general definition of Imagism should promote the understanding that it was in a substantial way shaped by exposure to other languages, literatures, and cultures (quite wide-ranging in time and space, too, such as Classical, Celtic, Provencal, French, Italian, Chinese, and Japanese). This is a key to how the movement came to liberate English-language poetry not only from the dictate of the iambic pentameter and other sacrosanct poetic conventions but also from literary diction and literary language – read, explicit or determinate English syntax – as such. More immediately, Imagism was a reaction against the dominant home poetry of the second half of the 19th century, the kind of poetry Ford Madox Ford (quoted in Steele 1990: 38) remembered from his childhood as something that tended to go “on and on – and on”, as a “long rolling stream of words no-one would ever use, to endless monotonous, polysyllabic, unchanging rhythms”.2 In his landmark study The Struggle of the Modern, Stephen Spender (1965: 113) pointed out that the new aesthetic “released into poetry material which, before Imagism, poets themselves would have rejected”. Although this is not, of course, a matter of any hard-and-fast rules, Spender’s argument can be followed to its ultimate conclusion with a more recent critic: “[Imagism] redefined what a poem is” (Pratt 2008c: 20).3

Ezra Pound’s compression of ‘Hilda Doolittle’ into ‘H.D.’ may be seen as emblematic of some of the most recognizable aspects of imagist poetics: experimentation, refocalization, intensity, concreteness, economy, and clarity – much of it reflected in the near-obsession with the right word. Systemically, the originary re-naming or, more properly, re-signature episode may be read as indicative of the shift from rhetorical and temporal to textual and spatial modalities, from the lyricism of the perceiving subject to the thingness of the object or situation perceived. Against the effusive, pretentiously evaluative, romantic/sentimental recollection meditated and mediated by the Artist in the tranquility of cloistered inward eye privacy, the essence of the image – characteristically, appreciable in the present tense – is that it generates and crystallizes experience of and in itself; ← 2 | 3 → and objectivizes it by projecting the poem as an original, if discontinuous and often stark and/or startling, piece of reality into the world for anybody to engage and share ‘out there’. With culture rather than nature as a contextual backdrop, this sort of proposition appeared to be advertised by the candid in medias res opening of what ranks today as one of the most recognizable 20th-century poems: “Let us go then, you and I, / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” (Eliot [1915] 1969a: 13).4

Commenting in 1914 on the rigorous cut-down composition of his apprentice imagist text “In a Station of the Metro” – an unadorned, haiku-like poem of mere two lines destined to become an iconic modern literary artifact – Ezra Pound explained:

Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. The image is itself speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.

(Pound 1980: 204)

Pound is better known for the (by now standard, i.e., dictionary) definition of the Image as the “intellectual and emotional complex” supposed to obtain “in an instant of time”, a formula that indicates the ultimate concentrated effect of being pulled up short by the poem in a kind of cognitive and aesthetic awe. But it was May Sinclair, a popular British author and suffragist who also proved an astute critic of modernist literature, who in 1915 came up with arguably much more informative and accessible understanding of the abiding logic and dynamic of the Image:

[It] is not a substitute; it does not stand for anything but itself. Presentation not Representation is the watchword of the school. The Image, I take it, is Form. But it is not pure form. It is form and substance.

(May Sinclair quoted in Howarth 2005: 88)

The single most familiar characteristic of Imagism today was probably most persuasively described in the forward to the last (revivalist) book-length anthology of original imagist verse in 1930 when Ford Madox Ford (quoted in Brophy 2009: 54) observed simply that “poetic ideas are best expressed by the rendering of concrete objects”. However, it is critical to recognize that not every, especially a mere visual, object-oriented natural image will make a viable and effective poetic image. The difference, as Wallace Stevens convincingly spelled it out later on behalf of the movement, as it were, is between the image without meaning (what he called the ‘bare’ image) and the image not simply ‘with’ or ‘of’ ← 3 | 4 → a certain meaning, but the image as meaning (Stevens 1958: 161). Imagism was not just a radically innovative aesthetic. It was both a reflection of and a response to the rather peculiar early-20th-century all-pervading sense of fragmentation and disconnectedness. The new poetics offered a response not merely to the modern collapse of the grand cultural narrative (telos) but of paraphrasable narrative (proiaretic code) as such. To adapt Robert Frost’s memorable phrase, the poetic image (and on a larger scale, images successive) offered a momentary stay against confusion as a perceptual, phenomenological, and existential anchorage in the confrontation with the ever-growing complexities, entanglements, and contingencies of life.5 Although the founders of the movement did not entertain quite such huge ambitions, the modern state of mind was to find here an enduring articulation, generalizing or universalizing Amy Lowell’s spontaneous reaction (quoted in Kenner 1973: 292) on having encountered in 1913 the first Imagist poems – “Why, I too am an Imagiste!”.

It is a well-known complaint that in terms of the actual oeuvre the original Imagists did not accomplish an awful lot, many of them reputed to have been ‘one-trick’ poets.6 Taking a cue from Pratt ([1963] 2008a: 37), though, it can be argued in defense of Imagism that as a coherent literary phenomenon it ran its course so quickly because early on “it had become a tool” which not only poets but all writers could conveniently and with good effect apply to their own wide-ranging individual needs and use.7 That the imagist impulse as such is still alive and kicking, in a manner of speaking, is suggested by the following unfinished recent poem, a provocative exercise in creative and historiographic negotiation:

“The Problem with Haiku”

Of all the things I

Wish would be, the one that most

Occurs to me is

            (Glaser 2007: 509) ← 4 | 5 →

Image in Modern(ist) Verse has been put together to mark two anniversaries: the centenary of the establishment of Imagism, and what would have been the 80th birthday of Professor Andrzej Kopcewicz. Quite specifically, the title alludes to Andrzej Kopcewicz’s first book which was devoted to the function of the image and of the objective correlative in the structure of the modernist poem (published in Polish as Funkcja obrazu w strukturze wiersza na podstawie wczesnej poezji anglo-amerykańskiej XX w. [1969]). The present volume opens with a revised and abridged essay-version of that publication. Although formally indebted to mid-20th-century scholarship, Kopcewicz’s study can be still read as a useful historical, theoretical, and very much practical introduction to modernist and modern poetry. The author draws his conceptual understanding of the image primarily from T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound and, most extensively of all, from T. S. Eliot. However, besides a much larger New Critical background (I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, J. C. Ransom, C. Brooks, W. K. Wimsatt, K. Burke, et al.), his theoretical framework draws also on Edgar Allan Poe’s philosophy of composition, Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, Philip Blair Rice’s and W. B. Stanford’s respective classifications of metaphor, as well as on Joseph Frank’s idea of spatial form in modern literature. What organizes Kopcewicz’s study is the attempt to explain how ‘floating’ (existential) feelings can acquire their intellectual and aesthetic Gestalt in the poetic image – and on a larger additive or cumulative scale in the objective correlative – whereby modernist verse is structured as a literary artifact that takes (its) place in the world and displays and offers itself to the reader. Avoiding descriptive generalizations, Kopcewicz quotes examples of early imagist verse and then goes on to discuss in some detail T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “Gerontion”, and The Waste Land, W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”, “William Carlos Williams’s “The Yachts”, Dylan Thomas’s “After the Funeral”, and Allen Tate’s “The Wolves”. The individual analyses demonstrate how the structuring role of the image questioned the polarization of the metaphorical and the logical in poetry, how especially vertically arranged images tend to combine the symbolic and the realistic mode, and how in a longer dramatic or ‘antagonistic’ poetic structure images might interpenetrate and transform one another in multilayered or spiral patterns. While the author does not hesitate to point out shortcomings and limitations of modernist verse, he concludes with the ultimate imagist endorsement of its best achievements as “excellent words in excellent arrangement”.

The main body of Image in Modern(ist) Verse is made up of contributions by contemporary scholars – including former students and/or colleagues of Professor Kopcewicz – who discuss various facets, strands and sub-strands of ← 5 | 6 → Imagism, as well as its ‘afterlife’, as Paulina Ambroży calls the movement’s tradition and legacy. In “Dead end or a change of direction?: One hundred years of imagism”, Ambroży reviews the initial impact of Imagism, its changing dynamic, and its later reception in the United States. Tapping into the recent critical debate on the movement’s embeddedness in the cultural practices of the day, she discusses the status of Imagism as an avant-garde phenomenon, the intertextual sources of the conceptualization of the Image, as well as the gendered styles and programmatic differences between the original Imagists and the somewhat later Amygists. Ambroży devotes particular attention to the evolution of Ezra Pound’s theories, to the poetry of Amy Lowell, H.D., William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. The essay concludes with an overview of Imagism’s influence on the current American literary scene and offers a close reading of selected poems by Peter Gizzi as evidence that there is still (room for) imagism after Imagism.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
modernist poetry modernist literature contemporary poetry
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 170 pp.

Biographical notes

Janusz Semrau (Volume editor) Marek Wilczyński (Volume editor)

Janusz Semrau is associate professor at the University of Social Sciences (SAN) in Warsaw. He has authored several books and numerous papers on various aspects of 19th- and 20th-century American literature. Marek Wilczyński is associate professor at the University of Gdańsk. He has authored books and papers on 19th- and 20th-century American literature, contemporary Polish literature, and literary theory.


Title: Image in Modern(ist) Verse