Des Imagistes, an anthology of poems by various figures associated with Ezra Pound's London circle before the First World War, was a pivotal volume in a number of ways. The book established some important relationships, and foreshadowed the direction of international modernist poetry while at the same time providing a strategy for a more nativist modernism in the United States. While most of the poems and poets of Des Imagistes were familiar to readers of avant-garde magazines in London, and even to US readers of the Chicago-based Poetry and its rival The Little Review, the appearance of the book in New York galvanized one group of east coast poets. As a source book of imagism and, more broadly, of a nascent modernism, the book had a much fuller impact upon the American scene than it did in London.
The principles of "imagism" had been discussed by Pound, Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), and her future husband the English writer Richard Aldington in London in 1912, although the term always covered a broad range of different kinds of poem and the group was always a loosely knit one. In February 1912 Pound published some of its tenets in the London magazine Poetry Review, and produced various later formulations that were all similar in their emphasis. The imagists' argument was chiefly with late Victorian and Georgian verse, whose poets, the imagists argued, utilized only a narrow range of rhythmic possibilities, and too often indulged in wordiness or sentimentality in order to fill out a line. The imagists demanded a freer form and dispensed with rhyme. They insisted upon concision, that every word must earn its place in a poem, and argued against symbolism and poetic diction that had no clear relationship to its supposed referent ("direct treatment of the thing" as Pound put it). Pound's later summaries of the group's main principles indicated that, at any rate as far as he was concerned, it was as much an attempt at one particular moment to rid poetry of what he regarded as tired late nineteenth-century habits and excesses as it was a manifesto for future work. In fact by the time the rather diverse poems of Des Imagistes appeared in New York and London, Pound was ready to move on.
Pound was a tireless promoter of his own work, of those whose writing he believed in, and of modern writing generally. He had formed wide contacts from his association with the Chicago magazines, from his student days in Philadelphia, where he knew William Carlos Williams and H.D., and from his activities in London, where he knew both the younger writers of his own generation and such already established figures as W. B. Yeats and Ford Madox Ford (then Ford Madox Hueffer). The contents of Des Imagistes were a distillation of these contacts, and of the London scene from Pound's expatriate perspective. The volume began with ten poems by Aldington, followed by six much more distilled poems by H.D., and then continued with some impressionistic stanzas by London writer F. S. Flint. There followed poems by Americans Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Pound himself, and a translation in prose from John Cournos. A poem each by Hueffer and James Joyce (the latter a last-minute addition suggested by Yeats) and prose translations by Allen Upward filled out the volume. The final pages contained three "Documents": "To Hulme (T.E.) and Fitzgerald," by Pound, Aldington's "Vates, the Social Reformer," and, in Greek, "Fragments Addressed by Clearchus H. to Aldi" by Hueffer. A final page listed a "Bibliography" of the writers' published books. The sentence in this bibliography summarizing Ford's prose output, "Forty volumes of prose with various publishers," pointed to his role as an established figure, as if authorizing to some extent the activities of these younger rebels.
Alfred Kreymborg, in his Troubadour: An Autobiography (1925), recounts the story of how the manuscript of Des Imagistes turned up at his door in 1913, mailed from London by Pound with instructions to "set this up just as it stands!" (p. 204). Kreymborg, who had been involved with an earlier avantgarde journal in New York, was in the process of starting a new venture, The Glebe, in the summer artists' colony of Grantwood, New Jersey, with painters Man Ray and Samuel Halpert. Kreymborg had asked John Cournos in London if he could hunt up material, and Cournos had spoken to Pound. A secondhand printing press donated by Ray's employer arrived shortly after the manuscript, but the press was damaged upon delivery and Kreymborg went in search of printers in New York. He eventually teamed up with Albert and Charles Boni, proprietors of the Washington Square bookshop, who agreed to finance the journal and allow Kreymborg to edit it. The Bonis published the volume in February 1914 as the second issue of The Glebe and also issued a number of copies in book form between hard covers. This association continued for a number of issues until Kreymborg became discontented with the increasing number of translations by European writers appearing in the journal at the insistence of the Bonis, and resigned. Kreymborg's interest in publishing American writers was shared by William Carlos Williams, the two having been put in touch with each other by Pound, and they began to work together on a new journal that they titled Others. During its short life Others published the early work of such writers as Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and Mina Loy. Meanwhile The Glebe folded after Kreymborg's resignation, and the Boni brothers retired from publishing, until a few years later they joined Horace Liveright to form one of the most important publishing houses of modernist American writing, Boni & Liveright.
The eclectic nature of the poems in Des Imagistes was revealed at a dinner that patroness and contributor Amy Lowell gave to celebrate the publication of the book in London in July 1914. In the after-dinner speeches, Hueffer declared his puzzlement over the term "imagist," and announced that his poem in the collection had quite traditional sources. Upward spoke of the Chinese sources of his work, while Aldington spoke of imagism as an outgrowth of Hellenism. Pound evidently laughed a great deal. Some of this was designed to irritate hostess Lowell, who as far as Pound was concerned was trying to take a proprietary interest in imagism, as a result of which the contributors were already splitting into two camps.
More important than particular sources, or there being relatively few "imagist" poems in the volume, was the challenge that the collection presented to the then dominant, conservative view of what the appropriate form, content, and audience of a poem should be - particularly in the United States, where such conservative ideas were more entrenched. Modern poetry, it announced, was difficult and required an educated audience. H.D.'s and Pound's poems are probably the only recognizably "imagist" work in the volume, although many of the other poems are pictorial and most are radical for their time. The translations and allusions foreshadow the international foundation of the modernism to come, as did the fact that the volume was a collaboration of poets from two continents. Pound's poem "The Return," included in the volume, illustrated his developing method (one he would apply to Eliot's The Waste Land ten years later) of dissolving continuities.
Pound, even at the time of Amy Lowell's London dinner party, was ready to leave future imagist anthologies to her, and to move on to the energies of vorticism and his study of the manuscripts of Chinese poetry prepared by scholar Ernest Fenollosa, whose widow gave them to Pound after having read his translations in Des Imagistes and elsewhere. Pound's Catholic Anthology, published the next year, included a number of the contributors to Des Imagistes, but was put together, he claimed, for the sole purpose of getting newcomer T. S. Eliot's poems into print. Williams soon dropped the classical allusions that laced "Postlude," his contribution to Des Imagistes, in favor of subjects drawn from his own world of New Jersey, and his most imagist poems appeared in later work. H.D. continued to develop her own style of emotional and pictorial lyrics, although the general recognition of their quality would come much later in the century. The rest of the contributors became primarily prose writers (including Ford and Joyce), anthologists, critics, and memorialists. But the principles of imagism, the seeds of which were encapsulated in this volume, maintained an appeal for American writers attracted, like Williams and Kreymborg, to a home-grown poetry, for it threw out many of the formal qualities of verse, the past achievements of which gave English poetry in particular, for them, its oppressive authority. Imagist poetry engaged the moment: its subject could be the American scene, which the poems demanded be looked at carefully. A grain elevator - or the Brooklyn ferry, as the newly appreciated Whitman had shown in the previous century - deserved to be the subject of a poem just as much as any ruined abbey or other site steeped in the literary and historical associations of a far-off and now irrelevant Europe. The book was reprinted by AMS Press in 1982.
Was this article helpful?