Friday, January 16, 2009

Lose Your Innocence Quickly

"In a Station of the Metro" by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

That's it: poem done. I am beginning with this poem because it's short--seriously, guys--and that makes it quick, and easy to read in its entirety. But shortness also makes it surprising. What begins "In a Station of the Metro" very rapidly drops into hell, or, at the very least, purgatory--I am going to say purgatory rather than hell because nothing in the poem screams "HOT." Yet traveling can get very, very hot--getting packed into crowded, poorly ventilated places, often underground. Delays happen. You get stuck on a train, or a plane, on a bus, in traffic, in a car, in a tunnel, all around you there are people suffering similarly to you, yet they are strangers and seem completely separate. It can feel like you'll be stuck there forever. You're tired or hungry, maybe you get motion-sick, and that makes you feel like hell. Pound's use of the word "apparition" and his description of a "black bough" are traditionally read as giving the poem an underworld quality. And this--again--is shocking. Even Dante took the reader on a slow (34 Cantos, around 200 pages), winding descent into hell, and Dante brings us up again. With Pound it's a straight plummet. The ground you were standing on when you read the title for the first time has been shattered, you can't go back there, and--and this is the most important part--you can't get back to a state of innocence. Even if you re-read the poem starting with the title, you will always remember where the poem ends, what that looks like, and what it feels like. Years later you'll remember. That is the beauty and the damnation of a really good short poem--there is nowhere to go but down it, and you remember the end forever without ever trying. This poem irrevocably obliterates innocence with knowledge. I think about it every time I enter the subway.


  1. I was wondering if you could suggest a way to approach poetry reading for the uninitiated. It seems fairly straightforward to buy a novel someone recommends and read it through, or build up a small collection of novels, but what about poetry? Do you have favorite anthologies, favorite volumes? Do you suggest reading a poem every night, every week--reading through a volume or through an analogy, or picking and choosing? Or are magazines a good place to start? I consider myself an active reader but have never known how to integrate poetry into my reading life, and I would love to try.

  2. knowing next to nothing about pound, i didn't know that he was inspired by japanese poetry. although, in this poem, it is hardly surprising.

    for me, coming at this poem, or coming to this poem never left me with a sense that i had descended to purgatory or hell. although 'black boughs' can indicate some level of evil or sin, to me they always worked in contrast to the petals, a contrast that is not necessarily to be taken as a dualistic force between good and evil.

    instead the image i see is one of playful whimsy; pink petals resting lightly on tree branches after a rain. perhaps humanizing in its simplicity and contrast to the black bough. a beauty in the sorrow of transitory things, but an acknowledgment of the beauty never the less.

    apparition of course clearly shades the poem with ghosts, but these ghosts i always saw as in japanese poetry; the spring and the fall. the times of year when both new life, death and rebirth are hinted in one another. and the transitory nature of life emphasized.

    finally, i think the first line creates an anonymous quality that reduces people to vague shades, while the second line underlines this sense of man as void, but simultaneously brings warmth back to the image with a very beautiful nature scene.

    geez for someone not very fond of poetry i sure go on a bit...

  3. I think about it every time I enter on the subway too. That's because I took the train to high school every day and English teacher Mr. Kelly taught me that poem at the same time as I saw it published on the train as part of the "Poetry in Motion" series.