One of the best aspects of poetry is its total lack of rules. The art form is filled to the brim and beyond with every imaginable idea under the sun, and throughout time, various poets have tried out just about everything. So, when ‘In a Station of the Metro’ by Ezra Pound is introduced, it shouldn’t even be that surprising that what makes this particular poem stand out is that it is fourteen words long. It is a short and very much to-the-point poem, and is also notable for not containing any verbs, creating a true rarity in the realm of written works. And although the style is uncommon, this is not at all because it is ineffective, as Ezra Pound demonstrates easily within this work.
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In a Station of the Metro – The Poem
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
As previously mentioned, one of the most striking elements of In the Station of a Metro is that it is written entirely without verbs. The poem is instead formed by combining two sentence fragments, each with a subject, but without an action, for that subject to perform. Needless to say, it can be very difficult to write without using action words, but this style does achieve one thing especially well: it captures a moment in time. In a sentence without action, nothing happens — in imagist poetry especially, this is a strength. In the case of this poem, it reads as an observation, as though the author has taken two photographs and paired them side by side.
On their own, each of the two-sentence fragments that make up this work has almost no real meaning. The relationship between the two moments is what creates meaning in this work. The real engine of this work is the metaphor likening faces in crows to petals on a wet, black bough (referring to the main branch on a tree).
With only fourteen words used throughout ‘In a Station of the Metro’, it stands to reason that each one was chosen specifically for one particular conveyed image. For example, the word “apparition” in the first line suggests the nature of traveling in a crowd — it is a fleeting action, so much so that people seem like ghosts to the observer. In one moment, there is a face, as clear as can be, and in the next, it is gone, and likely will never be remembered by the mind. They are apparitions, in one place for one moment, and then gone forever in the next.
In the following image, the observer views “petals on a wet, black bough,” which is to say they are looking at the leaves of a tree, likely following rainfall. In this image, the reader is presented with the idea of small, fleeting, and weak elements of beauty within the natural world. It is difficult to describe the feeling of appreciation of a transient natural phenomenon, which is likely why Pound chose this particular image — to stand in for a feeling that can’t be easily described.
The first image of ‘In a Station of the Metro’ is entirely constructed by humans, and the second one is entirely a phenomenon of the natural world. The relationship between the two ideas is an abstract one, but by pairing them together, Pound seems to be suggesting that there is that specific kind of beauty in the station of a metro, and that the fleeting apparitions of people drifting through is no different than the wilting nature of a petal stuck to a wet tree. The petal weathers, the petal is rained on, and eventually, that petal wilts and dies, just like each person entering and leaving the view of the author.
In many ways, this poem is impossible to truly define. There are parallels and similarities and noticeable differences between the two images, and these can be defined in several ways. To some, the poem might say more in its structure, as a verbless imagist poem of fourteen words than with those fourteen words. To others, it is the definition of an unusual emotion, one that does not have a correlating word in the English Dictionary. As with most poetry, it tends to be the eye of the reader that gives it its true definition.
Those who are familiar with Ezra Pound will know he lived a complicated and controversial life. He is well-known for his arrest for treason by the United States government during World War II because of his support for Mussolini’s fascism, and even for Hitler’s government. During his time imprisoned, he suffered a mental breakdown and spent the next twelve years of his life in a psychiatric hospital.
‘In a Station of the Metro’ predates all of this, however — it was published in 1913 in a literary magazine, and was written based on an emotion Pound had felt during a moment standing in a Paris underground metro station in the previous year. Pound’s anger and resentment of capitalism and the British government was forged by the bloodshed of World War I, and so while none of his bitterness made its way into this text, the complexity of his worldview certainly had.
The original drafts of ‘In a Station of the Metro’ was thirty lines long; Pound was able to cut it down to fourteen words in an attempt to focus entirely on the economy of his language, and the important images only. The process of deletion expresses a modernist-style desire to break away from the typical poetic styles of the time period. Because of its succinctness and unique style, it is considered one of the foremost examples of Imagist poetry, even today. Although what would follow in Pound’s life was a long and difficult period of controversy and unhappiness, this poem stands as a strong legacy to his unique worldview, and incredible capacity to explain and demonstrate powerful emotions with simple images, different thinking, and, of course, some of the best economy of the written word that could possibly exist in poetry.