Sunday, March 18, 2007


T.E. Hulme, who died in WWI, was credited by Ezra Pound as author of the earliest poem that could be called "imagist." The Imagists were said to be in "revolt against...careless thinking and Romantic optimism." They attempted to "use the language of common speech... employ the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word." Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, H.D., and T.E. Hulme sought to strip away the florid language used in poetry at the time and expose the core image, so that the reader was left with something solid and memorable, a poem object. Imagist poems were meant to be experienced on a more visceral level. The group was against the moralizing of poetry that used platitudes and sentimentality to convey meaning. Recently I was reading about "Chicago" Imagism. Having never heard that term, but having seen paintings by Ed Paschke, I dug up what info. I could on the movement. Here's a snippet from a fairly recent issue of the Sun Times.

"It's true that as a Chicago art movement, Imagism is essentially dead... not because its exemplars have all passed away (they haven't) or because their work is neglected (Ed Paschke had a major retrospective last year; Wirsum and Nutt are soon to follow), but because the local art scene has moved on. It's hard to find young or even middle-aged Chicago painters who owe much visible debt to Paschke and Co., largely because they've chosen different models or abandoned painting for conceptual and new-media art. "

It's always been interesting to me how the ebb and flow of artistic trends reach a high water mark and then the waters recede and something else entirely new takes its place, even if whiffs of previous artistic currents are somewhat evident. Maybe nothing is new under the sun, but I like to see how iconoclasts cause these ripples.

Lorine Niedecker's poem, "My Life by Water" is practically glistening in its simplicity and unpretentiousness. Its economy of words makes it fall down the page with a surefooted momentum. It doesn't falter and there isn't a sense that there is anything missing or any extraneous words. It's like an engine starting up, or the sight of a single bird in the sky. A simple moment transcribed without overexplanation.

My life
by water--

first frog
or board

out on the cold


to wild green
arts and letters

my lettuce
One boat

pointed toward
my shore

thru birdstart

of the soft
and serious--

I can't say that this all I require from reading a poem, but I appreciate it's severity and minimal qualities. To take us from there to Whitman's expansive lines takes a long leap into another kind of aesthetic entirely. Not that two camps exist, each keeping to one or the other methodology. But there are two impulses that exist in poets I think. One to include everything and one to strip away to essence. Think about Whitman's catalogs in Leaves of Grass where no detail that crossed his mind, sights, sounds, and smells escaped his description. He tried to capture the entire panoramic vista of American life. Neither is any more correct or true. An entire life's experience could be summed up in a few lines. The tendency to write epigrammatic poems, image heavy poems may be a more effective strategy. Inbetween these two stolid trees of thought is strung the musty hammock of American literature. Realist description, when combined with the influence of more irrational or fantastic imagery from surrealist and dada currents of thought have chopped up language into something really remarkable. I'd like to know what to call it. Any suggestions about what's happening right now?

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