In a Station of the Metro
This is the only Ezra Pound poem that many people will read in their lives. Why? Because it’s two lines long. This "In A Nutshell" already contains more syllables than the entire poem. However, it’s not just that the poem is so short – it’s also that Pound’s other, "famous" poems are so darned long. His Cantos, for example, are so long that he couldn’t finish them. People may walk into a bookstore, pick up the Cantos, see a bunch of super long poems with figures from mythology and characters in different languages all over them, and say, "No way." "In the Station of the Metro," however, is an exercise in brevity (a fancy word for "shortness"). Pound wrote it after having a spiritual experience in a Paris metro (subway) station.
In 1916, Pound wrote about the process of writing the poem (Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, 1916). Apparently, he originally thought he could best capture his vision in a painting. Unfortunately, he wasn’t a painter. Kind of a problem. So he wrote a 30-line poem, which he didn’t like. He pitched the long version in the waste bin. Six months later, he wrote a shorter poem, but didn’t like that one either and threw it away. Finally, a full year after the experience, he had been reading short Japanese poems called haikus, and he figured he would try to adapt this form to his vision in the metro. The result, which was published in 1913, is one the most famous, influential, and haunting works in modern poetry.
Why Should I Care?
Admit it: you secretly want to be the kind of sensitive soul that memorizes poetry. But where to begin? Right here, folks. Two lines. One, two. Voila. Oh, plus the title. So three lines. If your friends don’t know anything about poetry, you can even pretend that you’re reciting from a longer poem, but that you don’t want to bore them with the whole thing. Plus, it’s Ezra Pound, so it’s not just any poem you’re memorizing; it’s "difficult," "modern" poetry. It has mysterious-sounding words like "apparition" and "bough" in it.
Selfish reasons aside, this poem is also extremely important in the history of modern literature. It is one of the monuments of the artistic movement known as "Imagism," one of the many, many "-isms" that came and went at the beginning of the 20th century. Basically, Pound and his friends were sick of people using images as ornaments to "decorate" their writing and make themselves sound smarter.
Pound thought that images weren’t just decoration: they were the highest form of speech. By finding the right image, the poet can reveal the true, spiritual reality of a thing, which is more important than using a bunch of adjectives to describe its physical appearance. Thus, "In a Station of the Metro" is a poem that consists of one image expressed with absolute precision and nothing else. If this poem were an Olympic sharpshooter, it would earn a gold medal.
To the Imagists, the best way to capture an experience is not to use more and more words; no, the best way is to pull your hair out to find exactly the right words, which means using as few of them as possible. Have you ever told a boyfriend or girlfriend that "words can’t express" how much you love them? Well, Ezra Pound would say that you’re just being lazy. In his view, words can express anything, even, as in the case of this poem, if it takes an entire year to find the right words.