Essay on Poetic Theory

Preface to Some Imagist Poets (1915)

by Amy Lowell

Introduction

The Imagist movement began in 1908, when poet T.E. Hulme formed a group of poets, including Ezra Pound, as the “School of Images.” Hulme brought these poets together to discuss elements of poetic craft, with particular attention to the vers libre of the French Symbolists and Japanese haiku. Pound soon assumed control of the group, preferring the term Imagiste. In 1914 Pound edited the anthology Des Imagistes, which contained the work of a wide range of writers, including Amy Lowell. This anthology was met with considerable critical discussion, and in response Lowell published her own anthology, Some Imagist Poets (1915), which she restricted to solely Imagist poets, four of whom had been included in Pound’s anthology. Her take on imagism differs greatly from Pounds, which he lays out in “A Retrospect.” In her preface, Lowell lays out the six guiding principles of the movement, with the aim of clarifying the movement’s focus on precision and cadence, and providing a historical context for the practices. After Lowell’s essay and anthology, Pound abandoned his own notion of Imagism as a poetic group.

Lowell published two additional volumes of her anthology, in 1916 and 1917. While imagism as a concept continues to inform poetry, most critics mark the close of the Imagist movement by the final volume of Lowell’s anthology.

In March, 1914, a volume appeared entitled “Des Imagistes.” It was a collection of the work of various young poets, presented together as a school. This school has been widely discussed by those interested in new movements in the arts, and has already become a household word. Differences of taste and judgment, however, have arisen among the contributors to that book; growing tendencies are forcing them along different paths. Those of us whose work appears in this volume have therefore decided to publish our collection under a new title, and we have been joined by two or three poets who did not contribute to the first volume, our wider scope making this possible.

In this new book we have followed a slightly different arrangement to that of our former Anthology. Instead of an arbitrary selection by an editor, each poet has been permitted to represent himself by the work he considers his best, the only stipulation being that it should not yet have appeared in book form. A sort of informal committee—consisting of more than half the authors here represented—have arranged the book and decided what should be printed and what omitted, but, as a general rule, the poets have been allowed absolute freedom in this direction, limitations of space only being imposed upon them. Also, to avoid any appearance of precedence, they have been put in alphabetical order.

As it has been suggested that much of the misunderstanding of the former volume was due to the fact that we did not explain ourselves in a preface, we have thought it wise to tell the public what our aims are, and why we are banded together between one set of covers.

The poets in this volume do not represent a clique. Several of them are personally unknown to the others, but they are united by certain common principles, arrived at independently. These principles are not new; they have fallen into desuetude. They are the essentials of all great poetry, indeed of all great literature, and they are simply these:—

  1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.
  2. To create new rhythms—as the expression of new moods—and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist on “free-verse” as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry, a new cadence means a new idea.
  3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly about aeroplanes and automobiles; nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modern life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.
  4. To present an image (hence the name: “Imagist”). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of art.
  5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.
  6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

The subject of free-verse is too complicated to be discussed here. We may say briefly, that we attach the term to all that increasing amount of writing whose cadence is more marked, more definite, and closer knit than that of prose, but which is not so violently nor so obviously accented as the so-called “regular verse.” We refer those interested in the question to the Greek Melic poets, and to the many excellent French studies on the subject by such distinguished and well-equipped authors as Remy de Gourmont, Gustave Hahn, Georges Duhamel, Charles Vildrac, Henri Ghéon, Robert de Souze, André Spire, etc.

We wish it to be clearly understood that we do not represent an exclusive artistic sect; we publish our work together because of a mutual artistic sympathy, and we propose to bring out our coöperative volume each year for a short term of years, until we have made a place for ourselves and our principles such as we desire.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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 Amy  Lowell

Biography

An oft-quoted remark attributed to poet Amy Lowell applies to both her determined personality and her sense of humor: "God made me a business woman," Lowell is reported to have quipped, "and I made myself a poet." During a career that spanned just over a dozen years, she wrote and published over 650 poems, yet scholars cite Lowell's tireless efforts to awaken American readers to contemporary trends in poetry as her more . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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