Q&A: In a Station of the Metro

The poem obviously shares its title—as well as a lot of diction—with Pound’s famous two-line poem. But while Pound’s poem goes “in fear of abstractions,” yours actually contains the word “abstraction” in its first line. Could you talk about the relationship between Pound’s poem and your own? And did you feel it was a risk to use his title?

This poem arises from some impulse in me—one perhaps very simple or one perhaps very complicated, or both, I can’t tell. For many years now I’ve been teaching poetry to undergraduates—both as literature and in workshop. Invariably we come not only to Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” when the issue of image arises, but also to Pound’s great definition of image as “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” More, we consciously or unconsciously go through the entire lists of “don’ts”: to fear abstractions such as “dim lands of peace,” to prefer the natural object as the proper symbol, to find the fitting music, not the music of the metronome.

I realized at some point in the midst of teaching workshop last semester, as once again I turned back to Pound’s advice to offer guidance to a student, that I couldn’t count the times I’d given such advice—nor could I count the times I’d been given it myself as a student. I walked away from that class, strange to say, angry, indignant, feeling somehow not only that I’d been duped, but so willingly had I been that now I was duping others. Worse—and this is what truly got to me—the advice almost always makes a poem better. That “makinga poem better”—those warnings, that advice, those rules...that began to feel to me like some sort of genuine failure. Why, I wondered, is a workshop supposed to make a poem “better”? And in making a poem “better” by implicitly turning to a set of inherited conditions that have proven their worth over the course of nearly a century, am I secretly pushing students into a place of received values that, in the end, undermines exactly that sort of complicating work poetry does, and for which I love it so deeply? Am I myself a product of such molding? Well, it’s embarrassing to admit—but I felt some kind of fury, some kind of guilt, and I wanted to rectify that in whatever way I could.

First, I apologized to my students. (This caused its own dismay.) I should mention, I suppose, that at the same time I had been going back to H.D. and thinking some about her connection to Pound. I read and re-read Sea Garden, and came to the realization that this seemingly most perfect of Imagist works also exploded the very tenets of Imagism—that the power of the work lay not in any single poem, but in some abstract and evolving sense that what is fitting as a gift back to the old gods (governing poetry, ripening, fertility, language) could only be felt across the entirety of the book. One of the great achievements of Sea Garden is that it makes of itself a symbol whose genuine meaning never clarifies into any singular image—nor can it. The book itself is like the apparition of an image, one in which every poem is but one facet of the whole—a ripening facet, if I can mix the metaphor as radically as I feel it must be mixed. Each poem perfects itself only to find that poetic perfection arrives with necessary flaws inside it, paradise’s failure, whose very damage necessitates the writing of the next poem—not to make it more perfect but, far more palpably, to make the whole more ripe, more tangible. Tangible enough, I sometimes think, that the reader’s own hands may bruise the skin or mar the page.

So I made a ridiculous choice. To make a sort of amends (either to myself, or to poetry, or to what exactly I don’t know), I thought I would work within and against that most famous of Imagist poems, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” I thought in particular about the mythology of the poem, how he took some dozens of lines and, over the course of nearly a year, chiseled the poem down to these fourteen words (not counting the title): “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/Petals on a wet, black bough.” My impulse—a tricksterishone, I know—was to undo the damage that Pound inflicted on his poem in order to perfect it. I thought of it as an inflationary poetic—that there might be, must be, some way to find in each word that residue of forceful compression that would in itself point the way back out to a wildly expansive poem. 
In doing so, I not only wanted to embed within the poem the entirety of Pound’s own, but also to put within it those very rules mentioned above, each one of which I felt determined to break. I wanted to believe that poetic economy was not a scarce one, not an economy of dearth, but—more dearly—an economy that burgeons, that unfolds any singular instant into complexity, and can make of one crystalline syllable a manifold abstraction. I wanted to find that place, breathless as it might be, in which poetic abstraction also makes a claim on reality, and also makes a claim on that dimly-lit place in which intellect and emotion cannot be told apart—the end of which isn’t the image, but the impossibility of the image to encapsulate the nature of what it wants to invoke.

Did I feel it was a risk to use Pound’s title? Well, I worried it seemed juvenile and cheeky. But in my mind, improbable as it is to claim, I think of this poem as Pound’s poem. My effort was a kind of restoration, an investigation into origins, and the chaos such work opens a “finished” poem up to. I wanted to be a medium of that chaos as best I could. Of course, I fail. And of course, this poem is nothing like Pound’s actual first draft. But the intent nonetheless contains this absurd hope of restoration and furious repair.

Could you say more about the fascinating “angelic/Gears” in the second stanza? It seems to be a turning point in the poem. Why is this element introduced?

One of the moments from Paradise Lost that has stuck with me all these years is Raphael’s claim that angels have intercourse by walking one through the other—an intermingling of essence without the difficulty of physical boundary, or Keats’s “penetralium” taken to its most mysterious degree. I’d also been thinking much about Rilke at the time, and the Duino Elegies in contrast to Pound’s Imagist masterpiece: the sheer excess of Rilke’s vision, its flowers blossoming outward eternally. I felt especially moved by the differences he marks among the angelic, the human, and the animal—that particular human crisis of being conscious in a way that neither the angels nor the animals need suffer. Language is, of course, the material of that crisis—symptom and catalyst both.

In the poem, these thoughts came into their strange play, though not in any way I planned or intended. The long first stanza ends very near the image of Pound’s poem, but I felt—and feel—that an image isn’t a material end, but a perceptive medium, always in transit between the external and the internal, that tormented barrier poetic language turns into the field of its curious play. There is a kind of economy in which the stuff of the world becomes the nervous matter of the mind, and in between those related but differing realizations, there is some angelic or ideal transformation that occurs—that allows the rigid wall of objectivity and subjectivity to erode, to become not a boundary but a synaptic gap: some abyss not only to be crossed, but where opposites co-mingle, interpenetrate, and become that complex thing I might want to call an image.

More simply, I thought of that motion—by which the world moves into mind via the senses—as something similar to Raphael’s description of amorous angels. The world enters the brain, turns the gearless gears—and in a certain kind of mind, the poetic one, that motion turns inverse, and words express the world back out to itself.

The poem has a very incantatory sound, and it calls itself “This song” in the fourth line. I’m guessing that this effect has a lot to do with the way that you think about the line as a unit. Could you say something about that, and perhaps address your choice to omit punctuation?

My thinking about the nature of the line has for many years been guided by Emerson’s suggestion that every line of a poem must be a poem. I find in that claim some sense of poetic truth I have never been wholly able to comprehend, an intuitive trust that never clarifies itself into certainty. What I take it to mean now, and in relation to this poem, is that the line is anything but a unifying force in the poem. There seems to be a curious way in which the line as a singular unit of poetic perception resists being tamed into the poem’s entire structure—so much so, at times, that the line feels to me to be an attempt to overwhelm or destroy the unity of the poem of which it is nominally a part. One of the ways I’ve come to think of issues in prosody, of meter, rhyme, and repetition, is that it finds the gentlest way to allow each line its ferocious life while also allowing that life to further the motion of the whole.

In this poem, perhaps as a reaction against the condensed unity of Pound’s poem, or against the symmetry of how those two lines interact with one another to give the reader an image, I wanted each line of my poem to deeply threaten the relation of one line to the next; to harm its own traceable life in explosive lines rather than implosive ones. As strange as it is to say, I wanted each line to discover within itself some intent I couldn’t discover for it, or without it. I thought of each line as some sort of antenna that ventures forward to see what ground there is to be crossed, and then the poem comes groping bodily after it. I think perhaps this is a different way of conceptualizing the way that a poem might be written—at least it is for me. The lines bring the poem wildly forth and then succumb mysteriously to the poem’s unifying power. The trick, I guess, is to let the lines possess their chaotic impulse while still managing to place them in the cosmic balance of the poem. The lack of grammar is only to further that aim, to force the poem always outward, and not parse it down into more easily identifiable syntactic units.

Is there a chance that William Carlos Williams is strolling into this poem, to join Pound?

I’m not so sure in this poem, but what led me to this work comes from a similar kind of grappling with Williams. Last year, in the spring, I had been working on very short, very traditional poems, which link together into something of a long meditation on...well, on a number of things. In the midst of writing one of these poems, “Overtakelessness,” I found myself in some odd way deeply troubled by Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The way this manifested itself in the poem was that I put Williams’s poem directly into mine as an entire section, but I did so backwards:

beside the white chickens
glazed with rain water
a red wheelbarrow
so much depends upon

I should say that I don’t think the poem works as a poem this way—at least, not in any normal sense. But what worried me in the original version is that the claim for value (“so much depends upon”) occurs before the matter of that valuing is encountered. It felt somehow dishonest to me, obscuring the ground of encounter before the encounter had occurred. I want the world first, the brunt encounter with that world, the difficulty of lyric life in which recognition must become cognition, in which thinking must become sensation—and I don’t want to be told the value of this work before the work has been done. Reversing the lines makes the poem ugly, but maybe that’s a virtue. At the very least, to my mind, it makes the most central word of the poem, “depends,” bear in it the very burden of the images above it. Doing so also ties the word closer to its etymology, which is to hang down or to be suspended. In fact, it allows the word to enact itself in the poem in a way that it cannot do in the first line—depends becomes almost palpable, almost an object: some sort of fruit filled with the wheelbarrow, the rain water, and the white chickens above it. 

I don’t know to what degree this answers your question. I suppose I feel myself grappling—as I know every poet does—with my own poetic inheritance, with the fact of love’s difficulty (for these are poetsI also love). I worry, in ways, that this work betrays my “fathers.” But then I think poetry is a vehicle of such betrayal and must be so, and that poetic betrayal is the foremost mark of poetic faith and poetic love. Dickinson knows; she knows hers must be a faith that “doubts—as fervently as it believes.” That is the mold by which I most desperately want to be stamped. I don’t wholly trust myself, my own ambitions or intents—but I trust that poetry does as difficult a work on me as it does on the poems I’ve just discussed and the world they bring into consideration. I only want to be honest to that doubtful work.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.