Prose from Poetry Magazine

A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste

by Ezra Pound
An “Image” is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. I use the term “complex” rather in the technical sense employed by the newer psychologists, such as Hart, though we might not agree absolutely in our application.

It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.

It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works.

All this, however, some may consider open to debate. The immediate necessity is to tabulate A LIST OF DON’TS for those beginning to write verses. But I can not put all of them into Mosaic negative.

To begin with, consider the three rules recorded by Mr. Flint, not as dogma—never consider anything as dogma—but as the result of long contemplation, which, even if it is some one else’s contemplation, may be worth consideration.

Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work. Consider the discrepancies between the actual writing of the Greek poets and dramatists, and the theories of the Graeco-Roman grammarians, concocted to explain their metres.

Language

Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.

Don’t use such an expression as “dim lands of peace.” It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.

Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don’t think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths.

What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.

Don’t imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.

Be influenced by as many great artists as you can, but have the decency either to acknowledge the debt outright, or to try to conceal it.

Don’t allow “influence” to mean merely that you mop up the particular decorative vocabulary of some one or two poets whom you happen to admire. A Turkish war correspondent was recently caught red-handed babbling in his dispatches of “dove-gray” hills, or else it was “pearl-pale,” I can not remember.

Use either no ornament or good ornament.

Rhythm and Rhyme

Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement; e.g., Saxon charms, Hebridean Folk Songs, the verse of Dante, and the lyrics of Shakespeare—if he can dissociate the vocabulary from the cadence. Let him dissect the lyrics of Goethe coldly into their component sound values, syllables long and short, stressed and unstressed, into vowels and consonants.

It is not necessary that a poem should rely on its music, but if it does rely on its music that music must be such as will delight the expert.

Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counter-point and all the minutiae of his craft. No time is too great to give to these matters or to any one of them, even if the artist seldom have need of them.

Don’t imagine that a thing will “go” in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose.

Don’t be “viewy”—leave that to the writers of pretty little philosophic essays. Don’t be descriptive; remember that the painter can describe a landscape much better than you can, and that he has to know a deal more about it.

When Shakespeare talks of the “Dawn in russet mantle clad” he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents.

Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.

The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he has discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from that point onward. He does not bank on being a charming fellow personally. He does not expect his friends to applaud the results of his freshman class work. Freshmen in poetry are unfortunately not confined to a definite and recognizable class room. They are “all over the shop.” Is it any wonder “the public is indifferent to poetry?”

Don’t chop your stuff into separate iambs. Don’t make each line stop dead at the end, and then begin every next line with a heave. Let the beginning of the next line catch the rise of the rhythm wave, unless you want a definite longish pause.

In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern, and you are bound by no others.

Naturally, your rhythmic structure should not destroy the shape of your words, or their natural sound, or their meaning. It is improbable that, at the start, you will be able to get a rhythm-structure strong enough to affect them very much, though you may fall a victim to all sorts of false stopping due to line ends and caesurae.

The musician can rely on pitch and the volume of the orchestra. You can not. The term harmony is misapplied to poetry; it refers to simultaneous sounds of different pitch. There is, however, in the best verse a sort of residue of sound which remains in the ear of the hearer and acts more or less as an organ-base. A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure; it need not be bizarre or curious, but it must be well used if used at all.

Vide further Vildrac and Duhamel’s notes on rhyme in “Technique Poetique.”

That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginative eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the original.

Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric. Read as much of Wordsworth as does not seem too unutterably dull.

If you want the gist of the matter go to Sappho, Catullus, Villon, Heine when he is in the vein, Gautier when he is not too frigid; or, if you have not the tongues, seek out the leisurely Chaucer. Good prose will do you no harm, and there is good discipline to be had by trying to write it.

Translation is likewise good training, if you find that your original matter “wobbles” when you try to rewrite it. The meaning of the poem to be translated can not “wobble.”

If you are using a symmetrical form, don’t put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining vacuums with slush.

Don’t mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of being too lazy to find the exact word. To this clause there are possibly exceptions.

The first three simple proscriptions* will throw out nine-tenths of all the bad poetry now accepted as standard and classic; and will prevent you from many a crime of production. “...Mais d’abord il faut etre un poete,” as MM. Duhamel and Vildrac have said at the end of their little book, “Notes sur la Technique Poetique”; but in an American one takes that at least for granted, otherwise why does one get born upon that august continent!

*Noted by Mr. Flint.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

COMMENTS (11)

On March 16, 2007 at 8:28am S wrote:
Thank you for including this information. It has proved a valuable resource when print sources failed me.

On April 29, 2007 at 7:52pm kate wrote:
I have been looking for this essay for days and was unable to find it in any of my libraries resource. Ironically, I found what I was looking for on the internet, the very thing I have been discouraged from using. Thankyou!! Thankyou!!! ;)

On November 23, 2008 at 12:10pm ryung wrote:
it's just cool for me, I absolutly searched it for my homework. thanks :-) from Seoul in south Korea

On February 26, 2009 at 11:41am ronferg56 wrote:
Thanks a bunch for posting this essay on-line. I used this resource for one of my college advanced literature classes and it was great to be able to find it so readily available on-line.

On February 28, 2009 at 8:10pm Mechrobioticon wrote:
More gratitude for posting this.

I didn't need this for a class. I've never had the pleasure/burden of studying Pound in college.

I just read it for me. It contained some very helpful advice, but was perhaps a little too aggrandizing of poetry and multilingualism.

Ezra is being iconoclast here, suggesting we "throw out nine-tenths of all the bad poetry now accepted as standard and classic."

Today Ezra himself is considered standard and classic, and perhaps we would do better to "throw out" the better part of his lengthy cantos.

It was always his shorter, more focused poems which spoke to me.

Thanks

On June 3, 2009 at 11:50pm Maliha wrote:
Thanks~ This helped a lot, especially since I didn't have to take my heavy textbook home just for this essay~

-from Milwaukee, WI

On April 16, 2010 at 3:22am T.P. Das wrote:
It is a deeply thoughtful and experienced
article. I have avoided Pound's poetry for
years. Now, he has attacked me strongly
after approaching him through his political
views first. Eustace Mullins cleared it up
very well, of how Pound was deeply
misrepresented by the lies of anti-
Semiticism. He was a true poet and
individual. A poet should know his
environment well, his political milieu,
his poetic inheritance, as well as his
spiritual impulse. Pound knew it well.
My gratitude for the article.

On February 5, 2011 at 3:18pm Jeremy Pratt wrote:
Many thanks. After several forays to the Library of Congress, in which their copy of the 1913 issue of Poetry was invariably unavailable or could only be produced the next day, after I had already left town, I finally got my hands on it several years ago for a brief 10 minutes, when, after special pleading, I was allowed special dispensation for the last few minutes of the day that the reading room would be open. So finding it here is a blessing.

Could you also post or provide access to the essay "Imagisme", also published in the same March 1913 issue of Poetry and attributed to Flint though said to be written by Pound?

On May 5, 2012 at 3:42am victor wrote:
Thanks very much for the posting of the essay. Pound is one of my favourite poets and I am eager to read more relate to him. by the way, i am from China and welcome any discussion about Pound.

On August 14, 2012 at 9:14pm louboutins wrote:
Thank you, I've just been searching for information about this subject for a while and yours is the best I've came upon so far. However, what in regards to the bottom line? Are you positive in regards to the source? louboutins

On December 4, 2012 at 8:16am bruce barnes wrote:
thanks I heard the article being discussed on BBC radio 4 on Sunday 1/12/12 -great to be able to read it

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This prose originally appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry magazine

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Of all the major literary figures in the twentieth century, Ezra Pound has been one of the most controversial; he has also been one of modern poetry's most important contributors. In an introduction to the Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot declared that Pound "is more responsible for the twentieth-century revolution in poetry than is any other individual." Four decades later, Donald Hall reaffirmed in remarks collected . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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