I like the poet Amy Lowell. She was a key member of the Imagist movement, established by Ezra Pound in 1912. Its objectives were simple: write in free verse; make it musical rather than metronomic; steer clear of the flabby emotion and reflection characteristic of the Georgian poets; aim at clear, precise language; and choose the exact word rather than a contrived poetic equivalent.
Amy Lowell’s prose poem ‘Spring Day’, describing her observations of a day in the city, is a perfect example. Below is an extract:
‘Swirl of crowded streets. Shock and recoil of traffic. The stock-still brick façade of an old church, against which the waves of people lurch and withdraw. Flare of sunshine down side-streets. Eddies of light in the windows of chemists’ shops, with their blue, gold, purple jars, darting colours far into the crowd. Loud bangs and tremors, murmurings out of high windows, whirring of machine belts, blurring of horses and motors. A quick spin and shudder of brakes on an electric car, and the jar of a church-bell knocking against the metal blue of the sky. I am a piece of the town, a bit of blown dust, thrust along with the crowd. Proud to feel the pavement under me, reeling with feet. Feet tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly, or springing up and advancing on firm elastic insteps. A boy is selling papers, I smell them clean and new from the press. They are fresh like the air, and pungent as tulips and narcissus.’
The piece is richly descriptive, packed with arresting verbs and nouns suggesting movement and activity (swirl, recoil, flare, darting, whirring, spin, shudder, jar, blown, thrust, dragging, springing). There are no ‘like’ analogies to divert the reader’s attention away from the observation in hand. Lowell records things that are happening now, precisely as she sees them, making no attempt to re-shape or recast her observations in ‘poetic’ language. We imagine her eyes flicking back and forth along the city street, stimulated by the almost overwhelming welter of movement and activity. And, critically for the Imagists, she makes no judgement on the things she describes, ends with no moral message.
I opened an anthology of early Chinese literature at random yesterday and came upon the following poem below by the 8th-century poet Tu Fu. It reveals a similar aim to that of the Imagists. Like Lowells’ ‘Spring Day’, it too describes what the poet sees but has a totally different effect on the reader. ‘Spring Day’ is rich fare – frenetic, wired, with events coming at the reader thick and fast. Tu Fu’s poem is pared down and sparse, conjuring an atmosphere of stillness and calm.
Looking out over the plains
Clear autumn, sight has no bounds;
High in the distance piling shadows rise.
The farthest waters merge in the sky unsullied;
A neglected town hides deep in the mist.
Sparse leaves, which the wind still sheds,
Far hills, where the sun sinks down.
How late the solitary crane returns!
But the twilight crows already fill the forest.
Translated by A C Graham
What a difference in tone to Amy Lowell’s ‘Spring Day’! Both are concerned with precise observation. Lowell’s poem concerns itself purely with what is happening now in the foreground in this city street. Tu Fu observes what is happening far away in the distance. Are his observations occurring in rapid succession as in ‘Spring Day’? Or separated by seconds, minutes, hours? It is impossible to say, as the poet offers us no clues.
Incidentally, Amy Lowell was a translator of early Chinese poems. Her efforts, though, are considered by scholars to be over-worked. She tries too hard to turn their inherent stillness into vibrant poetry.
I find both poems immensely pleasing. The language in early Chinese poetry can be rich in symbol. For instance, the crane traditionally represents immortality. Do we need to know that to enjoy Tu Fu’s poem and gain something out of it? Would knowing it alter the poem’s impact? If we did it would make us start to think, to ponder significance, to search for a hidden message. We would be reflecting and internalising, allowing ourselves to be carried away from the poem. Surely the joy of Chinese poetry like Tu Fu’s is in the experience of simply allowing the words to sink in, to have their play with us.
Two poems employing the same process, with very different results.