Imagist Poetry: What Makes Them Different and How to Write One?

imagist poetry cover4 image

There are various genres of poetry. Some poems are from the Romanticism genre, some from transcendentalism, and some are from ancient Greek. Imagist poetry or the imagism movement in poetry is one such which focuses on a concise description of the subject with the condensed, economical use of words.

Of course, this is a very simplistic definition of imagist poems. Imagism, in simple terms, focuses on giving a concrete description of what the poet sees without the use of rhetoric, without unnecessary adjectives and comparisons. The poems must be concise, condensed, and to the point. 

This does not mean that there is a restriction on the usage of words. One can use any word they like, colloquial or common (although common words are preferred). The restriction is on the description of the subject. It is using the least amount of words to describe the best and most striking thing about the subject and ending it there.

Here’s everything you’ll find in this article:

  • How and why imagism was started
  • Some famous imagist poets
  • Famous imagism poems 
  • How to write imagist poems 
  • Characteristic of imagist poetry 

How and why imagism in poetry started

Every poetry movement in the past started because the proponents of the movement wanted to liberate themselves from a dogmatic or prevalent style. Imagism was born due to the prevalence of Romanticism in literature. Romanticism focused on writing vivid verses of inward feelings, describing in detail how something simple invoked a feeling that usually arises from something magnificent. 

Romanticism came after the Enlightenment-era where everything was very formal and scientific. Imagism was the precursor to Modernism in poetry. What Imagism did was to take any subject that the poet liked and describe it but with the already mentioned method; short, compact, and to the point. 

So in Romanticism, you can have Wordsworth write a beautiful, detailed poem about daffodils and how the fields of the yellow flowers and the white fluffy clouds made him feel such a profound experience, in Imagism, it would be just “Golden, dancing daffodils”. This is also what made imagist poems so unique and eye-catching. 

Who started imagism?

As it is with every form of art, there are always some artists who experiment and divert from the general flow. This experiment can be seen in T.E Hulme’s A City Sunset and Autumn. Take a look at these poems; 

Autumn

A touch of cold in the Autumn night

I walked abroad,

And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge

Like a red-faced farmer.

I did not stop to speak, but nodded; 

And round about were the wistful stars

With white faces like town children.

A City Sunset

Alluring, Earth seducing, with high conceits

is the sunset that reigns

at the end of westward streets. …

A sudden flaring sky

troubling strangely the passer by

with visions, alien to long streets, of Cytharea

or the smooth flesh of Lady Castlemaine. …

A frolic of crimson

is the spreading glory of the sky,

heaven’s jocund maid

flaunting a trailed red robe

along the fretted city roofs

about the time of homeward going crowds

— a vain maid, lingering, loth to go. …

Look at both of these poems and notice how concise and condensed these poems are, yet at the same time, they are so unlike poems by Wordsworth or P.B Shelley. The language in the poem, the words speak poetry and the adjective describes what the poet saw or felt, but it is on point without any rhetorics.  

Hulme may have ignited the spark of imagist poetry, it was Ezra Pound who created the flame. We won’t be diving into the history and intricacies of this movement (since the subject here is poetry and not history and we want to be concise and on point). 

Hulme formed a group with some other poets with similar ideas about their style of poetry. He formed a group of poets and called it the Secession group (which means breakaway group). This group was also called as the Eiffel Tower group (Not related to Eiffel Tower in Paris, but a restaurant in London). In 1909, Ezra Pound was introduced to this group and he started the flame in the torch. 

Ezra Pound and Imagist poetry 

Ezra Pound gave the movement (and the poets) the name Imagist. Meeting this group of poets who arrived at a similar style of poetry as it made him more confident about this avant-grande poetry. In 1911, Pound introduced two new poets in the group, Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington. 

Hilda Doolittle, Richard Aldington, and Ezra Pound could be called the original triad of imagist poets. The first collection of imagist poems were published in the edition of Poetry magazine which was submitted by Pound under the heading Imagiste. Imagist poetry was born. 

image of Ezra pound
Ezra Pound. Image: Public Domain

Imagist poetry book 

If you wanted to read a book with the poems of the first and foremost poets of the imagist movement, you should read the book Des Imagistes. Published by Pound, it had six poems by himself, seven poems by Aldington, and ten by Hilda Doolittle. 

But this book also had poems by other imagist poets such as Amy Lowel, William Carlos William, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, John Cournos, etc. Fun fact about this book. W.B Yeats sent a poem written by James Joyce to Ezra Pound and this led to both poets’ introduction and it was Pound who requested Joyce to write A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 

Amy Lowel then moved to London and started taking over the imagist movement, pushing Pound away from the center stage. She also changed the doctrines of imagist poetry formulated by Pound and made it more flexible (will be discussed later). 

In the later years, Amy Lowel became the torchbearer of the imagist movement, even though Pound was reluctant to give the torch to her. He even called her version of imagist poetry as “Amygism”.

Imagist poems examples

A great example of imagism poems is The Return by Ezra Pound. Take a look at the compactness of the poem. It never lacks in the description, but it never overfloods the readers with too much description. The poem aims to deliver just the right amount of imagism. 

See, they return; ah, see the tentative

Movements, and the slow feet,          

The trouble in the pace and the uncertain      

Wavering!     

See, they return, one, and by one,          

With fear, as half-awakened; 

As if the snow should hesitate           

And murmur in the wind,      

         and half turn back;    

These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”         

         inviolable.       

Gods of the wingèd shoe!      

With them the silver hounds, 

         sniffing the trace of air! 

Haie! Haie!        

These were the swift to harry;        

These the keen-scented;         

These were the souls of blood.          

Slow on the leash,      

         pallid the leash-men!

Another great example of such poems is A Lady by Amy Lowel. Take a look;

You are beautiful and faded,

Like an old opera tune

Played upon a harpsichord;

Or like the sun-flooded silks

Of an eighteenth-century boudoir. In your eyes

Smoulder the fallen roses of outlived minutes,

And the perfume of your soul

Is vague and suffusing,

With the pungence of sealed spice-jars.

Your half-tones delight me,

And I grow mad with gazing

At your blent colors.

My vigor is a new-minted penny,

Which I cast at your feet.

Gather it up from the dust

That its sparkle may amuse you

How can we not include the poem by James Joyce whose literary work is known and appreciated worldwide. I Hear an Army is the imagist poem written by J.J. Take a look;

I hear an army charging upon the land,   

  And the thunder of horses plunging, foam about their knees:   

Arrogant, in black armour, behind them stand,   

  Disdaining the reins, with fluttering whips, the charioteers.   

They cry unto the night their battle-name:        

  I moan in sleep when I hear afar their whirling laughter.   

They cleave the gloom of dreams, a blinding flame,   

  Clanging, clanging upon the heart as upon an anvil.   

They come shaking in triumph their long, green hair:   

  They come out of the sea and run shouting by the shore. 

My heart, have you no wisdom thus to despair?   

  My love, my love, my love, why have you left me alone?

Come My Cantilations by Ezra Pound 

Come my cantilations,

Let us dump our hatreds into one bunch and be done with them,

Hot sun, clear water, fresh wind,

Let me be free of pavements,

Let me be free of the printers.

Let come beautiful people

Wearing raw silk of good colour,

Let come the graceful speakers,

Let come the ready of wit,

Let come the gay of manner, the insolent and the exulting.

We speak of burnished lakes,

And of dry air, as clear as metal.

A Pact by Ezra Pound, written for Walt Whitman. You can read Whitman’s poems here.

I make truce with you, Walt Whitman—

I have detested you long enough.

I come to you as a grown child

Who has had a pig-headed father;

I am old enough now to make friends.

It was you that broke the new wood,

Now is a time for carving.

We have one sap and one root—

Let there be commerce between us.

Here’s another imagist poem by Amy Lowel that is a couplet; a two-line poem. This, along with In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound are the defining poems of the Imagist movement. 

Over the shop where silk is sold

Still the dragon kites are flying.

The Taxi by Amy Lowel

When I go away from you

The world beats dead 

Like a slackened drum.

I call out for you against the jutted stars

And shout into the ridges of the wind.

Streets coming fast,

One after the other,

Wedge you away from me,

And the lamps of the city prick my eyes

So that I can no longer see your face.

Why should I leave you,

To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?

The Imagist Manifesto 

imagist manifesto

When Pound published the works of Hilda Doolittle, Richard Aldington along with his own, he added a section called “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” which has three principles of writing imagist poems. These principles were not dogmas, as that would defeat the purpose of the imagist movement, but rather a formulation to stay true to the style. 

These few don’ts are now known as the Imagist Manifesto and here are the three things to keep in mind while writing imagsit poems;

  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Amy Lowel’s guidelines for Imagist poems 

These are the three points to keep in mind while deteermining whether a poem is an imagist poem or not. But as mentioned before, Amy Lowel did not like the authoritarian approach of Pound and wanted to change things a little bit.

Lowel came up with another set of guidelines and we’ll be paraphrasing those guidelines. You can read the entire article by Lowel here.

  1. Use the common speech and the exact word to describe the subject, not the near-exact word.
  2. Create new rhythms to define mood and not regurgitate old, used ones. The idea of imagist poetry is to liberally express oneself, not being tied down by some dogma. 
  3. Write about anything a poet wants to write about. This means that the subject does not have to be a religious figure or scene or nature or any specific category of things, Write about whatever you feel like.
  4. Always give a clear image of the subject and never put it under the haze of rehtoric or unnecessary adjectives, no matter how beautiful those words make your subject. 
  5. The poem must be hard and clear, never vague and unclear. 

Lowel never called her group as a sect or a movement. She just said that the group which went by the Imagiste name were poets with mutual interest in a specific style of more liberal poetry. 

So this was all about imagist poetry and the proponents of the movement. Just be precise with your poetry, keep your poems compact and to the point, and avoid unnecessary words. But don’t be general in describing something. The whole point of imagist poetry is to beautifully describe the subject of your poem but with limited words. Use one word that describes your subject better than five words. 

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