Sunday, January 11, 2009

All These As You Please: A look at Modernism

They are in there and we hear them again
-Stein, "A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson"

Words make a pleasurable community within the seeing of "object as object." If one does not find meaning within the sounds of words, where do the emotions of words come from?

"Image," as Pound defines it, is "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." I find this to be somewhat open-ended and ultimately, entirely freeing. Often what seems to happen with proclaimed "Imagist" poetry is, as Kasey put it, prose but with line breaks. The writer feels the need to describe exactly what an apple looked like or an instant in their life. Rather than "throwing" the image at the audience, they tell you what the image is. William Carlos Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a good example if we want to dispel preconceived notions of this poetic form. Each sentence/line/stanza in a poem should ultimately be able to stand alone. It is something the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets have said and it seems to demonstrate the energy of the Imagist movement as well.

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

A part of me has always had a problem with this segment of Williams' larger piece, Spring and All. Is "The Red Wheelbarrow" talking at me or throwing the image at me? There is no question that I SEE the scene he is describing and, as it stands alone, I do not see the image as something that is part of a grander scheme of life, world peace or some profane question regarding life's meaning. Should I be? This brings us to the desire to find "meaning" within poetry. It is here that Pound's definition sooths my frustration. Alone, "The Red Wheelbarrow" sings with the voice of Williams. It is hard to say the words do not at least sound beautiful next to each other. As part of Spring and All, "The Red Wheelbarrow" becomes part of a far more ambitious piece that incorporates the Modernist ideals of breaking form.

It seems to me that the key point in Pound's definition is that an "image" happens within an instance of time. This holds each word accountable. While an image can be, it does not have to be restricted to the more literal idea of a photograph emerging in one's mind. Stein was often criticized for attempting to turn words into paintings. I do not mean physical paintings but rather that Stein wrote words that moved freely like paint on a canvas. John Malcolm Brinnin criticises Stein saying that a painter "knows things by sight," whereas the writer "knows them by name." If words have the power to create an image within an instance of time than what ultimately sets poetry apart from painting (besides the materials used)? Stein saw "naming" (i.e. nouns and the use of them in writing) as limiting language. People already know the names for things so why repeat it in poetry or prose? This idea is not drastically different than Pound's expectations for Imagist poetry: do not write words that render the poem inactive or attempt to write something that the reader will not be able to then "see." Specifically in the case of Pound and Stein, "seeing" happens through sound. If Stein's work does not excite the brain in one way or another, causing some kind of interplay between sight and sound, I do not know what does.

Gertrude Stein reading A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson


  1. Terrific entry, Lacey! This is a great synthesis of creative reading and applied criticism.