edited excerpt from: traditional japanese poetry and the influence of haiku on the imagist poets

The Imagist movement was a further development of Western modernism. A reaction against the ‘Romantic literary theory’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Imagist poets were influenced by the French Symbolists and the writings of T. E. Hulme who began the movement in 1908 (Poetry Foundation, 2009, pp. 1-2).

However, where the Symbolists ‘sought escape into the self-enclosed form, the poem as a verbal (and semi-musical) event, resonating with suggestion, brilliant evocative,’ the Imagists sought to escape enclosed forms, emphasising the visual rather than aural, in the direct treatment of ‘things, images, colours, sounds, scents’ in their poetry  (Stead, 1986, pp. 34-39). The brevity and imagery so integral to Japanese haiku provided a fundamental shift for the Imagists poets including Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound who acknowledged the influence of haiku in his essay on Vorticism in 1914 (Hakutani, 2009, p. 69). Pound was a central figure in the Imagist movement, publishing his manifesto in 1912 (Rothenberg and Joris, 1995, p.156).

Another influence on Pound may have been the work of Japanese poet Yone Noguchi, who moved to San Francisco in 1893, who was well-known, and who had corresponded with Pound as early as 1911, sending him two volumes of his own ‘English’ poems, The Pilgrimage, (1908, 1909), (Hakutani, 2009, pp. 69-74; Poetry in Voice, 2011).  Pound was a central figure during this period, involved in both the Symbolist and Imagist movements. Metro, begun in 1914 and finalised in 1916 is an example of the influence of haiku in Pound’s work (Hakutani, 2009, pp. 70-71).

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

In this poem Pound demonstrates the clear, concrete treatment of the image through the juxtaposition of two seemingly disparate statements, to create an association which intensifies both images using the traditional haiku technique of simile (Reichhold, 2008, p. 399).

However, Metro drew criticism from American poet Kenneth Rexroth. In his essay, The Influence of Classical Japanese Poetry, Rexroth likened Metro to the more sentimental poetry of the Edo period (Hamill, p. viii), when Japan had opened its borders to the West and was in turn being influenced by Western literature, one contemporary form being Romanticism. It is true that Metro, considered imagist in Western poetic terms, leaves much to be desired when critiqued in haiku terms. The poem is heavy and didactic. There are no ‘spark gaps’ and it lacks the elegance, subtly and open nature of true haiku technique.

William Carlos Williams, another of the ‘principal poets’ of the Imagist movement, uses language in a similar imagist manner in his poem The Red Wheelbarrow, (appendix: 1), treating the ‘thing’ in concrete and starkly visual terms (Rosenthal, 1994, pp. 1-2). The poem is almost painterly in the ‘red’ of the wheelbarrow, a humble contraption when juxtaposed to the ‘white’ of the chickens (Hollander, 2013, p. 1).

Copyright Janet Bayliss 2013

Originally published by Bendigo TAFE, 2014, Painted Words 2014, Griffin Press, South Australia