Those days when literature was studied not only during the Romanian classes but also during the foreign language classes have long gone away. Nowadays there are few textbooks that encompass literary fragments and they are only studied by students who attend the humanistic field of education. Some educators agree with this change, others agree less. I have to confess that most of my students (those who study English intensively) feel eager to learn about the Anglo-Saxon literature. Well, not all of them are enthusiastic about reading literature (as the majority of teenagers nowadays), but at least, they seem interested in finding out facts about certain writers and their works.
Therefore, with a bit of imagination and creativity, a literature class can be turned into a real success, in the end, the students remaining with some general knowledge about the author and the work under discussion. Short movies about the writer’s life or about the literary work should be compulsory, as the motion pictures attract the audience, catch their attention and eventually stock the new info into their minds.
Last year, I did an experiment with my 9th graders. We studied Ch. Dickens”s Oliver Twist. I asked if they had heard about this writer (some had) and how many of them had read the book -only one! Not so satisfying! Teenagers nowadays are not interested in classics anymore. They usually read Manga books or other such graphic novels… But, to make them read the novel I had to stimulate them somehow. Therefore, during the next class I played the movie based on Dickens’s novel –the 2005 film, as an older version would not stir their interest and attention! They received some handouts in advance, which they had to fill in with certain facts while watching. During the next class we had a debate on the film’s topic and, at the end, I was pleasantly surprised to hear some of my students saying that they would like to read the book. And they did! –most of them during the summer holiday. And, when the next school year began, more than half of the class had already read Oliver Twist!
With novels and short stories it may be easier, but what shall we do when it comes to poetry? Our effort doubles! We have to begin with very short and catchy ones. My first trial was when my students came across haikus. Interesting! Japanese origin. Exactly like the Manga. Stirring students’ attention? Of course! They enjoyed them and we even played with some words, finally getting a few good attempts of haikus. Well, actually, this game was just a warm-up for what was to follow –their meeting with the American poet Ezra Pound and his famous poem In a Station of the Metro. Got them again! Not only did my students enrich their knowledge with info about Ezra Pound and his “haiku”, but they also learned about Imagism, the Imagist Credo, the source of the poem and, last, but not least, about the famous Japanese poet Arakida Moritake. What we eventually created after three classes of google searching, debates and literary analysis was a documented essay which is worth being published:
The name of Ezra Pound is undoubtedly associated with imagism whose leader he was. Imagism was an Anglo-American poetic movement founded in 1912. The ideas of this movement were summed up under the name of The Imagist Credo: “use the language of the common speech, but use it exactly; create new rhythms and moods; allow complete freedom of subject; present image, but avoid vagueness; produce poetry that is hard and clear; and, concentration is the essence of poetry.”
One of Pound’s poems that includes in it all these ideas expressed in The Imagist Credo is In the Station of the Metro:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.
Let us take each idea individually and apply it to the poem:
- There is usage of common speech (apparition, faces, crowd, petals, wet, black, bough) but its significance turns into a poetic one, having a great force of expression;
- A new rhythm and a certain mood has been created;
- The subject has been chosen freely: description of the people’s faces in the subway;
- It is presented just one image which appeals to the reader’s senses (the people’s faces which resemble flower petals);
- A hard and clear way of saying things is used;
- Concentration is the essence of the poem.
Pound himself offers a very interesting explanation of the origin of the poem: “Three years ago in Paris I got out of a “metro” station train at La Concorde, and saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another, […] and I tried all that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. […] I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call “of second intensity”. Six months later I made the poem half the length; a year later I made the following hakku-like sentence: The apparition of these faces in the crowed / Petals on a wet, black bough. I daresay it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort, one is trying to record precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself or darts into a thing inward and subjective.” (Extract from “On In a Station of a Metro” in Gaudier-Brzeska. A Memoir, New York, 1974)
Therefore, he wanted to express his thoughts in a very condensed form. The idea was to find the exact form that could cause the same reaction in the reader, too. Eventually, he decided on these two relevant lines. Though, he must have been influenced by the Japanese haiku (an old Japanese verse form of three lines of five, seven and five syllables which express a single idea, image or feeling without comment, relying on suggestion rather than on an explicit statement), as the imagists were attracted by this form of poetry and became interested in it. Many of the ideas of The Imagist Credo can be found in a haiku. A significant example of such a poem is that of the Japanese poet Arakida Moritake (1473-1549):
The falling flower
I saw drift back to the branch
Was a butterfly.
Altogether, Pound’s poem cannot be considered a haiku because it does not have the same form, length and measure, but the other features of this type are present: the single image and the suggestiveness. This created image is actually a metaphor which provides a figurative description of the people’s faces “in the station of the metro”. They resemble petals –the most fragile, pure and innocent part of a flower; therefore, those people bear the same features: beautiful faces kept in the captivity of the closed and airless space of the underground. Their faces express anxiety, tension, fear, feelings that finally can lead to the alienation of each individual. But this is impeded by the outside light towards which they try to wend their way quickly and quietly. The syntagm ‘wet, black, bough” indicates that the way towards light is not so easy, but long and slippery. The two adjectives are very suggestive: wet is indicative of a difficult stepping –one can easily slip and fall on a wet ground, while black means darkness, lack of light, also making walking difficult.
At this point, the poem can be analysed from two perspectives: one the one hand, the image constitutes a revelation for the poetic ego –he is struck by the beauty of those faces which are set in contrast with the harsh and hostile environment. It is surprising that in such circumstances, he succeeds to transmit an optimistic mood to the reader: what can be more beautiful than comparing people’s face with flowers! But, being a revelation, it cannot last forever, it happens in an instance, like a snapshot, while he is just passing by; on the other hand, at the opposite end, there can stand another interpretation. Although surrounded by a “crowd” of faces, the poetic ego fells lonely –no face is familiar to him but, somehow, he wishes for this loneliness –he interposes a distance between those people and himself so that the process of observation be more perceptible. He does not want to be noticed but only to notice; he cannot consider himself a “flower petal”, he belongs to another world –a world of perceptions. His presence is not important for the others, he is invisible, what matters is the presence of the others. His fate is to stay there and endlessly study each face passing by. If the “metro” people can finally avoid alienation, the poetic ego is inevitably sentenced to it just because of his mission: to watch people.
The title is also suggestive because it has a very important role in the interpretation of the poem; it does not summarize the main idea, as titles usually do, but adds extra information very pertinent for the reader’s understanding: the space where the revelation or the alienation takes place.
As a conclusion, this very condensed, but at the same time evocative poem is one of the best examples of modern poetry. The first American poet to write such modernist poems was Emily Dickinson and the tradition continued with Williams Carlos Williams (The Red Wheelbarrow, This is Just to Say), Ezra Pound and reached the climax with e.e. cummings who experimented with the position of words and letters on the page. Each of them brought major contributions to the development of this genre (either in form, content, style, mood, rhythm or tonality) not only for the American literature, but also for the world literature.
Mission accomplished again!
1. Pound, Ezra, Selected Poems. 1908-1969, Faber & Faber Publishing House, 1981
2. Pound, Ezra, On “In a Station of a Metro” in Gaudier-Brzeska. A Memoir, New York, 1974
3. The Classic Tradition of Haiku. An Anthology, Dover Publications, 1996
4. Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam Webster Incorporated Publishers, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1995
* * *
Continue with part II: Ciubotariu, Daniela (2021). Literature during the English Classes (Part II). In: EDICT- Education Review, No. 8/2021. Online: edict.ro/literature-during-the-english-classes-part-ii/