On "In a Station of the Metro"

Written by

Mark Doty
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Year

2014
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"In a Station of the Metro"
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.


This talk was given by Mark Doty at the Academy of American Poets' Online Poetry Classroom Summer Institute.

MARK DOTY: Whenever I return to this poem I always have the sensation of being in a New York subway, the car doors opening, and suddenly there's a scene framed by the doors. Then, snap, they close again. Similarly, this poem speeds by us, a flash, a moment of perception is all we have.

And because this is such a profoundly compressed poem it would serve us well to pay close attention to what happens to us as we read it. What are the visual images, the sensory associations that come up as you read this poem?

There's the suggestion that the faces as "petals" were once conjoined. They are the remnants of shattered flowers. There's a sense of a continuum of life, a kind of human brightness. The human face is what blooms, renews, and shines in the dark. This is a wonderful illustration of what I mean by metaphor meaning and meaning intensely. The sight of those human blossoms in darkness is chilly and disconnected, but also profoundly affirmative. The poem won't let us have it just one way.

MAN: One thing that strikes me is how intensely grounded the poem is and how much work the title does. We know exactly where we are, and this allows the poem a lot of leeway for the comparison of the faces and the petals. It's not as if we just free-associate—the metaphor suggests something very specific.

MARK DOTY: Your comment points to another axiomatic statement about figures of speech: the further apart the elements within a figure are, the greater the tension and the greater the energy the metaphor has. We've all seen student poems where something is compared to something very similar. There's not that much energy. The more these things do not have in common—at least on the surface—the greater the level of tension, the greater the sense of cognitive dissolution or dissonance for the reader. We have to work in the poem, and we feel something happen, as Pound says, instantaneously in the yoking of those faces and those petals. The presence of a "like" would make the metaphor seem little less crucial.

The metaphor stays with you because the ground has been laid by that initial abstraction: "apparition." Without it, I don't think this poem would have the same hold on your memory. The way "apparition" points us towards the kind of experience the perceiver has is more profound than simply, "these faces in the crowd."

"These faces in the crowd. / Petals on a wet, black bough." That would make a claim about what reality is. The "apparition of these faces in the crowd," though, makes the poem about the speaker's reality, the world as he or she knows it. This is more moving to me.

In Pound's poem, we're not confronting a symbol that stands for one thing, we're confronting a metaphor which is far more alive in its associations, far more ambiguous, though not so much that it doesn't point us in a specific direction. We are directed into a rich and complex territory of renewal and human connections.

I'd like to read Pound's statement on images that is essential to the poem we've just read. "An image," he says, "is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time. It is the presentation of such complex instantaneity that gives a sudden sense of liberation that we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art. It is better to produce one image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works." Something he might have kept in mind when he was writing the Cantos, but this was long, long before.

An instantaneous intellectual and emotional complex. It's what we get in this poem. It is the intellectual part pointing to the continuity of life. The emotional part is a little slipperier, isn't it? If I asked you to define the emotion of "In a Station of the Metro"—

MAN: Sadness.

MARK DOTY: Does it feel sad to you?

WOMAN: He's watching...

MARK DOTY: Which would lead to an emotion that might be something like wonder.

MAN: There's an issue of scale, too. You have these very small, disembodied things that are on this black background. There's something very empty about it, it makes me, the reader, feel small.

MARK DOTY: That connection between microcosm and macrocosm is an idea with feeling attached, isn't it? About our potential, our insignificance, and how our egos may not be the great monuments that we sometimes perceive them to be.

MAN: The analogy is exciting to me, and so sudden; the excitement of this underworld scene where you see faces swimming out at you. I feel charged.

MARK DOTY: Which would take us back to Pound's notion about the liberation we feel in the presence of a great work of art where something has been yoked that we did not expect and that, regardless of content, is thrilling.

This imagery is used to point to a certain point of view about this subway experience and about human commonality. Which takes it, again, that much further from the merely decorative. This is not just a clever, artful way to say what faces look like in the dark. A point is being made here.

Again, this is a perfect example of that metaphor means and means intensely. Pound's poem stays with us because it yokes unlike things, allows us space to move, and it refuses to make a direct statement, which would determine the reader— it forces us to remain in the position of interpreter to something that is perpetually open.

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