Imagism, interpretation and education

In Week 3 of ModPo we have been introduced to the Imagist movement in poetry, focussing on the poetry of Hilda Doolittle (or H.D. as she liked to sign herself) and Ezra Pound. The Imagists wanted to escape the wordy floweriness and blurry, sloppy, careless thinking (as they saw it) of their predecessors. They wanted their poetry to depict precise, clear and sharp visual images, which were devoid of sentiment and economic in the use of language. They attempted to isolate a single image, and reveal its essence as we see here in Ezra Pound’s poem

In a station of the Metro jpgSource of image:

The imagists felt so strongly about this that they even wrote an Imagist Manifesto.

They aimed at ‘clarity of expression through the use of precise visual images’.

How successful they were is the subject of much debate in the Week 3 ModPo forums, and the question of whether it is ever possible to write in such a way that your writing is interpreted exactly as you mean it to be and depicts exactly what you saw has been on my mind all week.

Somewhere in one of the videos this week, I can’t recall where, a comment was made to the effect that it is only in poetry that you would see an attempt at condensing language in this way.  Evidently Ezra Pound started off without about 30 lines for his poem ‘In a Station of the Metro’, before he condensed it down to two (three with the title). But my sense is that this is something that all writers, and indeed educators, have to deal with. For example, one of my colleagues, when writing up her research, writes as a stream of consciousness and then has to reduce 10000 words to 5000 for submission to a journal. Researchers are very often asked to be more succinct and concise in their writing. In a recent review of an article I submitted for publication, the reviewer shouted at me FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS! – I say shouted because it came to me just like that – in capital letters. S/he was right though 🙂

I don’t think I am alone in finding it incredibly difficult to be succinct and concise – to condense writing from a stream of consciousness to a short piece.  It has been pointed out in the forums that the nearest thing that could be likened to what the imagists were trying achieve is scientific writing, where, for example, nominalization is often used to condense writing and make it harder, more precise and more formal.

In scientific writing, techniques such as nominalization are aimed at clarifying definitions and bringing readers to a common understanding. The focus of the imagist poets on condensing their writing seems to me to have the opposite effect – it completely opens up the poem to an infinite number of interpretations.

It struck me that this is a dilemma faced by teachers, educators, authors and researchers (and maybe all artists) all the time, i.e. how much information is the right amount to keep the message clear. It seems to me that both too much and too little can lead to mixed messages and problems of interpretation. This is something I have known for a long time. I just hadn’t expected it to be confirmed by poetry!

2 thoughts on “Imagism, interpretation and education

  1. helen walmsley October 1, 2013 / 12:54 pm

    This was a blast from the past – I remember reading the Imagist Poets on my undergraduate degree many years ago! Your connection with their aims of clarity and our challenges when writing educational materials is an interesting one, and reminds me of an article I read very recently that argues that more difficult texts are more likely to lead to better understanding – perhaps we should err on the side of difficulty with students, not on ease?

    Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. B. (2010). Fortune favors the bold (and the Italicized): effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition, 118(1), 111–5. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.012

  2. jennymackness October 1, 2013 / 3:37 pm

    Hello Helen – Long time no see!

    Thanks very much for the reference. I will definitely follow it up, if I can find an online link to it. The argument that more difficult texts are more likely to lead to better understanding would appear to be supported by the ModPo emphasis on collaborative close reading of difficult poems – this week we are reading Gertrude Stein.

    I don’t know what is said in the paper, but I would imagine that it won’t be the difficult text alone that will lead to better understanding, but a relationship between the text and the unique person who is reading the text. I can imagine that this week for a lot of people in ModPo, Gertrude Stein will simply prove too difficult and they will drop out – they might simply not be ready for the level of difficulty.

    But I do think that difficult texts mean you have to look more closely, read more slowly, put in the work, that is, if you WANT to understand – and that then that understanding will be greater than for a simpler text on the same subject.

    I look forward to finding out what the paper has to say.

    Great to hear from you. Hope all is well with you 🙂


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