A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Poem of the Day: Ezra Pound

In a Station of the Metro 

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

"What makes that a poem?" a student of mine once asked. "It's just a sentence broken up into two parts." 

Not a bad question, actually, when you learn that Pound originally had it printed like this: 
The apparition      of these faces       in the crowd
Petals      on a wet, black       bough
He wanted to emphasize the "ideogrammic" quality of the poem, the fact that it was inspired, as so much of his early verse was, by Chinese poetry. And it is sort of like a haiku by someone who can't count. 

So the next time I taught the poem, without telling the class who wrote it, I put it on the board alongside this: 
At a Subway Stop 
The specter of these visages in the throng; 
Blossoms on a damp, dark branch. 
And I asked the class which poem they liked better and why. I hoped they'd like Pound's version better, so we could talk about word choice and images and so on. And in fact most of them did. But there were some surprising votes for my paraphrase, and some interesting reasons. 
  • In a Station of the Metro / At a Subway Stop -- Some of them didn't know that the Metro is the Paris subway, of course. So the chief reason for preferring my title was that it was clearer. 
  • apparition / specter -- More of them knew what specter meant than apparition, which was a plus in its favor. And specter was "creepier." Those who did know what apparition meant argued that it was better because it implied something appearing suddenly, like people coming out of a subway, and there wasn't anything really creepy about flower petals on a limb. 
  • faces / visages -- Those who preferred visages said it was a "fancier" (i.e., more "poetic") word, while faces was "sorta ordinary." 
  • crowd / throng -- Throng was judged more poetic, too. Somebody said it gave a sense of movement, of thrusting forward, which crowd didn't.  
  • Petals / Blossoms -- Someone said that blossoms were clusters of petals, which gave you more of a sense of people all crowded together. 
  • wet, black / damp, dark -- The defenders of damp said that if the limb was really wet the petals would wash off. And there were those who liked the alliteration of damp and dark and the way the vowel sound of damp was echoed in branch.
  • bough / branch -- Somebody said that bough was a nursery-rhyme word ("When the bough breaks") that nobody uses anymore, but they weren't sure whether that made it better than branch
Well, there's no accounting for tastes.    

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