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Symbolism, Imagism, and Beyond



Symbolism, Imagism, and Beyond


¨    These American poets were, ironically, influenced by the French Symbolist poets who dominated French poetry from 1875-1895 who had been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.  Americans were able to produce a new type of poetry though which the true American genius could speak.

¨    Symbolism is a form of expression in which the world of appearances is violently rearranged by artists who seek a different and more truthful version of reality.

¨    Characteristics of symbolism

o       Attempt to not only describe objects but also portray the emotional effects that objects can suggest

o       Tried to get rid symbols that had become dull and meaningless through overuse

o       Stressed the need to trust in the nonrational

o       Argued that imagination is more reliable than reason

o       Emphasized the mysterious and the intuitive in hopes of bringing self-discovery

¨    Symbolism was a new type of Romanticism that had swept Europe and the United States during the 19th century.

¨    Where the Romantics stressed the importance of feeling and the independence of the individual, the Symbolists found neither solace nor spiritual renewal in nature.

¨    The Symbolists saw the new world of scientific and technological advancements as spiritually debased, and they faced it with distaste and outrage.

¨    Since they knew they could not change or erase the modern world, they revolted spiritually and tried to redefine what it meant to be human when individualism was succumbing to the power of mass culture.

¨    Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot were the first two Americans to come into close contact with Symbolism and introduced the techniques to the United States.  Pound, with the help of several British poets, founded and led Imagism, a school perhaps better known and understood in the United States.

¨    Imagists believed, like the Symbolists, that poetry could be made purer by concentration on the precise, clear, unqualified image.

¨    Believed that imagery alone could carry a poem’s emotion and message.

¨    The Imagists took on the role of reformers to rid poetry of its prettiness, sentimentality, and artificiality, concentrating instead on the raw power of the image to communicate feeling and thought.

¨    The Imagists issued a manifesto proposing “to use the language of common speech,” as well as “the exact word, not merely the decorative word.”  They called for poetry to be “hard and clear, never blurred or indefinite.”

¨    Drew inspiration from the Japanese haiku and other Eastern art forms.

¨    Pound defined an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time”


Symbolists and Imagist poets

¨    Ezra Pound

o        Slogan—“Make it new!”

o        Charged with treason during WW II and spent years in a psychiatric hospital

o        Born in Hailey, Idaho, and grew up in Pennsylvania

o        1908—moved to London for greater personal freedom and contact with European poets.

o        1921—moved to Paris and three years later moved to Italy

o        His interests in economics and social theory led him to become a propagandist for Mussolini’s policies

o        1946—committed to St. Elizabeth’s, a hospital for the criminally insane after psychiatrists ruled him mentally incompetent during his trial for treason.

¨      William Carlos Williams

o        Slogan—“No ideas but in things”

o        His topics are “American”

o        Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, where he was a practicing pediatrician and obstetrician for most of his adult life.

o        Came in contact with Ezra Pound while studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

o        1909—published Poems which demonstrated a considerable influence from Pound’s theories of Imagism

o        Would later go on to evolve his own distinctive style which he called objectivism.

o        Source of his poetry was “the local” or a strict focus on the reality of individual life and its surroundings

o        Produced novels, plays, essays, and several autobiographical memoirs in addition to his poetry

o        Deliberately wrote in a spare, detached style about commonplace objects.

o        His focus on the commonplace allied him with the English Romantics, specifically William Wordsworth.

¨      Carl Sandburg

o       An American myth by the time of his death when he was 90

o       Carved a place for himself in modern literature with “Chicago” and “Fog,” two popular poems of the first half of the 1900s, and a six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.

o       Poetic Spokesperson for the American laborer

o       Seemed to be the roughest of the American poets on page but was actually a gentle and contemplative man

o       His most characteristic voice is the vernacular (slang, street talk, and the common speech of clichés and plain expressions).

o       He had no formal education other than the “school of hard knocks” until after the Spanish-American War when he was finally able to attend Lombard College in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.

o       Volunteered for the Spanish-American War that broke out in 1898.

o       First professional writing occurred in advertising, politics, and journalism.

o       Became nationally known as a poet when he was 36 when Poetry magazine published “Chicago.”

o       Affirms American democracy and the inherent nobility of the labor and the working person in his poetry.  This affirmation culminated in the publication of the collection of poems The People, Yes.

o       Compiled as sort of folk-song history of America consisting of songs collected from coast to coast

¨      e. e. cummings

o       Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts

o       Attended Harvard University when French Symbolism and free verse were major new influences on American poetry.

o       He altered conventional English syntax and made typography and the division of words part of the shape and meaning of the poem.

o       He championed the virtues of elitism in a age of celebration of the common person

o       He was truly an individual during this time

o       He wrote, “So far as I am concerned poetry and every other art was and is and forever will be strictly and distinctly a question of individuality….Poetry is being, not doing.  If you wish to follow even at a distance, the poet’s calling…you’ve got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being….Nobody else can be alive for you, nor can you be alive for anybody else.”

o       Volunteered as an ambulance driver during WW I before America became involved in the conflict.

o       After WW I, he returned to France, an American expatriate and member of the “lost generation.”

o       In France, he refined the eccentric shifts of syntax and typography that would become his trademarks.

o       His poetry celebrates love, nature’s beauty, and an almost Transcendentalist affirmation of the individual.

o       Reserved his satire for the “unman” or the unthinking, unfeeling temperament of urban “humans”

When he died, he still believed that “when skies are hanged and oceans drowned, / the single secret will still be man.”