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Poetry provides a way of seeing things with your eyes closed. Of capturing a scene, a portrait, or an event in words, and doing it in such a way that the poet can sometime convey much more than meets the eye. Back before there were ways of capturing images, transmitting them, saving them, or duplicating them - before video, before film, before photographs, before the daguerreotype - there were not many ways of sharing an image. Poetry provided a way of seeing something in words - and memorable poetry let you keep that image with you.
There was a significant change in poetry written in English in the early part of the 20th century. Much of the excessive formality and wordiness of the Victorian era went by the wayside as what Harriet Monroe and Alice Henderson called The New Poetry rose in popularity. One of the movements with this trend was the rise of Imagist poets - those that tried to find concise and striking words to describe what they saw. Chief among these were Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and Hilda Doolittle (who signed her works H.D.). Pound is credited with originating the term Imagist, and dubbing H.D. as an Imagiste.
Of course there are many more traditional works that describe visual images by a wide range of poets. Many non-English forms of verse do this as well, including the Japanese Haiku and ancient Greek lyric forms that the Imagists used as a starting point. The imagist techniques of clarity and brevity are also frequently applied to other senses. William Carlos Williams wrote a number of these. Included here are also some descriptions of images in Art - Melancholia&I is five centuries old and still debated.
- In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound
Pound's famously brief couplet.
- The Great Figure by William Carlos Williams
A remembered image amidst a chaos of sound.
- Carmen de Boheme by Hart Crane
A tumult of images, sounds and more in this portrait of...what? The dancer? The music? The experience?
- L'Art, 1910 by Ezra Pound
Another of Pound's couplets, this time multi-sensory.
- To Waken an Old Lady by William Carlos Williams
Perhaps more of a video than a snapshot.
- A Landscape by John Cunningham
A literal and traditional landscape - makes me think of a John Constable painting.
- Venetian Interior by Elinor Wylie
Wylie too can be a master of brevity.
- Durer's 'Melencholia' by Edward Dowden
Comments on Durer's most enigmatic engraving.
- Song by H.D.
A portrait in white and gold.
- An Image from a Past Life by William Butler Yeats
The elaborate star-light has thrown reflections
On the dark stream,
Till all the eddies gleam;
- Oread by H.D.
I can almost feel the wind.
- A Description of a City Shower by Jonathan Swift
A complex web of city street scenes - but the last lurid stanza brings out Swift's unvarnished opinions.
- Willow poem by William Carlos Williams
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
- Pastoral by William Carlos Williams
This one sounds more like Eliot.
- Irradiations by John Gould Fletcher
The late Vernon Appoy used to say that the best paintings always have a spark of movement in them; Fletcher achieves this in his series of ten images.
- Alba by Ezra Pound
An imagist simile.
- Queen Anne's Laceby William Carlos Williams
Portrait of a rather sensual flower.
- A Route of Evanescence by Emily Dickinson
An unusual poem for Dickinson.
- November Night by Adelaide Crapsey
Not all images are visual; you can hear this one.
- Leonardo's 'Monna Lisa' by Edward Dowden
Comments on the famous portrait, whose expression is:
Serene, victorious, inaccessible;
- Preludes by T. S. Eliot
Ending in the famous simile:
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens
I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
- The Villain by W. H. Davies
A dark personification in an otherwise enlightened scene.
- A Painted Fan by Louise Chandler Moulton
ROSES and butterflies snared on a fan,
All that is left of a summer gone by;