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Female beauty; vulnerable beauty exert a magnetic force in another of the seminal poems of modernism. Pound’s "In a Station of the Metro" (1913), occurs, he explains, when in Paris he "saw suddenly a beautiful face, and then another and another; and then a beautiful child’s face, and then another beautiful woman, and I tried all day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to be worthy; or as lovely as that sudden emotion" (Pound [1918] 1970, 86-87). The terms of the inspiration are well within the foundational cluster beauty/woman/child/lovely/[poetry], plus the sentimental choking up at his inadequacy, but Pound resists and attempts to erode the tactic of "symbolist’ and "representational" art and their gender ideologies by the invention of an abstracting tactic that resists the gender materials.

The poem from this struggle between realism/symbolism and abstraction is well known; in my analysis, the formal poise of the poem -- its haiku confrontation of one line against another, seen through the lens of social philology, is motivated by a dual answer to debates about the gender cluster in poetry.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Petals, on a wet, black bough.

The first noun, "the apparition" condenses the bidirectional tension of this poem; the word ranges between its transrealist meaning of specter or ghost (and the corresponding etymological charge from the abstraction—epiphany), and its meaning of a sudden or unusual sight, a realist observation. "These faces in the crowd’ is a realist evocation of urban multiplicity. The symbolist or metaphoric leap is "Petals, on a wet, black bough" equated with faces. The word "Petals" may he said to deliver the "feminine"; at least it evokes all the loveliness and vulnerability of faces seen by chance. Two discourses -- documentary/social (which is abstract or realist) and lyric /poetic (symbolist) are brought into one configuration and are made to interact. "The ‘one-image poem’ is a form of superposition, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another" (89). One idea is that beauty /the feminine matters in the construction of poetry; the other is that it does not. Hence part of the force of the juxtaposition that constructs this brief work comes from the simultaneous affirmation and denial of the foundational cluster in a poised contradiction.


From Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934. Ó 2001 Cambridge University Press.