By Ezra Pound.
It is no more ridiculous that a person should receive or convey an emotion by means of an arrangement of shapes, or planes, or colours, than that they should receive or convey such emotion by an arrangement of musical notes.
Whenever I say this I am greeted with a storm of “Yes, but”…s. “But why isn’t this art futurism?” “Why isn’t?” “Why don’t?” and above all: “What, in Heaven’s name, has it got to do with your Imagiste poetry ?”
Let me explain at leisure, and in nice, orderly, old-fashioned prose.
We are all futurists to the extent of believing with Guillaume Appollonaire that “On ne peut pas porter partout avec soi le cadavre de son pere.” But “futurism,” when it gets into art, is, for the most part, a descendant of impressionism. It is a sort of accelerated impressionism.
There is another artistic descent viâ Picasso and Kandinsky; viâ cubism and expressionism. One does not complain of neo-impressionism or of accelerated impressionism and “simultaneity,” but one is not wholly satisfied by them. One has perhaps other needs.
IT IS VERY DIFFICULT to make generalities about three arts at once. I shall be, perhaps, more lucid if I give, briefly, the history of the vorticist art with which I am most intimately connected, that is to say, vorticist poetry. Vorticism has been announced as including such and such painting and sculpture and “Imagisme” in verse. I shall explain “Imagisme,” and then proceed to show its inner relation to certain modern paintings and sculpture.
Imagisme, in so far as it has been known at all, has been known chiefly as a stylistic movement, as a movement of criticism rather than of creation. This is natural, for, despite all possible celerity of publication, the public is always, and of necessity, some years behind the artists’ actual thought. Nearly anyone is ready to accept “Imagisme” as a department of poetry, just as one accepts “lyricism” as a department of poetry.
There is a sort of poetry where music, sheer melody, seems as if it were just bursting into speech.
There is another sort of poetry where painting or sculpture seems as if it were “just coming over into speech.”
The first sort of poetry has long been called “lyric.” One is accustomed to distinguish easily between “lyric” and “epic ” and “didactic.” One is capable of finding the “lyric” passages hi a drama or in a long poem not otherwise “lyric.” This division is in the grammars and school books, and one has been brought up to it.
The other sort of poetry is as old as the lyric and as honourable, but, until recently, no one had named it. Ibycus and Liu Ch’e presented the “Image.” Dante is a great poet by reason of this faculty, and Milton is a wind-bag because of his lack of it. The “image” is the furthest possible remove from rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of dressing up some unimportant matter so as to fool the audience for the time being. So much for the general category. Even Aristotle distinguishes between rhetoric, “which is persuasion,” and the analytical examination of truth. As a “critical ” movement, the “Imagisme” of 1912 to ’14 set out “to bring poetry up to the level of prose.” No one is so quixotic as to believe that contemporary poetry holds any such position. . . . Stendhal formulated the need in his De l’Amour:–
La poésie avec ses comparaisons obligées, sa mythologie que ne croit pas le poeté, sa dignité de style à la Louis XIV et tout l’attirail de ses ornements appelés poétique, est bien au dessous de la prose dès qu’il s’agit de donner une idée claire et précise des mouvements de coeur, or dans ce genre on n’émeut que par la clarté.
Flaubert and De Maupassant lifted prose to the rank of a finer art, and one has no patience with contemporary poets who escape from all the difficulties of the infinitely difficult art of good prose by pouring themselves into loose verses.
The tenets of the Imagiste faith were published in March, 1913, as follows:–
I. Direct treatment of the “thing,” whether subjective or objective.
II. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
III. As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
There followed a series of about forty cautions to beginners, which need not concern us here.
THE ARTS HAVE INDEED “some sort of common bond, some interrecognition.” Yet certain emotions or subjects find their most appropriate expression in some one particular art. The work of art which is most “worth while” is the work which would need a hundred works of any other kind of art to explain it. A fine statue is the core of a hundred poems. A fine poem is a score of symphonies. There is music which would need a hundred paintings to express it. There is no synonym for the Victory of Samothrace or for Mr. Epstein’s flenites. There is no painting of Villon’s Frères Humains. Such works are what we call works of the “first intensity.”
A given subject or emotion belongs to that artist, or to that sort of artist who must know it most intimately and most intensely before he can render it adequately in his art. A painter must know much more about a sunset than a writer, if he is to put it on canvas. But when the poet speaks of “Dawn in russet mantle clad,” he presents something which the painter cannot present.
I said in the preface to my Guido Cavalcanti that I believed in an absolute rhythm. I believe that every emotion and every phase of emotion has some toneless phrase, some rhythm-phrase to express it.
(This belief leads to vers libre and to experiments in quantitative verse.)
To hold a like belief in a sort of permanent metaphor is, as I understand it, “symbolism” in its profounder sense. It is not necessarily a belief in a permanent world, but it is a belief in that direction.
IMAGISME IS NOT symbolism. The symbolists dealt in “association,” that is, in a sort of allusion, almost of allegory. They degraded the symbol to the status of a word. They made it a form of metonomy. One can be grossly “symbolic,” for example, by using the term “cross” to mean “trial.” The symbolist’s symbols have a fixed value, like numbers in arithmetic, like 1, 2, and 7. The imagiste’s images have a variable significance, like the signs a, b, and x in algebra.
Moreover, one does not want to be called a symbolist, because symbolism has usually been associated with mushy technique.
On the other hand, Imagisme is not Impressionism, though one borrows, or could borrow, much from the impressionist method of presentation. But this is only negative definition. If I am to give a psychological or philosophical definition “from the inside,” I can only do so autobiographically. The precise statement of such a matter must be based on one’s own experience.
In the “search for oneself,” in the search for “sincere self-expression,” one gropes, one finds some seeming verity. One says “I am” this, that, or the other, and with the words scarcely uttered one ceases to be that thing.
I began this search for the real in a book called Personae, casting off, as it were, complete masks of the self in each poem. I continued in long series of translations, which were but more elaborate masks.
Secondly, I made poems like “The Return,” which is an objective reality and has a complicated sort of significance, like Mr. Epstein’s “Sun God,” or Mr. Brzeska’s “Boy with a Coney.” Thirdly, I have written “Heather,” which represents a state of consciousness, or “implies,” or “implicates” it.
A Russian correspondent, after having called it a symbolist poem, and having been convinced that it was not symbolism, said slowly: “I see, you wish to give people new eyes, not to make them see some new particular thing.”
These two latter sorts of poems are impersonal, and that fact brings us back to what I said about absolute metaphor. They are Imagisme, and in so far as they are Imagisme, they fall in with the new pictures and the new sculpture.
WHISTLER SAID SOMEWHERE in the Gentle Art: “The picture is interesting not because it is Trotty Veg, but because it is an arrangement in colour.” The minute you have admitted that, you let in the jungle, you let in nature and truth and abundance and cubism and Kandinsky, and the lot of us. Whistler and Kandinsky and some cubists were set to getting extraneous matter out of their art; they were ousting literary values. The Flaubertians talk a good deal about “constatation.” “The ‘nineties” saw a movement against rhetoric. I think all these things move together, though they do not, of course, move in step.
The painters realise that what matters is form and colour. Musicians long ago learned that programme music was not the ultimate music. Almost anyone can realize that to use a symbol with an ascribed or intended meaning is, usually, to produce very bad art. We all remember crowns, and crosses, and rainbows, and what not in atrociously mumbled colour.
The Image is the poet’s pigment. The painter should use his colour because he sees it or feels it. I don’t much care whether he is representative or non-representative. He should depend, of course, on the creative, not upon the mimetic or representational part in his work. It is the same in writing poems, the author must use his image because he sees it or feels it, not because he thinks he can use it to back up some creed or some system of ethics or economics.
An image, in our sense, is real because we know it directly. If it have an age-old traditional meaning this may serve as proof to the professional student of symbology that we have stood in the deathless light, or that we have walked in some particular arbour of his traditional paradiso, but that is not our affair. It is our affair to render the image as we have perceived or conceived it.
Browning’s “Sordello” is one of the finest masks ever presented. Dante’s “Paradiso” is the most wonderful image. By that I do not mean that it is a perseveringly imagistic performance. The permanent part is Imagisme, the rest, the discourses with the calendar of saints and the discussions about the nature of the moon, are philology. The form of sphere above sphere, the varying reaches of light, the minutiae of pearls upon foreheads, all these are parts of the Image. The image is the poet’s pigment; with that in mind you can go ahead and apply Kandinsky, you can transpose his chapter on the language of form and colour and apply it to the writing of verse. As I cannot rely on your having read Kandinsky’s Ueber das Geistige in der Kunst, I must go on with my autobiography.
THREE YEARS AGO in Paris I got out of a “metro” train at La Concorde, and 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 that day to find words for what this had meant to me, and I could not find any words that seemed to me worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion. And that evening, as I went home along the Rue Raynouard, I was still trying and I found, suddenly, the expression. I do not mean that I found words, but there came an equation… not in speech, but in little splotches of colour. It was just that–a “pattern,” or hardly a pattern, if by “pattern” you mean something with a “repeat” in it. But it was a word, the beginning, for me, of a language in colour. I do not mean that I was unfamiliar with the kindergarten stories about colours being like tones in music. I think that sort of thing is nonsense. If you try to make notes permanently correspond with particular colours, it is like tying narrow meanings to symbols.
That evening, in the Rue Raynouard, I realized quite vividly that if I were a painter, or if I had, often, that kind of emotion, or even if I had the energy to get paints and brushes and keep at it, I might found a new school of painting, of “non-representative” painting, a painting that would speak only by arrangements in colour.
And so, when I came to read Kandinsky’s chapter on the language of form and colour, I found little that was new to me. I only felt that some one else understood what I understood, and had written it out very clearly. It seems quite natural to me that an artist should have just as much pleasure in an arrangement of planes or in a pattern of figures, as in painting portraits of fine ladies, or in portraying the Mother of God as the symbolists bid us.
When I find people ridiculing the new arts, or making fun of the clumsy odd terms that we use in trying to talk of them amongst ourselves; when they laugh at our talking about the “ice-block quality” in Picasso, I think it is only because they do not know what thought is like, and that they are familiar only with argument and gibe and opinion. That is to say, they can only enjoy what they have been brought up to consider enjoyable, or what some essayist has talked about in mellifluous phrases. They think only “the shells of thought,” as De Gourmont calls them; the thoughts that have been already thought out by others.
Any mind that is worth calling a mind must have needs beyond the existing categories of language, just as a painter must have pigments or shades more numerous than the existing names of the colours.
PERHAPS THIS IS ENOUGH to explain the words in my “Vortex”:–
Every concept, every emotion, presents itself to the vivid consciousness in some primary form. It belongs to the art of this form.
That is to say, my experience in Paris should have gone into paint. If instead of colour I had perceived sound or planes in relation, I should have expressed it in music or in sculpture. Colour was, in that instance, the “primary pigment”; I mean that it was the first adequate equation that came into consciousness. The Vorticist uses the “primary pigment.” Vorticism is art before it has spread itself into flaccidity, into elaboration and secondary applications.
What I have said of one vorticist art can be transposed for another vorticist art. But let me go on then with my own branch of vorticism, about which I can probably speak with greater clarity. All poetic language is the languge of exploration. Since the beginning of bad writing, writers have used images as ornaments. The point of Imagisme is that it does not use images as ornaments. The image is itself the speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.
I once saw a small child go to an electric light switch and say, “Mamma, can I open the light?” She was using the age-old language of exploration, the language of art. It was a sort of metaphor, but she was not using it as ornamentation.
One is tired of ornamentations, they are all a trick, and any sharp person can learn them.
THE JAPANESE HAVE HAD the sense of exploration. They have understood the beauty of this sort of knowing. A Chinaman said long ago that if a man can’t say what he has to say in twelve lines he had better keep quiet. The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.
“The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
That is the substance of a very well-known hokku. Victor Plarr tells me that once, when he was walking over snow with a Japanese naval officer, they came to a place where a cat had crossed the path, and the officer said, “Stop, I am making a poem.” Which poem was, roughly, as follows:–
“The footsteps of the cat upon the snow:
(are like) plum-blossoms.”
The words “are like” would not occur in the original, but I add them for clarity.
The “one image poem” is a form of super-position, that is to say, it is one idea set on top of another. I found it useful in getting out of the impasse in which I had been left by my metro emotion. I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work “of second intensity.” Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:–
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals, on a wet, black bough.”
I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.
This particular sort of consciousness has not been identified with impressionist art. I think it is worthy of attention.
The logical end of impressionist art is the cinematograph. The state of mind of the impressionist tends to become cinematographical. Or, to put it another way, the cinematograph does away with the need of a lot of impressionist art.
THERE ARE TWO OPPOSED ways of thinking of a man: firstly, you may think of him as that toward which perception moves, as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions; secondly, you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing. One does not claim that one way is better than the other, one notes a diversity of the temperament. The two camps always exist. In the ‘eighties there were symbolists opposed to impressionists, now you have vorticism, which is, roughly speaking, expressionism, neo-cubism, and imagism gathered together in one camp and futurism in the other. Futurism is descended from impressionism. It is, in so far as it is an art movement, a kind of accelerated impressionism. It is a spreading, or surface art, as opposed to vorticism, which is intensive.
The vorticist has not this curious tic for destroying past glories. I have no doubt that Italy needed Mr. Marinetti, but he did not set on the egg that hatched me, and as I am wholly opposed to his aesthetic principles I see no reason why I, and various men who agree with me, should be expected to call ourselves futurists. We do not desire to evade comparison with the past. We prefer that the comparison be made by some intelligent person whose idea of “the tradition” is not limited by the conventional taste of four or five centuries and one continent.
Vorticism is an intensive art. I mean by this, that one is concerned with the relative intensity, or relative significance of different sorts of expression. One desires the most intense, for certain forms of expression are “more intense” than others. They are more dynamic. I do not mean they are more emphatic, or that they are yelled louder. I can explain my meaning best by mathematics.
THERE ARE FOUR DIFFERENT intensities of mathematical expression known to the ordinarily intelligent undergraduate, namely: the arithmetical, the algebraic, the geometrical, and that of analytical geometry.
For instance, you can write
3×3+4×4 = 5×5,
or, differently, 3² + 4² = 5².
That is merely conversation or “ordinary common sense.” It is a simple statement of one fact, and does not implicate any other.
Secondly, it is true that
3²+4²=5², 6²+8²=10², 9²+12²=15², 39²+52²=65².
These are all separate facts, one may wish to mention their underlying similarity; it is a bore to speak about each one in turn. One expresses their “algebraic relation” as
That is the language of philosophy. It MAKES NO PICTURE. This kind of statement applies to a lot of facts, but it does not grip hold of Heaven.
Thirdly, when one studies Euclid one finds that the relation of a²+b²=c² applies to the ratio between the squares on the two sides of a right-angled triangle and the square on the hypotenuse. One still writes it a²+b²=c², but one has begun to talk about form. Another property or quality of life has crept into one’s matter. Until then one had dealt only with numbers. But even this statement does not create form. The picture is given you in the proposition about the square on the hypotenuse of the right-angled triangle being equal to the sum of the squares on the two other sides. Statements in plane or descriptive geometry are like talk about art. They are a criticism of the form. The form is not created by them.
Fourthly, we come to Descartian or “analytical geometry.” Space is conceived as separated by two or by three axes (depending on whether one is treating form in one or more planes). One refers points to these axes by a series of co-ordinates. Given the idiom, one is able actually to create.
Thus, we learn that the equation (x-a)²+(y-b)²=r² governs the circle. It is the circle. It is not a particular circle, it is any circle and all circles. It is nothing that is not a circle. It is the circle free of space and time limits. It is the universal, existing in perfection, in freedom from space and time. Mathematics is dull ditchwater until one reaches analytics. But in analytics we come upon a new way of dealing with form. It is in this way that art handles life. The difference between art and analytical geometry is the difference of subject-matter only. Art is more interesting in proportion as life and the human consciousness are more complex and more interesting than forms and numbers.
This statement does not interfere in the least with “spontaneity” and “intuition,” or with their function in art. I passed my last exam. in mathematics on sheer intuition. I saw where the line had to go, as clearly as I ever saw an image, or felt caelestem intus vigorem.
The statements of “analytics” are “lords” over fact. They are the thrones and dominations that rule over form and recurrence. And in like manner are great works of art lords over fact, over race-long recurrent moods, and over to-morrow.
Great works of art contain this fourth sort of equation. They cause form to come into being. By the “image” I mean such an equation; not an equation of mathematics, not something about a, b, and c, having something to do with form, but about sea, cliffs, night, having something to do with mood.
THE IMAGE IS NOT an idea. It is a radiant node or cluster; it is what I can, and must perforce, call a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing. In decency one can only call it a VORTEX. And from this necessity came the name “vorticism.” Nomina sunt consequentia rerum, and never was that statement of Aquinas more true than in the case of the vorticist movement.
It is as true for the painting and the sculpture as it is for the poetry. Mr. Wadsworth and Mr. Lewis are not using words, they are using shape and colour. Mr. Brzeska and Mr. Epstein are using “planes in relation,” they are dealing with a relation of planes different from the sort of relation of planes dealt with in geometry, hence what is called “the need of organic forms in sculpture.”
I trust I have made clear what I mean by an “intensive art.” The vorticist movement is not a movement of mystification, though I dare say many people “of good will” have been considerably bewildered.
The organization of forms is a much more energetic and creative action than the copying or imitating of light on a haystack.
There is undoubtedly a language of form and colour. It is not a symbolical or allegorical language depending on certain meanings having been ascribed, in books, to certain signs and colours.
Certain artists working in different media have managed to understand each other. They know the good and bad in each other’s work, which they could not know unless there were a common speech.
As for the excellence of certain contemporary artists, all I can do is to stand up for my own beliefs. I believe that Mr. Wyndham Lewis is a very great master of design; that he has brought into our art new units of design and new manners of organisation. I think that his series “Timon” is a great work. I think he is the most articulate expression of my own decade. If you ask me what his “Timon” means, I can reply by asking you what the old play means. For me his designs are a creation on the same motif. That motif is the fury of intelligence baffled and shut in by circumjacent stupidity. It is an emotional motif. Mr. Lewis’s painting is nearly always emotional.
MR. WADSWORTH’S WORK gives me pleasure, sometimes like the pleasure I have received from Chinese and Japanese prints and painting; for example, I derive such pleasure from Mr. Wadsworth’s “Khaki.” Sometimes his work gives me a pleasure which I can only compare to the pleasure I have in music, in music as it was in Mozart’s time. If an outsider wishes swiftly to understand this new work, he can do worse than approach it in the spirit wherein he approaches music.
“Lewis is Bach.” No, it is incorrect to say that “Lewis is Bach,” but our feeling is that certain works of Picasso and certain works of Lewis have in them something which is to painting what certain qualities of Bach are to music. Music was vorticist in the Bach-Mozart period, before it went off into romance and sentiment and description. A new vorticist music would come from a new computation of the mathematics of harmony, not from a mimetic representation of dead cats in a fog-horn, alias noise-tuners.
Mr. Epstein is too well known to need presentation in this article. Mr. Brzeska’s sculpture is so generally recognized in all camps that one does not need to bring in a brief concerning it. Mr. Brzeska has defined sculptural feeling as “the appreciation of masses in relation,” and sculptural ability as “the defining of these masses by planes.” There comes a time when one is more deeply moved by that form of intelligence which can present “masses in relation” than by that combination of patience and trickery which can make marble chains with free links and spin out bronze until it copies the feathers on a general’s hat. Mr. Etchells still remains more or less of a mystery. He is on his travels, whence he has sent back a few excellent drawings. It cannot be made too clear that the work of the vorticists and the “feeling of inner need” existed before the general noise about vorticism. We worked separately, we found an underlying agreement, we decided to stand together.
I am often asked whether there can be a long imagiste or vorticist poem. The Japanese, who evolved the hokku, evolved also the Noh plays. In the best “Noh” the whole play may consist of one image. I mean it is gathered about one image. Its unity consists in one image, enforced by movement and music. I see nothing against a long vorticist poem.
On the other hand, no artist can possibly get a vortex into every poem or picture he does. One would like to do so, but it is beyond one. Certain things seem to demand metrical expression, or expression in a rhythm more agitated than the rhythms acceptable to prose, and these subjects, though they do not contain a vortex, may have some interest, an interest as “criticism of life” or of art. It is natural to express these things, and a vorticist or imagiste writer may be justified in presenting a certain amount of work which is not vorticism or imagisme, just as he might be justified in printing a purely didactic prose article. Unfinished sketches and drawings have a similar interest; they are trials and attempts toward a vortex.
NOTES in the text:
1. The image has been defined as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”
2. Appearing in the July number of Blast.
3. Mr. Flint and Mr. Rodker have made longer poems depending on a similar presentation of matter. So also have Richard Aldington, in his In Via Sestina, and “H. D.” in her Oread, which latter poems express much stronger emotions than that in my lines here given. Mr. Hueffer gives an interesting account of a similar adventure of his own in his review of the Imagiste anthology.
More on this topic in The Fortnightly Review: The Vorticists in London, a review by Andrew Thacker.
Also: Listening to the Dead, an examination of Pound’s First Canto, by Anthony O’Hear.
Citation: This article was first published in the Fortnightly Review 96 [n.s.], 1 September 1914, pp461–471.