The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Imagism: An avant-garde, Anglo-American movement in poetry from 1909 to 1917 that originated in London and emphasized concise, direct expression and the presentation of clear, precise images. Key Imagist tenets, as outlined in an anthology of Imagist poetry titled Some Imagist Poems (1915), included: (1) using everyday speech and the “exact word, not the nearly-exact”; (2) creating new rhythms; (3) absolute freedom in choice of subject; (4) presenting an image and “rendering particulars exactly”; (5) producing poetry that is “hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite”; and (6) writing concentrated poetry. Imagists generally employed free verse and prized economy of language.

Imagism drew upon the poetic theory of English writer T. E. Hulme, who championed free verse in “A Lecture on Modern Poetry” (1908) and argued that poetry should be based on accurate presentation of a precise image with no excess verbiage. Starting in 1909, Hulme and other poets began an organized effort to reform the poetry of the time, rejecting sentimentalism and embracing concentrated poetic forms such as the Japanese haiku and tanka; members of the London-based “Eiffel Tower” group aside from Hulme included English poets F. S. Flint and Richard Aldington and American poets Ezra Pound and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), among others. Pound, who emerged as the leader, coined the term Imagism (or, more precisely, Imagiste), publicly launching the movement in 1912 when he submitted poems by H. D. and Aldington for publication in Poetry magazine as Imagiste works. Following the publication of the first Imagist anthology, Des Imagistes (1914), leadership of the movement shifted to American poet Amy Lowell, leading the displaced Pound to refer derogatorily to the movement as “Amygism.” Three additional anthologies of Imagist poetry followed, each titled Some Imagist Poets (1915—17). Years later, after the movement had ended, Aldington edited the Imagist Anthology 1930 (1930), which included original work from most of the contributors to the prior anthologies.

Imagism was relatively short-lived as a movement, yet it signaled the onset of modernism and, unlike the more traditional Georgian poetry of the time, had wide-ranging influence on subsequent poetry, which continues to emphasize the use and juxtaposition of concrete images. Imagism had particular influence on free verse, the Objectivist Poets of the 1930s, and the Beat writers of the 1950s.

EXAMPLES: Pound’s classic, haiku-influenced poem “In a Station of the Metro” (1913):

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Other poets who published as Imagists include John Gould Fletcher, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and William Carlos Williams; Carl Sandburg has also been called an Imagist. Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” (1923) presents a single concrete image that exemplifies his edict about poetry, “No ideas but in things”:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white