Program: 20th Century American Literature
“The apparition of these faces in the crowds: /Petals on a wet, black bough.” My first reaction on reading Ezra Pound’s 1916 poem In a Station of the Metro was that of outrage. Is it a poem by any definition? If it is a poem, how is it to be interpreted and understood? And finally, what are the implications that this poem has produced for the twentieth- century American literature?
My initial bewilderment subsided as I realized that there must a raison d’etre behind this apparently bizarre literary phenomenon. What I should do is to put this poem into the context of the American literary evolution and literary history. At least, the poem raises an important challenge. It requires me to understand some of the crucial changes that must be happening around the turn of the last century.
My subsequent studies indicate that this poem represents part of the larger literary movement known as Imagism, which included such theorists and practitioners as T. E. Hume, Hilda Doolittle, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, etc. The movement was a direct reaction to the late Victorian poetry, which had become extremely artificial, emptily “rhetorical” and “ornamental”. To address such problems, it was necessary to loosen the metrical pattern and bring it back closer to the rhythms of ordinary speech. Consequently, the “imagist” movement had a great deal to do with promoting experiments with free verse, advocating among many creeds the need “to allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject” and “to produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.” When Archibald MacLeish said in his Ars Poetica (1926) that “A poem should not mean / But be”, he had similar concerns in his mind. Imagism, minor as it is as a literary movement, triggered important changes in literary criticism, introducing the notion of internal studies as embodied by New Criticism to substitute the conventional critical practices.
The foregoing incident is but one instance that happened in my study of literature. For a Chinese student like me, it has at least two important implications. First, a literary work must not be treated in isolation. It interacts with what is written before it and after it and this historical perspective is one way in which we may add to our interpretation. Second, it is important to be acquainted with relevant literary theories when interpreting a given literary work.
A student majoring in English (& International Trade) at the English Department of XX University, I grew increasingly interested in literature during the second half of my undergraduate program. Of course, I was trained to be a student of English language in the first place and as such I received the standard academic training typical of a student of English major. For the first two years, I primarily had intensive trainings in basic English language skills by attending courses in advanced listening, writing, reading and oral communication. My distinguished academic performance is demonstrated by the four consecutive first-class and second-class scholarships I won from 1999 to 2003. In 2001, I was awarded the second prize in the campus-wide English composition contest and in 2002 the first prize in the translation contest. Another indicator of my scholastic achievements is the honor of Outstanding Graduate of XX Province that I received by the time I completed my undergraduate program.
I started reading English novels as soon as I began my undergraduate program. But I primarily used it as a way to increase my vocabulary and to improve my reading comprehension. Since the second year in my undergraduate program, our curriculum included five major courses related to Anglo-American literature and culture: Selected Readings in English Literature, Selected Readings in American Literature, Introduction to European Culture, The History of English and American Literature, Selected Readings in English & American Fictions. Those courses provided me with a cultural and historical framework with which to understand Anglo-American literature and to know their interrelationships. I grew familiar with major authors and works in British and American literature and gained tentative knowledge of western critical approaches. Books like Literary Theory—An Introduction by Terry Eagleton and 20th Literary Criticism edited by David Lodge proved somewhat esoteric to me, but they allowed me to realize that there are important critical approaches very different from those in Chinese literature and different from conventional ones in western literature itself.