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Hi everyone. I just have one link to share with you: Zach Carter's close look at Milton Friedman's influence in The New Republic. Carter got me thinking about a bunch of things: how Friedman understood the immense injustice of South Africa under apartheid, but still gave talks bolstering the ruling class. How "stagflation" was a problem Keynesians couldn't explain or solve, and neither could Milton Friedman's libertarianism, but accountability disappears when you tell certain people what they want to hear. How monetarism can be academically rigorous and even insightful, and still be radically unsuitable to base policy upon.
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Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro"
I am scared to talk about the years in which I had all the awareness of a really useless rock. Part of my apprehension lies in knowing I should have been far more ashamed of my ignorance then. How much more ashamed should I be right now? I like to think I know what I’m doing. But reading can be a way of avoiding reality. Writing used to tell myself what I want to hear. Listening, too, can be pure self-indulgence.
I don’t know exactly what I’m doing. I have to guess at what’s good, then evaluate. With that said, it seems helpful to have a year in my life where I know for certain I didn’t know anything. At the least, I can say “Here’s how I am better now.” However, it probably doesn’t speak well of me that I find myself picking on my 15 year old self. Sophomore year of high school I felt utterly lost, walking numb from class to class, eager to dispense bad advice to others when not trying to ignore everything else.
Scraps of an American Literature class have stayed with me. I remember only the look of the textbook’s page about Anne Bradstreet. It came to mind when writing about Kay Ryan’s “New Rooms” recently. I have a much more distinct memory of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” When we opened to it in class, it was bewildering. Someone can write this little? And call it art? I didn’t feel the poem was bad, though. Didn’t dare mock it for a second. Maybe because of the word “Metro,” the Paris Metropolitan, which when defined for us demanded we pretend we can engage classy, European things. Then again, I’ve never had an urge, not even for a moment, to mock Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” or “This is Just to Say.”
In a Station of the Metro (from Poetry) Ezra Pound The apparition of these faces in the crowd: Petals on a wet, black bough.
“In a Station of the Metro” is an unusually active title. Much has been said about the two lines of the poem’s body using haiku-like superposition. The title, though, serves as more than a statement of setting. Generations of Americans, for example, have experienced Paris as a place of a certain romance, including Jefferson, Hemingway, and Pitbull. Paris isn’t magic and only magic; perhaps Pound witnesses a daily commute. Still, “Metro” and “apparition” can speak to each other. “Station” also does not stand alone. Consider: “Station,” “apparition,” “faces,” “petals.” The poem’s common nouns move from the concrete to the ghostly to the human to the vegetative.
What is at stake? A mode of reading where immediacy finds itself most questionable. A number of critics invoke Hugh Kenner’s statement about the word “apparition:” ‘Apparition’ reaches two ways, toward ghosts and toward visible revealings. I believe this is as close to a fact as one can get in the interpretation of poetry, a “fact” underlying the commentaries of Rachel Blau Duplessis and Jyan-Lung Lin on this poem. The first deals with the position of femininity and beauty; the second, with “Yugen,” “the sense of a mysterious depth in nature” (1).
Duplessis quotes Pound himself speaking about the poem. Pound says he saw beautiful faces of children and women throughout the Metro. This would indicate an interpretation which places especial weight on the linkage of “faces” and “petals.” Duplessis notes they are already equated through a “symbolist or metaphoric leap” (2). Still, the poem itself does not overtly evoke the feminine or depend on gender for interpretation. She concludes that the poem itself is a “juxtaposition” of two ideas about poetry: that beauty and femininity matter in the construction of poetry, and also that they don’t matter.
Pound’s own impression of humanity is gendered. He may have been inclined to write an essay extolling the greatness of fascism shortly after completing this poem. However, I believe it is significant that the apparition he claims to have seen is of “faces,” of “petals.” Flowers do not have to be coded as feminine. They can symbolize growth, possibility, vulnerability. The natural world, the common man, even aristocratic houses. “Apparition” takes the spirit of what he saw and renders another image entirely. Is that image a deeper truth, one of Nature, illuminating what humanity is? Or a marker of what was immediate, never to be experienced again?
I’m not arguing a feminist approach to this poem is problematic. Duplessis is certainly convincing and thorough. I do feel the poetic object, in this case, transcended the poet’s limitations. We’re all vulnerable, faces in the crowd, petals on a wet, black bough. Pound reached toward that idea through his conception of the feminine. There may be a day where that has to be explained in detail to readers, as they’re unaware of how gender and poetic tropes operated for centuries. Those readers will more readily see the humanism of a poem written, ironically enough, by a literal fascist.
Jyan-Lung Lin argues this lyric has “the mood of Yugen.” “The word Yugen actually represents two Chinese written characters… literally meaning depth and mystery.” He follows Stryk in defining it as “the sense of a mysterious depth in nature” (3).
I do not want to gloss over this word. It speaks to people in ways I cannot possibly imagine. I think of it like the word “grace.” I personally want to be graceful and gracious. Dextrous in how I deal with problems, gentle in how I deal with people, always giving while seeing others as worthy. It’s a nearly mystical vision of oneself which doesn’t quite equate with saying “we have standards we can’t live up to.” I have to admit the religious overtones of “grace” matter—you don’t give up on the vision no matter how remote it seems. For some self-proclaimed believers, this can be deranging. They see themselves as full of grace even as they hurt others without remorse. For others, including those who are secular, it’s about learning to accept your mistakes and the immense difficulties reality places on moral attitudes and action.
With that in mind, what is a “sense of a mysterious depth in nature?” It may not speak to us in explicit moral terms, but it does speak to a mystery attending our perception of the world and our role in it. The Poetry Pea (h/t Isabella Mori) helpfully provides synonymous expressions: a “sense of almost being able to touch that profound reality that underlies existence” (4); “the power to evoke, rather than the ability to state directly” (5).
Jyan-Lung Lin sees the poem as having the mood of cosmic balance, an inner and outer nature being expressed at once. Night and day, life and death, and an assortment of critical oppositions can be seen throughout. I think this is the right path, but we should again examine the centrality of “apparition.” Apparition speaks the ghostly as well as the real as revealed. Knowledge, one could say, in the manner of revelation. If one feels one has received a divine revelation, that usually cuts against science or what everyone else considers knowledge. But this happens, too: sometimes, you see the truth and you don’t understand it. And you spend your life working backwards to it.
I think that’s how I understand “Yugen” here. “Petals on a wet, black bough”—is Nature fragile? Resilient? Our lives waver between these answers. We assume one or another not just as a practical matter, but as a way of framing everything. It’s a mystery we have to embrace, but more often than not, we cannot. We’ll spend a lifetime getting back to whatever truth is visible in “Petals on a wet, black bough.”
I’m back to the classroom that sophomore year. I remember the discussion of this poem. We put together that he could be on a train, passing by everyone, creating an “apparition” where everyone’s faces looked like a bright blur. Where passing by created a complementary image, not unlike a bough.
I’ve taught now. Won an award for teaching. There are those who would say this wasn’t an acceptable discussion. It wasn’t grounded in the writings about imagism; didn’t demonstrate a break with realism and romanticism; didn’t do any justice to feminist concerns or the Eastern genres with which Pound was familiar.
I’m just thinking what a mess I was. All I had was my grades, and that year, I didn’t even have that. I had people who would listen, but I didn’t know how to talk about what mattered unless specifically prompted. And there’s no way I would have been able to talk about what was really going on at that time. It’s been 25 years, and that’s still a challenge.
What I have is the poem and the memory of its discussion. It serves as a gateway to a past filled with stories I am fighting to remember and complications the most sensitive can struggle to see. This is not the part where I thank the teacher or declare literature a minor miracle; those things are implicit in my writing anything. The easy part is realizing you were given something great. The hard part is realizing that you were lucky to survive.
Notes and References
(1) Both quotations, including Kenner's, are from Jyan-Lung Lin's "Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ as a Yugen Haiku." Relevant excerpts online at Modern American Poetry: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/jyan-lung-lin-station-metro
(2) from Rachel Blau Duplessis' "Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934." Relevant excerpts online at Modern American Poetry: https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/rachel-blau-duplessis-station-metro