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Ezra Pound wrote a very short poem entitled "In a Station of the Metro". It is, in full:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

What kind of meaning and symbolism is packed into these fourteen words? What is the symbolic connection between faces and petals? Why is the bough black and wet? What is the significance of the word "apparition", which could be an old word for "appearance" but nowadays is more likely to suggest "ghost"? Do we know in which city is the titular metro station, or even which station Pound might have been thinking of? Why did he write these lines about a metro station?

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Interpretation

‘Apparition’ means simply ‘appearance’ (the poet is thinking about the way the faces looked), or ‘the action of becoming visible’ (the faces suddenly stood out from the crowd to the poet), or ‘phantom’ (the particular faces are not really there, only suggested to the poet by the crowd).

‘These faces in the crowd’ means ‘the faces of all these people in the crowd’ (which resemble a scattering of petals) or ‘the faces of these particular people in the crowd’ (which stand out from the rest of the crowd like the petals from the bough), or (if we take ‘apparition’ in the sense of ‘phantom’) ‘these faces suggested to the poet by the crowd’.

The ‘petals’ may be real (there is a tree outside the Metro station), or metaphorical, or there is no specific connection. If metaphorical, the comparison may be suggested by the contrast between the faces and something black, whether it is the black floor tiles inside the station, or the black clothing of the crowd, or the black road outside the station. Or the comparison may be to the delicacy and impermanence of the petals, suggesting the fleeting glimpse of a face in a crowd, or perhaps the fleeting nature of human life in general (bolstered by ‘apparition’ meaning ‘ghost’, ‘bough’ meaning ‘gallows’ and ‘black’ meaning ‘foreboding’). If no specific connection, the two images are juxtaposed because they provoked a similar mood in the poet, or a contrasting mood.

The petals are ‘on a bough’ because they are flowering from buds on the bough, or because they have wilted and fallen onto the bough from higher on the tree. The bough is ‘wet’ because it is raining outside the Metro, or because it is coated in early morning dew. The bough is ‘black’ because that is the colour of the bark (for example, it is a species of Betula), or because it is covered in soot from atmospheric pollution (the poem being written in the 1910s when coal burning was the main source of energy), or because wet things appear dark in colour.

(This approach inspired by William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity.)

Origin

In 1916, Pound published an essay, ‘Vorticism’, which includes a discussion of the origin and composition of the poem.

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.

Ezra Pound (1916). Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, p. 100. London: John Lane.

The form that his poem eventually took was inspired by the Japanese hokku (better known now as haiku):

The Japanese have evolved the still shorter form of the hokku.

The fallen blossom flies back to its branch:
A butterfly.*

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.

Pound, pp. 102–3.

* ‘落花枝にかへると見れば胡蝶哉’ by Arakida Moritake.

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