Long Thoughts on a Short Verse

The first thing most people notice when they read Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is how amazingly short it is – just two lines, plus a title. By making the work so brief, Pound successfully denies the reader a sense of closure or fulfillment after finishing the poem, which emphasizes the work’s implication of the anonymity and listlessness of the people in the titular metro station. Although Pound certainly could have made the work longer and more developed, the work is ultimately strengthened by denying the reader any development of its central idea.

The primary result of Pound’s denial of closure in “In a Station of the Metro” is the sense that the poem is just a passing observation of a morning commuter. First, one should notice that the full poem consists of a sentence fragment. This gives the impression that the work is incomplete, that the writer has either just started or just now had the inspiration to write. This effect is significant to the poem’s theme because it implies that even the poet does not have the time or motive to fully develop what sounds like a very promising start to a work.

Also significant to the theme is that there is not a single verb in the poem. At first glance, this looks like a simple case of a poet who forgot his copy of The Elements of Style, but the lack of a verb means there is a lack of action in the work. Generally, a metro station is full of people, as Pound implies it is now in the poem, and whenever there are a lot of people there is a lot of action. In a metro station trains are constantly coming and going, passengers file on and off the train, buy tickets, and so on. By leaving out any real description of action, though, Pound successfully does two things. First, he creates a sense of irony by contrasting the commotion and frenzied pace of a metro station with a poem in which nothing actually happens. The effect of the irony is to cause the reader to consider more deeply the pace and nature of modern life. The poem’s sense of irony is furthered by the analogy around which the work hinges, between faces in a crowded metro and “petals on a wet, black bough.” This calm, natural scene creates a sense of quiet contemplation, contrasted with and, implicitly, preferable to the scene in the metro.

Second, the lack of a verb in the poem creates a sense of distance between the narrator and the scene he is describing, which can be viewed in one of two ways. It can be read in the negative sense that the narrator is so detached from the scene that he cannot even describe it accurately. Alternatively, and more likely Pound’s intention, it can be read positively in the sense that the narrator is beginning to understand the true nature of the scene in the metro. The positive explanation is more likely because the observation indicates an enlightened narrator through the aptness of the analogy.

Although “In a Station of the Metro” does feature a powerful visual image, the poem’s theme is best expressed in the simple technique of playing with English grammar. By discarding as basic a compositional rule as having a predicate, Pound both intensifies his poem and, arguably, sets up a useful precedent for students wishing to justify poor grammar.

I don’t know how many people browse through my archives, but perhaps I should admit that the above is a heavily revised version of this ancient post, which itself is a reworked version of an essay written for a class. What can I say? “Metro” is one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets, so I’m always eager to revisit it.

Leave a Reply