Pound, Ginsberg and Olson: Techniques of Modern and Postmodern Poetry

May 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

With the advent of both modernism and post-modernism, the twentieth century was a time in which poetic expression was extremely diverse. Especially in the aftermath of World War Two, poets sought to widen the scope of their craft; they experimented with minimalism, for example, and strove to accentuate the realism which poetry was capable of conveying. Later, with the post-modernist movement, the struggle to represent things in entirely new ways emerged in ideas as diverse as Expressionism, which placed heavy emphasis on emotion and subjectivity, and Imagism, the focus of which was crisp language and the objective presentation of images. This panoply of ideas produced a veritable spectrum of poetry, and there are three poets in particular who can be considered to be among the most influential: Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Olson. In this essay, their work will be analysed and their poems’ voices compared and contrasted.

It is perhaps prudent to begin with Ezra Pound, as he is credited with developing Imagism, a poetic movement which focused on the economical use of language and conveying a clear and sharp picture. This movement played a massive part in the development of poetry in its entirety, and Pound’s influence was a dominant one for many years. A good example of Pound’s Imagism is his poem “In A Station of the Metro”; it is only fourteen words long, and yet is often considered as thought-provoking as any longer work. The poetic voice contained therein is extremely taciturn, but conveys a number of different things with few words. Generally, the first task when analysing the poetic voice of a piece is finding the speaker and addressee, which is not easy in Pound’s poem. Rather than being deliberately either subjective or objective (for example, by using pronouns), the speaker is not made explicitly clear; viewed in isolation from its title, the poem conveys only a brief image. Taking the title into account, however, opens up the poem to interpretation by establishing the location – a station of the Metro – which invites the reader to view the speaker as a person within the station itself. The addressee is another tricky matter, as again the poem avoids any concrete specifics which might help the reader define it, and even the title does not help. It can be argued, then, that “In A Station of the Metro” represents a speaker inside the crowd, having a fleeting visionary experience which is described in extremely economical language. Understanding this stripped-down style is important for becoming cognizant of the purpose of the poem, and by extension the rest of Pound’s work. He himself commented on his intent in an essay titled “Vorticism”, published in Fortnightly Review in September 1914: upon seeing picturesque people in the Paris Metro, he attempted to describe the feeling he had and wrote of trying to find “words that seemed… worthy, or as lovely as that sudden emotion” (Chilton & Gilbertson, 1990, p. 228). The poem exemplifies Imagism in that it is extremely dense, describes a very clear and precise image (the “wet, black bough”) and has no wasted words. In fact, the speaker’s use of the word “apparition” significantly widens the interpretive scope, as it allows the faces themselves to be, possibly, imaginary. In addition, “the apparition” seems to act as the subject of the sentence, to which the subsequent post-semicolon metaphor can apply. In short, the speaker of this poem uses deliberate ambiguity to disguise the ‘true’ meaning, allowing for significant variation in interpretation, and a lot of it is prompted simply by the use of a single word.

“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” a later poem by Pound, is quite different in terms of length and style. The speaker in this poem is a contentious issue, as not all of the different stanzas of the poem are contiguous and some can be considered to be spoken by different voices than the bulk; as such, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is as much a collection of poems as it is a single long poem. For example, in Poem IV of Part Two, the speaker modulates from third-person into first-person (albeit written as represented speech). In Part One, the poem establishes itself as a narrative poem, describing the difficulties Mauberley has in producing new, exciting poetry in a world which demands mass production and reproducibility – as evidenced by the lines “The age demanded an image/ Of its accelerated grimace” (21/22) and “The age demanded chiefly a mould in plaster/ Made with no loss of time” (29/30). Mauberley’s work is characterised as “wringing lilies from the acorn” (7). This is a potent metaphor, as acorns can symbolise life and potential (the potential to become a giant oak tree, which can live for hundreds of years), and lilies – although beautiful flowers – are short-lived. Thus, Mauberley is not only attempting to wring beauty out of that which is not beautiful, but also sacrificing potential for immediate beauty. Perhaps surprisingly for modernist poetry, “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is teeming with classical references, which were used liberally from the Renaissance onwards; this has a number of effects on the reader, including underscoring the speaker’s assertion that Mauberley was “out of key with his time” (1), and succinctly adding layers of meaning. For example, the speaker simply uses the word “Capaneus” (8), and in doing so conveys the arrogance and hubris of the Greek mythological warrior. This is entirely consistent with Pound’s earlier work, and the general ethos of saying more with fewer words. The truly interesting thing about “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” is that the speaker is often considered to be a proxy for Pound himself; in “The Modulating Voice of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” William V. Spanos states that “Ezra Pound [is] the speaker of the entire sequence and, by equating him throughout with Mauberley, read the poem as Pound’s confession of artistic failure” (Spanos, 1965, p.73). There also exists in the poem a stylistic technique in which the speaker repeats an earlier line, but enclosed in inverted commas, something which is described aptly by Spanos as “an ironic reductive implication” (Spanos, 1965, p.88). Two examples are the repetition of the phrase ‘the age demanded’, and the similar treatment of the line “His true Penelope was Flaubert” (13), repeated in part two, line 5. This technique has the effect of mocking, or trivialising, the previous line, and is another example of making profound statements with as few words as possible.

This modus operandi was not favoured by all poets in the 20th century, however; where Pound was testing the limits of terseness and reticence, others such as Allen Ginsberg were experimenting with stream-of-consciousness writing, which often favoured giving too much information. One classic example is Ginsberg’s Howl, a poem split into three parts (although this essay will focus entirely on part one). Even though it is told much more loquaciously than Pound’s work, their poetic voices share some characteristics: for example, they both use extremely densely packed, referential text. In Howl, however, the entire first section is a continuous sentence, containing only commas until the very end of the section, where there exists a full stop. The pace is extremely fast, and impels the reader to race through the text. In addition, Howl’s speaker constantly seems to employ loose word association, and speaks almost entirely in metaphor; one salient example would be “storefront boroughs of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light” (23), and line six is similar, reading “poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high” (6). This adjective-heavy structure is repeated throughout the poem, and arguably it echoes how the brain works, creating connections and having these loosely associated things arise one after another. It also mirrors the way a strung-out drug addict might talk, adding another layer of meaning to the text. In addition, the narration is first-person – “I saw the best minds of my generation…” (1) – increasing the reader’s involvement and making it seem as if they themselves are having these thoughts. There is also an interesting disconnect here, between the speaker’s assertion that he saw the destruction of the best minds of his generation and the actual conduct of the people about whom he is speaking; a factor which goes some way towards defining the poem’s speaker. They are described as “angelheaded” (4), an unquestionably positive association, but also “cower[ing] in unshaven rooms in underwear” (14), “dragging themselves through the negro streets” (2) and getting “busted… with a belt of marijuana” (16). These are only three examples, but the poem contains many more references to actions and deeds which would have been unthinkable for the public at the time, such as homosexual sex and, of course, drug abuse. The effect of attributing these things to the “best minds” the speaker knows could have been to legitimise these practices; however, the description of hopeless addiction and empty sexual encounters contradicts this, leaving only one explanation: that the speaker overlooks these factors when deciding exactly whom to admire, possibly because the speaker has personally had these experiences. In the foreword to Howl and Other Poems, William Carlos Williams states that he believes this: “it is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who has gone, in his own body, through the horrifying experiences described from life in these pages” (Williams, 2006, p.8). In any case, this conclusion says a lot about the speaker, who clearly separates actions from thoughts, and the brutal, punishing honesty of the poem makes it seem more real, as if it is being spoken without an audience. This is one of the ways in which “Howl” is considered poetry, rather than prose; in Reading Poetry: An Introduction by Tom Furniss and Michael Bath, it is stated that “poetry is supposed to be the private meditation of the poet, produced spontaneously and with no consciousness of, or designs upon, a listener or reader” (Furniss & Bath, 2007, p.219). While this is, of course, not always true, it underlines and emphasises the honesty of the speaker, allowing the reader to trust them more implicitly.

One of the poems for which it is not true is “I, Maximus of Gloucester, To You” by Charles Olson. For the purposes of analysis, this poem will be treated as a long, continuous one, and each individual short poem referred to by number. Again, Furniss’s & Bath’s assertion that poetry has “no consciousness” of an audience is patently untrue for this poem; in fact, the poem presupposes an audience to the extent that the audience (“you”) is mentioned in the title. As such, it lacks the raw emotional honesty of Howl, tempering its veracity (somewhat) with politeness as the poet is not alone in the poetic space in which he writes (or speaks). The title specifies Maximus as the speaker of the poem, though does not identify an addressee. In Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde, Libbie Rifkin addresses this very point, saying that “from the outset, Maximus is defined by where he stands, and spatially if not rhetorically, this is indeterminate territory” (Rifkin, 2000, p.40). This point is in reference to the statement in the poem that Maximus speaks from “off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood” (1); the ambiguity of this line leaves the reader unsure of the speaker’s physical or metaphorical location. One has to search the poem extensively to find an addressee, and Olson’s use of parentheses muddies the waters, since he regularly opens them without closing them, or closes them much later in the poem than one would expect. In fact, there isn’t a single direct addressee in the text, despite the speaker being quite prone to apostrophe: in poem 1, he exclaims “o kylix” (6) and “o/ Antony of Padua” (6/7), and in poem 2, “o my lady of good voyage” (11). None of these, however, occur outside parentheses and thus are not the addressee. This focus on the addressee is important, as both the lack of one and the speaker’s bracketed asides serve to separate him from them, and by extension, from everything. The repeated references to birds – such as the “nest” (8) and “the bird” (8) in poem 1 – also contribute to this effect, as the phrase “the mast! flight/ (of the bird” (9/10) strongly implies the idea of a crow’s nest, a looking point from which to view surroundings, rather than to be a part of the scene. Overall, the poem gives the sense of a man separated from his society, which he refers to as a “pejorocracy” (78), a community which decides things based on inferiority. The speaker often repeats form in each poem; for example, in poem 4, “of a bone of a fish/ of a straw, or will/ of a color, of a bell”. The speaker’s statement that “love is form” (20) seems to play out in the writing, which arguably is as much about how it is laid out on the page as it is about the actual words being used.

Each different poet mentioned has their own distinct poetic voice, and certain characteristics are shared among them, while others are not. For example, the repetitive structure of many of Olson’s lines is similar to Ginsberg using “Moloch” to ground his writing. Pound’s arrangement of the words on the page is very deliberate, also, as shown in Pound’s “’Metro’ Hokku”: The Evolution of an Image, in which it is stated that “In A Station of the Metro” “is notable in its typography, broken into blocks of words and punctuation marks divided by unusually wide spaces” (Chilton & Gilbertson, 1990, p.225). This is similar to the arrangement of words used by Olson, in which the typography often reinforces or adds layers to the text, such as the word “forwarding” (34), aligned on the right hand of the page rather than the left; it both says, and embodies, forwarding. All of these techniques, however disparate, represent the rebirth of creativity during the modern and postmodern ages; there was no aspect of the poem as an entity which could not be altered to increase meaning, whether it was the spelling, the syntax, the typography, or any other formal feature. So it can be argued that these are the poets who shaped the poem as it exists now – as a pure expression of emotion, using any variable which can be changed, to convey all that it can.


Chilton, Randolph & Gilbertson, Carol 1990. Pound’s “‘Metro’ Hokku”: The Evolution of an Image, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 36, No. 2. New York, Hofstra University.

Furniss, Tom and Michael Bath 1996. Reading Poetry: An Introduction. London: Prentice Hall.

Ginsberg, Allen (Williams, William Carlos) 1959. Howl and Other Poems, The Pocket Poets Series. San Francisco, City Lights Books.

Rifkin, Libbie 2000. Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-garde. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

Spanos, William V. 1965. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

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