Making Language Strange in Ezra Pound’s Haiku
Writer's comment: I like the way small units of language can sometimes reveal the biggest things. That is why I chose a very tight, technical focus when assigned to discuss “In a Station of the Metro.” This paper called for a Structuralist, Formalist, and Deconstructionist reading of the poem, and I found that “deconstructing” the tiniest things possible (punctuation, function words, etc.) was the most interesting and the most fun.
Instructor's comment: Aaron's literature review on the ecological impacts of the reintroduction of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park was the second of four very interesting papers on the subject. During the quarter in our ENL 104E (Science Writing) class, I saw Aaron take a rich, challenging topic, research it thoroughly, decide what to use out of the wealth of information he dug up, and turn it into four fascinating essays that addressed different audiences and varied purposes. His literature review published here is evidence of Aaron's ability to synthesize multiple sources of information without ever forgetting the needs of his readers and without compromising the integrity of his sources—and he manages it all in elegant, sophisticated prose that maintains his audience's interest throughout the paper.
—Aliki Dragona, University Writing Program
T he best way I could describe literary theory is to cite, in-appropriately, T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock”: to “[squeeze] the universe into a ball” and “roll it toward some overwhelming question.” The image of the entirety of being compressed into one compact plaything is useful in analyzing Ezra Pound’s haiku. While Formalism, Structuralism, and Deconstruction refer to historically different ideas, they all point to the “overwhelming question,” which Eliot poses in the first stanza: “What is it?” So, in the spirit of deranged expatriate modernists, “let us go and make our visit.”
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
A Formalist might note the fact that out of the poem’s 20 words, five are prepositions, and five are articles. Fifty per-cent of this poem is function words. Of the remaining ten, seven are nouns, two are adjectives, and one is a pronoun. There are no verbs. If we group the adjectives with the noun “bough” and call it a noun phrase, and allow “these” to go with the articles group, essentially there are only two things going on in the poem: prepositional phrases and noun phrases.
A sentence is the combination of subject and predicate, noun phrase and verb phrase. The predicate in the “sentence” that is the poem is presumably the second line, which can be said to “predicate” upon the ideas expressed in the line above—especially, from a Structuralist standpoint, the idea of metaphor (in the broader sense of “to predicate,” we can say that the second line runs on the implication that the poem is connected through metaphorical association). The logical place for the predicate is filled by a noun phrase. Furthermore, the colon is used incorrectly—it can only follow an independent clause, and this poem lacks any clause at all. This results in tension, which the reader tries to alleviate by essentially burdening the colon to solve the logistical problem. The reader’s instinct is to naturalize the error, to minimize es-trangement, by linking the first line to the second through me-taphor and attributing this association to the colon placement (and the prepositions, which I’ll get to later). A colon does indeed imply relationship, but only in precise grammatical cir-cumstances, which this “sentence” of course does not have. Yet we naturally assume an A=B analogy, as on the SAT Tests. Faces is to petals what crowd is to bough.
The reader is in effect creating a signifier/signified rela-tionship where there isn’t one, where there is merely the op-portunity for one. The colon plays on the reader’s expecta-tions—what is the apparition of these faces in the crowd like?—but asks him to make a connection that is typically re-served for society: the construction of a signifier/signified rela-tionship. This is the self becoming other, the individual be-coming the collective. As Saussure asserts, “the mind creates as many associative series as there are diverse relations” (Leitch 976). Cognitive psychology will explain why you see a triangle when only three points exist on the page; the success of the entire language system depends on just that principle. The individual takes the role of the societal dictator and, without noticing, essentially invents a relationship between two ideas (the signifier and signified). Saussure’s “associative series” is both individual, familiar, unique; and totally removed, dictated by society. The self must become other in order to function within the language system. In this light, ostranenie (the ability of poetry to estrange its own language by foregrounding it as language) is not merely a function of poetic language but of language itself.
The reader has found in the colon a dumping ground for the extraneous logistical problems in the poem. The preposi-tions help create the idea of metaphor by “parallelizing” the lines. The lines are drawn together by the fact that they have the same directional organization:
Determinate Noun A (prep) Determinate Noun B
Indeterminate Noun X (prep) Indeterminate Noun Y
We feel more able to create a relationship between the lines because they psychologically mirror each other. Prepositional phrases give direction to noun units. This poem is solely con-structed on the idea of one idea being directed toward another, and through reading the poem, the process becomes so second-nature that we direct one entire signifier toward a sig-nified—the second line. The prepositions have already in-stilled in us the idea of relationship. The first word of the title is a preposition. Immediately the poem is stating its purpose as self-reflexive language: it is the agent that can at once signify the concept “in” and yet totally resist the metaphysical impossibility of that very concept. The reader goes “in” because the poem says “in”: he understands that the poem’s reality has now been directed in a specific way toward a specific point. “In” only works in contrast to “out,” so the reader on some level recognizes himself as out, other, positioned on the fringe of something, about to go in. But the word “in” and the poet’s writing it have no actual ability to change the physical status of the reader; it’s just a word, a morpheme. As Saussure says, the signifier is arbitrary. The word pulls but it also subtly resists the reader.
The title says that we are in the Metro, giving it signific-ance and authority, as well as solidarity as the one and only metro in question. The station, however, is one of many, as indicated by the indefinite article, and is thus unimportant, in-consequential. But is it? The station itself could be any sta-tion, anywhere. But for this to be true, it must be every sta-tion, the station that at once assumes and represents a uni-versal prototype that is then a prototype of one aspect of hu-manity, and thus humanity itself. The indefinite article holds within it the conflict between its toss-aside, one-of-many con-notation, and its all-encompassing, broad, universal one. Al-ready, by the second word, the poem can be deconstructed to represent both one thing and its opposite simultaneously.
The title is strange; it is the title and thus a thing, a concept, but because it is a prepositional phrase it has no grammatical authority to be a subject. A prepositional phrase modifies a subject but cannot actually be one. The ambiguity over whether the title is part of the poem rests here: its only essence as a thing is its fact as the title. Its position in physical space, and nothing else, makes it a candidate for “line-ness,” for import on the level of the poem itself. (Ironically, of course, its position in space is also what disqualifies it from that status.) The spatial hierarchy replaces standard logic and grammar, fundamentals of a signifier/signified system. Because we have designated that line “a title,” a thing that names, a significant thing, we ignore its logical problem: what the subject is. How can we continue in the signifier/signified contract when we’ve already granted an exception without hesitation? If the goal of poetic language is estrangement, self-awareness, then this line totally fails. It does nothing to estrange me, in fact I am more weirded out by the fact that I wasn’t weirded out in the first place.
Here lies a subtle but huge point. The phrase, while dangling, incomplete, and incorrect, doesn’t affect the reader as such. This is the ultimate estrangement. Instead of be-coming aware of the strangeness of language, we become aware of our ease at accepting that strangeness. Like a Da-vid Lynch movie, the line plays on the preexisting human fear of the nearness of strangeness: the strangeness not of the other, the out-there axe-murderer, but of someone near, the spouse, the mother, the self. The word “strange” means oth-er, unknown, distant, exotic. But the verb “to estrange” is quite the opposite: to remove from a familiar place. “Es-trange” implies a preexisting nearness. Like Freud’s heimlich, strange is thus an amalgamation of its meaning and its anti-meaning—it’s both the other and the otherness of the self. This latter is the ultimate disconnect, the most terrifying ma-nifestation of estrangement. The title of Ezra Pound’s poem goes there—its otherness comes about as a result of the reader’s sudden self-awareness, not the language’s. The line is our familiar; our acceptance of it estranges us to ourselves.
This deconstructionist interpretation absolutely does not lead to the idea that the poem means nothing at all. We can only see the poem’s hugeness by recognizing its binaries, but these oppositions don’t cancel each other out; rather they magnify each other exponentially. I would argue that instead of proving Yuri Lotman’s idea of information as beauty, this poem shows that beauty is information—Pound’s subtle con-struction of a two-line haiku can lead to “overwhelming ques-tions” about the nature of language and reality. As this essay demonstrates, it is impossible to separate out the different ap-proaches because they all help us understand our process of understanding, which is the information part. Structuralism, Formalism, and Deconstruction are like the three points of that elusive triangle, and analysis is the imaginary line we create. But the real significance lies not in questioning the points but in questioning the lines, and the disconnection required to do that is ostranenie in its broadest sense.
Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 2001.