Imagist Poetry and It’s Accessibility

I was going to write today about Litro‘s theme of the month: wildlife. Then last night I read something that reminded me of another item from the current issue, so I’m going to focus on that this week instead.

This month’s Litro carries a feature about Poems on the Underground, which you can read here. It’s good to hear that the scheme has taken off in so many other cities, and that the founders of the scheme believe poetry is alive and well. I, for one, have been pleased whenever I’ve come across one of the project’s poems while travelling on the tube. Not only does it beat trying to dodge eye contact in the train cars, but the poems are as fine a selection as you could hope for.

Poetry is a strange beast. Commercially it seems to be forever drawing its last breaths, but measuring the commercial success of a thing is a very myopic way to judge its health, and if you look beyond the sales figures you realise that thousands of people are dabbling in it. Poetry’s problem seems to be a perception that it’s inaccessible, but that’s something movements like Poems on the Underground are doing a great job of fighting. The book I was reading last night that prompted this blog is some of the most accessible writing (of any kind) I’ve come across. It’s a slim but comprehensive collection of Imagist poetry published by Penguin, and it’s a good jumping on point if you’re looking for some straightforward poetry. Imagism is appealing to a novelist like me because its entire focus is on—you guessed it—the description of an image. Here’s one from last night’s reading session that celebrates the big smoke.


F S Flint


London, my beautiful,  

it is not the sunset  

nor the pale green sky  

shimmering through the curtain  

of the silver birch,

nor the quietness;  

it is not the hopping  

of birds  

upon the lawn,  

nor the darkness

stealing over all things  

that moves me.  


But as the moon creeps slowly  

over the tree-tops  

among the stars,

I think of her  

and the glow her passing  

sheds on men.  


London, my beautiful,  

I will climb

into the branches  

to the moonlit tree-tops,  

that my blood may be cooled  

by the wind.


This was written in 1920 (which is why I can reproduce it here) by a man who eventually performed the (presumably uncommon) career move of ditching poetry in favour of economics. But for something approaching its centenary, I think it’s incredibly current. Poetry’s great like that.

Here’s another one from an imagist. It’s Amy Lowell, and you might notice a theme in there:


A London Thoroughfare. 2 A.M.

Amy Lowell (1914)


They have watered the street,

It shines in the glare of lamps,

Cold, white lamps,

And lies

Like a slow-moving river,

Barred with silver and black.

Cabs go down it,


And then another.

Between them I hear the shuffling of feet.

Tramps doze on the window-ledges,

Night-walkers pass along the sidewalks.

The city is squalid and sinister,

With the silver-barred street in the midst,


A river leading nowhere.

Opposite my window,

The moon cuts,

Clear and round,

Through the plum-coloured night.

She cannot light the city;

It is too bright.

It has white lamps,

And glitters coldly.


I stand in the window and watch the moon.

She is thin and lustreless,

But I love her.

I know the moon,

And this is an alien city.


Lowell didn’t strike out in economics, so her work is easier to come upon. You’ll find several of her collections at Project Gutenberg, available to read in their entirety.

With accessibility in mind, I’m not sure what I make of the BBC’s recent poll that found T. S. Eliot to be the nation’s favourite poet. The Wasteland, of course, is another poem about London, and although I think it’s an incredible work of art (that “unreal city” piece does it for me time and time again), it’s as opaque as they come. Maybe the poll results are an encouragement: people don’t feel they have to understand something in its entirety to take meaning and enjoyment from it. People don’t feel they need to know how a song was composed, or even what the lyrics mean, to listen to it on record, so why shouldn’t the same principals apply to a poem? I hope this is the case—or maybe I’m just the only person in the country who doesn’t fully understand the poem.

Ali Shaw

About Ali Shaw

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

Ali Shaw is the author of the novels The Man who Rained and The Girl with Glass Feet, which won the Desmond Elliot Prize and was shortlisted for the Costa First Book Award. He is currently at work on his third novel.

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