In contexts unrelated to poetry, an ideogram is a character or symbol that represents a thing or an idea without expressing its pronunciation. For example, many street signs—such as those in the U.S. representing “construction ahead,” “handicap parking,” or “no parking”—are ideograms. Ideograms that use pictures rather than letters or letterlike symbols are sometimes known as pictograms.
In poetry, an ideogram is a group of juxtaposed words and phrases meant to represent a feeling or an idea. Ezra Pound formulated his “ideogrammic method” after reading the lecture notes of Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa, who had examined the nature of Chinese pictograms. Pound assembled these notes into an essay called The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, which proved influential on Pound’s work and on Modernist poetry in general (particularly on Imagism and descendent movements).
In Chinese characters, Fenollosa and Pound recognized concise, pictorial representations of abstract concepts. For example, the Chinese ideogram representing “east” synthesized the ideograms of “tree” and “sun.” In contrast, Western languages use characters that, out of arbitrary convention, represent sounds, which are assembled into words. (Never mind that most Chinese symbols are, in fact, phonetic; this didn’t matter to Fenollosa and Pound).
Pound’s ideogrammic method was inspired by the mixing and juxtaposition of Chinese characters to represent abstract thoughts. Pound’s idea was that ideogrammic poetry, rather than simply heaping images together, would present a set of items that could be perceived by the reader in a similar manner to how real-life objects and events are perceived. In other words, the process is supposed to mimic human perception. Rather than describing, the poet presents objects in a structured form, sort of like real-world objects arranged in a room.