Literary Impressionism

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

The Iris Garden at Giverny / Claude Monet

I saw a video online at the New York Times site today that made me think about Impressionism in the visual arts, and about how much more comfortable people are about allowing art forms like film and painting to be impressionistic, while believing that literary art should be more more solidly linear and narrative (that is, more easily seen, grasped and understood.)  Watch the video, titled “Tunnel Vision” (by Jeff Scher, not to be confused with the Justin Timberlake music video of the same name, in which nudity leaves an impression of a different sort) and see what impressions you get.

Tunnel Vision

It’s obvious in some bits of Scher’s video that what you’re seeing is a subway: lights flash, stations pass,  tunnels and machinery catch the light.  You even see people waiting for trains and – later – sitting on a  train, so in that sense you have some narrative, or the impression of a narrative. But for much of the video/film, you are not quite sure of what you’re seeing. You immediately want to watch it again and let it pour over you again. The music (composed by Shay Lynch) helps form your idea of the “tonal register” of this narrative as it begins – not somber, but playful; in fact, it’s almost flirtatious. (I hear a music box, with layered counterpoints entering in.) Then the counterpoints disappear, and the music-box returns immediately.  Toward the ending, the layers are like sheets of vellum, each layer having a traced image and a musical tenor, each layer playing off another, then another.  So the narrative that this film proposes is like collage. It’s multi-layered, yet no one would call it “difficult” or “gimmicky.” Instead, it’s elegant, as is this painting by French Impressionist Paul Signac:

Paul Signac 1863-1935

Paul Signac 1863-1935

I’m curious about why other art forms can be figuratively and literally more blurred and impressionistic than their literary equivalents.  And I have a  guess or two:

  • Maybe it’s the fact that the viewer enjoys making sense out of random visual impressions, which can happen without much effort. Our brains can process images much more quickly than words.
  • Maybe it’s just the length of the piece – the film is less than five minutes long, and people can put up with fragments for awhile, but not for extended periods. That would explain why fiction has trouble being collage-like and holding all the pieces together — it’s just too long not to be more direct and less fragmentary.
  • Maybe writers haven’t tried, or publishers haven’t been brave enough, and readers have been restricted by their expectations….

But how to explain people’s desire for poetry to be easily understood in one reading, a one-layer phenomena? Poetry is short enough to allow for impressionism – it doesn’t often take more than five minutes to read through a poem. But if a poem does as this film does in the same amount of time – a five-minute read-aloud presenting layered impressions without a solid narrative – bursts of images, but no easy message/story – it’s called “difficult” and “opaque.”  Even fiction gets away with a mosaic-like structure more often than poetry does. In general, readers ask popular poetry (Mary Oliver, Billy Collins)  to have a clear, precise narrative line, announcing its meaning clearly.

Why is that? Why do so many people allow the visual arts to tell a story through impressions, quick brushstrokes and glances (as in the painting by Monet which opens this post?)

Is the same effect allowed in poetry  and fiction?  Usually with fuzzy, impressionistic narrative lines (collaged, multi-layered, fragmentary) a great moan goes up about how obscure it all is. Any theories for what’s behind that? Why do readers want clean edges from poetry yet allow visual art a more complicated line?

[I wonder about these things while I wash the dishes! What would I do without the New York Times to set me wondering each morning…?]

attack of the difficult poems

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6 Comments

by | August 1, 2013 · 1:01 am

6 responses to “Literary Impressionism

  1. Wonderful post, Julie. I think that readers sometimes give writers more leeway for impressionism when the poem is organized & propelled by a conspicuous formal principle (as is true in many early Ashbery poems, in the Dream Songs, in a lot of Heather McHugh’s poems, etc.) — because for readers to engage actively rather than passively with the poem, they need something that they can read or listen for & anticipate. That something can be narrative, but I think it can also be formal variation. Maybe the same could be said for tonal variation — I guess time will tell whether the anticipation of tonal switches is enough to keep readers engaged!

  2. Julie Larios

    That’s interesting, James – I hadn’t thought about formal principles providing readers with an organizing structure they can lean against. Of course, if we’re talking about Ashbery or McHugh, then we’re talking about sophisticated readers, right? I’m still wondering why a relatively unsophisticated viewer can walk into a museum, see Monet’s lilies at their least delineated and love them, while a poem with that kind of blurry “vision” would be read once by that same unsophisticated soul and be discarded as “too hard.” Do people need to “get” poems more than they need to “get” visual art? Or maybe people simply respond to the colors of the Impressionists and don’t need to “get” anything else? Hmmmm…more thinking needed. I like your idea of anticipation being part of the active process of a reader (which is certainly true – and visible – in poetry for young children, where anticipation plays a key role in their pleasure.) Kids seem to have a higher tolerance for blurred edges (nonsense/nursery rhymes) and respond to sound maybe the same way people respond to color in the visual arts.

    • Yeah, those are such great, thought-provoking questions, Julie. I wish I knew the answers.

      I sometimes wonder whether many people just get introduced to poetry in the wrong spirit; some high-school & middle-school curricula place so much emphasis on understanding poetry — as opposed to enjoying it — that maybe some students come away with the idea that poems exist simply to be interpreted. I definitely thought of poems that way, back in my teens & early 20s. A painting, on the other hand — well, everyone knows that a painting is supposed to be beautiful.

      Don’t get me wrong! I sure don’t blame teachers. I think it’s wonderful that kids study poems at school, and I know you can’t grade students on their sheer enjoyment of poetry,

      So true about children! During the last year, I’ve noticed that many of our toddler’s favorite books — “The House in the Night,” “Goodnight Moon,” Sandra Boynton books etc. — rely on repetition & rhyme. Now our son seems to be getting interested in narrative, too, maybe because he’s starting to understand the stories better.

      Anyway, thanks so much for this great post, Julie. Really enjoyed reading & thinking about it. I’d better get back to work!

  3. What a wonderful post, Julie! And a nifty response, Jim. (I MISS our Interlochen crew!) In looking at the video, Julie, it struck me that the film focused, as so many poems do, especially those of Basho, on ONE thing interpreted or viewed from different perspectives. The camera rode above, below, inside, outside, in front, and behind the subway car. We were anchored to a single subject, while we experimented with ways to see/feel/experience it. Alternating view points of the same event in a novel; thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird; Basho looking at autumn branches through the lens of loss. All of which is to say, I think Jim’s point about form and flying is well taken.

  4. Julie Larios

    A colleague recently pointed out that the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets often honor sound over meaning – that is, they want the reader to make meaning from something that employs “language” with no meaning (all meaning being an activity of the reader, not the writer, apparently.) That kind of work drives me crazy (though some of the poets who were precursors of it are enjoyable – Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons has a lot of fun, ditto much of Frank O’Hara.) I like blurred edges, but I’m uncomfortable with taking it so far that the image is lost completely. In visual art, the equivalent (for example, a painting which has gradations of color, but no real object as its focus) also leaves me cold. My sister can stand in front of a painting by Mark Rothko and love it – I need her to help me see why. For me, Ezra Pound’s formula has always made the most sense: poetry involves phanopoeia (image), melopoeia (music), and logopoeia (“the dance of intellect among words.”) Any one of them without the other is diminished.

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