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Friday, May 13, 2011

Zooming in Zooming Out

I once went to an exhibit of a minor Impressionist, some pal of Monet's or somebody, a fellow-painter who never quite made the grade.  It only took seeing one canvas to understand why he was a minor Impressionist.  It was a mountainscape of misty, snowy peaks, purples and ambers feathering into each other.  I think a blustery sky came into it somewhere; I can't recall.  What drew the attention was that in the foreground a pine-tree branch swept across the upper quadrant of the painting.  It was as if we were standing behind that pine tree looking at the mountains in the distance.
I bet that painter thought as he was doing the branch, "Look at me go! Now I'm going to cut loose and show 'em what I can really do!"  It really was a sort of marvel.  You could count the needles, and the crusty pinebark was so lovingly rendered, it could have been used in a botany lecture.
The painting sucked.
I didn't want to admire his pine branch.  I wanted to see mountains.
As writers, we're told detail, detail, detail!  (In the North they say, deTAIL, but in the civilized world, we say, DEEtail.)  We're told that the more detailed our descriptions, the better our writing will be. But is this true?  The devil is in the details, the saying goes, but sometimes the devil IS the detail.  We can get so carried away with the damn pinebranch in our line of sight, we forget the mountains in the distance.
Wordsworth, no slouch as a writer, doesn't bother with detail, but gives an entire city in three brushstrokes in "Westminster Bridge:"

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that. mighty heart is lying still!

(So you won't think I'm a smartypants, Cleanth Brooks pointed out the strirring lack of detail of this poem before I ever noticed it.)  I know there are ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples - but it's a vague jumble.  I have a sense that his gaze is traveling from the water to the land.  I know there are houses and a river, but there are no details.  In spite of being smokeless, the view is hazy for me.  But what a wonderful poem; it fills you with that same shock of awe-struck calm (how could those emotions coincide?) that Wordsworth felt.  It is the same sense we get in the Monet painting - a vague and shimmering beauty that is deeply felt but owes itself to the lack of detail.
So when should a writer use a soft focus, and when not?  When should he put gauze over the lens?
Frost has lines that zoom in beautifully in "Birches,"

...life is too much like a pathless wood

Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

Now there's a time for your close-up of a tree branch.  Of course you're going to see that twig, it lashed across your open eye, for God's sake!  And the tickling cobwebs.  There's some vivid detail for you.  It works, of course, because if you've ever had that experience, you know that's all you can think about.  The entire woods for you, the whole world, is those cobwebs and your weeping eye.
It's not enough to number the spikey pine needles, and give a shadow to each scab of bark.  Most of the time you'll have to leave that stuff out unless it's something that must intrude on the character's consciousness.  Otherwise, keep to the soft focus, perhaps, of daily awareness.  That way you'll still see the forest for the trees.

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