What’s Impressionism Got to Do With it?: A Reflection on Showing and Telling

In reflecting on this idea of showing rather than telling in writing, my first thoughts go to some of my favorite Impressionist painters like Monet and Renoir. There is something about the way these artists present their subject matter that seems to be more about showing than telling, and there is something that writers can take from their approach.

Think about Monet’s haystacks or Renoir’s dance or garden party scenes, or his depiction of sisters. These paintings have a smudged quality to them, a blurred and dappled quality, that hints at and intimates the subject matter, rather than bludgeons the viewer over the head with it. The Impressionists were concerned with the play of light on a scene, the influences of nature, and sensual colors. Impressionists gave the viewer just enough to go on, they hinted at deeper meanings beyond the painted scene, and they created a mood, an ambiance. What Monet and Renoir are doing is showing, not telling.

In my own poetry, I find that, consciously or not, I am aiming for an impressionist quality: less telling, less obvious narrative. I like to give my reader flashes of a moment, the texture of an experience, a window into a particular emotion.

The more poetry I read, the more I realize that many poets lean toward a sort of impressionist, nebulous quality that I am attracted to. My conception of what impressionist poetry looks and feels like is somewhat similar to what the imagists were trying to do—folks like Ezra Pound and H.D. But what’s interesting about imagism is that the goal was clarity and finding the precise image to represent the subject. To me, words like clarity and precision seem to not fully represent what these poets do in their work. Take, for example, the famous Pound poem “In a Station of the Metro”:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Many of us probably studied this poem in high school, and many of us were probably surprised, or perhaps annoyed, at its brevity, and its inaccessibility. Yes, it is precise, in the sense that it uses few words, but is it clear? The descriptions here are blurry, smudgy, much like the work of the Impressionist painters. Words like apparition, crowd, petals, wet all point to a blurry reality, and an unclear—at least initially—message. Pound is definitely showing, not telling, here.

Perhaps in this reflection on showing and telling, what is important to remember is that the ideal viewer or reader is not dumb. The reader does not need to be told what a certain image means—perhaps it is enough to show the reader that image and let it sit there, blooming with meaning.

Ray Bradbury was a master at this sort of thing: he would often describe a scene, with characters and dialogue, and then suddenly swoop the reader away from that scene and show them something else: a bird flying over a mountain, a river winding through a canyon, a sunset on some distant shore that the main characters would never see. He would show the reader these things, and trust them to make sense of it, to connect them with the overall meaning of the story.

And maybe at the core of this showing versus telling discussion is trust in our readers. Do we trust our readers enough to make sense of what we show them? Can we trust that we don’t have to explain every angle, every moment, every reaction? Can we be blurry, in the best sense of that word, and show our readers something, and have faith that they will meet us half way?

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2 thoughts on “What’s Impressionism Got to Do With it?: A Reflection on Showing and Telling

  1. Great post – especially about trusting our readers. I know we writers like to write, but at some point we have to let go of the work and give it to a reader who will find things – some that we intended and some that we didn’t.

  2. Prairie, terrific comparisons of poetry, art, and writing. The best of each genre suggests an enormous view with economic use of paint or words. It isn’t the tools so much as the insight of the artist that gives the most universal image.

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