Attention to Detail

The mouth of Franz Hals' "Laughing Cavalier" is a smear of red highlighted with what looks like toothpaste. Close up you'd be hard pressed to say what the marks represented. By 1851 that style was out of date. Late one summer's evening, Millais rowed across a river to sketch the flowers on the far bank by lamplight. You'll see those impossibly detailed flowers in the Tate's "Ophelia". In contrast there's Picasso's drawings - bare lines on a white expanse - and Schiele's work where areas of untouched canvas compete with highly wrought flesh. Later still came hyper-realism, where painting aspires to photography.

When a poet writes "he rowed across the river to paint flowers", readers are trusted to fill in the details if they wish. It doesn't matter if they erroneously think that daffodils proliferate on the riverbanks. The poet's "flower" is that of a toddler's first doodle: a generic icon. If the writer says that the flowers are "yellow", we wonder why that feature is emphasised. Writers cannot mention without pointing, whether it's at objects or their secondary properties. Because of that, poets have to be as careful as pre-budget chancellors about what they say. Every word matters, but they don't tell the whole story. In contrast, painters cannot paint mere "flowers" - they have to be yellow, drooping, or windblown. Because there are always so many details, none can be singled out.

The world's becoming more graphic, less poetic - we are offered a choice of details to concentrate on rather than being trusted to fill them in. Any lack is a vacuum that must be filled: we have to know the history of each killer, interview those they knew at school, know in which beauty spot the body was buried. If we mistrust what we see our response is to zoom in. There are always more details to find, more trees to obscure our view of the woods. Yet we are scared to get away from it all. Walking in the countryside, we take along our binoculars, our mobile phones and Sunday papers. Even if we notice hosts of daffodils we would no longer describe them as golden - in truth they aren't. Yet facts are often no more than props for poets to feel their way into a poem, scaffolding. Like an actor's false nose, they are as much for the performer as the listener. Like experimental findings, they are useful only for what we can derive from them. We are becoming obsessed by the fine print and the appendices, forgetting the abstracts. Too many writers play safe by giving us everything on the principle that more is better, betraying a lack of self-confidence, an inability to select. The law of diminishing returns applies, further details becoming exhausting rather than exhaustive, obscuring rather than illuminating the original, squeezing the reader out of the text. Picasso was right when he said that it takes a master to know when to stop.

Art ranges from Pure Abstraction to hyper-realism. Poetry too has abstract forms (Schwitters' sound poetry for instance) but its range (excepting perhaps dialogue) doesn't extend to the reproduction of the real world. Poetry has to accept that it can present appearance little better than it can smells, that because the natural world has to be translated into words, all aspects of reality are equally available, equally distant. Poetry needs to combine the untouched abstraction of "flower" and "summer" with the selective power of adjectives, the pinpoint precision of quotation, and especially of proper nouns. The blanket-bombing of Millais is absent. Instead, details are pruned back to let the spaces speak, and lines define not just area but volume. Under magnification the phrases and words may look mundane or even careless but the pieces aren't meant to be observed in isolation. Each word is modified by its context. Meaning is distributed, oblivious to word boundaries and even the boundaries of the work. When a modern poet writes "golden daffodils" the extra meaning isn't discovered by zooming in on the individual words, but by panning out to take in Wordsworth's poem and our response to the Romantics. The measure of a poem's precision is not the amount of detail it contains, but how well it targets the factories of knowledge in the hinterlands of the reader's mind, where the details are best left.


Updated Apr, 1997
Tim Love

Back to list of articles