Posted by: jeannineatkins | August 19, 2010

Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place

We’re on vacation in Maine: getting battered by waves and sand, taking calmer swims in a lake, eating fried clams or fish, doing lots of ocean staring.

Yesterday we took a break from water to visit the Portland Museum of Art featuring Winslow Homer and the Poetics of Place.

The small (ie. just the right size) show features work owned by the museum, and is part of a Homer celebration which will culminate in the restoration of his nearby studio. There’s a girl sitting in a field with just a spot of red ribbon in her hair, waves crashing on rocks, British women hauling huge laundry baskets in strong arms, an old man paddling a boat in a river, and a soldier in blue uniform aiming a rifle from a tree. I hadn’t known Homer recorded Civil War battles. My husband wondered if he’d asked a model to crouch on some kind of farm equipment: he said he didn’t see Homer with his paint box in a tree across from a sniper.

The commentary on the paintings was elegantly written, and I scribbled a favorite line on the back of a scrap of paper. I hope I got it right. The paintings are “built upon the telling detail that triggers a memory, the flash of the brush, a recollected moment, a narrative that yet leaves the final chapter unknown.”

There are bound to be cracks, holes, passages between what is seen and what’s recorded. Peter remembered this while sketching rocks by the shore: that early realization of an artist that what’s drawn will never be what’s seen. And that’s all right. One makes lines to suggest. The world is inspiration, and art is not a mirror.

I love story, but also that bit of unknown. As I change a fuller narrative to poetry, this is what I need to keep in mind. That a broken narrative can offer readers a way in. That mystery can be as powerful as answers.



  1. Wow, I love that commentary! And your writerly reflections really resonate with me. I’ve been trying to cobble together a complete image for a scene in which some of the pieces are still missing/hidden. Maybe I don’t need to connect them all? Perhaps I should allow myself permission to leave blanks for the unknown, should allow the reader some space in which to contemplate? Am thinking about that…and grateful for the way in which this entry encourages me to look at things another way.

  2. Melodye, you make me feel my day is worthwhile — but I’m going to keep you company writing a while longer!
    I know some people prefer to look at a painting without words beside it, but these were particularly good at opening doors. I’m glad you glimpse a way here to leave some spaces for the unknown and pondering. These spaces are something I always have to remind myself to leave. Years of being a mom and teacher leave you with an impulse to explain everything: and it’s not always necessary or good.

  3. …mystery can be as powerful as answers.
    This is something I’m trying to work on, too. In my first drafts there’s usually too much mystery, in later ones too much explanation. It’s so hard to find the right balance between the two.

  4. “It’s so hard to find the right balance between the two.”

  5. This post is pure poetry, Jeannine. (And yes, I know that’s way too much alliteration).
    “One makes lines to suggest. The world is inspiration, and art is not a mirror.” Wow. I know you were referring to Peter and his sketching, but this applies to storytelling, too.
    So much to think about here. Thank you.

  6. It seems like we have to pull something together before we can break it, then look among the pieces for just the right ones. Which may need a new frame.
    Yes, that balancing takes time. Good luck with yours, Amy — and Tracy!

  7. If you can’t indulge over-alliteration in a blog reply, where’s the fun of blogging?
    And I’m happy I gave you something to ponder. Hope the new-ish you has a great weekend!

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