Say what you mean and mean what you say. — Anon
Raymond Carver’s 1981 breakout book was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Largely as a result of that collection, which became a literary sensation, Carver was credited with popularising a minimalist style. It was not a title he appreciated. According to Tess Gallagher, he "preferred the more accurate identification of his style as that of a ‘precisionist.’” Carver explains the reason he hates the label "minimalist" as follows:
That word brings up associations with narrow vision and limited ability. It’s true that I try to eliminate every unnecessary detail in my stories and try to cut my words to the bone. But that doesn’t make me a minimalist. If I were, I’d really cut them to the bone. But I don’t do that; I leave a few slivers of meat on them.
Precisionism wasn’t an expression I was familiar with. So I decided to investigate. It turns out that it began life as an artistic rather than a literary movement:
The term Precisionism itself was first coined in the early 1920s. Influenced strongly by Cubism and Futurism, its main themes included industrialization and the modernization of the American landscape, which were depicted in precise, sharply defined, geometrical forms. There is a degree of reverence for the industrial age in the movement, but social commentary was not fundamental to the style. The degree of abstraction in the movement ranged considerably (Sheeler's work was sometimes almost photorealistic).
'Sun empty room' by Hopper
But let’s go back to Carver for a minute. In his essay ‘On Writing’ Carver wrote:
It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine — the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.
The most obvious example of what Carver is talking about also owes a debt of thanks to another artistic movement: Impressionism. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, as it has come to be known (the poem originally only carried the title ‘XXII’, denoting its place within the anthology Spring and All), was written by William Carlos Williams quickly from all accounts, apparently in less than five minutes, in exactly the same way that an Impressionist artist would hastily capture a fleeting moment. It differs in that it presents the scene in a simple, stark, unadorned manner. It focuses on the objective representation of an object, in line with the Imagist philosophy that was only ten years old at the time of the poem's publication. It should be noted that Williams had met the American photographer-painter, Charles Sheeler, shortly before composing the poem.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Much, perhaps too much, has been written about this poem. It’s difficult to view it objectively any more. For me anyway. I can’t unknow, for example, that he was working as a paediatrician at the time and that while caring for a poorly child at the child's home he happened to look out of the window and saw the wheelbarrow. The poem says nothing about that. I very much doubt, however, that Williams sat down and thought to himself: I’m to write an Imagistic-Precisionist poem today. He wrote a poem and people have read much into it.
A more obvious connection between the Imagism of Williams and Precisionism began with this poem:
The Great Figure
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city
In his Autobiography, Williams wrote:
Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.
Charles Demuth, whom Williams had met and befriended “over a dish of prunes at Mrs Chain’s boarding house on Locust Street” based his famous painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold on the Williams poem.
In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed out the poem’s larger meaning and where, perhaps, the painting falls short:
In the case of 'The Great Figure' I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' (sic) in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist.
All the above leads me to wonder how precisely these two poems were worded. Did Williams say precisely what he wanted to at the time? I believe he did. I also think he thought about what he’d written after the fact and the poems came to mean more than he had originally intended them to.
The Precisionist movement had a particular interest in industrial or mechanical subjects and had roots in Italian Futurism, a movement that also respected the beauty and power of machinery. Williams had a similar view of poetry:
A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.
Here, of course, “the machine” is held up as some sort of ideal. The problem with ideals is that they can be improved upon. When the telephone dial was first patented in 1896 I bet everyone thought it was ideal. And it was until the 1970s with the advent of the Touch-Tone system. Precision is a relative term. We can measure things in microns nowadays. But there’s a point where it’s impossible to tell the difference. Could you tell the difference between a line 0.5mm thick and one 0.45mm thick with the naked eye?
Comparing poets to artists is nothing new. Williams underlined the connection himself. In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly "I've attempted to fuse the poetry and painting to make it the same thing." And he’s not the only poet where one can draw parallels. Take Marianne Moore, for example, a contemporary of his. She actually has a poem which includes the word ‘precisionist’ referring to writers (specifically letter writers) and not artists:
I learn that we are precisionists
not citizens of Pompeii arrested in action
as a cross-section of one’s correspondence would seem to imply.
Renouncing a policy of boorish indifference
to everything that has been said since the days of Matilda,
I shall purchase an etymological dictionary of modern English
That I may understand what is written,
and like the ant and the spider,
returning from time to time to headquarters,
shall answer the question
“why do I like winter better than summer?”
Is Moore a Precisionist? Perhaps, but with a small p. Like Williams, with whom she corresponded, she began as an Imagist but if you want to link her with the word precision it would need to be via the word revision. She was a terrible one for reworking her poems. For example her poem ‘Poetry’ began life with twenty-nine lines and was finally whittled down to a mere three. She believed in precision. In an article entitled ‘Feeling and Precision’ she wrote:
Precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery.
In ‘Bowls’ Moore insists that the goal of modernist art is not mere novelty, but exacting expression – an attention to meticulous utterance that, in her view, is clearly not the purview of any one time period or any one artistic school. ... The creation of lasting poetry will always be a matter of using exactly the right word in exactly the right place to achieve a precisely regulated effect.
Interestingly, Darlene Erickson’s book on Moore is entitled, Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. The title comes from a poem entitled ‘Armor's Undermining Modesty’:
Even gifted scholars lose their way
through faulty etymology.
No wonder we hate poetry,
and new stars and harps and the new moon. If tributes cannot
give me diatribes and the fragrance of iodine,
the cork oak acorn grown in Spain;
the pale-ale-eyed impersonal look
which the sales-placard gives the bock beer buck.
What is more precise than precision? Illusion.
Er, no it’s not. So what is she on about?
Moore distrusts facts because they rarely correspond to their appearance. When she states, “What is more precise than precision? Illusion”, she argues that precision has no place in a world of ever-changing facts. Instead, it must work within the field of the imagination, where the notion of the thing is more important than the physical reality of the thing. Moore does not totally disregard fact and the senses; she subordinates them to imagination and makes them stimuli for the imaginative process. The factual and the sensed gain importance only as catalysts for the imagination; reality becomes that which is insubstantial and which can never be proved.
Actually if you wanted to describe Moore in artistic terms then the word collagist is probably the most appropriate choice. She literally cut the words she wanted to use “from a wide variety of sources, from magazines and literary texts and textbooks, or critical, scholarly, and biographical essays, to advertisements, travel brochures, government pamphlets, business documents; from important public speeches to random overheard speeches or snatches of conversation (often with her mother).” Can you think of anything more precise?
'Marianne Moore' by Ray Johnson
There can be few poets though whose name is synonymous with precise writing, “relentless accuracy”, as she once put it. “Precision is a thing of the imagination,” she wrote.
On the bookshelf
her poems tick like quartz crystals,
precise as the world’s exactest clock.
The final three-line version of ‘Poetry’ ended up like this by the way:
I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.
I spent a long time looking at this poem and the quote about precision and illusion. A long time. And I kept struggling to reconcile these in my head. These couple of lines from The Norton Anthology of Poetry helped:
Her definitions aren't logical, but that's because poetry isn't completely logical either. ‘Poetry’ is about fitting real stuff into a space made out of words. For Marianne Moore, that's what a poet has to do, even though it's impossible.
Poems aren’t simply containers for meanings. They are precision instruments specifically designed to stimulate our imaginations; sometimes we can give meaning to where they lead us, sometimes feeling and sometimes they leave us standing on the precipice not knowing whether to step back or take that leap of faith into the unknown. That’s precisely what poems are, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Because where else do illusions need to happen but in the real world? Anywhere else they’d just be . . . ordinary.
I think a good example of what I think Moore is getting at is this Imagist poem by Ezra Pound:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
“In a poem of this sort”, Pound explained, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”
Let us be clear: one cannot write about what we haven’t seen; whether that “seeing” is physical or metaphorical depends on the kind of poet we’re talking about here. I, for example, rarely deal with the physical world in my poems but the point is easier to grasp if you think about it literally. Look at these three stanzas from Williams’ poem ‘To a Solitary Disciple’:
Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
the point of the steeple
than that its colour
that it is early morning
than that the sky
as a turquoise.
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.
You can read the whole poem here.
The speaker begins by pointing out that to observe the way in which the details that make up the visual field are interrelated is more important than to create fanciful conceits and similes. Precise observation, even if at first it seems mere naming (“Rather observe / that it is early morning”) takes precedence over the poetic “coining of similes,” which is “a pastime of a very low order.”
Although I’ve focused on Moore and Williams the simple fact is that, if you type “precisionist poet” into Google you get no entries at all; “precisionist painter” gives you 2850 entries and “precisionist artist”, 736. The Wikipedia article mentions no writers whatsoever. I seemed to be coming up against a brick wall.
What first piqued my curiosity was something Ron Silliman mentioned in one of his posts:
If there are New Precisionists one would expect there to be old ones but, like many of the schools of poetry I run across, pinning them down isn’t so easy but type “precise poetry” into Google and you come up with a few interesting examples: President Obama’s inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (“careful, precise poetry and [an] awareness of history”), JoAnne McFarland (“These are tight poems, lean and pristine. There is clarity of meaning if the reader takes the time to consider the subtext behind the lines.”), John Siddique (“strong, clear and precise poetry of everyday life”) and Blanca Varela (“It’s true that she has not published prolifically, but perhaps this could account for the dense precision of her poems: dense with meanings and precise in her choice of words.”)
Are any of these Precisionists with a capital p? I doubt it and I doubt it would matter to them.
A lot of the time I imagine people think that precise means concise. It can. And a lot of the time it does. I’d like to think that most of the time my poems could be described using both adjectives. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it well: "Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order." I think a precisionist would take a view that poetry should present the only words possible in the only possible order. What says more: the few lines of a tightly written poem or a volume of analytical comments on it?
I’ve said before that I think poets, indeed all writers, should say what they have to say and get off the page. It’s still a view I hold dear. I only write posts the length I do because I don’t have the time needed to trim them, not if I want to keep up with the posting schedule I’ve imposed on myself. In every other aspect of my writing I weigh every word carefully. I used to obsess about it. Oscar Wilde once said; "I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out." That used to be me. I wouldn’t finish poems for weeks because they did not meet my exacting standards. And then one day I realised that I was obsessing. And I stopped. I still aim to be precise, at the very least concise, but life is too short and I have too much to write to fret about every single word.
One last thought: what does precision mean? We’ve been talking about it for the last 3000 words and I bet we all thought we knew what it means, a synonym of accurate or exact. The precision of a measurement system, also called reproducibility or repeatability, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results. Since a poem is a response to a unique set of conditions it’s impossible to write the same poem twice. Its precision has to be taken on trust.
Hiromi Hashimoto, ‘Trying to Understand Raymond Carver's Revisions’, Tokai English Review, No. 5 (December 1995), pp. 113-147
Bonnie M. Emerick, ‘The Mentoring Relationships Among Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov’, Parataxis, Spring 2003
‘The Art of Poetry No 4: Marianne Moore’, The Paris Review
‘The Art of Poetry No 6: William Carlos Williams’, The Paris Review
 Tess Gallagher, ‘Carver Country’, Carver Country, p.18
 Hansmaarten Tromp, ‘Any Good Writer Uses His Imagination to Convince the Reader’, Conversations with Raymond Carver, p.72
 William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays, p.256
 William Carlos Williams, from Authors Introduction to The Wedge
 Peter Halter, The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, p.171
 Marianne Moore, ‘Feeling and Precision’, Sewanee Review 52 (Autumn 1944)
 Marianne Moore, Robin G. Schulze, Becoming Marianne Moore: the early poems, 1907-1924, p.492
 Katharine Elaine Soles, Skepticism, Illusion and Rigourous Observation: Marianne Moore’s Poetic Pursuit of Hope, pp.59,60
 Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and Criticism, 1900-1950, pp.270,271
 Robert Phillips quote taken from the poem ‘Late Reading’ which appears in Spinach Days
 From the long version of ‘Poetry’
 Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, p.89
 Peter Halter, The Revolution In The Visual Arts And The Poetry of William Carlos Williams, pp.60,61