April 27, 2023
by Greg Pape, poetry faculty
Plein air painting has a long history, going back to the first pictographic rock artists, but we know the term from the French Impressionists. They wanted to go out into the landscape and paint the light as it shaped the scenes before them, en plein air, in the open air. The idea of being present in the scene and observing things in flux, feeling the air move, observing the play of light and shadow, hearing the sounds, and breathing in the scents was and is an appealing aspect of plein air painting. My son, Clay, pictured below, is an artist who uses all sorts of materials and techniques, and he likes to work outdoors, and not just in good weather. He recently sent me pictures of Montana winter landscape oil pastels done, at least partly, outdoors.
When I first started making poems, words and phrases came to me outside, walking and daydreaming. Something about the rhythm of walking seemed to inspire rhythmic phrases that I’d repeat, vary, and shape in my mind into something like a poem or song. This was long before I started writing things down. Later, say, sitting in a tree on a small platform made of scrap lumber under a canopy of leaves, or sitting at the end of a dock out over water, or on a stoop gazing down an alley, I’d remember the poem I’d made while walking and say or sing it to myself, and maybe add or change a word or phrase. Inspiration, we say, the drawing of air into the lungs, then breathing out words and putting them together and shaping them into forms, sketches, lyrics, scenes, stories.
Jim Harrison once said a writer’s tools are simple: “memory and sensibility.” We all write from experience, and we shape that experience with imagination. Let’s also consider the experience of writing. How do the conditions we write in shape the work?
As a kid growing up in mostly warm places, California, Arizona, Florida, I spent as much time as possible outdoors. Of course, later I learned to work at a desk, and I love the feeling of sanctuary one can create in an indoor space, but plein air writing can enrich and refresh one’s work in surprising ways.
In Montana the winters are cold and long. Cabin fever can be a real issue, as it was for me the first few years I lived there. I had to bundle up and get outdoors. I learned ice-fishing, what has been called “the moronic sport” (Jim Harrison again), but not so much if you are fishing for poems and stories, as well as fish. As a river ranger for the Bitterroot River Protection Association, I used to walk a several-mile stretch of the river regularly to report on changing conditions. I set myself the task of writing on site, whatever the weather. Here is an excerpt from my poem “Bitterroot Suite”:
A cold spring wind stings my cheeks.
Snow flurries drift like smoke
over the mountains. I have to write
with my gloves on, sitting here
on the trunk of a fallen cottonwood,
its roots jutting out over the water.
An arm’s length away there’s a pile
of scat six inches deep, from bleached white
to fresh black—this root perch, my seat of meditation,
must be the marmot’s outhouse.
Here is an assignment for you:
Like a plein air painter, go to a place you think would be a good spot to sit down and observe the scene—particular, as well as panoramic. Be attentive to what you see and hear and feel. Write. Honor the impulse and allow the spontaneous.
Greg Pape is the author of ten books, including Four Swans, Border Crossings, Black Branches, Storm Pattern, Sunflower Facing the Sun (winner of the Edwin Ford Piper Prize, now called the Iowa Prize), and American Flamingo (winner of a Crab Orchard Open Competition Award). Greg’s poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Iowa Review, The New Yorker, Northwest Review, and Poetry, among others. He has received the Discovery/The Nation Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and the Richard Hugo Memorial Poetry Award. He served as Poet Laureate of Montana from 2007 to 2009.