~ Billy Collins ~

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Forgetfulness”

poem and voiceover: Billy Collins
animation: Julian Grey of Head Gear
part of a series produced by JWT-NY

We are brought into the reality of forgetting what we once enjoyed. What was once important, now a memory… at best.

Sometimes I feel guilty writing a good review. I assume my readers prefer to be forewarned concerning a video poem that is sub-par so as not to waste their time. I know I do. There are times when I will forgo watching a film or reading a book that was panned in the media. But when I stumble upon a work that I believe is worth noticing, I can’t help but sing its praises. Such is the case of Forgetfulness by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.

Forgetfulness is a visual treat. Animator Julian Grey of Head Gear employs the old-film technique that gives the video an overall feel of nostalgia. Technically the video appears to rely quite heavily on its use of masks. This helps to make images disappear and assists in building movement, thereby contributing to its fast pace and timing.

Grey incorporated a small amount of animation, which blends in very nicely. I like to call this method altered video. (Perhaps I am coining this phrase because I Googled it and there doesn’t seem to be a concrete definition. Well, at least not where Google is concerned.)

I love the overexposure and pastel colors that are anything but soothing, giving the video an almost creepy feeling.

The poem reminds me of growing older and losing the memories we once had. Lost are the stories, words and events that have slipped out from under us, barely a memory at best. I can’t think of a more gentle way of addressing a part of life that is inevitable.

Billy Collins and his animated poems at TED conference

Watch at TED.com

You’ve probably seen these animations before — if not, check out the dedicated site Billy Collins Action Poetry, or watch them (and others) on Moving Poems. What I found interesting here was Collins’ explanation for why he decided to let the animators go ahead and illustrate his poems, since in general he didn’t understand why a poem would need to be animated. His remarks evince little familiarity with the genre, and in questioning why any poem would need to be illustrated in this manner, strangely echo Ron Silliman’s criticism of one of them:

Thus Billy Collins’ The Dead is animated by Juan Delcan, neither poem nor cartoon threatening to break any new ground whatsoever. … [It’s] nothing more than a reading of the piece over which a cartoon has been superimposed.

But he gave in because he says he’s always loved cartoons, and because he figured it would bring his poems to a wider audience.

The Filming of Poetry

Published in Anon Seven, July 2010. Anon is the anonymous submissions magazine, edited by Colin Fraser and Peggy Hughes.

The combination of film and poetry is an attractive one. For the poet, perhaps a hope that the filmmaker will bring something to the poem: a new audience, a visual attraction, the laying of way markers; for the filmmaker, a fixed parameter to respond to, the power of a text sparking the imagination with visual connections and metaphor.

Poetry has been seen as a bountiful source for the creative process of the lyrical side of experimental film practice since filmmakers and critics began theorising the concepts of film. Many filmmakers view film as an independent art, often persuading that film can only be an art form if it struggles to work within its own language. The combination of image and text forms what writer William Wees has called Poetry-film. In his essay, “The Poetry Film,” published in 1984, he notes that:

a number of avant-garde film and video makers have created a synthesis of poetry and film that generates associations, connotations and metaphors neither the verbal nor the visual text would produce on its own.

Elaborating on this interdependence, Wees argues that the filming of poetry:

expands upon the specific denotations of words and the limited iconic references of images to produce a much broader range of connotations, associations, metaphors. At the same time, it puts limits on the potentially limitless possibilities of meaning in words and images, and directs our responses toward some concretely communicable experience.

In the last issue of Anon, Television Insider discussed the possible futility of foisting poetry upon those who would not want it, quoting Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen.” The emphasis here is on change: poetry is essentially internalised. This point, although discussed originally in a different context, illustrates a key difficulty in the filming of poetry: it is neither poetry nor film, but a blend of both. In order, then, for the filming of poetry to succeed, surely it cannot merely be a juxtaposing of the two but an organised symbiosis, a series of gentle signposts, an undercurrent of narrative embellishing the poet’s intentions.

The initial step taken by the poet is the very essence of collaboration: the underlying trust placed in the filmmaker with one’s work. This handover of the text is a moment of trepidation, a transfer of trust. However, it is also a point of invigoration, described by Morgan Downie:

I love the notion of collaboration and especially the way technology frees us up to do these things. It’s great to see someone else taking something you’ve done and running with it…. there’s a sense of engagement and commitment.

In an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library this spring, poet and presenter Owen Sheers made a similar point, that the genesis of a poem may be with the poet, but there comes a point where the filmmaker takes control. I took the opportunity to discuss with Owen Sheers the methodology imposed when bringing six poems to the screen in the recent BBC4 series, A Poet’s Guide to Britain. It is clear there is a conflict for the filmmaker when drawing the viewer’s attention to the poem; is the text of the poem placed on the screen or is it merely read?

The answer, with unswerving common sense, is that it depends. The possibilities for the introduction of literal visual images, non-literal images, suggestive images or visual signposts are all vying for attention. The filmmaker’s skill is to interpret what the particular poem is asking for. Owen’s measured opinion was that there is an opportunity for “a surprising image, to place two things up against each other which don’t quite fit.” The essence is that if the words must be on screen then perhaps not the entire text but only a carefully chosen extract, alongside the poem being read in full. Sheers noted that he feels that this is essential in attempting to reach a wider audience.

And so, the poem will be read to you. Listening to a poem is not like reading a poem; there’s a sense of enlivening as a poem is launched into the air. Seamus Heaney, talking of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, noted that when he heard the whole thing read aloud the experience taught him, in the words of the poem, to sit still. This idea, the experience of being read to, allows the reader to be captive, open to the experience. This is the essence of Poetry-film.

There is then a need to define Poetry-film, to categorise in order to make sense of the body of work and to differentiate between the filming of poetry and the mass of other media. It must encompass a broad range of typologies and methodologies: almost any definition of a poem, from the most graphic to almost pure poetry to the traditional verse form is accepted. As a result of this broad definition, a number of filmmakers and poets have discussed the merits of defining the genre more specifically. But there is another aspect to this: much of the discussion is about finding a place, helping the genre grow and promoting the filming of poetry. Hence defining (rejecting that which does not fit) is a necessary evil. As filming poetry is about capturing the essence on film, the artistic genre cannot, for example, include a film of the poet reading their work. In my understanding, the filming of poetry falls into the following categories:

  • The simple use of the graphic text of a poem, in part or whole, without any visual movement or film; the literal filming of a text.
  • The simple use of the graphic text of a poem, in part or whole, under-laid with visual movement, either animation of natural filmic elements; a visual film of text and audio; think “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan.
  • Performance, by the poet or other, of the poem in a stage and audience context; a film of a poet at work.
  • The unabridged reading of a poem by the poet, or another, over a film that attempts to combine the poem with visual and audio elements; essentially the embodiment of William Wees’s Poetry-film concept.

I do not wish, within the parameters of this article, to become embroiled in the intensive discussions regarding the sifting of terminology. To my mind, this is an open church: the success of a piece of film is when it becomes the true embodiment of the poet’s sentiment embellished in some way by our filmmaker. It is an interesting area, though: there is much discussion of intellectual intention and aesthetic vision. A philosophical approach to craftsmanship is not new to any of the arts.

Ron Silliman, the prolific American poet and popular blogger, is emphatic about what makes a Poetry-film. His view is that the animation of Billy Collin’s poem, “The Dead,” by Juan Declan is “neither poem nor cartoon threatening to break any new ground whatsoever”. The film is a charming and dedicated homage to a great text, a gracious meditation on death wrought from the events on September 11th, 2001.

This animation is from Billy Collins’ own Action Poetry series, a project worth seeking out. There are eleven films, realised by animators with talent and tricks up their sleeves. Each one includes literal and reverential references to the text, showing the graphic representation of the words. This is either done by placing text on screen or by hammering home the point by the visual representation of an object as it is mentioned in the poem. Silliman’s point is this: these are talented filmmakers in a project showcasing an exceptional poet reading his poems, but it simply doesn’t take the work somewhere new: “Collins’ piece is nothing more than a reading of the piece over which a cartoon has been superimposed.” A little harsh perhaps; it is of course arguable that in the case of a poet of the stature of Collins, there is little need to take it anywhere.

There are discussions in the world of Poetry-film, deliberating the chicken and egg of the possibilities of visual metaphor and connection with the poet’s text. As Fil Ieropoulos, a researcher at the University College For The Creative Arts, states [PDF],

The poetry-film is interested in the fine line between text as word or image, spoken voice as words or sounds and the question of whether image or concept come first in a human mind, discussions that were prevalent in 20th century modernist literature and science.

It is this artist’s understanding that the Poetry-film should successfully bring the work to the audience through visual and audio layering, attractive to those who would not necessarily read the poetry. The film needs to provide a subtext, a series of suggestions and visual notes that embellish the poem, using the filmmaker’s subtle skills to allow the poet’s voice to be seen as well as heard. The collaboration remains with the words. If this subtext is missing, the film resorts to being a piece of media, the reading of a text over discombobulated imagery, a superimposition.

In considering the potential importance of seeing their work as film, it is perhaps best left to the poets to describe their aspirations. Juliet Wilson has worked in collaboration with other artists and believes the visual is an intrinsic part of the process of writing poetry:

I think very visually when I write poetry… I also have a strong visual sense of many of my longer poems as I write them, which may take the shape of a narrative or may be more in the form of atmospheric snapshots. I’m interested in the collaborative film making process, how a filmmaker might see my poem differently…and how the two visions can fit together… I think films of my poetry would have the same effect only more so.

Poet Jane McKie describes how she felt when first watching the film interpretation of her poem “La Plage”:

“La Plage” is partly a homage to the beach at Portobello, Edinburgh.  When I wrote it I had Portobello’s status as a past resort in mind… and by extension, the faded grandeur of so many of Britain’s seaside towns.  But in the writing it became both something more specifically Scottish, and something more metaphysical.  When I saw the beautiful, evocative film, I was very affected by the way in which [the filmmaker] has captured the suggestions of absence and loss, the bitter-sweetness, that I had in mind.  The sunshine and the wind — cold, biting even — and the muted soundtrack of children’s laughter evoke precisely the spirit of the piece, for me at least.  The blurred images of sand, waves, bodies, summon up an atomisation of remembered experience that is at the heart of what I was trying to achieve: a dispersal of nostalgia by the elements.

So, a Poetry-film is just that, a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. It is an attempt to take a poem and present it through a medium that will create a new artwork, separate from the original poem. The film is a separate work from the text itself and this in turn may be able to open up poetry to people who are not necessarily receptive to the written word. Poetry often tries to deal with the abstract world of thought and feeling, rather than the literal world of things. The Poetry-film is the perfect marriage of the two.

©Alastair Cook 2010

Four-year-old whose Billy Collins recitation went viral on YouTube meets Collins, gets on NPR

Listen to (or read the transcript for) “Love Of Words Brings Child, Poet Together” by Ted Robbins for All Things Considered.

If you missed the video, I posted it back on August 24, just around the time it was beginning to go viral, along with another video of Collins himself reading the same poem (“Litany”). The boy, Samuel Chelpka, was 3 at the time the recording was made. Collins discovered the video and wrote them a note of appreciation, and last weekend they had a chance to meet. NPR was there.

“You’ve probably had that experience where you’ve read a poem and you don’t feel like you know what it quote means, yet you still enjoy it,” Christopher Chelpka said. “There’s something about the rhythm and the images that sparks your imagination.”

“He loves words,” Della Chelpka said. “He loves saying them and hearing them in many different forms.”

For all his sophistication, Samuel is still learning the basics of language. He grabbed an alphabet picture book off the shelf and handed it to the former poet laureate to read to him.

In a few years, Samuel may not even remember this meeting, but Collins will.

“It’s just an astounding realization of how a poem can travel away from your desk, away from the room you wrote it in and find its way into all these corners of life, and find its way into the mind of a 3-year-old child,” Collins said. “[It’s] just very moving.”

There was a lengthy discussion about this on the Women’s Poetry listserv in early September, with some people saying they found the video creepy or disquieting, but I felt then and continue to feel it’s nothing but wonderful, and might encourage other parents to inculcate a love of poetry in their kids. I see videos like this from proud Chinese parents all the time — apparently there’s nothing at all unusual about training three-year-olds to memorize and recite what must be, to them, completely incomprehensible poems from the Tang Dynasty. This is part of what it takes to maintain a vibrant poetry culture, something we haven’t really had for a very long time.

Anyway, I’m glad to see a poetry video being given attention in NPR’s flagship program, and I salute Mr. Collins for embracing the remix culture and being so supportive of other people envideoing his work.

The electric kool-aid Collins test

This is a test of the auto-embed video posting feature from the front page of the blog. I’m simply posting the URL of a video on YouTube to its own line, separated by spaces before and after, as detailed in the WordPress codex. (I think this will work in all browsers, with the possible exception of mobile devices. Please leave a comment if you are only seeing links and not the videos themselves.)

Sometimes I feel as if Billy Collins is looking down on me, and he’s not even dead yet!

That was the authorized video, an animation by Juan Delcan, part of a series of animated poems produced by JWT New York. It has been viewed 756,604 times on YouTube. But I much preferred the following unauthorized video montage by Lauren Adolfsen:

The Delcan animation is a very fine illustration of the poem, but with Adolfsen’s video, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not merely a poem video; it’s a videopoem.

Which do you you prefer?