~ Juliet Wilson ~

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