Poetry Film


William C. Wees ©1997

In ‘Six Memos for the Next Millennium’, Italo Calvino proposed “two types of imaginative process: the one that starts with the word and arrives at the visual image, and the one that starts with the visual image and arrives at its verbal expression’.  Cin(E)-Poetry (also known as poetry video and poetry film) put both process of the imagination on display simultaneously.  They combine the verbal energy of poetry with the visual richness and diversity of experimental cinema.  Through a synergy of expressive words and images, successful cinepoems produce associations, connotations, metaphors and symbols that cannot be found in either their verbal or their visual texts taken alone.   They might be thought of as imaginative interpretations of ‘readings’ or poetic texts in visual terms – and vice versa.

Because they are relatively few in number, poetry-films have not received the recognition they deserve in the history of experimental film.  Early examples include Man Ray’s ‘Etoile de mer’ (1928), which incorporates fragments of a poem by Robert Desnos, and ‘Anemic Cinema’ (1926) composed of Marcel Duchamp’s spiraling and multi-punning epigrams.  In North America, the first poetry-film was Charles Sheeler’s and Paul Strand’s ‘Manhatta’ (1921), with intertitles by Walt Whitman, but the most notable developments in cinepoetry in the United States and Canada came with the expansion of all kinds of experimental filmmaking after World War II.   Since 1975, annual poetry-film festivals (now called the Cin(E)-Poetry Festival) produced by the National Poetry Association’s Poetry Film Workshop in San Francisco (founded by Herman Berlandt and directed by George Aguilar) have featured several hundred works in this genre.

Within the larger field of experimental film, poetry-films (videopoems, Cin(E)-Poems) are distinguished by the special place they give to poetic texts on the sound track. Or on the screen, or both these texts may be recognized poems by established poets, like Wallace Stevens’ ‘A Clear Day and No Memories’ from Waterworx and P.K. Page’s Travellers Palm in the film of the same title, but frequently they are not ‘poems’ in the most traditional, conservative sense of the term.  They may be passages of poetic prose like those by Anais Nin in “Bells of Atlantic and Leonard Cohen in ‘Poen’.  They may be written records of dreams ,as in ‘Gently Down the Stream; or ‘found poetry’ taken from public sources as in ‘A Said Poem’ and Vogue With the War Dead’; or Dadaist ‘concrete poetry’ as in ‘Primiti Too Taa’. The history of poetry in our century has taught us that any verbal expression can be turned into poetry, and poetry-films vividly illustrate this modern concept of the ‘poetic’ – just as the diversity of visual effects exemplify the discovery by digital artists that there is virtually no limit to what can be made ‘cinematic’. 

There is a similar diversity in the ways poetic texts are included in poetry films.  Sometimes the poets are shown reciting their poems (but not in the staid manner of documentaries of poetry readings), as is the case with Ann Waldman in ‘Plutonium’, Bruce Neal in ‘Utopian September’, Jack Hirschman in ‘Kino Da!’ and Patricia Smith in ‘Undertaker’.  In ‘Bells of Atlantis’ we hear Anais Nin’s voice, but see her only as a mysterious figure in a dream world; whereas in a number of instances we hear the poets but do not see them at all.  Sometimes, the words themselves become images and appear as visual text on the screen as in ‘Waterworx’, Primiti Too Taa’, Kick That Habit, Man’, ‘Wonder’, ’98.6 Degrees F’, and perhaps most effectively in ‘Gently Down the Stream’, in which words are scratched directly on the film, like rhythmic, dynamic ‘action poetry’ in script.

In addition to illustrating the wide range of visual and verbal treatments of poetic texts in poetry-films and poetry-videos, the screenings offer viewers a chance to compare different formal treatments of similar themes, and to watch for differences between the ways those themes are approached by earlier and more recent film and video artists.

While pursuing his thoughts on the ‘processes of the imagination’, Calvino, asked: “What will be the future of the individual imagination in what is usually called the ‘civilization of the image?’”.  And he expressed dismay at the prospect of a ‘human race increasingly inundated by prefabricated images”.  Similar worries are echoed in Jack Reilly’s computer-aided poetry video, ’98.6 Degrees F’: “I thought I saw the future yesterday.  Later, I realized it was something I’d already seen on TV”.  Inundated, like the rest of us, by prefabricated images, filmmakers have been able, nevertheless, to make them serve the imagination and contribute to its visual-verbal expression in the unique genre of poetry-films. 

William C. Wees©1997