The complicated relationship of poetry, film and poetry-film

By Harriet Staff

On the Moving Poems forum, Alastair Cook republishes his July 2010 essay from Anon Seven on what qualifies as a Poetry-film, borrowing the term from William Wees. In 1984, Wees first made the case that collaboration of film artists and poets results in something entirely new, where neither the film nor the poem takes precedence. The symbiotic whole produces "a much broader range of connotations, associations, metaphors." Cook spoke to poet Owen Sheers about his own collaborations in bringing poetry to the screen and where the artists involved situate their own craft within the work.

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.

The question of audience and accessibility arises frequently in Cook's piece. Should poetry-film be about using film and video's relatively "wider audience" to increase the visibility of poetry, or is "foisting poetry upon those who would not want it" impossible no matter what form it takes? With visibility so much in mind, Cook, perhaps unintentionally, alludes to the power imbalance at work between filmmakers and poets through what each has to gain in the process: for poets, "it's a new audience, a visual attraction, the laying of way markers" whereas the filmmaker is described as getting "a fixed parameter to respond to, the power of a text sparking the imagination with visual connections and metaphor." The poet relies on the filmmaker for audience attraction and explication, but the filmmaker receives only the internal incentive of inspiration.

Meanwhile, there is a growing movement of artists who would like to see poetry-film recognized as its own artistic genre and who would not even consider Sheers' BBC4 program "A Poet's Guide to Britain" to relate to their work at all. In arriving at his own categories, Cook also explores at length Ron Silliman's definition of poetry-film and that of many other poets, including Morgan Downie, Juliet Wilson and Jane McKie.

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.