The Film-Poem

Poetry is both visual and auditory, which is why it so easily blends with other media. Songs and illustrated stories issue forth from prehistory. The twentieth-century coinage "concrete poetry" refers to the arrangement of words in print for visual impact, an art as old as printing itself. And spoken word and rap music explore the musical qualities of speech in a modern context.

But it was the advent of film that brought new possibilities to poetic collaborations by opening up both fronts--visual and auditory--at once. One of my favourite examples of the successful intermarriage of film and poetry is a segment of the 1987 German film "Wings of Desire" that incorporates Peter Handke's poem "Als das Kind Kind war" ("When the Child was a Child").

The advent of interactive online media made poetic collaborations of a different type accessible worldwide. A favourite in this regard is Marvin Bell's poem "Why do you Stay up so Late?" arranged as an interactive Flash piece by Ernesto Lavandera circa 2005. Here the observer is in control of the pace of the poem, as looped sound segments accompany written words and abstract images served up click by click.

The recent prevalence of video sharing and social media has birthed a new form of collaborative art, so new that the term has yet to be standardised. A Google search as of this writing for the following terms yielded these number of results: poem-film (32k), poemfilm (8k), film-poem (99k), filmpoem (30k). For now, I am going with the majority in referring to these works as "film-poems".

Aesthetically, these pieces tend to feel like a music video of the spoken word. It is a tricky mix, where both the perils and possibilities are great, owing to both media being intense forms in their own right. Done well, both the film and the poem take on greater impact. But the extent to which the combination seems disjointed or drawn out, the form can quickly feel pretentious or silly. Sparing you that, I will give an example of two very different approaches that seem to work.

American poet Michelle Bitting has been working on a series of "poem-films" this summer in collaboration with her husband. People appear in each of them--both live and through photographs. "In Praise of My Brother, the Painter" is a poem about the speaker's brother, an artist who committed suicide. The poem-film introduces and emphasises new elements distinct from the poem, using footage of Houdini to draw visual analogies, and special effects, such as the three colourised words at the end, to emphasise their impact.

Scottish poet Andrew Philip collaborated with lens artist Alastair Cook in "MacAdam Takes to the Sea" as part of Alastair's "Filmpoem" project. This piece is more visually abstract. Despite being about a man, only the back of a head in silhouette appears. The majority of the video is composed of recurring sea imagery. These visual loops create their own texture and rhythm in accompaniment to Andrew's words.

The film-poem is a nascent but promising form, bringing together one modern and one timeless art, exploring both the visual and auditory possibilities of each. Gaining notice on both sides of the Atlantic at once, it will be interesting to see how this mode develops and matures, and how the audience for poetry will be affected by its rise.

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