Short history of poetry film – (but not a complete history!)
There is a long history of presenting poetry and film together. I’m going to take you through some of the earliest films that were made using written poetry.
In 1905 Edwin S. Porter made a silent film which illustrated Clement Clarke Moore’s poem Twas the Night before Christmas. You’ll see that scenes in the film are introduced using lines of the poem. It includes a panoramic shot of Santa Claus riding his sleigh over hills which was created using cut out models and a painted backdrop.
The Documentary Film Manhatta was directed by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler in 1921 and was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Manahatta’. The film presents a day in the life of lower Manhattan using a series of images interspersed with intertitles from ‘Manahatta’ and other poems in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Lines such as:
High growths of iron
Toward clear skies.
Another early film to adopt film and poetry was the 1936 documentary film by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, Night Mail. It was produced by the GPO film unit and featured music by Benjamin Britten and poetry written for the documentary by W H Auden. It follows the London, Midland and Scottish Railway mail train from London to Scotland. Although it was made as a 30-minute documentary, the 3 minutes where Auden’s poem appears can be seen as a poetry film in itself. Auden’s lines rhythmically echo the chug of the train ….
The pre-surrealist French avant-garde of the 1920s introduced the notion of poetry within film, in contrast to the storytelling nature of narrative film. It was argued that what made film poetic was abstracting detail from its reality, and its stress on movement and rhythm to create form. One example of a filmmaker using this approach is Henri Chomette’s in his 1926 Cinq Minutes Du Cinema Pur (Five Minutes of Pure Cinema). In this film, abstract objects and light shapes dance, rotate and flash. Many of these were made as silent films so that sound didn’t distract from what was happening visually.
The photographer Man Ray was the first to use the specific term cinepoem as a hybrid construction. Man Ray’s 1928 film L’ Etoile De Mer uses a poem by surrealist poet Robert Desnos. Man Ray translates actual images of poetry into cinematic poetic images. For example, one line which (translated) reads, ‘Women’s teeth are such charming objects’, is set against a shot of a woman fixing her garter.
German experimental filmmaker Hans Richter proposed that it was the lyric quality of poetry film that was its distinguishing mark – making the invisible visible. Hans Richter saw the potential of images being used as words and phrases to create meaning and metaphor. Richter’s 1957 film Dadascope combines original Dadaist poetry and visuals that create free associations and disorientating juxtapositions. Dadascope is a portrait of the Dada movement – some of the things we see in the film are: Marcel Duchamp reciting puns whilst sitting in a tree, strange creatures and statues, a man is in a bull costume, a man in a washing machine, and so on.
As consumer video cameras started to become available in the 70s, they were used to record and create poems. William Wees, the American writer on film and cultural studies, called the combination of image and text, the Poetry-film genre (hyphenating poetry and film). Wees’s idea is that: through words and images, poetry-films produce associations, connotations, metaphors and symbols that cannot be found in either their verbal or their visual texts taken alone.
By the 1990s open access to the means of production continued to develop. During this decade George Aguilar took the opportunities of the emerging technologies of the time to pioneer what he termed Cin(E)-Poems. Making the most of the technology offered by the latest Mac, and later the internet, Aguilar’s mission was to bring video poetry to the masses. Aguilar made The San Francisco-based Poetry Film Workshop Archive, available to educational organisations. Aguilar was also receiving an increasing number of videos on CD as entries for the San Francisco’s Poetry Film Festival (which had been started in 1975 by Herman Berlandt). Aguilar then toured the US promoting video-poetry as the Director of the National Poetry Association and later on his own. George Aguilar described video poetry as: “a mixed-media format in which poem, image and sound interact symbiotically”.
The influence of music videos and the continuing development of affordable technology has led to an increasing number of artists and poets making poetry film. Collaborations between artists of different genres exist internationally and have led to a large body of new work as well as remixes from material available through Creative Commons License. Festivals devoted specifically to poetry film have been established and there are an increasing number of poetry festivals and online poetry platforms that include poetry film.