Word to Image: Cinema inspired by poems

curated and notes by Konrad Steiner

Cinema is used here in a response to poetry. These tapes and films were chosen out of the American experimental tradition to exemplify various techniques of marrying the two arts. Poetry as the art of utterence and cinema the art of showing, both whole on their own, don't easily make a good couple. But these film and videomakers have taken up the challenge anyway by responding to the spirit and the letter of the poet, creating an original cinematic writing. Cinema and language meet head on, not unified as in conventional film, but remaining distinct and dancing, stepping on toes, wooing each other with the charms of mouth and eye and mind. You'll see images' own syntax shuffled, blended, chafing and dovetailing with language, you'll hear and read poets' work while seeing and hearing filmmakers' work. It's like having two extra senses!


How can you possibly combine film and poetry? Films are chosen here that solve the problem in various ways. Many of the pieces tonight started as poems. Some ended up as one. Some use text on screen and modulate your reading through its presentation as scratched words, sub-titles, intertitles, or graphically integrated within the whole frame. Others use a recording of the author's reading. Still others create a weld of sound and image, a 'poesie concrete' descendant of the dadaists.

Music is the mother of all meaning

Poetry and cinema _are_ too different to work together without music. Of course 'music' meant in the broadest sense, not just the acoustic sense. Whenever we talk about melody, rhythm, harmony, dissonance, phrasing, cadence, tempo: these are musical concepts and perceptions. These kinds of sensitivities and distinctions manifest in word and image work, and serve as the basis for the joinery of the films and tapes shown here tonight. The existance of music makes it possible for images and words to communicate with each other. Peter Herwitz says about his films to reading by Louis Zukofsky:

"The first work is a repetition of the words 'Hear her clear mirror care his error. In her care is clear' each time presented with different line brakes and different emphasis. It is ambiguous and very precise at the same time and above all strikes me as music -- like a thoroughbass in baroque music. The images and other sounds I added seemed like an upper voice-- more open and more melodic in relation to this basic repetition.

"The second poem is a bit more _atmospheric_ but seems to me to be above all about degrees, limitations in describing an image -- tentative yet again very precise which is what I sought to acheive in similar _possibilities_ for creating an image on film.

" ... I find Zukovsky to be above all about music and the choice of words almost always meant to work in terms of musical structure first and foremost. He almost always uses very specific language despite the fact that the meanings are extremely _indeterminate_.

"The miracle of so called *objectivism* is that very specific words and images are used by the poets to create an endless series of possibilities for seeing the world. [...] And as a filmmaker I find this kind of writing to be truly a mirror of the way montage works -- the space between Zukovsky's words creates the meaning as it does in montage-- the challenge of a filmmaker is both to present and attempt to answer a series of questions raised by his/her choice of imagery and the spaces between them. "

Either, Or, But, Not, Both

One motive for these works is the challenge of making verbal language and visual gesture hang together organically. These films respect the integrity of either medium by avoiding pat equivalences and conceptualization. I'm interested in looking at cinema as a medium for bringing separate things into contact. What's evoked, what readings are motivated that otherwise would not occur, taking place as illustration, irony, counterpoint, mood, metaphor, rhythm, etc? These are the varieties of joinery are available to bring these together. These are modes of interaction between the poem aspect and the film aspect of a poem-films shown in this program -- there are two things, and the experience of the two is one thing.

Most of the films on this program took existing poems as their starting point. The integrity of the text in a film distinguishes it from the montage and acts to acknowledged the independence of the two. We can see that these are images that can illuminate aspects of a poem, but not be the poem, and have their own integrity. What is their relationship?

"The poem-film is showing what the filmmaker thought the poem meant."

"It provides a reading of the poem."

"It shows the artist interpreting the poem."

"It shows a response to the poem."

"The tape affects the meaning of the poem."

"It means what the poem means."

"The tape is a completely new work."

I think the highest success of this form depends on showing the possibilities of meaning, instead of the determined meaning. Interpreting the poem happens, so it's very tricky. The idea is to keep caught up to experience. The poet Robert Grenier said at a reading of his i attended years ago that a translation has to be as real as the original, and the original if it's worth translating at all is as real as experience, which is a moving among the potentials for significance and symbolism without translation. (Well, okay, i don't know if he said all that but that's what i got out of it.) This logic only works if you see that reading is experience, though the conventional wisdom is that the text you read is a kind of delivery system for a message. Conversely, experience is reading. Think about it. Watching these films is like watching someone reading; but of course, you too are reading. Watch yourself read the city landscape as you go home tonight.

Anyway, how can a film present the "facts" of the poem without distorting them to present a favored message? If you were the filmmaker how could you begin with something that's already complete? Do you parallel or complement the text? How to you add without taking away?

Rick Hancox's film Waterworx gives us some pictures to wonder about. You have a chance to make up something, or not. Then you see them again, with the subtitles and subtleties of Wallace Stevens' enigmatic poem, "A Clear Day and No Memories." The images as you saw them are now torqued, by your having to read, and by what you read. As they move towards one another, watch what happens to your mind.

"What I find most impressive about Waterworx is Hancox's ability to fuse Stevens's poem and his own imagery and sound, not only without doing damage to the poem, but so that the film provides an effective reading of it ... The clear, empty vistas of the film (empty of action, of people) reflect those of the poem, and yet both are haunted by the presence of the poetic mind in its process of forming what we are experiencing." (Scott MacDonald, Afterimage)

Thad Povey takes the prose poem by Baudelaire (We've Each Our Own Chimera) but (in this version) rendered into spoken English, a description of toil, and in Under a Broad Gray Sky puts it next to images of rustic labor and repose. Does the poem describe what we're seeing or not? Do the images belie exaggeration in the lyric? The bold grotesqueness of the description's at odds with the handsome people, the quotidian scenes, almost. Are these people not within reach of that futility Baudelaire describes? The film is so efficient in making you wonder about these questions, using very conventional means. There is a gentle weaving of three strands: the images shown, the text heard, and the images of the text seen in the mind. Notice also beneath this are the sounds that also play with a sense of illustration, with cuts sublty shifting sounds from off to on camera.

Brazilian Marcus Nascimento has borrowed from my beloved Japanese linked poetry form haikai to create his enigmatic sequence of vitruoso video effects woven among the words of his short verse statements. Video Haikai's text hovers around inside its images coming from and receding into them, teasing the highly processed imagery and sound to answer with the meaning of the poems. The images respond coyly and remain delightfully independent.


Typically the artiface of sync sound seems to draw the image and sound together presented as a thing making noises. In fact using this technique many film documents have been made of poets reading their work for the camera. But these films intervene by creating artificial sync between a visual gesture and the heard sound, creating impossible events. You can see irony and humor in all this synthetic sync presented so viscerally and rapidly.

Henry Hills film Kino Da! starts with the simplest relation of word to image, the 'talking head' shot. In this case a portrait of San Francisco poet Jack Hirschman. The 'poem' is composed of the speech of the man, that speech emerges as poetry in a contiuum from street sounds to language(s) thru non-sense as the sound and image slip and skip. It exists somewhere between a document and a created event.

Prefaces, Abby Child's intense sound-image-schrapnel, inaugurates her "Is This What You Were Born For?" series. Child's film is unique in this collection. It's a film in which you might say "There's no poem there." But consider it the simplest: the poem is the soundtrack, which makes it the most extreme: the film tracks the poem exactly.

What's On is a list poem. It's like Martha Colburn's sarcastic TV Guide. The sound and image run parallel and lead each other and alternate that lead so fast that you only ever get about one in three of the jokes in there.

"A Hyper-Fire Telepazzumentary rendered in orgiastic collage animation, Media Mush and freaky live chunks. Brats, Boobs, Snot-Based Game Shows, First Lady Baboon attacks, cross-dressing amputees, stress, estrogen and more spew and mutate.... With Telesmashing Chaos poetry soundtrack by 99 Hooker and video game samples by Naval Cassidy. Blasting you into HELL-A-VISION!" (Martha Colburn)


Anytime we look at a shot of something we can consider how explicitly showing something is implicitly pointing out how to view it, showing what to see about it. Similarly, the diction, rhyme or intonation of a phrase implies an attitiude to take towards the subject or speaker or what aspect of that is in focus. This double (implicit/explicit) expression of what is said and how it's said can be the basis of a contrapuntal relationship between image and word. The poem and the montage induce implicit and explicit readings of each other.

In the feature-length documentary What Happened to Kerouac? Nathaniel Dorsky edited three sequences to recordings of Kerouac reading his poems. The first sequence is quite illustrative of the text, as if just getting to know the poet. Each successive interpolation reaches deeper into the source of the poems. The final poem is a perfect example of 'counterpoint-illustration.' The montage floats along with the voice together and independent, not in illustration of the words, but of the meaning.


In Jim Flannery's Photoheliograph, film splits the poem into text and sound. Harry Crosby's originating poem from 1928 is a non-linear graphic poem, and Flannery takes what is an instantaneous poem and projects it into time. Flannery's 'translation' might just a well be considered a 'rendition' as a response. Here's his description:

"If I describe the poem, perhaps this will indicate what I considered 'adaptable' in it: it is a 5x10 grid of the repeated word "black", in the center of which (actually, replacing what would have been the 23rd "black" and reducing the number of "black"s to 49) is the word "SUN". As to the title: a (photo)heliograph is variously (a) a signaling device, by which a coded message may be sent via the reflected image of the sun; (b) a photoengraving (lithograph); (c) a "sun print" or "Rayogram"; (d) a telescope adapted for solar photography. In short: either a device for observing or reflecting the Sun, or the matter resulting from exposure to the sun.

"A great deal of what (I think) 'goes on' in this poem is included by allusion, assembled in the mind of the reader as a 'rationale' for the juxtaposition of these three words, in this arrangement. Crosby relies on the reader's knowlege of (a) his other work and (b) sotericism in general in order to give it some meaning beyond the simple visual pun of "an image of the sun" (itself a rather simpler, naive/folk-etymological reading of the title); in adapting the poem, I attemped to use materials/processes which would point an allusive reading in roughly the same directions as (I believe) Crosby's intentions were (for xample, the original color image which is manipulated throughout the film was a photograph of the planet Saturn, one of several "black suns"), but I am equally dependent upon the viewer's participation/previous knowledge -- and I equally intended for it to be 'readable' in a closely analogous fashion as *the same* visual pun. ... there are 49 instances of my voice saying the word "black" (those separate recordings having been put through a variety of manipulations) ... and there are 49 instances of the initial visual image (again, having been put through an analogous series of manipulations)....

"The words which make up the poem, as one would speak them -- "black SUN" -- semantically connote the *negative* image, the black circle/eclipse/inversion/nigredo image which is usually invoked by the phrase. As one experiences the poem *visually* however, one sees a SUN surrounded by black -- that is, the *positive* image of the light-bearing sun against a black field. The second half of the film reflects this oscillation between the two views in the flicker of the black matte: it should be noted that the composite image in the second half is produced in the perceptual apparatus of the viewer, not in the production of the image -- the black is *always* there, the color is _always_ there, the combination of color/color is *never* actually on the filmstrip. At a larger structural level, the film is again split in two parts, one "positive" and one "negative": in the first half, the black matte obscures the colored image; in the second, the colored image obscures the matte.

"One characteristic of the poem which interested me was its rejection of the temporal vector. Poetry, in its assumption of being embodied in a speaking voice, is based upon progress through time; but Crosby's poem is perceived in its entirety, in a single moment. To make a film of this poem is to (perversely) restore the temporal dimension to it. It was important to me, first, to maintain the two-dimensional quality of the poem, to make a screen which -- at one level of detail, at any rate -- insists upon the surface of the screen as the medium, avoiding any hint of illusionistic depth (how much more perverse it would be to add _two_ dimensions to the poem!). So the film concentrates, at the larger scale,on what might be considered "still" images (the black screen, the unmoving circle) on a "flat", 2-dimensional surface. And second, to somehow maintain the "all-at-onceness" of the poem, given the constant shifting of small details, and the determinate duration of the film.

Brakhage's First Hymn to the Night -- Novalis reaches for the root of the language of the poet. Not whole poems, only phrases are etched between handpainted sections. Etching alternated with painting, in a call and response form. The poet's words chosen evoke also Brakhage's well-known sense of closed-eye vision, or perhaps the inner vision that Beckett referred.

"This is a hand-painted film whose emotionally referential shapes and colors are interwoven with words (in English) form the first Hymn to the Night by the late 18th Century mystic poet Friedrich Philipp von Hardenberg, whose pen name was Novalis. The pieces of text which I've used are as follows: 'the universally gladdening light ... As inmost soul ... it is breathed by stars ... by stone ... by suckling plant ... multiform beast ... and by (you). I turn aside to Holy Night ... I seek to blend with ashes. Night opens in us ... infinite eyes ... blessed love.' [SB]

Konrad Steiner, February 2000

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