Versify #2 by Pamela Burger

Poetry and Film

Poetry and film seem to occupy two ends of the cultural spectrum; the general consensus is that poetry is esoteric and elitist, whereas film is fun and has mass appeal. Although I hesitate to recommend the much-loathed Martin Amis for fear of being thought a douchebag, I do highly recommend the story “Career Move,” from his collection Heavy Water. The New Yorker, who originally published the story in 1992, describes the plot as a “parody of the literary magazine world and Hollywood: the poets and screenwriters have changed places.” In Amis’s topsy-turvy world, a sonnet can open in 437 theaters and make seventeen million dollars in its first weekend. A screenplay writer can only hope, at best, to have his script published in a tiny magazine that pays nothing and has no distribution. It is an immensely satisfying read.

Motionpoems imagines a world where the populism of film and the esotericism of poetry don’t have to exist in opposition to one another.  Their stated goal is to “broaden the audience for poetry by turning great contemporary poems into short films.” It is a wonderful idea, not only because it makes the poems more accessible but also because there is so much potential in pairing poetry with moving images.

The results are mixed. Some of the videos veer into the precious, as is the case when a five-year-old girl reads Richard Wilbur’s poem “Ecclesiastes 11: 1” or when Angela Kassube tries to flippantly imagine Todd Bass’s “Don’t Be Flip.” The poem itself is inspired, but the film makes its humor seem silly rather than witty; the images are easy, whereas, on its own, the poem derives its poignancy from its slyness.

The videos are almost always very literal representations of the images described: David Lehman’s lines “I was in a French movie/and had only nine hours to live” are accompanied by images of a movie camera and a metronome counting off the seconds. Robert Bly’s words “comfortable earth” are spoken over an animated drawing of the globe, and his “sumptuous heaven” is a layer of clouds and birds above the earth.  I was disappointed that the motionpoems I watched did not exploit the possibilities inherent in the visualizations.  Why does the command “listen” have to be accompanied by a sketch of an ear? How does that enhance the poem?

It’s true that the visual component makes the experience more immersive, and when watching the motionpoems I pay more attention to the words than if I were listening to the poem as an MP3. It also takes less effort to watch than to read a poem, so I am much more likely to watch more motionpoems than I am to click through to yet more written verse. But the ease of the medium need not translate into the films themselves. Watching many of the videos, I wanted the images to enrich the poem’s meaning, to complicate or elucidate what the poem communicates, rather than simply show me exactly what I was hearing. I don’t think the poems need to be made more digestible to reach a broader audience; the immersive experience of film already makes the text more accessible, and the familiarity of video perhaps attracts those who might otherwise turn up their noses at poetry. In other words, the films need not be simplistic to be popular.

That said, I encourage everybody to watch the motionpoems themselves, because many of them are quite are enjoyable and all of them are interesting. Mark Strand’s “The Mysterious Arrival of an Unusual Letter” gets fitting treatment by Scott Wenner.

My personal favorite is the fairly simple typographical imagery paired with a joyous reading of Thomas Lux’s “Render Render”. There is kickstarter campaign to fund an installation in St. Paul going on until January 15. And while I doubt we’ll ever see motionpoems open in hundreds of theaters and making millions of dollars, it’s an innovative project that seems well worth supporting, if only to let filmmakers and poets continue exploring the relationship between two very different but clearly compatible art forms.


Pamela Burger

Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.