Monday, January 10, 2011

Notes towards an egoless poetry 16: Cinematic and Poetic

When I write a poem like Yellow Sand, White Wind or this untitled poem or the way of leaves or antler or Slow gods moving between trees, gathering or even a shaman's critique of pure poetry, what I'm writing is a sequence of images. There may be a "voice" in the poem, but it's not my own voice, it's a character. (In any given poem, it's almost always a character.) More interestingly, there is no narrative, no story, apart from the sequence of images. These poems take the cliché dictum of "show, don't tell" to an extreme. They show but don't tell you what to think about what is being shown.

I get complaints about this from other poets, other writers. One complaint is that there's no ideating personality, no human presence, to hang onto, in the poem. But that's the point: this is the opposite of ego-personality poetry. It also questions, by its very nature, the supremacy in contemporary poetry of the "I" poem, the confessional lyric, the much-vilified workshop poem about the enclosed circle of one's own personal life. I always find it remarkable when poets complain about certain kinds of poetry on basically moral grounds, simply because something about the poem questions their assumptions about the nature of poetry. Where in this moralizing is there room for pluralism?

When I write this sort of poem I'm interested in reflecting life, in evoking an experience of consciousness, rather than describing or commenting on it, or telling what I think about it. Poems that tell me what the person in the poem is thinking, detached from the physical, wear thin on me very quickly. A lot of first-person poetry is distressingly narcissistic. A lot more poetry is cerebrally detached, keeping a safe distance from the guts of life. Far safer to talk about an experience rather than recreate it, and not stir the emotional waters too strongly. So we get a lot of tepid, undemanding, chatty poetry. Most of which reads like prose anyway.

The answer to this, by the way, lies not in the even-more-cerebral, even-more-detached extremes of language-based poetry. That's an artistically mannerist answer, an exaggeration of existing trends rather than a replacement of them with something genuinely different. Such poetry is even more Apollonian. The real answer lies in the restoration of balance between Apollo and Dionysus, wherein passionate language can evoke passion, not just talk about evoking it.

The poems I am discussing here are what I have called cinematic poems, the images sequentially making up a quasi-narrative. When filmmakers show sequential images that seem to be related, that are connected because they're set side by side, but with no usual dialogue or narration, people call those films "poetic." When a poem does the same thing with images set side by side, I have no better term than to call such a poem "cinematic."

Cinema such as non-verbal, non-narrative films like Ron Fricke's Baraka, Godfrey Reggio's Powaaqatsi, and Derek jarman's Blue—these films are often called "poetic."

Poems such as the ones I'm discussing here are also sequences of non-linear images, not linked together by traditional narrative, storytelling, or prose constructions of grammar. Images are linked together, rather, by parataxis, by being placed side-by-side. A sequence of images builds in the mind, and due to the persistence of vision, the persistence of memory, becomes connected.

Cinema operates via the principle of persistence of vision: images flicker at the rate of 24 or 30 frames per second, and because of the retinal and neurological phenomenon called the persistence of vision, the viewing experience seems continuous, not quantized.

A poem made of images can potentially operate the same way, based on the cognitive phenomenon of the persistence of memory. Short-term memory overlaps with itself in the small scale of immediate duration. Even if we don't store what we just read permanently in our long-term memory, while we are reading, what we just read hovers for a moment while we move on, creating the illusion of continuity. Or so it seems under normal conditions.

When reading the poem, let the images evoke whatever they evoke, and make up your own inner movie from it. I suppose that someone who's been to the same places on the planet imaged in the poem might find it more evocative than other readers, because of the shared experience. But there's no place in a poem like this for didactic generalities, for description rather than imaging, for telling the reader what's going on. I actually would prefer to be all show and no tell, in this kind of poem. There may be moments of standard syntax, standard grammar, but they are not normative. Shared experience might be good for reading the poem, certainly, but even if a poem is "too local to be universal" somebody's going to read it and get it.

And I'm fine with that happening, or not, as it does. I don't feel the need to control which reader "gets it" and which doesn't. Nor do I feel a need to make sure that all readers "get it." You can never do that anyway.

Many writers, many poets, really seem to believe that I care a great deal more than I actually do about what my poems mean, or that I want to direct the reader's experience somehow down pre-determined channels. The assumption here is that the poet's intention, my intention, is paramount, and that there is only one correct interpretation of the poem, namely, mine, the poet's. I don't feel that way at all. I really don't want to do any of those things. (Call it a differing poetic ethic.)

This attitude leaves out mystery entirely. Once the poem is set loose in the world, I have no control over how it's received, how it's interpreted, and I don't really want any control over that. In a cinematic poem, I want the reader to find whatever they find, and if it's all a bit mysterious, well, then so is life. I could say what I did see when I was making the poem, and in some cases I could link photographs to parts of the poem. BUt that would only be my own experience. Maybe your experience when reading a cinematic poem will have overlap with mine, and maybe it will be different. I am completely comfortable with that.

I am interested in sharing experience in the poem, not in pacifying it. I have no desire to impose order upon chaos—which it seems a lot of writers want to do, perhaps unconsciously, when they write. They construct narratives in part to construct, or discover, an order to life, which is essentially non-linear, I get a lot of negative remarks about this kind of poem from fellow writers, precisely because it's not ordered or non-mysterious enough for them. They want to find the key to the puzzle-box, but there isn't one.

John Cage once said, late in life, and I find this to be a real touchstone for this mode of my writing:

I want people to be mystified by what's happening. The reality of our life is mystery.

Cage made a lot of his creative work with the intent to evoke that mystery, to just let unpredictable things happen, to give up control, and also to provoke the audience, not soothe or reassure them. The Zen goal is to wake up, not be put to sleep. Not to be soothed, but to be challenged. A poetry that merely entertains is deadening, not enlivening. Art needs to be more than that.



Update:

Film director and historian Peter Bogdanovich, auteur of one or two of my all-time favorite films, has recently posted on the topic of cinema and poetry on his blog. He cites Jean Renoir as probably the most poetic of all film directors, Few directors have addressed cinematic poetry directly, but Bogdanovich defines it this way:

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative. Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—-exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—-endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance. This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images. Among the other poets, D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

These are some of the same elements that also define poetry in photography, of course: composition, angle, lens, lighting. What makes cinema poetic, I might add to Mr. Bogdanovich's thought, is timing: camera movement, certainly, but also frame rate, exposure, and other artifacts of filming than can moved in time and space. I urge you to read the rest of Mr. Bogdanovich's entry, in which he discusses further why he thinks Renoir is a cinematic poet. It's fine reading. Also, just on general principles, it's usually worth reading Mr. Bogdanovich, as he is a fine film historian.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Every reader brings his own experiences/expectations/baggage to a poem and you can’t do a damn thing about that. I have no great problems with a poem being a list or a sequence of images as in this case but if the subject matter is not one I can relate to to start with them I’m going to struggle. And I do struggle with all things spiritual. I don’t go on spiritual journeys. I’m happy to watch Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager go off on his vision quests but I simply bundle it in with all the other sci-fi-mumbo-jumbo. If I found an antler on my doorstep in the morning I’d probably think: Oh, cool but that would be it; I wouldn’t read anything into it but I would give it to my wife to see if she could do something arty with it. If she weren’t here it’d go in the trash without a second’s thought. I don’t mean to denigrate your experiences but I’m simply not open to or interested in anything supernatural. Nature, yes, I can enjoy nature although I don’t have the same burning need to immerse myself in it, but if I find myself in it I don’t go, “Ugh,” or anything. As I told you a few days ago Carrie and I regularly watch nature programmes while having lunch but we’d be just as happy to watch a few minutes of How It’s Made on the Science Channel.

So I have no complaints about the poem I read last. You write what you want to write. But I was being honest when I said that it didn’t reach me. And the fault is all mine. I don’t possess the ‘glue’ to bind your images together.

5:05 AM  
Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

This could be an issue of East-philosophies versus West-Cultural expectations. I notice frequently that people want to be told what a painting means, what a poet is specifically thinking, what a musician is thinking. If the explanation cannot be condensed to a quick synopsis of a few sentences, they toss it aside. The analytical, metaphoric thought process in the average person seems to be diminishing.

Personally, if a poem requires the reader/self to adhere the "glue," the more I pay attention to the entire litany of images. Even random images can bridge together to form a point. Because I can make them work together.

And not to create chaotic debate, I would like to add, if a deer dropped his antlers on my door step I would be very emotional and embrace the spirituality of the moment. There is a metaphoric moment in the gesture, aside from the science, the biological impulse. Poetry takes a realistic moment and channels it into art.

Finally, not to make this entry as long as possible, however, you might enjoy e.e.cummings introduction to his book is 5. Very quickly: his notion is if an artist (Maker) wants to say that 2 x 2 is 5, then he/she can because he/she is a Maker. Makers create. You accept it or you do not.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

That;s not a problem for me, Jim, as I said above. It something I write doesn't reach you, that's okay. Not everything you write reaches me. Please don't take any of my opinions here personally; it's compilation of many discussions I've had about this that I finally wrote about here.

I accept that different people have different experiences of life. I can't imagine mine as being any different than what it is, but at the same time I don't feel any need to impose my experience on anyone else, or insist that mine might be "better." It's not. It's just different. I have a lot of time and thinking invested in this issue, and I also have a lot of experience with it; but that's just me.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

David-Glen,

I think the issue of cultural expectations is probably part of it. I have noticed that before, and several of the California poets, such as William Everson, Gary Snyder, perhaps even Robinson Jeffers, might agree. Those parts of American culture that have been saturated with Asian influence do seem to get this better than others; and the Pacific states do get it.

I think the urge to paraphrase, which I hadn't accounted before you mentioned it here, is strong, as you say. Yet it has always seemed to me that a poem that can be paraphrased, or that needs an explanation, or footnotes, often can't stand on its own two feet and so fails as poetry. Granted, there are exceptions, but I think it's generally true. People do seem to like their paraphrased synopses.

Parataxis really does make things cohere, I think. Even apparently random images can cohere.

I agree with your thought about the deer antler, which matches my own attitude and experience.

I'm familiar with the Cummings, having pretty much all of his work. Thank you for the reminder of this introduction, though. I'll go back and look at it, and see how it might relate to my own thinking.

Thanks.

9:55 PM  

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