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Poetry and Film

28. Oktober 1953 – Cinema 16 Symposium – Poetry and the Film.
from Filmculture, No 29, Summer 1963

Maya Deren:

I’m going to do something I think is a bit risky, and that is to go a little bit into the question of what is poetry, and what distinguishes what we would call poetry from anything else, because I think that only if we can get this straight, can we sensibly discuss poetry in film, or the poetic film, or anything else. Now I say that it’s risky, because this is a subject that has been discussed for many, many centuries, and it’s been very difficult to pin down. But the reason I’m going into it is not because I think distinctions are important as formulae and as rigidities, but I think they’re important in the sense that they give an audience, or any potential audience, a preparation, an approach, to what they’re going to see. In the sense that if they’re thinking they are going to see an adventure film, and if they are confronted with a poetic film, that’s not going to go very well. I don’t think one is always predisposed toward poetry; the whole notion of distinguishing and, if you will, labeling things is not a matter of defining them so much as a matter of giving a clue to the frame of mind you bring to them. In other words, what are you going to be watching as this unrolls? What are you going to be listening for? If you’re watching for what happens, you might not get the point of some of the retardations because they’re concerned with how it happens.

Now poetry, to my mind, consists not of assonance; or rhythm, or rhyme, or any of these other qualities we associate as being characteristic of poetry. Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience, in the sense that a poet is looking at the same experience that a dramatist may be looking at. It comes out differently because they are looking at it from a different point of view and because they are concerned with different elements in it. Now, the characteristics of poetry, such as rhyme, or color, or any of those emotional qualities which we attach to the poetic work, also may be present in works which are not poetry, and this will confuse us. The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by „a poetic structure“), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a „vertical“ investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something that is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is what I would call the „vertical“ attack, and this may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the „horizontal“ attack of drama, which is concerned with the development, let’s say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling. Perhaps it would be made most clear if you take a Shakespearean work that combines the two movements. In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a „horizontal“ plane of development, of one circumstance—one action—leading to another, and time delineates the character. Every once and a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, lie builds a pyramid or investigates it „vertically,“ if you will, so that you have a „horizontal“ development with periodic „vertical“ investigations, which arc the poems, which are the monologues. Now if you consider it tins way, then you can think of any kind of combination being possible. You can have operas where the „horizontal“ development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for Stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements. Lieder are, in singing, comparable to the lyric poems, and you can see that all sorts of combinations would be possible.

It seems to me that in many films, very often in the opening passages, you get the camera establishing the mood, and, when it does that, cinematically, those sections are quite different from the rest of the film. You know, if it’s establishing New York, you get a montage of images, that is, a poetic construct, after which what follows is a dramatic construct that is essentially „horizontal“ in its development. The same thing would apply to the dream sequences. They occur at a moment when the intensification is carried out not by action but by the illumination of that moment. Now the short films, to my mind (and they are short because it is difficult to maintain such intensity for a long period of time), are comparable to lyric poems, and they are completely a „vertical,“ or what I would call a poetic construct, and they are complete as such. One of the combinations that would be possible would be to have a film that is a dramatic construct, visually, accompanied by a commentary that is essentially poetic; that is, it illuminates the moments as they occur, so that you have a chain of moments developing, and each one of them is illuminated. It’s things of this sort that, I believe, occur in the work of Mr. Maas, who has done that to a certain extent in his last film, Image in the Snow, where the development of the film is very largely „horizontal,“ that is, there is a story line, but this is illuminated constantly by the poetic commentary so that you have two actions going on simultaneously. Now this, I think, is one of the great potentials of film and something that could very well be carried and developed much further, and I think that one of the distinctions of that film and also of Geography of the Body, is that it combines these principles. I think that this is a way of handling poetry and film, and poetry in film…