The filming of poetry

2 Jun

Alastair Cook photographer, architect and artist writes about filming poetry.  Alastair lives and works in Edinburgh. His professional work can be found at Alastair’s ongoing interpretive and responsive work with poets can be watched at

The combination of film and poetry is an attractive one. For the poet, perhaps a hope that the filmmaker will bring something to the poem: a new audience, a visual attraction, the laying of way markers; for the filmmaker, a fixed parameter to respond to, the power of a text sparking the imagination with visual connections and metaphor.

Poetry has been seen as a bountiful source for the creative process of the lyrical side of experimental film practice since filmmakers and critics began theorising the concepts of film. Many filmmakers view film as an independent art, often persuading that film can only be an art form if it struggles to work within its own language. The combination of image and text forms what writer William Wees has called Poetry-film. In his essay, The Poetry Film, published in 1984, he notes that “…a number of avant-garde film and video makers have created a synthesis of poetry and film that generates associations, connotations and metaphors neither the verbal nor the visual text would produce on its own.”

The initial step taken by the poet is the very essence of collaboration: the underlying trust placed in the filmmaker with one’s work. This handover of the text is a moment of trepidation, a transfer of trust. However, it is also a point of invigoration, described by Morgan Downie: “I love the notion of collaboration and especially the way technology frees us up to do these things. It’s great to see someone else taking something you’ve done and running with it…. there’s a sense of engagement and commitment.”

In an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library this spring, poet and presenter Owen Sheers made a similar point, that the genesis of a poem may be with the poet, but there comes a point where the filmmaker takes control. I took the opportunity to discuss with Owen Sheers the methodology imposed when bringing six poems to the screen in the recent BBC4 series, A Poet’s Guide to Britain. It is clear there is a conflict for the filmmaker when drawing the viewer’s attention to the poem; is the text of the poem placed on the screen or is it merely read? The answer, with unswerving common sense, is that it depends.

The possibilities for the introduction of literal visual images, non-literal images, suggestive images or visual signposts are all vying for attention. The filmmaker’s skill is to interpret what the particular poem is asking for. Owen’s measured opinion was that there is an opportunity for “a surprising image, to place two things up against each other which don’t quite fit.” The essence is that if the words must be on screen then perhaps not the entire text but only a carefully chosen extract, alongside the poem being read in full. Sheers noted that he feels that this is essential in attempting to reach a wider audience.

And so, the poem will be read to you. Listening to a poem is not like reading a poem; there’s a sense of enlivening as a poem is launched into the air. Seamus Heaney, talking of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, noted that when he heard the whole thing read aloud the experience taught him, in the words of the poem, to sit still. This idea, the experience of being read to, allows the reader to be captive, open to the experience.  This is the essence of Poetry-film.

So, a Poetry-film is a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. It is an attempt to take a poem and present it through a medium that will create a new artwork, separate from the original poem. The film is a separate work from the text itself and this in turn may be able to open up poetry to people who are not necessarily receptive to the written word. Poetry often tries to deal with the abstract world of thought and feeling, rather than the literal world of things. The Poetry-film is the perfect marriage of the two.

Many thanks to the team at Anon for allowing the publication of this piece, it is an abridged extract from a longer article that will appear in Anon 7, out soon.  It’s worth buying.

4 Responses to “The filming of poetry”

  1. Emma Franks June 3, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    Great article. Well done. E

  2. Eileen June 5, 2010 at 7:33 am #

    Poetry-film is the new genre!! This is an excellent article describing how poetry and film can be so successful together. I think that, listening to the voice and watching film, adds much more to the experience than just reading a poem. It could convert people who say they do not like reading poetry.

  3. alumpinthethroat June 6, 2010 at 8:21 pm #

    Thanks Emma,

    And Eileen, I think it could be a growing genre, and for those who don’t like sitting down with a book it could be really good in road. I’m interested to see how poetry/films develop. I would keep an eye on Alastair and also This Collection.


  1. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #73 - June 6, 2010

    […] What ONS fans, friends and readers are up to this week: a new poem from the fabulous Mr Dave Coates // Gareth Trew at a handful of stones // JoAnne McKay’s excellent message of thanks to the Cumbrian police // and the brilliant Al Cook and Mairi Sharratt discuss this collection […]

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