I just listened to an excellent, 45-minute program on BBC Radio 3 called “Crossing the Border – Poetry and Film.” Though understandably UK-centric, its survey of the history of poetry films and film poetry gave due credit to early Soviet filmmakers and other international influences, and talked in some detail about the earlier conception of a film poem as simply a non-linear, lyric film. The highlight of the program for me was hearing Tony Harrison and Peter Symes explain the collaborative working process for their ground-breaking poetry films of the 1980s, articulating ideals strongly reminiscent of those of videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves from the other side of the Atlantic. I liked the attention paid to the link between poetry film and propaganda or advertising, which is a connection I don’t see spelled out very often. And I appreciated Alastair Cook’s positive assessment of what the democratization of access to filmmaking tools in the digital age has meant to the genre and those who practice it.
The program is now available on the website (and at iPlayer), though if I’m not mistaken BBC will block access to any IPs not originating in the UK, so international listeners may have to connect through a proxy. It’s well worth the hassle. Here’s the show description:
Right from the birth of cinema, film-makers have experimented with poetry in film. Matthew Sweet explores this overlooked history.
The Russian pioneer film-maker Dziga Vertov developed his celebrated montage technique out of Mayakovsky’s poetry and the GPO Film Unit’s ‘Night Mail’ with W H Auden’s closing poem owes a good deal to these Russian experimentalists. Starting at the unlikely site of the studio where scenes from ‘Night Mail’ were shot and recorded eighty years ago, Matthew establishes this iconic film as an important blueprint for poets and film-makers since.
In recent times, the poets Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage have both made documentary films where their poems replaced conventional commentaries. Matthew hosts a reunion between Tony Harrison and his collaborator, the film director Peter Symes, as they relive the powerful moment of filming of the exhumation of a body in a Neapolitan necropolis. This moment poses core questions about film poems: what does the viewer hear and see, how do word and image relate to each other? With Simon Armitage, Matthew learns how his poetry on film gives a voice to the marginalized. Now, a burgeoning movement of experimental film-makers are creating a new space for the production, curation and distribution of film poems in festivals and in digital media, so as the mainstream media fragment, film poetry is returning to its avant garde roots as was exemplified by early film poem makers such as Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren.
Producer: Emma-Louise Williams
A Loftus Media production for BBC Radio 3.
For those who haven’t seen Night Mail, here’s a YouTube upload.