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Actor and spectator: poetry, film, and the paradox of viewing

The history of film could almost be divided into two obsessions: one with narrative and storytelling, the other with experimentation. My upcoming online course, Frame, Shot, Scene, Sequence: Powering Poetry Through Film, will explore how both modes can offer a vast array of opportunities to poets.

Since the emergence of film in the late 19th Century, we have continued to be fascinated by viewing. The first films were brief windows through which to view ourselves. Often considered as the first motion picture, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, shows just that: a sped-up reel of people in flat caps and petticoats, pouring out of a warehouse. People wheel out bicycles, and somehow amongst the throng, a stagecoach appears. A labrador loiters to view the spectacle. There are no clear protagonists and the techniques aren’t particularly playful, especially by today’s standards, but somehow this short film, made in 1895, manages to portray a narrative and was itself an experiment in filmmaking.



Scholar David Trotter suggested that film and poetry share an ‘aesthetic convergence’. Rather than reduce the relationship to the dynamics of influence, he writes that film and poetry should be understood as ‘siblings’ that sought to offer representations of human experience differently from pre-existing texts. Trotter was fascinated by the paradox this created: since film was produced through the inhuman medium of the camera lens, it confirmed our presence in the world while simultaneously representing our separation from it. This duality creates disorientating affects not dissimilar to reading a great poem: we are actor and spectator, participant and onlooker.

There is an important self-analytical aspect to viewing films: a process of identification can force us to consider our own lives in relation to the lives of characters. Films can also have the opposite, but equally compelling effect of alienating viewers, either through the showing of shocking or alternative material, or through the use of techniques – symbolism, lack of focus, a use of non-diegetic sound – associated with experimental film. Like poetry, film can invite us in to partake emotionally, or compel us to remain as puzzled witnesses. Like poetry, film can create meaning, or frustrate it.

By analysing films from seminal genres that, in certain examples, incorporate both the devices of narrative and experimental filmmaking, my course will examine the ways poetry can borrow from or emulate film to invigorate our writing, and to explore new ways of viewing in poems. Poems may incorporate the techniques of collage or symbolism, albeit within a certain genre, to change tactics or to give particular images a deeper focus, as in Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’, that through short and punchy sentences works as a series of jump cuts:


WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried

a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went

out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the

cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over

the house. On the television was a cop show…


Or a poem about childhood might find new life through exploring, in written form, film’s ability to cast us as its subject and its viewer, as Don Paterson does in ‘The Light’, a sonnet exploring the loss of faith through a speaker that becomes both actor and spectator:


I went back to my room to pack my things,

my begging-bowl, my robe and cup; the prayer-mat

I would leave. It lay there, frayed and framed

in a square of late sun. And out of pure habit –

no, less, out of nothing, for I was nothing –

I watched myself sit down for one last time.


Paradoxically, film can offer new approaches to view the real world and ourselves, be it from alternative angles or through the rhythmic splicing of images to collage an impression, or through unhooking sound from source, or even, perhaps, through the prescriptive lens of genre that may be worn like a mask to create contrast. By studying film more carefully, and harnessing its stylistic and structural techniques, we can refresh the automatic gaze of our internal cameras and renew the focus of our poems.


Explore what we as poets can borrow and learn from the language of film on John Challis’ Frame, Shot, Scene, Sequence: Powering Poetry Through Film, a new 10 week online poetry course from the Poetry School. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.


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