Magazine for Sexuality and Politics

Cinema and poetry

Felix Raffael

Poetry and cinema, it would seem, don’t really have anything to do with each other. Poetry, after all, consists of language while cinema lives off of images.

Silent films are a clear demonstration of this. In the past, they managed to fill up movie theaters without a single word being spoken. And today even the best screenplay cannot be considered an artistic success if bad camera work happens to be involved.

Well, what else can I say about this topic?

Poetry consists of a fabric of symbols and these symbols are signs and words, whereas in the world of film symbols are references and look like visible objects.

I should also, of course, mention that there is a significant difference in terms of the age of both artistic mediums. Cinema has just 140 years of history while literature has a tradition of over 5000 years. So the resultant juxtaposition can almost be likened to some chance encounter between an Egyptian mummy and Miley Cyrus.

All of this has considerable, practical consequences too. Through its youthfulness, cinema manages to retain a certain sense of flexibility, constantly renewing itself and always coming across as contemporary, whereas poetry only shakes off the shell of its old forms with difficulty or rather hesitantly and gives the impression of having fallen out of the great recesses of time.

And there’s something else worth adding. Poetry, with its various methods of encoding, nevertheless manages to find a direct form of expression but in cinema everything that is expressed is acted out. In a certain sense, a poem is the vocal message of someone wearing clothes from the costume shop. A film, on the other hand, has puppets, so to speak, with ventriloquists putting words into their mouths.

And then there is the ever-delicate issue of financing. To disseminate poetry, the state has to come up with funding programs - while private funding keeps the film industry alive.

Cinema and poetry thus seem to be fundamentally different.

Yet there is a bond between them, an intimate one at that. Of course, the language of poems is figurative and the images of films are poetic.

The reason for this lies in the act of evocation. With its texts of sounds and letters, poetry conjures up images in the imagination of people reading and listening who are not watching; film, for its part, provides the viewer's associative faculty with a lyrical subtext transcending the quotidian. This even applies to action films. It is not reserved for auteur films alone, even if their poetic expressiveness may well be greater. Poetry is more than text alone and film is more than just visual language. Incidentally, the two share a compositional technique that aims for aesthetic coherence. In a poem, the images evoked must fit together and, in a film, the individual sequences must not work against each other.

Another common feature is that poems set up dramaturgical climaxes and films culminate in certain scenes. Accordingly, Mallarmé's famous poem "The Azure" culminates in the following verses:

Tarkovsky's "Nostalgia" especially shines in the image of the man carrying a lit candle from one end of an empty swimming pool to the other.

Moreover, some poems may be reminiscent of certain films and some films bring to mind certain poems. Goethe's poem "Erlkönig" tells the story of a dying child who feels threatened by mysterious figures while Bertolucci's film "1900" loses itself almost elegiacally in a sequence of landscape depictions and moral paintings until the plot line recedes into the background.

The creative added value that is ultimately at stake in cinema and poetry can lend the most contradictory genres a permeable membrane. Thus, it remains to be said that films and poems are unequal siblings from one and the same family.

"The curtain had risen and I was still waiting," says the poet. "Let’s get on with the show!" replies the audience in the movie theater.

Photo: Header und Teaser: Stéphane Mallarmé "Sämtliche Dichtungen"

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