Poetry and the film and the lecture

6 Oct

The second two Poetry Swindon Festival events were proper clever. Left me with a lot of thoughts which, to do the whole process justice, I’ll pose as questions.

The first asked us, is poetry film, poetry?

After a series of mesmerising shorts from the 1920s to last year – Swoon, Man Ray, Eduardo Yagüe, Hans Richter, Barbara Hammer, Tom Konyves, Dave Bonta – I wondered if poetry film is an intellectual exercise, or whether it speaks to us emotionally at a deeper level that bypasses intellect. Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘intellectual’ – unless it’s trying to shut others out with its cleverness. If you’ve met the lovely poetry film makers Elephants Footprint A.K.A. Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewbery, you’d know inclusiveness was the only thing on the table.

Like contemporary dance, poetry film creates its own visual language of movement that feels beyond text. In appreciating poetry film, do we let go of brains instead of trying to hold onto them?

And does the act of writing about the inexplicable – like here – render it an intellectual excercise?

Distraction. Electrifying. Discombobulating. Nauseous. Some of the words used to describe the films after the presentation. As Russian-American filmmaker Maya Deren described it, stiltingly, at a Poetry and the Film symposium in 1953, ‘a vertical investigation.’

Later on, Chris Eddy spoke to a tough crowd at the Richard Jefferies Museum’s garden in the Tent Palace of the Delicious Air. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time I’ve listened to a lecture under coloured lights on a dance floor, though probably not the first time in a harem-style tent. Halfway through I had an urge to do an interpretative dance.

Chris wants poetry to be scripture, for it to inspire passion, but he doesn’t think modern poetry has this quality. What great lines, he said of Dylan Thomas, shame it isn’t in a better poem.

If soft fruit had been to hand it may have been thrown. Very brave in a tent full of modern poets.

‘Ordinary people want a story,’ Chris said. ‘Modern poetry is concerned with verbal effect…Surreal poetry is speaking in tongues. The poets repudiate any responsibility for its meaning.’

Perhaps it’s about values, suggestions v answers.

Whether you are the kind of person who needs a flag to fly or the kind of person who thinks flags are presumptive (and perhaps even the precursor to violence).

Sometimes we need W.B. Yeats and sometimes we need Thomas.

Perhaps Chris had a point about ‘poetry’s game reserve’. Sometimes modern poetry seems to have no welcoming doorway to meaning (and if you find it, it has a ‘closed’ sign). If poetry wants to regain its place in the heart of modern (British) culture it needs its anthems as well as bottomless depths. Or perhaps these are alive and well, sung by impromptu choirs of thousands at Glastonbury Festival?

Written by Louisa Davison

Poetry Films took place at Artsite and the Poetry Lecture ‘From the Supernatural to the Surreal’ at the Richard Jefferies Museum, on 5 October 2017, as part of Poetry Swindon Festival.

2 Responses to “Poetry and the film and the lecture”

  1. christophereddy 9th Oct 2017 at 10:43 am #

    Thanks, Louisa. For those who didn’t hear the lecture, here it is:


    I think we can probably agree that this poem exemplifies what we mean by the word “surrealism”. So let’s consider the features of the poem that make it “surreal”?

    The sentences have the grammatical form of statements, but what they say doesn’t make any kind of ordinary sense. If a sentence is to have meaning for us, we have to be able to draw inferences from it, to say what we’re implicitly being asked to accept. For example, if I say, “You’d better take an umbrella,” you’ll infer that I think it may rain, and that that’s what I “mean”. Equally, there are things you wouldn’t infer from my statement about the umbrella, for example, that I think you’re either well-dressed or badly dressed.

    But there’s nothing in these sentences to guide our inferences, one way or the other. The grammar seems to invite us to look for a meaning, but, however hard we try to make rational sense of it, we fail. For example, we may respond to the word “ghosts” in the first stanza by associating it with traditional ideas about souls and the afterlife, but by the end of the stanza any connections we think we’ve been able to make come apart in our hands.

    Thomas’s poem seems to fulfil the requirement set out by Archibald Macleish in his poem, “Ars Poetica”, that “A poem should not mean/ But be.” There’s no doubt about this poem’s being, but it has no assignable meaning. Maybe it’s offered not as a statement, but as an opportunity for experience: as an environment you can move through, in which things can happen to you. Maybe it’s the script for a dream where the reader confronts the symbolic images that Freud and Jung thought gave us access to “the Unconscious Mind”.

    What’s clear is that, in the language of this poem, various quite distinct vocabularies have been merged. Events are narrated as taking place in a space where the distinctions between inner and outer, self and other, body and universe, have ceased to exist.
    It’s a world-encompassing panorama in which the material universe seems endowed with the sensory and emotional responsiveness of the body, while the anatomy and physiology of the body take on the titanic dimensions of the globe, the atmosphere or the solar system. In this poem, human nature is portrayed without boundaries, as part of nature in the wider sense, including the universe, so that individuality dissolves in the cosmic process.

    It’s surely the dissolution of the boundary between the body and the cosmos, the merging of those vocabularies, that creates the “surreal” effect. It’s a striking, deliberately disorienting vision, and it encapsulates that modern world-view which has come to be called “Naturalism”: the idea that we are wholly natural beings in a wholly natural world, about which the sciences are the only source of reliable information.

    This vision has a power and grandeur of its own, which Dylan Thomas enacts in his recorded reading of the poem, so that we don’t need to appeal for our inspiration, as all earlier generations did, to the power and grandeur of a God. It’s worth noting also that this vision is what philosophers would call “monistic” (as opposed to “dualistic”); that is to say, there is within it no distinction between body and soul: everything that’s narrated happens within the unified field of nature.

    This surreal vision, however, is not that of the common-sense world of rational discourse. In this it is directly comparable to the visions of traditional scripture, and represents relations between ordinary phenomena which are just as distant from narratives of everyday life as the biblical books of Ezekiel and Revelations. As a representation of reality, it offers a way of speaking which competes for our acceptance with those traditional discourses of the supernatural.

    So here’s the question: As a putative representation of reality, is the surreal vision comprehensive enough to be intuitively satisfying?


    The “country” mentioned in the first line is not Ireland. It’s not a geographical entity of any kind. It’s the realm of nature into which our bodies are born. As Yeats enters his 7th decade, he feels no longer at home in the natural realm of “Whatever is begotten, born and dies”. He aspires instead to be gathered up into “the artifice of eternity”, of which “the holy city of Byzantium” is the symbol, and vows that, “Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing.”

    The “dying generations” of nature are contrasted with “Monuments of unageing intellect” which, for Yeats, are the great poems of the past, whose authors he imagines as figures in a Byzantine mosaic: “sages standing in God’s holy fire/ As in the gold mosaic of a wall”. As his body weakens with age, it is only as a soul that he can continue to flourish, and his soul is his poetic voice: not the mere vocal power he shares with dumb animals, but his capacity for song, i.e., for meaningful utterance. He commits himself not only to the further development of his own art under the guidance of those “singing-masters”, but also to studying for their own sake the magnificent monuments they created.

    The phrase, “perne in a gyre” is derived from the vocabulary of the early C20th cult of theosophy and refers to the idea that time is not simply sequential, but consists of “gyres” or cones which intersect in such a way as to allow direct communication between people living in widely different eras. In order to appreciate the poem it isn’t necessary to assume that Yeats believed in time-travel: it can be taken simply in the sense that the voices of those separated from us by time, even those long dead, can speak to us through their writings if we let them, just as writers can who are our contemporaries, but separated from us by space, so that “perne in a gyre” means something like “Reach across time to me”.

    The poem takes the existence of “God” for granted and asserts a distinction between the “dying animal” (i.e., the natural body) and the potentially eternal (i.e., supernatural) “soul”. He says, “Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing”, explicitly appealing to the idea that we can have an existence outside “nature”, i.e., a supernatural existence. This confronts us with a question: Should we simply dismiss this poem as pre-scientific claptrap or should we find a way of understanding it that makes it fully meaningful to scientifically educated people?

    The atheistic dismissal of “eternity” depends on branding it as a concept of Life After Death, i.e., a specifically post-mortem conscious existence, but we don’t need to think of eternity as a condition we can enter only after our deaths. We can think of it as a realm of meaning, in which the action of one mind on another is possible across great distances of space and time, what T.S.Eliot called “the point of intersection of the timeless with time”.

    We’re human in the sense that our bodies are the biological offspring of human parents, so let’s define “human nature” in terms of relations internal to our bodies, for example, between brain-cells, which cause behaviour. Let’s also recognise that certain kinds of behaviour, specifically those motivated by ideas of responsibility and integrity, are governed by relations external to the organism, since they depend entirely on language, which is possible only through our relations with other speakers. Motives that arise at this level, therefore, are, in a quite obvious sense, “supernatural”, and I believe that traditional ideas of the supernatural, of God, the Soul, Judgement, Heaven and Hell, were attempts to make sense of the extremely complicated relations created between humans by their use of language.

    Let’s now compare the supernatural vision of existence represented by Yeats with the surreal vision represented by Dylan Thomas, and ask ourselves what features are present in one that are absent in the other, and let’s consider which is the more truly representative of our experience.

    In Yeats we find verbs in present, perfect and future tenses, but in Thomas only in the present. In Yeats we find sequential time (“past, or passing, or to come”), but in Thomas there’s only cyclical time: night, day, youth, age, and seasons. In Yeats there are different grammatical moods, Indicative and Imperative, statements and commands or pleas, but in Thomas only the Indicative, only statements. In Yeats, 1st and 3rd Person pronouns are used explicitly and the 2nd implicitly, but in Thomas there’s only the 3rd Person.

    In Yeats there are relations between distinct persons with distinct social roles (sages, emperor, lords, ladies, goldsmiths), named places (Byzantium) and national identities (Grecian), but in Thomas there are no distinct persons, places or identities, and no social roles, only “man” (St.2,l.4). In Yeats there are different value-systems (“commend”/ “neglect”), but not in Thomas.

    Most importantly of all, perhaps, in Yeats there is dramatic development. In St.1, there’s a mood of alienation: “That is no country for old men”; St.2 begins in negativity, but offers hope and a way forward: “an aged man is but a paltry thing … unless soul clap its hands and sing”/ “And therefore I have sailed the seas and come”); St.3 begins with an appeal which becomes increasingly agonised, “come from the fire, be the singing masters, consume my heart away”; a deepening tension emerges between his despair of his natural condition, – “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal, it knows not what it is”, – and his confident hope in the supernatural: “gather me into the artifice of eternity”.

    St.4 expresses a sense of liberation and empowerment: “once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing”, but laced with a deliciously ironical humility, where he imagines himself not as one of the “sages standing in God’s holy fire”, i.e., not as The Great Poet, but as an expensive mechanical toy for the amusement of an elite, which nevertheless has the gift of prophecy for those who have ears to hear. In Thomas, however, there is no development, only a sequence of processes, so that the end brings with it no sense of an ending: the stanzas are like items in a list which could conceivably go on forever and the last line is just where it happens to stop.

    If you think the Thomas poem is unrepresentative of contemporary poetry, compare the late Grand Old Man of American poetry, John Ashbery. In his poems conversational voices are subjected to the kind of cut-up technique employed by Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Here personal speech is disrupted and distributed in the way parts and processes of the body are in Thomas’s poem, so that it’s no longer experienced as an exchange between identifiable individuals, but more of a mash-up of typically modern talk, like something a machine might be programmed to produce from recorded exchanges. In contemporary poetry, e.g., in the TLS, or the short-list of any poetry-prize competition, lack of rational sequence is not universal, but it is the most typical feature: think of Jorie Graham.

    I recently heard Tom Stoppard saying that, in his early, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern phase, he thought that theatre was all about verbal effects, but he’s since changed his mind and come to believe that the essence of theatre is in story-telling, by which I think he meant a connection that an audience can be asked to understand between what goes before and what comes after. In other words, back to Aristotle: the representation of an action. Poets (and poetry enthusiasts) may be interested in verbal effects, but ordinary people are interested in stories. Think of Auden’s “Funeral Blues” and Henley’s “Invictus”: two poems which, via the cinema, have broken out of Poetry’s Game Reserve. Let me put it this way.

    When reasoned understanding
    is feared as a means to oppress,
    and inconsequentiality
    routinely parades as finesse;
    when what’s at stake,if anything,
    is any poor fellow’s guess:
    then expectation’s a response
    the reader must learn to repress:
    there’s no occasion for surprise,
    no chance of a “fine excess”,
    no sublime overflow,
    no sensations of vertigo,
    no rapture, no deep distress:
    in the end you couldn’t care less.

    I believe we have a need for depth and that, for an account of the world to satisfy our deepest intuitions, it must offer us a model of the relation between what is observable and what is unobservable: between what we see and what is unseen. This was achieved traditionally in terms of a relation between the natural and the supernatural, and it was through this relation that tradition made possible that sense of the divine and the miraculous without which poetry is mere entertainment; but modernity in one way or another has broken the connection between the seen and the unseen.

    First came the sciences with their claim to be the only source of reliable knowledge so that, because science could deal only with natural events, that is to say, with events which can be observed through the senses or through the mediation of machines, the possibility of a rational belief in the unseen, – the divine, the supernatural, and the miraculous, – seemed to recede. Then Freud, with the reassuringly atheistic tone of the scientist, reintroduced the unseen, disguised as “the Unconscious”, – a supposedly scientific concept which gave free rein to fantasies of the most florid kind, that is to say, to the Surreal, which makes Hieronymus Bosch look like sober documentary.

    The Unconscious is supposedly a natural process, a fundamental physical reality by comparison with which the everyday experience of relations between persons, that is to say, between conscious individuals who regard themselves and each other as responsible agents, is exposed as illusory. In the surreal vision of the psychoanalysts, it’s not the unseen, but the seen, the rationally observable, which is abolished.

    Apparently unable to cope with the tension between the seen and the unseen, Modernity tries to eliminate either the one or the other. Thomas’s poem is a grand panorama of a surreal world in which the distinction between the ordinary and the miraculous, like that between persons, is erased. Surrealist poetry is a kind of glossolalia, a speaking in tongues or the babbling of an oracle, which we interpret at our peril, while the poet majestically repudiates any responsibility for its meaning.

    Logic is not something we’re born with: it arises not inside us, but between us; not between neurons, but only between speakers: logic is in that sense something supernatural, above the level of our organic, bodily natures. When we speak, we implicitly call on others to pay attention to what we say and not contradict it without good reason, and we become thereby implicitly committed to not contradicting it ourselves, and this is the origin of logic.

    As speakers we make ourselves responsible for everything we say and do, even for our most frivolous jokes, implicitly committing ourselves to never saying or doing what we can’t coherently justify, so that in extreme situations we may find ourselves, for the sake of our integrity, logically committed to resisting all natural motivation, – the motive to survive as well as our groupish, Us-vs-Them motives; and a motive of integrity which was opposed to all our natural motives could not itself be natural, but must be supernatural, though not in any way spooky or paranormal.

    Religion is concerned with our relation to the supernatural, and the word “religion” derives from the Latin root, “-lig-”, as in “ligature” or “obligation”, with implications of being tied or bound. Being religious consists in acknowledging that some things are sacred, i.e., that, for responsible interlocutors, there are absolute limits to what is logically justifiable. To deny the existence of those limits is to say that nothing is sacred, so that, in extreme situations, you may be able to justify insulting, raping, enslaving, torturing or murdering your enemies. Religion can’t be reduced to ethics, but it must give us a vision of how we come to be, and what it is to be, the kind of creature that is subject to absolute ethical prohibitions.

    The sculptor, Giacometti, for whom Surrealism was an important early influence, once famously said, “I’m very interested in art, but I’m even more interested in truth”; and what he said about art I could equally say about poetry; so my question is this: Of these two incompatible visions, – the supernatural vision of W.B.Yeats and the surreal vision of Dylan Thomas, – which is the truest? Which is it that most closely resembles the one in which you and I confront each other at this moment?

    • Festival Chronicler 9th Oct 2017 at 7:59 pm #

      Thanks for this, Chris!

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