When You Can’t Write Poems, Watch a Movie

by Eric Morris-Pusey

Let’s start with a confession: I haven’t written anything new, poetry-wise, in over a year. Hell, I haven’t even done much revision during that time.

I’ve watched a few movies, though. And I’m convinced that’s helpful.

Another confession: This thought may have been conceived only as an elaborate justification for my incessant procrastination. On the other hand, cinema is much more than a delightful distraction—and it has much to teach us about the art of poetry.

While at first glance the movies I’ve watched may seem to have more in common with novels, given their reliance on narrative, I’ve come to think of them (the good ones, anyway) as rather long, highly image-focused poems.

The mechanical apparatus and operation of the camera mimic the way the poet uses words to imply and then shift perspective—now zoomed all the way in on a particular image, now leaping through time and space or widening the shot to reveal the world around that image. The rhythms of fades and cuts are a mirror for the rhythms of line and stanza. Two deliberately similar scenes in a film could be said to rhyme, and a poem’s images or motifs are its mise-en-scène.

The poet A. Van Jordan makes use of the conventions and structure of film a bit more directly in his collections MacNolia and Quantum Lyrics, in which large sections are formatted in the manner of a film script, complete with spoken dialogue and comments on the qualities of a given shot. Several of his poems are “montages” that make the film technique into a poetic form to great effect.

In MacNolia, even the collection as a whole, taken as a single unit, is rather like watching a film in its presentation of the overall narrative arc: the story of MacNolia Cox, the first black person to reach the final of the national spelling bee, sabotaged by the judges’ (and the country’s) racism.

macnolia cover

The book intensely focuses on the singular moments of her achievement and her subsequent elimination from the competition by a word not on the spelling bee list—nemesis—and the ripples and echoes of this tiny moment throughout her entire life and the whole history of the United States make this one word the center of the collection’s narrative and commentary, both literally and metaphorically, in much the way the word rosebud functions in Citizen Kane.

Citizenkane poster

In a more recent A. Van Jordan poem, “Aerial View: Jackson State College,” published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Greensboro Review, film is still a presence, both in the way the poem’s events are presented and in the construction of the poem itself.

The poem opens with a sort of establishing shot in the form of a prose introduction giving context for the Jackson State College shootings:

On May 15, 1970, the Jackson State killings occurred … a group of student protestors against the Vietnam War were confronted by city and state police. Shortly after midnight, the police opened fire, killing two students and injuring twelve. … The Kent State incident captured national attention; the Jackson State killings did not.

From there, Jordan guides us to an extreme close-up of a traveling bullet. After the factual introduction written in prose, the transition is jarring, but this effect is purposeful: bullets, after all, should be jarring, as they “[sing] a single note / of advice: run.”

The poem moves on through three numbered sections, each of which is a discrete scene with a different focus within the piece’s larger context. Even within these sections, the perspective shifts in the way that cameras cut in films’ dialogue and action sequences: first on the poem’s narrator, a student struck dead by a cop’s bullet, then on the whole of “the veldt / of the campus quad,” students running and being gunned down. Then on a night, both literal and symbolic, so long it seems to go on forever.

Jordan has discussed the relationship between film and poetry in essay as well, in a wonderful piece entitled “The Synchronicity of Scenes.” He delves deep into both the technical aspects of each art form and the ways in which he has interacted with both throughout his life, including frank discussions of his own awkwardness with poetry as a young man.

“I look to film now,” he writes, “as a way to solve some of the artistic problems I encounter in poetry.”

While some poets and poems will always be more influenced by film than others, there’s something we can all learn from Jordan’s view of film that goes well beyond the obvious, concrete influence and inspiration the cinema has had on his poems and mine.

The way that Jordan looks beyond poetry as a way of writing and understanding poetry is one of his great achievements in “The Synchronicity of Scenes.” Finding a new way to talk and think about poetry, an innovation in both its construction and the way it is taught, is extraordinary.

Note: This piece is (very loosely) adapted from my graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts, “The Screen Lit Up with Our Faces: Intersections between Poetry & Film.” The phrase “the screen lit up with our faces” is borrowed from Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem “Saturday Night at the Buddhist Cinema.”

More information about A. Van Jordan can be found here.

Eric Morris-Pusey has written a few poems, some of which appear in The Missouri ReviewDriftwood Press, and 3Elements Review, among other places. He holds an M.F.A. from Vermont College of Fine Arts and works on the Nimrod Editorial Board. You can find him on the interwebs or on his stoop in Columbia, Missouri, staring wistfully at the moon.

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