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Cinematic Syntax

I started thinking about poetry and cinema after a visit to artist and filmmaker Karen Yasinsky’s Film & Media Studies class “Poetry and the Moving Image” at Johns Hopkins University. In her course description, Yasinsky writes:

Using P. Adams Sitney’s text The Cinema of Poetry, this course will explore the relationship between poetry and the moving image. When experimental film began to define itself in the 1950s and 60s the terms cine-poem and film-poem were ubiquitous as identifying avant-garde cinema. Poetic structures in the moving image will be studied in relation to language, images and formation of meaning. 

Sitney’s title borrows from Pasolini’s seminal “Il cinema di poesia“; Pasolini’s sense of poetry and “the poetic” is one characterized by a semiotic approach. He begins (reading in Italian at the first New Cinema Festival at Pesaro in 1965) by “taking into account at least the terminology of semiotics,” as “[s]emiotics envisages sign-systems indifferently: it speaks, for example of ‘systems of linguistic sign,’ because these exist, but in fact this in no way excludes the theoretical possibility of other sign-systems . . .” The gestural sign, the visual sign, the physical signwe are engaged in “continual dialog between ourselves and an environment which expresses itself by the mediation of the images which compose it . . . objects charged with meanings and which utter a brute ‘speech’ by their very presence.” Pasolini continues:

But there is more: in man, an entire world is expressed by means of significant images shall we therefore propose, by analogy, the term “im-signs” (imsegni, i.e. image-signs). This is the world of memory and of dreams.

Every attempt at memorization is a series of im-signs, that is primarily a cinema sequence. (“Where have I seen this person? Wait…I think it was at Zagora”—image of Zagora with its green palms against the pink soil—…walking with Abd Kader…—image of Abd El Kader and of the person in question walking past the encampment of the French outposts—etc.). And thus, all dreams are a series of im-signs which have all the characteristics of the cinematic sequence: close-ups, long shots, etc.

Pasolini takes us all the way back to the “virtually pre-human” nature of visual, gestural, physical signs, and the “pre-grammatical and even premorphological” nature of memory and dreams. He points to the nature of cinema as “oneiric” (of dreams) and “objective” (in Zukovsky’s “poem as object” sense of the word).

While Sitney explores the specific influence of poets from Aeschylus to Ashbery and Dickinson to Duncan on classic and avant-garde filmthe literal influence of one artist’s work in one medium on another artist in another mediumthe exploration raises the overarching question of “what we talk about when we talk about ________.” Flipping an aesthetic figure can sometimes reveal elements on both sides more clearlywhat do we mean when we say a poem is “cinematic” (or vice versa)?

While a poem like Frank O’Hara’s “Ave Maria” would belong in any poetry anthology “about” the movies, I  wouldn’t actually call it cinematic in its formal decisions. I’d choose a structurally descriptive figure from the world of speech and rhetoric (poem as persuasion, poem as argument) instead. It begins with its main argument, “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies!” and moves forward in humorous logic, ending:

so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice

and the family breaks up

and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set


movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young

Danez Smith’s “a film for us” feels like filmmaking—a chance to be behind the scenes of a life, reviewing the raw footage, and then drawing on the power of poiesis to (re-)make:

let me make us a movie, a home for all of us

to be in love with ourselves. I can make a world

where we know our fathers & our fathers know.
I can edit all the faggots out their mouths

& away from the flames. I can make us kings.
we don’t have to be the jester or the firewood.

we can be stunning & fierce & sickening
& loved. I said loved! yes yes yes

Is Robert Hass’s “Heroic Simile” “cinematic,” or am I conflating cinematic and oneiric entirely? It begins:

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.


The swordsman “dissolves” into his figure of the falling pine, and a new narrative begins out of the new figure. Later in the poem:

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon . . .
They are waiting for me to do something . . .


As in Smith’s poem, the poet foregrounds the poem as a “made” thing, words forever being worked (like wood? like steel? like magic?), even in their “finished” form.

Personally, I feel the pull of the cinematic (or the essayistic, or the conversational, or the painterly, or the musical) in a poem’s syntactic and structural decisions. Parataxis often feels cinematic to me, like “quick cuts” from image to image, scene to scene. Perhaps this returns to Pasolini’s idea of the pre-grammatical nature of the visual signwhile parataxis is certainly a grammatical “move,” it gestures toward the equivalencies of a visual “taking in,” which has a socio-political element as well, seemingly beyond the hypotactic hierarchies of “higher” meaning-making, as in Suji Kwock Kim’s “Montage with Neon, Bok Choi, Gasoline, Lovers & Strangers,” which ends with one long, primarily paratactic run of images:

I wonder about others I see on the sidewalks,
each soul fathomless—
strikers & scabs walking through Kwanghwamoon,
or “Gate of Transformation by Light,”
riot police rapping nightsticks against plexiglass-shields,
hawkers haggling over cell phones or silk shirts,
shaking dirt from chamae & bok choi,
chanting price after price,
fishermen cleaning tubs of cuttlefish & squid,
stripping copper carp,
lifting eels or green turtles dripping from tanks,
Hanyak peddlars calling out names of cures
for sickness or love—
crushed bees, snake bile, ground deer antler, chrysanthemum root,
bus drivers hurtling past in a blast of diesel-fumes,
lovers so tender with each other
I hold my breath,
dispatchers shouting the names of stations,
the grocer who calls me “daughter” because I look like her,
for she has long since left home,
vendors setting up pojangmachas
to cook charred silkworms, broiled sparrows,
frying sesame-leaves & mung-bean pancakes,
men with hair the color of scallion root
playing paduk, or GO,
old enough to have stolen overcoats & shoes from corpses,
whose spirits could not be broken,
whose every breath seems to say:
after things turned to their worst, we began again,
but may you never go through what we went through,
may you never see what we saw,
may you never remember & may you never forget.


As Kim’s title explicitly references the technique of montage, thus recalling the cinematic (and political) juxtapositions and connections pioneered by Eisenstein in the 1920s, its syntax enacts it.

When Hass employs the technique of zeugma to say that the swordsman fell “in the gray rain, / in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,” the technique is one of classical rhetoric, but it feels cinematicdissolve, or multiple exposure, or rack focus.

Thinking about the way we use the figure of one medium to describe another helps me focus my attention not only on what, but on how a poem is saying, meaning, being. If McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” holds true, how do we “read” a medium that aspires to a different medium? What truth and beauty can we find in a “mixed message”?