Essay, Magazin
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Redefining poetry in the age of the screen

Video poetry, poetry-film, poetry video, cine-poem, filmpoem, videopoetry, etc. What’s in a name?

The fact that there exist numerous words and phrases referring to this time-based, hybrid art form that has for its materials voiced or displayed text, captured or found images and a soundtrack, not only speaks to the infancy of the art form; if prose is indeed ›words in their best order‹, assigning the designation ›poetry‹ to precede or follow ›film‹ or ›video‹ (hyphenat­­­ed or not) tends to favour one or the other of the arts. The way I see it, the writer who uses »poetry film« automatically designates the work as more film than poetry. I myself began to create what I called »videopoems« when I was more a poet than a video artist, so I naturally considered these works as »poetry«.

Man Ray’s »cinépoème« and Maya Deren’s »filmpoem« sang the praises of film at a time when commercial/entertainment ventures first threatened the aesthetic potential of the new art form of film; it was not about exploring a new form for poetry. In the early ‘80s, William C. Wees recognized that the use of poems had become prevalent in short films; he differentiated these »poetry-films« from »film poems«, i.e. poetic films, including films without words. Substituting »video« for »film« effectively deflected the »mystique« of celluloid from the conversation.

So much for semantics.

What is perhaps more important is the notion that videopoetry – rendering poetry as an object to be experienced through the medium of video – is in the process of re-defining poetry for future generations.

For videopoetry to succeed, our definition of poetry has to change. In essence, the poetry that emerged from a succession of words read or heard becomes, in videopoetry, a different type of poetry that emerges only from the inter-relationships of its elements – text, image and sound. It is generally agreed that these inter-relationships not be illustrative.

When the text is a previously-written poem, it is still only one element of a videopoem; to bring this one element to the »big screen« (without direct illustration) requires a previously-unapprehended »context« that is provided by the image (and to a lesser but not insignificant effect by the soundtrack). The image not only reflects or, more accurately, frames the text »in a new light« – it subverts accepted signifier-signified relations; certain words, phrases, statements, exclamations, intended to be understood/experienced in the »closed system« of the page acquire new meanings when presented in an unexpected visual context.

Note that not all unrelated, unexpected images can be expected to produce the desired new meaning.

Similarly, not all texts, including written-poems, can be expected to produce a desired new meaning when juxtaposed with images. If the written-poem was originally perfect, it would not need to be completed with images. Yet videos are made to promote these written-poems and are most worthwhile; otherwise these poems would not reach a wide public. Their »meaning« is not intended to change nor will it change in a visual context.

The ideal videopoem experience results in the response, »This was … pure poetry.« (The ›poetry‹ reference here would not have been made about the displayed or voiced text in the work – after all, it was only one element.) From each »turn« or appearance of a new element, be it text, image or sound, we should be able to discern an intended new-meaning that is the direct result of the juxtaposition. I call that poetry.

About the Author

Tom Konyves is a writer, poet, videopoet and videopoetry theorist teaching Visual Poetry and Creative Writing at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford. His career began in Montreal in the late 1970s, when he joined one of Canada’s first artist-run centres, Vehicule Art, where he was instrumental in the forming of the 7 Vehicule Poets. In 1978, he coined the term videopoetry to describe his first interdisciplinary work, Sympathies of War, and is considered to be one of the original pioneers of the form. In 2008, he began research in the field of videopoetry, publishing the groundbreaking Videopoetry: A Manifesto in 2011, which defines the hybrid genre, assign constraints and categories to differentiate its various manifestations and specificities. He has been invited to address numerous festivals, conferences and symposiums, presenting his vision of the genre of videopoetry. He lives in White Rock, BC, Canada.


  1. Pingback: Tom Konyves at Poetryfilmkanal on “Redefining poetry in the age of the screen” – Moving Poems Magazine

  2. Pingback: Recent talks on filmpoetry and videopoetry: Alan Fentiman, Tony Williams, Ross Sutherland, Valerie LeBlanc and Daniel Dugas – Moving Poems Magazine

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