Essay, Magazin
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The fascination of hearing poetry films

A major fascination of poetry film clearly resides in the challenge of juxtaposing poetic imagery with filmic images. As much as film cannot be reduced to visuality, the challenges that poetry film implies, however, are not only visual.

In fact, it is the dimension of sound that I find particularly characteristic and fascinating. The juxtapositions that make up the fascination of this (intermedial?) genre, are already visible in the name ›poetry film‹ itself, wherefore the term merits some initial clarification and definition, especially regarding the status of its components ›poetry‹ and ›film‹. Poetry films can be distinguished into films that explicitly feature the spoken or written poem and poetic short films and filmic adaptations of a poem from which the poetic text itself is absent. Poetry films are produced in all audiovisual media be they 35 or 16 mm film, video tapes or digital video. This adaptability of the form to ever new audiovisual media does not mean that mediality didn’t matter. Quite the contrary, each new audiovisual media technique gave new impulses on poetry film as a genre and many producers of poetry films make a point of reflecting on their medium.

Poetry films exist in various forms from experimental short films to visual poetry in motion to animated short film, but many of them include the spoken poem, often in the form of a voice over that accompanies the film or video images. The fact that the poem is actually present in the audiovisual context calls attention to the way it materializes: to its acoustic qualities like rhythm, alliteration and rhyme as well as its vocal performance.

In recent years there has been an increasing awareness of matters of sound and acoustics, in film studies as well as in other areas. Our understanding of poetry film can benefit a lot from this development. The principal point that we can take from this research is this: Not just on the level of signs, in terms of text-image-relations, but on the level of perception itself sound and image are fused into something completely new, into a third thing that is more than the addition of both elements. While experimental film maker Maya Deren meditated on this effect as early as 1953 on a podium on poetry and the film, contemporary scholars like film theorist Michel Chion* have systematically laid out how what we hear, shapes what we believe only to see in the audiovisual experience.

One of Chion’s central terms is ›synchresis‹, by which he describes the psychophysiological phenomenon that lets us attribute discrete events that we see and hear simultaneously to the same source, e. g. the dubbed voice to the actor on screen. Such an effect – also called cross-modal association – is subtly operative in the perception of all audio-film, but it is crucial to the experience of poems in an audiovisual context, because voice over poems are often clearly not part of a diegetic world and what we hear is set apart from what we see creating counterpoint and contrast. But even in the most modernist and experimental efforts of counterpoint or of contrasting sound-image-relations, in our perception both sound and image are always drawn together, contaminating each other as Michel Chion puts it. The effect of this play of forces can be intriguing. What is fascinating about poetry film, to me, is the stunning effect when such a complex combination of elements brings about something new, the impression that something is revealed in the image or in the poem.

Let’s have a look at Ralf Schmerberg’s interpretation of Ernst Jandl’s poem glauben und gestehen, which to me is the most accomplished section of the film POEM (2004).** The great actor Herbert Fritsch speaks Jandl’s two sentence poem over mostly silent video footage of a wedding party. His excellent performance exposes the affliction of the subject facing death. Screaming and stretching apart the verse rhythm by leaving large pauses in between words, he lets the silent festive scenes appear more and more menacing until consequently the film concludes with an audiovisual danse-macabre-metaphor.

It’s in those moments that poetry film unfolds its aesthetic potential and that account for a great deal of its fascination.

* See Michel Chion.
** See Ralf Schmerberg: POEM (2004).

About the Author

Stefanie Orphal hat Literaturwissenschaften, Medienwissenschaften und
BWL in Potsdam und Paris studiert. Ihr Interesse an
Literaturverfilmungen und Lyrik führte sie 2008 zum Thema Poetryfilm
und zum ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival der LiteraturWerkstatt Berlin. Nach
einem Praktikum und intensiven Recherchen im Festivalarchiv schrieb
Sie Ihre Abschlussarbeit zum Thema und promovierte anschließend an der
Freien Universität Berlin. Ihre Dissertation ist 2014 unter dem Titel
Poesiefilm. Lyrik im audiovisuellen Medium im DeGruyter-Verlag


  1. Pingback: Stefanie Orphal on the aural dimension of poetry film – Moving Poems Magazine

  2. Pingback: Zwischen Präsenz- und Medieneffekt – Poetryfilmkanal

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