Word for Word: Poetry films the new way to go

Just as a music video adds a new dimension to a song, a poetry film can reimagine the poem – and sometimes takes it somewhere else entirely

Collaboration: Alice Lyons and Orla McHardy made The Polish Language

Collaboration: Alice Lyons and Orla McHardy made The Polish Language


Poetry films are bursts of sweetness and stimulation. They vary hugely. Some are as simple as a film of the text of a poem, but just as a music video adds a new dimension to a song, the film can reimagine the poem – and sometimes takes it somewhere else entirely.

One example is The Polish Language, a collaboration between Alice Lyons, the Roscommon-based poet and artist, and the artist and film-maker Orla McHardy, from 2009. Lyons’s poem pays homage to the revitalisation of poetry in Polish in the second half of the 20th century.

McHardy uses a visual style based on underground publications in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, known as bibula, and incorporates hand-drawn, stop-motion and time-lapse animation techniques. There are background samples of Polish poets reading their work and an emphasis on type. It is a scratchy, whispery delight.

Lyons points out that cinematic language has to engage with the text in a way that goes beyond voiceover or mere illustration and cites Hollis Frampton’s Gloria! (1979) as an example. “It’s a witty, heartbreaking, utterly original work dedicated to his Irish granny.”

She also recommends Vessela Dantcheva’s Anna Blume (2009) and McHardy’s The Grass Is Greener (2007).

Last year, as part of the celebrations of Ireland’s presidency of the Council of Europe, the Poetry Project paired contemporary art videos with poetry, and emailed one to the inbox of thousands of subscribers every Monday morning.

The Monday treats featured work by, among others, Alice Maher, Bernard O’Donoghue, Derek Mahon, Brendan Kennelly, Thomas Kinsella, Diana Copperwhite and Paula Meehan. (They are archived online at thepoetryproject.ie.)

The oldest known poetry film, called The Night Before Christmas, was made in the US in 1905. More and more people are making poetry films, now that anyone with a smartphone can have a go. There are some enjoyable examples on the Short of the Week film website (iti.ms/1l0Kevz).

Last September I spent a happy afternoon in the Kingston Hotel in Dún Laoghaire watching poetry films from around the world as part of the Mountains to Sea festival. Lyons, who is curating the festival’s Poetry Now section this year, says the programme will again include poetry films “and some other art forms that embrace poetry” .

The best-known poetry-film festival is Zebra, in Berlin, now in its seventh year. Submissions are invited for the second Ó Bhéal International Poetry-Film Competition 2014, run with the IndieCork festival of independent music and cinema (indiecork.com), from October 12th to 19th. The deadline is September 15th. obheal.ie.

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