But like the Alain Resnais-Marguerite Duras collaboration, there is something special about those moments when an auteur and a poet work in tandem to produce something that lodges firmly in both the memory and the heart.
Remembering words better than pictures
It’s odd that I should remember words better when the visual medium is such a powerful one, but that’s how it sometimes goes. I remember the poet Arseniy Tarkovsky’s poem Life, Life so well. I used a line from it as a section epigraph in my first collection of poems.
I know that the poem was read by the poet himself, father of Andrei Tarkovsky (who did with cinema what his father did with words). But I had thought that the poem was read over images of young people running under a bridge and criss-crossing the frame.
So much for memory. It turns out that the poem is juxtaposed with newsreel footage of the Red Army’s march into Lake Sivash in 1943, for which Tarkovsky got into trouble with the Soviet censors. That they allowed the scene to pass uncensored is surely because of the poem? (The scene is from 59: 28-1:03:16).
The lyrical, almost triumphant song of immortality contrasts sharply with the dumb endurance of the men dragging their feet through the sludge. But neither father nor son is interested in simple irony or lyricism. Something complex is being said here about time, endurance and mortality and the viewer recognises it without entirely being able to articulate it: recognises it in the flickering beams of light the soldiers don’t know they’re carrying above their heads; in the flying needle that leads from there to the boy picking himself up and walking on with a tuneless whistle.
Has cinema changed how people write?
If cinema, like poetry, is understood intuitively, poetry – like cinema – is kinetic. By this I mean that poetry, by its linguistic short-circuitry, can move in the way cinema does. It can change location, perspective, time and voice. It can be what Coleridge called “plastic and vast”.
Perhaps cinema’s century has changed the way people write – not just poetry, but anything at all. At the Goa Lit Fest last December, an author read out a passage in which he imagined Sachin Tendulkar walking back to the pavilion for the last time. He described the walk, the distant roar of people cheering; and listening to it, I was sure the writer imagined the moment in slow motion, with the cheers muted, only the footsteps loud. To me, the moment was imagined and written cinematically.
This tendency to script the visual in terms made familiar by cinema is evident in Christopher Logue’s War Music and Cold Calls. In this passage, it’s easy to hear the voice-over, the short lines describing individual shots:
Shields all round
Diomed on his knees
Lifting his hands:
“Sister and wife of God”
As Sethynos breaks off the arrowhead
“Eliminate my pain.”
Settles his knee beneath his hero’s shoulderblades
“Let me kill that oaf who claims my death”
Bridges his nape with one hand
“Before it comes with honour to my name.”
Then with his other hand
In one long strong slow pull
Drew the shank back, and out.
- From Cold Calls: War Music, continued by Christopher Logue
For the longest time, I wrote poetry as if I were watching a film and had to describe what I saw and heard in the most precise terms possible. Precision in poetry has power because, like cinema, it can create an exact index of the imagined.
Poetry cannot rely on the image to say everything that is meaningful because it is not cinema. A collection of accurately described images is not in itself poetry. For me it’s been a challenge to find other ways of writing, to free words from the cinematic mayajaal in which they’d become enmeshed.
Sridala Swami's second collection of poetry, Escape Artist, was published by Aleph Book Co. in 2014. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and blogs at The Spaniard in the Works.