“Two Kinds of Boxes”: cliché and meaning in videopoetry

My first new videopoem of 2013 required more planning than is usual for me. The text is kind of the central poem in my Alternate Histories series. The footage speaks directly to its theme of rewinding and remaking the past. I’m also ridiculously pleased with myself for figuring out how to lie through video so as to make it appear that I am unwriting my footprints as I walk.

As curator of Moving Poems for almost four years, I’m all too aware of the fact that I am — as I say in my profile at Vimeo — a very amateur filmmaker myself. My command of the technical aspects of filmmaking is still pretty poor, and my image vocabulary is basic. But I do have the advantage — or is it a burden? — of knowing that some of the most obvious moving images have been done to death: shots from a moving vehicle, for example, or shots of walking feet (often female and barefoot). All my favorite contemporary videopoetry/filmpoetry makers have employed both these kinds of shots, some more than once. Hence, in part, my idea to include point-of-view footage (heh) of footprints rather than feet.

Is it fair to call such images clichés, though? Doing so smacks a little of the modernist scorn for writing about falling leaves or the moon. Moving through the world is a pretty inescapable aspect of existence, after all, and walking prompts thinking so readily it might as well serve as a metonym for it.

Moreover, a certain interplay between movement and stasis seems intrinsic to the videopoetry genre. Archibald MacLeish’s justly famous “Ars Poetica” says that “a poem should be motionless in time,” which while hyperbolic does capture the essential stasis in much modern lyric poetry (including my own): “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit,” states the opening line. By contrast, motion is the soul of film, and therefore I suggest that an unresolved tension between movement and stasis is the fundamental agon in poetry film, akin to the dynamic balance between life and death in any organism or ecosystem. (One thinks of the French for “still life,” nature morte.)

A look at the entire second section of MacLeish’s poem shows that the poem itself is (irony alert!) rather more interested in movement than in stasis, proving once again that it’s difficult to say anything about videopoetry that isn’t just as true of poetry as a whole:

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

Moving images have pretty much replaced celestial bodies as a central interest bordering on obsession in our culture, so perhaps it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to compare film in general to the role of the moon in this poem. Be that as it may, I think that makers of filmpoems and videopoems have long sensed a MacLeishian contest between stillness and movement as the ultimate expression of that creative juxtaposition between text and shot which distinguishes the true videopoem from other films or videos involving poetry. (Tom Konyves’ manifesto goes into some detail about the optimal sorts of text-image juxtapositions required for successful videopoems, but Konyves is far from the only poetry filmmaker to discover this principle.)

Immediately following the lines quoted above, in the third section of the poem, MacLeish writes: “A poem should be equal to: / Not true.” This too sounds as if it could be addressing videopoetry. Too close a match between text and image feels contrary to the allusive spirit of poetry (and of good film), but too random a match-up and that sense of “equal to” is lost. So in my video above, showing an actual black box, for instance, would’ve been absurd, but I thought I could get away with dark footprints. And when the poem talks about examining oneself, it seemed sufficiently suggestive to have the actor’s body move out of the frame and leave the now-unmarked snow bare for the closing credits.

Then again, that’s just the sort of move you’d expect from someone whose blog is called Via Negativa. It’s almost an apophatic cliché.

3 Replies to ““Two Kinds of Boxes”: cliché and meaning in videopoetry”

  1. According to the goog yours is the second recorded instance of the use of the term “apophatic cliché” on the intertubing. I was just wondering. And in case you are, the other is here. Not to mention its being cited on one other site.

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