Monday, 14 May 2012

Camera Eye on Poetry

Marshall McLuhan, author of the essay which follows, believes that we can use our children’s awareness of film and TV to help them better appreciate a traditional art form like poetry. His general strategy is to use contemporary awareness of technology as an open door to traditional art and literature. His book, The Mechanical Bride: the Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), will prove immensely interesting to those teachers who find this essay congenial. 

Professor McLuhan, who teaches English at the University of Toronto, is an associate editor of Explorations, a journal published at the University of Toronto and supported by the Ford Foundation. The magazine attempts to explore ways to bring the humanities into fresh contact with modern man.

When “picturesque” poetry arose in the early eighteenth century, English poets began to exploit a new way of seeing and feeling through pictures. Poetry since then has steadily developed their discoveries. And their discoveries were, to an amazing degree, anticipations of the movie and of television. For that reason, it is easy now in teaching the poetry of Gray and Collins, and of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Byron, Shelley, and Keats, to train the camera eye on their verses. In so doing, teacher and student will quickly discover a great deal about this earlier poetry that is new and exciting today.

It is not necessary to begin as late as the eighteenth century, however. Let us start with the familiar ballad, “Sir Patrick Spens.” It opens with a panoramic shot of a king’s court. It is stormy weather. That is why the king sits. The court in those days had to move about because government administration could not expect people to come to court. Roads were too bad.

At once, the camera moves in for a close shot of the king conversing with his counselors. The king has a problem. Note that there is treachery afoot when the “eldern knicht” proposes his solution. At least we learn this from the angry grief of Sir Patrick a few lines later. The next shot is of the preparation of the letter. Then we shift instantly to the seashore and Sir Patrick. Then there are shots of the swift and fatal preparations for the voyage.

Everywhere the poet’s shots depend on sudden shifts and startling contrast of image and effect. The opening shot of the king and his court is contrasted with the final shot of Sir Patrick and the same nobles at the bottom of the deep. The efficiency of Sir Patrick’s preparations for sea are in contrast to the shots of his sissy courtiers and their fancy ladies “wi their fans into their hand.”

The ballad was a swift and dramatic form which relied much on short, quick shots or scenes that can be visually realized.

The students should be invited to discover these features as much as possible for themselves. They should be asked to cast the show and to watch for irony and metaphor or symbol.

If the last scene of “Sir Patrick Spens” were to be presented as a radio program, one would naturally look at it closely to discover the acoustic possibilities. The musical and other sound effects of wind and rain and tumult of the seashore would come into their own. Needless to say, in studying this or any other poem through the camera eye, the teacher and student are going to learn a lot about the art of the movie and of television. They would enjoy reading Eisenstein’s Film Form to see what a great movie director learned from the poetry of Milton and the novels of Dickens in solving some problems of movie art.

A glance at Collins’ “Ode to Evening” from the movie-camera point of view reveals an important feature of landscape poetry. The romantic poets looked for scenes that would correspond to various human feelings and emotions. (The “feelings” refer to sensuous experience, the “emotions” to states of mind.) “Ode to Evening” is a kind of orchestral arrangement of such feelings and emotions. And this orchestration is managed by a rhythmic and undulating succession of scenes which unfold as the poet takes his walk.

To turn from a camera-eye study of this poem to the Autumn or Melancholy of Keats will reveal many fascinating differences and resemblances of scene, tone, and language. Of course, that is one justification of the camera-eye approach—that it reveals the effects of the printed page through another medium. It permits the fruitful method of comparison and contrast (the best way of studying samples from any of the arts) to be followed in many unexpected ways. Also, it relates traditional poetry to our contemporary experience.

Finally, let us turn to a small poem of Wordsworth, “The Solitary Reaper.” The poet seems almost to have made it into a shooting script. Note how carefully and exactly he sets the opening visual scene. He places himself in the midst of the scene, both as camera eye and as commentator. Like all the romantic poets, he not only tells you what to see but exactly how the scene should affect you. The first and last stanzas have the same view and sounds. But the two middle stanzas do some surprising leaps and offer some very fantastic shots of Arabia, the Hebrides and ancient clan battles in Celtic mists. These effects are carefully arranged, as in a musical or pictorial composition, to bring about a single emotional impact. Wordsworth seeks the eerie in the everyday as “The Ancient Mariner” of Coleridge seeks the casual and everyday amidst the remote and eerie. Like all poets and artists, Wordsworth in this poem aims to startle and waylay the reader. Every poem is an ambush. And until the reader springs the trap and falls like Alice astonished into another world, he hasn’t made contact with the poem.

The camera eye, assisted by sound effects, will help student and teacher to discover the magic formula that will open the secret world that is every great poem.

First published in The Clearing House, Vol. 30, No. 8 (Apr., 1956)

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