KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 4: Fall 2015
Essay/Review: 989 words

Video Poetry: Synergy or Dependency?

by Jack Cooper
A video tour of Harlem adds context to a classic poem by Langston Hughes.

Photo dissolves of images from a humorous take on memory loss “complete” this popular poem.

Photos of artwork enhance a poet’s eulogy to her deceased brother.

Or do they? Whether we call it video poetry or film poetry, it’s a tricky genre, a more-is-better, hybrid approach. Says Poets & Writers Magazine, “...the video poem may be ushering a whole new demographic to poetry.”

The arts have many alloyed genres: plays, dance, film. Collage and assemblage are combined forms by their nature, of course. And in rap and spoken-word poetry, drum beats, whimsical rhymes, and electric performances often propel the work forward, beyond the mere lyric.

Songwriting is an obvious hybrid form, an extreme example being Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The lyrics depend utterly on the music; in fact, they’re embarrassingly banal read as poetry. In turn, we might say the music itself is dependent on that incredible, gravelly, world-weary voice. You can call this synergy or interdependence, depending on how much you like the song.

Video poems, or poem films, are often an amalgamation of written word, spoken word, photography, video, music, environmental sounds, performance, and animation. Are they still poetry then? This question reveals where the problem lies.

I wouldn’t want to think that my own poetry needs music to be felt—or anything else but the naked words to be imagined. What would a filmmaker do, for example, with this stanza from a love poem which rails against science?

You are why
it’s so hard to believe
that sunlight can be frozen
that most of everything is darkness
that whatever cannot be measured
cannot be there

The images are almost anti-cinematic. How do you capture something frozen, in a medium of movement? How do you film darkness? Moreover, this particular conceit is intellectual and conceptual: “whatever cannot be measured cannot be there” is pure quantum physics, but here, becomes the antithesis of love. We know that love cannot be measured, yet we clearly feel its presence.

A filmmaker would have to explore this idea with such a fresh and creative eye that the film would reveal new, parallel, or even ascending, ways of looking at the poem. And, rather than producing a dependent relationship as voice and music do in Armstrong’s song, the film would need to stand as a separate work of art, as the poem is intended to do.

That basically describes the high standard I believe we need for video poetry: two separate works of art united by a theme. Unfortunately, I see few examples of this standard—yet. Typically, one or the other form dominates. A quick browse of sites like Vimeo, Motionpoems, and YouTube yields numerous poetry videos [*], including these four:

Langston Hughes

This piece hits two of my pet peeves: poems about poetry and poems about politics, race, or religion. But I applaud Langston Hughes for doing something few of his brothers and sisters had the courage to do in the first half of the last century. Shots of buildings in Harlem are appropriate here, but not the numerous images of a person writing: we know what that looks like. Street life, clubs, stick ball, scenes of families and work, parades, protests, confrontations—such scenes would tell us what the writer drew from. Beyond that, creative, non-literal imagery closer to true art would be welcome, e.g., how would Monet or Lichtenstein look at the Harlem Renaissance?

Billy Collins

“Forgetfulness” features a well known poem by our most accessible poet. Although the images don’t distract much, they don’t transcend the words or add much, either. They merely illustrate the poem in a fragmentary way, which fits up to a point, since the central idea is loss of memory. Still, do we need this video? Does the work take on new depth or accessibility? I think not. I prefer the plain old poem, whether I read it silently or listen to Collins read it aloud in his bemused, ironic voice.

Tanya Davis/Andrea Dorfman

This multimedia animation is charmingly performed. Yet it may give the impression that being alone is neutral or positive, since the poet doesn’t seem to struggle with solitude like many people do. I was disappointed that the rock-music soundtrack overpowered the words at times. What was audible of the poetry presented clever, irony-free advice to survive being by yourself: “You can always talk to a statue,” and “a bench gives strangers a shared existence.” And the video nicely complements the lines.

Michelle Bitting

This poem film, as Bitting calls it, feels like a tribute or eulogy, something created for a funeral or “celebration of life,” and the violin music is perfectly suited. We’re taken to another level of knowledge beyond the poem, since we see both the paintings and the person to whom the poet refers. The images may also relieve her of the difficult task of describing her brother’s art in words. More than that, the Houdini images present a metaphor which doesn’t appear in the poem. Dangerous Drugs? Death-defying Art? Art as immortal? And then, the young man’s bilingual suicide note, coupled with his sweet statement to his sister, the poet. Overall, a moving and compelling result, and neither the poem nor the images need each other to be valid. [**]

I conclude that the emerging genre of video poetry deserves attention, not as the future of poetry, perhaps, but as a compelling and relevant new form, one that could speak powerfully to an increasingly visual culture. I also believe it should be held to a higher standard, as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell did with the ballad. I see only the rare, equivalent achievement among poem films currently available online, but I feel confident more will soon emerge.


  1. “Six Video Poems,” posted online by Poets & Writers Magazine staff, 1 February 2013.

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Editor’s Notes:

* Video poems evaluated above include:

  • Michelle Bitting’s poem film “In Praise of My Brother”
  • An animated poem, “Forgetfulness,” by Billy Collins
  • Andrea Dorfman’s multi-media presentation of “How to be Alone” by Tanya Davis
  • A dramatization of “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes (uploaded to YouTube by Jaime Morgan)

** Michelle Bitting’s poem appears here in KF-4: In Praise of My Brother, the Painter

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