Whitman on Film | a video essay at the poet’s bicentennial

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I just shared H. Paul Moon‘s adaptation of “America” and mentioned the trilogy of Walt Whitman poetry films of which it is a part. But that’s not all that Paul’s been getting up to. This wonderfully comprehensive and personal video essay takes a chronological look at the use of Whitman’s poetry in film, embracing a multitude of movies and TV shows good and bad, high-brow and low. It’s the centerpiece at Paul’s site whitmanonfilm.com, and will be part of the May 31st Whitman bicentennial screening in Washington, D.C.

This video essay is an analysis of Walt Whitman’s every appearance in cinema and television, leading up to his 200th birthday on May 31, 2019. […] As explained at the end title, this video essay was created for non-commercial educational access, in the spirit of fair use for analysis, with gratitude to these filmmakers who have honored Walt Whitman.

Go to Vimeo for the clickable timecode list of cited films, but really, you should just watch the whole thing straight through. I’ll paste the list in below.

I should mention for the benefit of any newcomers to the film poetry genre that the 1921 film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand was not only the first real Whitman poetry film, but also arguably the first American avant-garde film and the first proper film poem. (Watch it in full here.) For this reason alone, fans of poetry film and videopoetry need to pour one out for old Walt on May 31. Long may his poetry live and continue to shape art and literature around the world.

02:30 Intolerance (1916): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
02:49 Manhatta (1921): A Broadway Pageant; Mannahatta; Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
03:39 Street Scene (1931): Passage to India
04:25 Now Voyager (1942): The Untold Want
05:18 Goodbye, My Fancy (1951): Good-bye My Fancy!
05:54 The Twilight Zone, Season 3 Episode 35 (1962): I Sing the Body Electric
06:46 Fame (1980): I Sing the Body Electric
07:16 Sophie’s Choice (1982)
08:12 Down By Law (1986): The Singer in Prison
08:59 Bull Durham (1988): I Sing the Body Electric
11:17 Dead Poets Society (1989): O Captain! My Captain!; O Me! O Life!; Song of Myself
15:17 Northern Exposure, Season 1 Episode 2 (1990): When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
17:12 Quiz Show (1994): I Hear America Singing
17:33 Doc Hollywood (1991): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
18:14 With Honors (1994): Song of Myself; One Hour to Madness and Joy; Song of Myself
19:49 Little Women (1994): Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun
20:24 Beautiful Dreamers (1992)/Song of Myself (1976)
21:19 Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Season 5 Ep. 21 (1997): Song of the Open Road; I Hear America Singing
25:31 Love and Death on Long lsland (1997): The Untold Want
26:15 L.I.E. (2001): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
27:25 The Notebook (2004): Spontaneous Me; Continuities
29:19 Leaves of Grass (2009): To You
31:10 Breaking Bad (2011-2013): When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
32:57 Whitman Trilogy by H. Paul Moon (2016-2019): America; The Wound Dresser; Civil War poems
33:21 Short Film by Sara Wolfley (2019): Poets to Come

America by Walt Whitman

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A recording of Whitman’s own reading of “America” is juxtaposed with shots of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., minutes after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, to great and moving effect. This is part of a trilogy of Whitman poetry films by H. Paul Moon, “a filmmaker whose body of work includes short and feature-length documentaries, dance films, and experimental cinema, featured and awarded at over a hundred film festivals worldwide.” Paul tells me that he’s currently shooting the last part, a setting of Civil War poems, in the Richmond, Virginia area right now, and based on what he did with “America”, I’m guessing that that film may not shy away from contemporary political references. But we’ll have to wait until May 31 to find out. That’s when the whole trilogy will be posted to whitmanonfilm.com, to mark Whitman’s 200th birthday. They’ll also be screened the same evening in Washington, D.C. as part of a week-long Whitman bicentennial celebration. If you’re in the DC area, check it out.

Moon’s description at Vimeo is worth quoting in full:

The confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was politically divisive, but Walt Whitman’s 19th century wisdom is timeless. In 1892, the poet wrote in prose:

“I have sometimes thought, indeed, that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman.”

Towards the end of his life in 1888, he added “America” to his collection “Leaves of Grass,” and then recited four lines from the poem, onto a wax cylinder recording, before he died (it is the only record of his voice in existence):

“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”

And the written poem proceeds to say:

“A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”

This poetry film combines my documentation of the minutes after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, with Whitman’s own voice, and original music by composer James S. Adams. I used the new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K at 120 frames per second, and color graded using the FilmConvert emulsion/grain simulation of Fuji 8563 RL film stock.

It has been presented at the 2018 Rabbit Heart Film Festival, the 2019 Beeston Film Festival, and the Walt Whitman 200 Festival.

Filmed and edited by H. Paul Moon | Zen Violence Films | zenviolence.com
Music composed and performed by BLK w/ BEAR | James S. Adams | courtesy of LCR Records | littlecrackdrabbit.co.uk/lcr001.html

Muirburn by Yvonne Reddick

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Dutch filmmaker Helmie Stil‘s latest filmpoem, just released online yesterday, is a brilliant follow-up to her award-winning The Opened Field. Like that film, it’s based on a poem from the UK Poetry Society’s 2017 National Poetry Competition, this time the commended poem “Muirburn” by Yvonne Reddick, a scholar of ecopoetry and up-and-coming poet from the northwest of England. And like Dom Bury’s “The Opened Field”, “Muirburn” is an unsettling poem that gives Stil plenty of room to subvert viewers’ expectations, steering just close enough to standard, narrative film-making to draw us in and reveal the—I would argue—true, uncanny reality of nature and our relationship with it. One of the National Poetry Competition judges, Pacale Petit, noted that the poem itself contains “filmic flashes, which dissolve and sear as if glimpsed through a furnace”, and added that it “concludes on an astonishing parting image”—a real gift to the filmmaker, who certainly rose to the challenge.

The film premiered in March, according to the Poetry Society’s announcement post:

Yvonne Reddick also won the inaugural Peggy Poole Award, and the film ‘Muirburn’ was premiered at the Peggy Poole Award readings at Bluecoat, Liverpool on 13 March 2019.

Current, I by Lehua Taitano

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A Whitmansque exploration of identity from Lehua Taitano for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s online exhibition A Day in the Queer Life of Asian Pacific America. It’s part of a half-completed series of twelve author-made videopoems curated by poet Franny Choi: Queer Check-Ins, which Choi introduces with this note:

It’s a strange time to be strange. For those of us who are queer and trans, femme and gender non-conforming, immigrant and indigenous, every day seems to bring a new understanding of the exact precariousness of our survival. As artists, we are often making our visions for the future while being drained by loss, heartbroken by loneliness and the distances between us. But, as poet Ocean Vuong writes, “loneliness is still time spent / with the world.” As curator for this project, I’m excited to gather these twelve queer voices from across the Asian and Pacific diasporas, to form a kind of collective rest stop in our travels through this America. Together, these poets meet the dark road ahead with fierce tenderness, with legends and incantations, with sharp criticism and complex dreams. Here are twelve check-ins from our extended chosen family; twelve brief glimpses into what it looks like when we stay.

For more on Taitano, see her excellent website. I’ll take the liberty of quoting her bio:

Lehua M. Taitano is a queer CHamoru writer and interdisciplinary artist from Yigu, Guåhan (Guam) and co-founder of Art 25. She is the author of two volumes of poetry—Inside Me an Island (WordTech Editions) and A Bell Made of Stones (TinFish Press). Her chapbook,  appalachiapacific, won the  Merriam-Frontier Award for short fiction. She has two recent chapbooks of poetry and visual art:  Sonoma (Dropleaf Press) and Capacity (a Hawai’i Review e-chap).

Her poetry, essays, and Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction have appeared in  Poetry, Fence, Arc Poetry Magazine, Kartika Review, Red Ink International Journal, and numerous others. She has served as an APAture Featured Literary Artist via Kearny Street Workshop, a Kuwentuhan poet via The Poetry Center at SFSU, and as a Culture Lab visual artist and curatorial advisor for the Smithsonian Institute’s Asian Pacific American Center. Taitano’s  work investigates modern indigeneity, decolonization, and cultural identity in the context of diaspora.

Letter by Doyali Islam

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Filmmaker: Amrita Singh


Filmmaker: Laurice Oliveira


Filmmaker: Jane Glennie

A poem from Canadian poet Doyali Islam‘s second collection, heft, gets three different film interpretations, thanks to the wondrous Visible Poetry Project, which released these on April 12. I’ll take the liberty of lifting their bios for each of the filmmakers (though Jane Glennie is probably already familiar to many Moving Poems readers):

Amrita Singh is a writer/director born in Chennai and raised in Chicago. She’s currently attending NYU Tisch’s Graduate Film Program and developing her thesis film about a ruthless spelling bee wunderkind and her immigrant family.

Born in Brazil, Laurice Oliveira bravely moved to NYC with the ambitious hope of becoming a filmmaker. In her long journey to The Big Apple, Laurice met the unseen people and listened to unheard voices. From people of the poorest Brazilian slums to abused immigrant workers in the US, Laurice has made her goal to tell the stories of people that often do not have the privilege of being seen or heard by society.

Jane Glennie is an artist, filmmaker and typographic designer. Previous projects include an installation at The National Centre for the Written Word in the UK, and the publication of ‘A New Dictionary of Art’. Her videopoetry has been awarded a special mention at the Weimar Poetry Film Award in Germany and she was a finalist for Best Production One Minute or Under at Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival 2018. Poetry films have been selected for festivals in the UK, USA, France, Germany, Ireland and Singapore.

Turbulence by Dave Harris

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Poet, playwright, and essayist Dave Harris is featured in this latest installment in the monthly series “A Poet’s Space” from Rattle magazine and director Mike Gioia’s Blank Verse Films. For the text of the poem (which won the 2018 Rattle Poetry Prize) and some additional remarks by Harris, see the post on Rattle‘s website.

Pareidolia by Jim Kacian

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April 17, International Haiku Poetry Day, can ironically be a hard day to discover true haiku on Twitter, where #NationalHaikuDay is currently the second highest trending term in the United States. Browse the hashtag and you’ll see what I mean: nothing but three-line, 17-syllable arrangements of prose — party tricks by the least clever people at a party.

So I thought I’d share this animated text experiment by Jim Kacian, editor/publisher of Red Moon Press and head of The Haiku Foundation, to push back against widespread misconceptions of the genre. Though more serious viewers might find that some of the font and animation choices border on cheesiness, to me, the irreverence is part of the charm (not to mention an essential feature of haiku/hokku since the 17th century). And the playfulness is in service to a pretty important lesson about modern haiku, as the description suggests:

Jim Kacian takes the Rorschach Test and makes his results public.

Pareidolia is the the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, as in considering the moon to have human features. In this short film, poet Jim Kacian explores the relationship between the images of the famous Rorschach Inkblot Test and multi-stop monoku — one-line haiku with several possible interpretations. Music composed by Erik Satie, arranged and realized by the Camarata Contemporary Chamber Orchestra.

First screened for HaikuLife, the Haiku Film Festival held during International Haiku Poetry Day, April 17, 2016.