Socrates had some either/or thoughts about death. Poet Maxine Kumin has some thoughts about those thoughts. Filmmaker Adam Tow adds his thoughts to hers.
It’s with a heavy heart that we note the poet’s own death yesterday at the age of 88 — something Motionpoems couldn’t have anticipated when they chose this as their February selection. Their free emailed newsletter contained an interview with her; I don’t think they’d mind if I quoted it:
MOTIONPOEMS: Why did you decide to cut the Socrates quote with nearly six lines of cosmic imagery?
MAXINE KUMIN: I delayed the quote so I could set up the smallness, the insignificance of our planet in the great reach of space. Otherwise, there couldn’t have been any suspense and hence no poem.
MOTIONPOEMS: There’s an interplay in the poem between up and down, present and future. Your last line, “So much for death today and long ago,” seems inspired by the movement of the smoke, the squirrels, and the nuthatch, and the promise of snow. Why?
KUMIN: You notice it isnt the smoke, its the shadow of smoke, not snow but the promise of snow, tho the critters are real and present. I’m trying to say how evanescent the choice between life and death is, just as Socrates gives us his matter-of-fact but no less terrifying either/or.
MOTIONPOEMS: Motionpoems are used in classrooms a lot. If you were to recommend a writing prompt or exercise using this poem as a model, writing teachers and students might find that very useful.
KUMIN: Anything that gets students reading, especially outside their chosen field, makes a good jumping-off place for a poem. You dont have to be reading Socrates or Faulkner. Im a great jotter down of lines that pique my interest, from the newspaper to something weighty about, say, Jefferson … who was one of the first to bring the mule to this country … That would make me want to write about that hybrid the mule. (I havent but still might.)
See the Motionpoems website for the text. The animator and director is Adam Tow. As with April’s Motionpoem, the free email newsletter contained additional content not archived on the website — an interview with Tow.
Motionpoems: What made you choose this poem to work with?
Adam Tow: After reading all the poems available for this year’s event, ‘Thoreau and the Lightning’ was the piece that I had the strongest connection to. As I read it, I was reminded of my grandfather’s home in the country and the land around it. He was a hard working midwestern man that for some reason I felt had a lot in common with the character in the poem.
MP: What is this poem’s most important moment for you?
AT: For me, the lines that ask if he should “feel humbled” and “give thanks” are the crux of the story. The moving truck and estate sale sign are references to my experiences watching my grandfather’s estate being sold as his health deteriorated. Visually speaking, the tree exploding is my favorite shot.
MP: What was the biggest challenge in turning this piece into a film, and what was your solution?
AT: I struggled with how I wanted to interpret the final sentence of the poem. I had two ideas for what meaning to imply with the visuals (one involving a hearse, the other a moving truck). As far as how to depict things, I wasn’t sure how to show both the positive memories of the past as well as the farm’s abandoned state at the same time. I decided to use a shimmery effect to illustrate his memories overlaid on the farm’s present day appearance.
MP: What did you find most surprising in this process?
AT: It was interesting to see how much you can change the implied message of the poem just by altering a seemingly minor visual element. Also, hearing the music and voiceover for the first time was one of the most exciting moments I’ve had in the last year.
MP: Is there anything else you want to add?
AT: I have to give loads of thanks and credit to Scott Yoshimura (music composition/performance, voiceover) and Logan Christian (audio recording and mixing). I intentionally gave them zero direction and they knocked it out of the park, as I knew they would. Also, many thanks to David Wagoner for agreeing to let me humbly interpret his poem.