Celestine Stillwell

Passing the essence of our knowledge on; where does poetry begin and end?

‘Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen’

Leonardo Da Vinci

When we trace back folklore in poetry, it becomes evident that modern poetics were formed through the recording of ancient oral traditions.[1]

Since early Celtic invasions of Britain, animated narratives about nature have leaked down into written poetry. In ancient Celtic and Pagan religions, ‘the druids thought writing enclosed the mind, petrified the ideas, and killed them’, and so instead invented an alphabet of symbols that each associated to natural elements or sounds.[2] Singing, for example, was also a popular form of communicating narratives of heroism and bravery, or of the sacredness of the natural world. Although contemporary poetry has begun to undo the rigidity and strictness of forms brought forward by the renaissance, it is evident that poetry originated in fluidity. In the space between language, where knowledge had been passed down for generations. In, primarily, the essence of awe, sacredness, and nature.

Many poets have suggested that good poetry lies in the translation of the essence of emotions and experiences. Where poetry divulges from other written forms is its ability to be concise – to hold wonder and astonishment in just a few lines.

In this modern time, where we spend half of our lives plugged into an alternate virtual reality, I think it’s important to recognise how far poetry extends. How, perhaps, if we open our minds, we can find poetry in sound and video formats – a new sense of fluid oral traditions. Or, perhaps, even in tweets and status’; this is our newly established word-of-mouth, whether we like it or not. If poetry began in recounting great lessons to each other through word and song and woodcuts, is that not still where we can find it? For this essay, I want to turn to visual art and film to illuminate its connection to poetry, and primarily to elucidate the ability for all of these forms to support each other in accurately translating our landscapes.

One example of the evidence of this convergence of mediums can be found in Starling, a poetry film created by Kate Sweeney, and featuring the poetry of Linda France, which you can view here.

A short film by Kate Sweeney, with poetry written and read by Linda France

Kate Sweeney, the artist behind this poetry film, used dyes, charcoals and inks to create an intimate backdrop for France’s words. Sweeney uses the spirals of rubber that were the collateral of erasing a drawing of a bird to imitate a flock of new birds. In her materials and composition, she reinforces the central notion of Frances poem – that inside all of us there is the possibility for newness. Although Linda Frances’ work obviously stands alone, the film itself contributes to the message of the poetry; that newness is found everywhere. The art is an evolution – a transformation of the words into another form to inspire. We are sensory creatures, and we respond to each-other.

Through speaking aloud our words, to ourselves or in film or open-mic nights, we pick up our poetry and make it human. In this way, film and the internet can hold the capacity to add whole dimensions to our work and to send them out amongst our communities.

The spoken word accompanies visual art, too.

At an exhibition at the MoMA gallery in New York in 2013, Kenneth Goldsmith was invited to read poetry whilst the public wandered around, admiring the work. Jackie Armstrong reported that an astonishing 96% of participants expressed that the readings had an impact on their visit.[3] One attendee wrote back that the poetry ‘showed other aspects of the work that a more traditional guide would not give’.[4] But we know this – that art and poetry and song and film are one in the same. That they come together to show us something. To translate an emotion or a recognition or a landscape for us to carry forward with us. How, then, can we apply this to our page poetry? How can we make it more alive?

In terms of nature writing, I think it is common for us to take ourselves outside, to feel inspired by the vastness of the landscape, and then to come home and try and express that at our desks.

Perhaps we take photos, or make notes while we are out, but after twelve edits of a poem, how much of it is true to that moment where you were standing alone, chilled by the dancing wind of a cascading moorland? Perhaps the narrative is the same, but is the essence there? As poets, I think sometimes we become confined to our craft. There is a simplicity to it; a blank word document; our favourite fonts; the brutality of our edits.

When I made a poetry film in 2020, I found that painstakingly perfecting the visual shots, recording my reading of the poem over and over, and then helping edit the final film, evolved my craft almost instantaneously. I’m not saying that as page poets we should all go out with expensive equipment and capture the landscapes of our work (whether that be spaces or communities), but that perhaps part of our practise should lie in other art forms. There’s a sense of study that comes from sitting on granite Tor and sketching the landscape (however badly), that allows us to see a space differently.

Often, when I find a place that feels poetic or inspiring to me, I whip out my voice recorder on my phone, and just record the surrounding sounds. Then, when I come home to my desk, I play them and close my eyes. I imagine the space reforming around me and pay attention to the essence of what I’m trying to translate. Isolating this audio element allows me to focus on it much more than I ever would in the moment, and it’s the same for all the senses.

This is what visual art and film do; they isolate elements of sensory experience. Whereas in poetry we try to understand an entire scene, other artistic expressions focus on either the soundscape or the visual elements – and when they combine them, it’s intentional and edited. Taking ourselves away from the big picture and focussing instead on really defining an element of the experience might allow us, as poets, to rebuild our scenes with intentionality. It might also allow us to see our poems from different angles – to visualise the movement of our poems from one moment to the next. It is this smoothness that allows us to carry our reader with us.

I encourage you to build this practise into your work. Take an old camcorder on a walk with you, or better, a polaroid or film camera so you can practise intentionality. Paint the scene you’re trying to write or make a storyboard of your poem. Collage it. Record yourself reading it and then record someone else reading it. Not for any reason other than your practise – not to learn to be a painter or a photographer. More-so to document your scene. Start a scrapbook while you’re at it – study the little intricacies that build your landscape.

But how does this relate to ecopoetry? How can we preserve our landscape through the jarring cameras on our phones or the insensitive greasiness of oil paint? It is true, that there’s a counter intuitiveness to it; harnessing our technology and modern tools to help preserve the landscape seems ridiculous, but here’s the argument. Most of us already spend our time liking and retweeting and scrolling. Here you are, reading this on a screen. Through turning our poetry into new forms, we can fill some of this virtual empty space with reminders of outside and its omnipresent ability to inspire. For even a few seconds, we can bring others into the fold. And, most importantly, like poetics that has come before us, we can formulate an image of what it means to exist in our landscape today.

Our poetry, in its extensive forms, can dance like word-of-mouth through fingers on screens.

I’m going to leave you with my poetry film, and some strange and quite wonderful audio recordings that I have taken. If you’re after a prompt, close your eyes and listen in.

Golden Hour by Celestine Stilwell (https://inksweatandtears.co.uk/golden-hour-by-celestine-stilwell/)

Getting out of my car at work at 6:30am

Locals singing sea shanty in a bar

Devonshire accents at the barbers

[1] / [2] – Camille Borrelly, ‘A History of British Poetry 101: Traditional Oral Poetry’, byarcadia.org, <https://www.byarcadia.org/post/a-history-of-british-poetry-101-oral-tradition> [accessed: 25th Feburary 2023].

[3] / [4] – Jackie Armstrong, ‘Combining Poetry with Visual Art to See (and Feel) in a New Way’, moma.org, <https://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2013/10/16/combining-poetry-with-visual-art-to-see-and-feel-in-a-new-way/> [accessed: 25th February 2023].

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