Seeng the Poet's Voice

NO one would dispute the fact that poetry works on the eye and ear. But increasingly, some poets are wondering how imagery and sound can best be used in a TV-dominated age.

In some cases, the answer is to bring poetry to the small screen. A few years ago, the Public Broadcasting Service in the United States did just that with the award-winning series, ``Voices and Visions,'' which combined narrations of work by famous American poets with appropriate art and imagery. Today, MTV's poetry videos continue to gain popularity, and galleries across the US are creating their own visual displays.

The benefits of such efforts are obvious: Poetry lovers experience new dimensions of familiar forms, and new audiences are introduced to the genre in ways they can easily understand. But in adding elements to a poem, there is always the danger of taking away too much.

When a poem really works, it provides its own imagery, music, and movement. Nothing more is needed. One's mind becomes the screen on which the ``video'' is projected.

The late May Swenson, whom some critics consider to be one of this century's greatest women poets, has many poems that unfold the way a short film does. ``Hearing the Wind at Night'' is an excellent example of how she uses her tools to orchestrate the reader's experience.

In every stanza, Swenson zooms in on what's important. She wants readers to see wind ``transferred'' through trees, but she wants us to see this in very specific ways. ``The wind was a green ghost,'' she writes in Line 7, just as a director might choose to photograph one unusual detail of a familiar scene. Every description in this poem must have survived meticulous editing. It's not just coincidence that each tree is a ``whipping post'' or that the forest throws a tantrum. The images reflect the poet's scrutiny of the world around her as well as her care in choosing language.

But just as a video isn't complete without sound, so this poem seems to be narrated for the reader. One can almost hear the poet reading her words aloud. The effect begins with the statement, ``I heard the wind coming,'' but it's sustained and heightened by words that sound like the scene they're setting. Thus the leaves ``swish, wishing to be free,'' and the tossing trees are heard ``sighing and soughing,/ soothing themselves to sleep.'' Each choice adds to the poem's ``soundtrack,'' which coexists with and adds depth to the visuals.

Readers might not even notice the poem's form the first time through, despite the fact that the rhyme and stanza breaks are a filter determining how the story is told. The rhyme in the first stanza, for instance, contributes to the breezy, light mood that begins the poem but then is slightly undercut by the enjambment that crosses into the second stanza. Tension increases in the second stanza with ``Possessed of tearing breath,'' which seems out of place both rhythmically and logically. Still, the rhymes that follow in the last three stanzas restore the necessary flow, as if to mimic the way wind stops and starts.

Perhaps a poetry video could achieve more than Swenson did with just her words. Assuming that the visuals could do justice to some of the more unusual descriptions, perhaps a backdrop of gray trees and black sky could engage the viewer. And perhaps the sound of wind behind a narrator's voice could send chills down someone's spine. But what would be the trade-off?

Most obviously, the poet's vision could be compromised by what a filmmaker or graphic artist was capable of doing, and viewers, preoccupied by what is on the screen, might miss some of the poet's more startling observations. The biggest danger, however, comes from both audience and writer being lulled into laziness.

Many poems that rely on visuals aren't really poems at all. The authors don't do enough with imagery and sound so that the writing can stand on its own. But one of poetry's biggest strengths is its ability to make readers see the world in new ways. Both poet and audience must be willing to stretch their powers of observation. When a backdrop or someone's voice does the work instead, the cost is too high, the reward too small.

Hearing the Wind at Night

I heard the wind coming,

transferred from tree to tree.

I heard the leaves

swish, wishing to be free

to come with the wind, yet wanting to stay

with the boughs like sleeves.

The wind was a green ghost.

Possessed of tearing breath

the body of each tree

whines, a whipping post,

then straightened and resumed

its vegetable oath.

I heard the wind going,

and it went wild.

Somewhere the forest threw itself

into tantrum like a child.

I heard the trees tossing

in punishment or grief,

then sighing, and soughing,

soothing themselves to sleep. -- May Swenson

Poetry used with permission of the publisher: `The Complete Poems to Solve,' by May Swenson Macmillan Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing Division; c.1993 by The Literary Estate of May Swenson

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