Joseph Pomp

The Poet of ‘The Village Voice’

In New York, we are much more familiar with Mekas’ prose than poetry. His Movie Journal graced the pages of now shuttered but once ubiquitous alternative weeklies, and his diary films screen regularly at Anthology Film Archives. Of course, this literary binary only goes so far. The lyric mentality is obvious in his filmmaking, but hazy in his film criticism. It’s this common oversight that I want to consider here. 

 

Small wonder that the great Lithuanian poet’s early writings on film measure the medium up to the own he knows best. ‘The Experimental Film in America’ (1955), one of the very first pieces Mekas published in English and one that he famously disavowed as ‘Saint-Augustine-before- the-conversion’, derides the immaturity and angst of ‘the majority of film poems made at present in America’. Despite that idiosyncratic genre formulation, he mostly compares this generation of avant-garde filmmakers to novelists (the key example being Joyce, with their use of stream-of-consciousness). However, he also uses one lyric poet in a crucial argument. Whereas Rimbaud aimed to revolutionize the ways in which reality was perceived and processed, these young American poets were simply trying to disfigure reality itself.  

 

The relationship between filmmaker and poet remained an ongoing concern for Mekas the critic, not one easily settled. Just four years after ‘The Experimental Film in America’, he extolled the virtues of Stan Brakhage’s film poems and the Beat short Pull My Daisy (1959), over which he spilled much ink. Subsequently, in 1963, he used almost the same exact tactic he had in ‘The Experimental Film’ of explicating ‘the conspiracy of homosexuality’ — that he identified then in works by Kenneth Anger, James Broughton and others — by drawing parallels to avant-garde literature; only now, it was to deliver high praise. Flaming Creatures was one of several new films singled out as exemplars of a ‘Baudelairian Cinema’, or a ‘poetry which is at once beautiful and terrible, good and evil, dirty and delicate’.[1] What better way to champion perversity than to liken the madcap erotica of Jack Smith to the pristine alexandrines of its greatest modern practitioner?    

 

If Vyt Bakaitis is right that the verse below from ‘I Walk Alone’ (published in the 1971 collection Poetry) expresses a ‘unique statement of aesthetic intention, which as a motto may stand for the films as well’, then this last transposition should extend to his criticism. [2]

 

There is the word,

and music

of the word.

 

And there are 

things,

dreams

and

images.

 

I chose 

one thing,

the thing

itself

is

 

poetry,

dream

and

reality:

 

ars

poetica.

 

Often he wrote about the power of dream-like images and realism in the cinema. Sometimes he wrote about films as they really were on screen; other times he wrote about them more as he dreamed they could be. But the impetus was always the same: an insatiable hunger for poetic art.

 

[1]

Village Voice article, May 1963, reprinted in Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema,  1959-1971 (New York: Collier, 1972) 85-6.

 

[2]

‘Notes on Displacement: The Poems and Diary Films of Jonas Mekas’, in David E. James, ed. To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992) 135.