Category Archives: Arts

Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even) A Bachelor Machine for MLA

Somethin’ ’bout sound

Repeatin’ in degree

A voice not mine

Singin’ as a we.


You call it boundry conditions

But don’t put your bounds on me.


Is there more to a ballad

Than weave and dodge and stall?

Some folks say it’s a cokehead’s ball

Some say a cure for all.


We’ve heard it from a nutbrown maid

And from a fellow who every day

Takes the blues from Ghent to Aix.


Some say ballad’s a slow romantic croon

Others an unsophisticated, moralizin’ folk tune

Neither epic nor lyric

A singable narrative atmospheric

Riddled with discontinuity

Usually endin’ in catastrophe.


Bullets have been dancin’ farther back than we can see.

Greeks first cast ballots in 423 BCE.

English ballads been ’round since 13th century.


Blatant rhythm alleges its decree

Fluid dynamics

If you want a God damn creed.


You call it boundary conditions

But don’t put no shame on me.


Fuck your lyric framin’

Fuck your depth of feel

If you’re not willin’ to sing along

Your messin’ with the deal.


Is this just an excuse for doggerel?

Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?

Solidarity is a lonely road

That begins at the inaugural.


Don’t call it boundary conditions

When you put your pain on me.


A little bit south of here, in Washington, D.C.

Next week’s gonna get a whiff of Armageddon

Billionaire racist takin’ over

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Not to mention the Pentagon too.

Wait and see, he’s gonna make the earth

His own private barbeque.


Winner of unpopular vote, FBI’s man

Armed and dangerous with his clan

Got the nuclear codes in his hands

(Nuclear codes in his hands.)


This ballad cannot fix or change

The course of our collective pain

Even makin’ the lyrics strange

Is no guarantee of liberty.


But closer to here than Washington

Is Camden, New Jersey

Home of Walt Whitman

Molderin’ in his grave, you bet

Lilacs wiltin’ on the dooryard

Of these Benighted States.


We raised ourselves on the left

Only to get socked by the right

It’s not rocket mechanics

What we’ve got to do is fight.

I used to have a boarder

Till I kicked that boarder out.


I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On an Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.


The 2016 ballot was stolen

With mirrors and smoke.

The mediocracy, virally swollen

Couldn’t resist a con man’s joke.


Watch as castles made of sand

Become law of the land.


We all know about voter suppression

Twitterin’ lies in endless succession.

The ballot’s in danger, that’s the dope.

But, say?, did you even vote?


The danger that we face

Is not capitalism versus race

But race as capitalism’s sword

To vanquish our fight for all.


What’s to be done?

What’s to be undone?

The ying’s not in the yang.

The pang has lost its ping.


Turns out the ballad’s no place to be

For a self-respectin’ poet like me.


At this MLA convention

The crisis of greatest dimension

Is our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Like we are just a bunch of rubes.


We old-time full timers gettin’ replaced

With terrific young scholars

Doin’ the same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students crippled by debts

In the clutches of banker’s threats


Regardless of our attitudes to Palestinian or Jew

Enrollments are divin’ like flies into glue.


Call it border conditions

But when he stiffed us on the rent

We booted the boundary out.


Neo-illiberalism’s on the rise

Provokin’ all to despise

Scorn, resist, chastise.

But a word to the wise ––

Illiberality comes in every guise.


Free speech may be a barrel of bare-knuckle lies

Mixed with a soupcon of truths gonna die.

But bein’ trigger happy about what can be taught

Will never liberate thought.


To offend or not is not the question.

Neither is transgression, repression, nor discretion.

(Though never underestimate digression.)


These days I keep thinkin’

We ought to boycott ourselves.


This isn’t a poem about politics

About which I don’t have a clue.

It’s a poem about a form

That sputters and cranks, is mortally torn.


Between here and there’s a boundary

I almost found it yesterday

One day I hope to cross it

If history don’t get in my way.


Is there more to a ballad

Than formula and rhyme?

A whiff of a story

Told with in the nick of time?


If there’s more to it than that, my friends

I sure as hell can’t say.

You call it boundary conditions

But I’m not in the mood to stay.


There is no freedom without constraint.

No border that’s not a wall.

Good fences sell for 99.99.

Even cheaper on Amazon.


There once was a little ballad

That didn’t know its name

Didn’t know it’s pedigree

Didn’t know its taint.


This ballad got mixed up in a robbery

And though it wasn’t in the plans

Ended up with blood on its metaphorical hands.


The verdict came down swift as a slap:

100 years for stupefaction

150 for personification.

But with parole it will only be

A matter of time before we see

Langue and all that rigmarole

Back on the streets

Purveyin’ an aesthetic trap.


There is no moral to this ballad

But, hey!, don’t forget:

Our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Quicker than an Xpress Lube.


We old-timers gettin’ replaced

With super young scholars

Doin’ same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students with loans to pay

Turn ‘em into big banks’ prey.


Graduate students: unionize!

Don’t let yourselves be patronized!

Let’s turn over half of bloated university president wages

To tenure-track jobs to counter adjunct rages.


Call it border conditions if you like.

Or call it a struggle for a better life.


Dylan’ got one of those Nobel Prizes

Unsung poets put on more disguises.

Nobels to superstars and pamphleteers!

Not for impecunious balladeers!


If songwriters are poets, poets write songs

A Grammy for Baraka woulda righted many wrongs.

For next year’s Nobel we expect to see

(Havin’ shown class strife as metonymy)

Jean-Luc Goddard tapped for economy ––

The Rollin’ Stones for biology.

As for the Peace Prize, which Norway grants

How ’bout Lillyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt?


A ballot says, this is what we want.

A bullet does that too.

A ballad’s just lousy fantasy

Goin’ out from an us to a youse.


I ha been to the wild wood; mak my bed soon;

I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doun.

Oh, yes, I am poisoned; mak my bed soon

I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doun.


Now at end

Of what to tell

Hailin’ you, friend!

Between us dwell!


I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On the Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.


A ballet’s not a bullet.

A ballot’s no balloon.

But when you add up all we’ve lost

You’ll soon be sighin’ this rune.


Call it boundary conditions if you like

Or call it a struggle for a better life.


Charles Bernstein











First presented at “Boundary Conditions of the Ballad,” at the MLA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, January 6, 2017. (“Boundary conditions” was the theme of the convention).

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Palestine at the 2016 MLA

W. J. T. Mitchell

One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.

This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.

As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)

More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.

So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.

I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.


Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at:

The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.


Filed under Humanities, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized, WJT Report


Critical Inquiry shares the universal outrage felt by decent people all over the globe (including 99% of Muslims, the Palestinian movement known as Hamas, and the broad range of political opinion in the U.S. and abroad. Two things we DO NOT SHARE: 1) the timorous response that blames the victims and the satirists themselves for having offended radical Muslims. They deserve to be offended. Their actions invite universal condemnation, and are inexcusable. 2) the right wing reaction that tries to use this terrible event as an excuse for even more erosion of civil liberties, more calls for police and state surveillance of whole populations, and more expressions of hatred for Islam, as if these acts were somehow a natural outgrowth of this great religion. They are not, and the completely betray the spirit of Mohammed.
We also want to commend cartoonists and intellectuals like Joe Sacco and Robert Crumb and Slavoj Zizek, who have taken up the only real armor against fanaticism and violence, namely the great tools of satire. Long live the right to offend, and to be funny!  We offer the following links to these artists and writers, and welcome our readers to suggest more.


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On Aaron Swartz

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Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

Steven Light

That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.

But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.

Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.

But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.

It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.

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“If I knew what the picture was going to be like I wouldn’t make it. It was almost like it was made already… the challenge is more about trying to make what you can’t think of.” – Cindy Sherman

“The writer is entitled to his boomboom.” – Tristan Tzara

What follows is intended to distinguish videopoetry from poetry films, film poetry, poemvideos, poetry videos, cyber-poetry, cine-poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry, poetronica, filming of poetry and other unwieldy neologisms, which have been applied, at one time or another, to describe the treatment of poetry in film and video but which have also developed different and divergent meanings.

The democratization of the medium realized by the introduction of video technology has, in the last 25 years, only sharpened the initial art vs entertainment debate; in particular, the movement of poetry to the “big screen” has exposed two conflicting positions – one demystifying the poem by complementary “visuals”, the other augmenting the suggestive power of poetry by unexpected juxtapositions.

The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry – I envision the measured integration of narrative, non- narrative and anti-narrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound as resulting in a poetic experience – to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. While the latter are to be commended for bringing a new audience to poetry, their use of imagery as embellishments to (if not direct illustrations of) the text, their preference to employ narrative over self-reflexive sequences, their rejection of contrast, fragmentation, the incongruous and the dissonant, prevent these works from being considered as models for a new genre of technology-assisted poetry.


“Transformations in expression and in modes of communication cannot exist without influencing the transformation of poetry itself.” – Jean-Marie Gleize

Of its definition.
Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.

Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaning is blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.


“Progress in any aspect is a movement through changes of terminology.” – Wallace Stevens

Of the term.
Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience. As one word, it recognizes that a century of experiments with poetry in film and video – poems introduced to motion pictures as intertitles, then as kinetic texts, as images illustrating voiced texts (some excluding visual or voiced text entirely), poems performed in front of a camera, poems as text superimposed over images – is the narrative of a gradual movement from the tenuous, anxious relationship of image and text to their rare but perceptible synthesis, i.e., from poetry films to film poems to poetry videos to videopoetry.
As an amalgam of Latin (video) and Greek (poetry) origins, “videopoetry” combines the best of two classical traditions: making poetry with technological innovation.
As a closed compound noun, “video” not only functions to modify “poetry”, it alters its meaning. Therefore, videopoetry is more than a term of convenience; it asserts that a poem is being created without the linear story-telling style of many “poetry videos” (which are made primarily to promote poems in print, using images directly representing the descriptions and actions in the text and are assembled in the conventional narrative form of movie-making). While a videopoem is, in fact, a “movie”, its intention is to provide an alternative that is non-narrative, sometimes anti-narrative, even ante- narrative.

Of its constraints.
Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem. A work which does not contain visible or audible text could be described as poetic, as an art film or video art, but not as a videopoem.
Imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.


“I tried constantly to find something which would not recall what had happened before.” – Marcel Duchamp

Of narrativity.
Videopoetry recognizes that narrative moments – whether presented as individual elements or a combination of text, image or sound – encourage the viewer’s engagement; to sustain the poetic experience, some narrativity is necessary as a structural device. (A non-narrative element juxtaposed with another non-narrative element for an extended period of time may result in distancing the viewer from the work.) From scene to scene, narrativity propels the work forward, providing context for the viewer during the process of the poetic experience. The distance traveled, the time elapsed, the voices heard, the images seen, are measured out with what best suits the poetic direction of a particular moment – the awareness that when the narrative moment has reached its usefulness, a deliberate disruption must occur, must appear, must sever the forward movement toward which the narrative will always conspire. The viewer’s expectations of eventfulness are, by turns, satisfied and subverted; meaning is eventually derived from the effect of the repeated movement from the narrative to the non- narrative elements of the work.

“Bringing together two things into a previously untried juxtaposition is the surest way of developing new vision.”– Andre Breton

Of poetic juxtaposition.
In the assembly (editing or “montage”) phase, syntactical decisions are made to render image-text-sound juxtapositions as a metaphor for simultaneous “meanings” which the viewer interprets as a poetic experience. These decisions are based on presenting the 3 elements as distant realities (often arrived at through chance operations) whose relationship strikes the viewer as surprising, as always new. It is imperative that the juxtapositions be consistently perceived as suggestive of indirect relationships – mysterious, oneiric.
The success of each syntactical decision is achieved when the distant realities – the ambiguous or enigmatic relationship of a particular image to a portion of text, for example – are not so distant as to cause disengagement with the work. The key to a successfully executed poetic juxtaposition is balance, the weighing of image-text relationships for their suggestive, rather than illustrative qualities, the determining of durations, the positioning and appearance of text, the treatment of colour, the layering of the soundtrack, the acceleration or deceleration of elements, etc. Balance, in this scheme, is the demonstration of control over the narrative impulse.


“In film, poetry is opposed to reality.”– LuisBunuel

Of the poetic experience.
Videopoetry recognizes the power of video for producing and communicating unprecedented and unlimited associations between image, text and sound.
The viewer is presented with non-illustrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound. As the work gradually unfolds, it is perceived that the visual (image and/or displayed text) and audible (sound and/or voiced text) elements are fragmented expressions of the artist’s imagination, suggestive of meaning, yet denying clarification of the purported meaning – a teasing, vertiginous exploration of desire.
When the introduction of these fragmented expressions causes an impediment to the narrative flow, the viewer will either surrender to the symmetry of the disruptions – and participate in the adventure – or disengage and “tune out”. Provided that the image-text-sound juxtapositions exhibit a pleasing balance between narrative and non-narrative moments – achieved through strategic, self-referential disruptions, a demonstration of awareness of the spatial and temporal relationships between elements, intentional repetitions, etc. – a viewer will experience their sense of time suspended or blurred.
Tension and repose, the “ebb and flow” of narrative and non-narrative moments, may also be interpreted by the viewer as simultaneity made manifest, while the complexity and significance of relationships between the presented elements – as in dreams, for instance – may have to wait to be resolved.


“Always the precious repetition for the joy of recognition.”– Oyvind Fahlström

Of rhythm.
The poetry in a videopoem is characterized by a discernible rhythm, but it is different from the traditional written or oral form of poetry: it’s not limited to an attribute of the text element.
Rhythm is the effect produced by the introduction and the subsequent duration of a new portion of image, text or sound in the process of assembling the work.
Videopoetry also exhibits internal rhythms; enveloped in each appearance of a series of images, on- screen text or sounds, the viewer discerns patterns specific to the element presented.
Repetition – as a visual or audible device – produces the most effective signalling of the presence of poetry. Its many functions include emphasis, self-reflection, division, regulation or suspension of time, even a hypnotic quality (especially when prolonged); it is most useful in sustaining the rhythmic structure and the poetic experience of a work.

“The purpose of art is to ask questions.”– Lawrence Weiner

Of illustration.
To see an image as a representation of the audible text or to hear the words as they are displayed on the screen violates the premise that poetic juxtaposition is the presentation of distant realities; inevitably, the viewer is prevented from forming their own imaginative associations between the elements presented, resulting in the demystification of these associations, diminishing the poetic quality and experience of the work.

Of collaboration.
The videopoet is a poet, filmmaker and sound artist combined.
Videopoetry recognizes that production logistics sometimes require a team of individuals to cooperate during the creation of a work; the genre accommodates both individual and collaborative work, provided that the work exhibits a unified vision.

Of duration.
Whether composed of multiple scenes or one continuous shot, a videopoem longer than 300 seconds faces the challenge of sustaining the poetic experience of the viewer. The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.


“Plotless film is poetic film.” –VictorShklovsky

Of categories.

Differentiated by their use of text, there are 5 major categories of videopoems:





KINETIC TEXT is the animation of text over a neutral background.
Continuing the ongoing experimentation with text as an aesthetic object, these works owe much to concrete and patterned poetry in their style – the use of different fonts, sizes and colours, strategic spatial positioning, self-referentiality – simultaneously presenting text as image.
By virtue of its equal acceptance of the semantic and non-semantic, as well as its ability to demonstrate the destruction, reconstruction and transformation of static words or letters into “characters” which move (in both senses of the word), the category represents the “prototype” of a videopoem.

SOUND TEXT presents the text on the soundtrack.
Juxtaposed with the video images on the screen, it is expressed through the human voice.
Of the five categories of videopoetry, this form (with or without music) – is the most popular, due to the facility of working within the traditional form of video/film, i.e., using the voice as the chief mode of text presentation and juxtaposition with images and other sounds (e.g., music, chant, sound effects, etc.) – without the additional difficulty presented by visual text.

VISUAL TEXT displays the text on-screen, superimposed over images captured or found.
Charged with leading the genre, this category presents the most significant challenge to videopoetry.
For the engaged viewer, the complex relationships and multiplicity of meanings suggested by juxtapositions of on-screen text with curious, non-illustrative images make extraordinary imaginative leaps not only possible, but automatic.

PERFORMANCE is the on-screen appearance of the poet, or designated poet (actor), speaking directly or indirectly into the camera. Of the five categories, it is the most problematic: the poet/performer is perceived as the intermediary between the viewer and the poem, possibly demystifying the process of presentation. (Excluding the form of sound poetry, there are many excellent, emotionally moving representations of “verbal art”, but they are only that – re-presentations of poems, not the poems.) In a videopoem, on-screen appearances only succeed by virtue of their visual expression (i.e., eccentric body language)and their juxtaposition – within the image frame – with a background suggesting a unique, unusual “setting” for the performance.

CIN(E)POETRY is the videopoem wherein the text is animated and/or superimposed over graphics, still or moving images that are “painted” or modified with the assistance of computer software, e.g., Photoshop, Flash or the 3D modelling and animation features in Second Life, the online virtual world. It closely resembles VISUAL TEXT, except the imagery has a computer-generated or modified appearance. The parenthesized “e” (electronic) was introduced by George Aguilar, who works most often in this form.

Individual works may overlap and exhibit combinations of categories.

Of image and the displayed (on-screen) text.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between camera-captured and found images (appropriated from another source or format); the genre accommodates both.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between concrete (representational) and abstract (non- representational) content in images; the genre accommodates both.
Abstract images – extreme close-ups of objects, details of hand-made or computer-generated paintings, out of focus or gel-covered lens shots – enable text elements to be placed almost anywhere on the screen; the more the text stands out in contrast to the image, the more it receives the viewer’s immediate attention, takes precedence over and assigns to the abstract image a supportive role, that of the background, moving or not. The more the text is blended with an abstract image, the more the viewer is required to consider a more subtle relationship between the two.
Concrete images require a different approach to displayed text: a still object in a motionless frame provides surfaces and edges, horizontal, vertical, oblique and curved lines as potential text-spaces; a moving object in a motionless frame restricts text-space to empty areas.

Of image and special effects.
Advancements in graphic design have refined image-text relationships to the degree that videopoetry, in terms of innovative juxtapositions, has followed the latest “cutting-edge” commercial/advertising methods with interest; while some effects, such as floating text or text crawl are still useful, other “high- end” flip-swoop-wrap-zoom-spin-shake dynamics so clearly refer to product promotion that they have acquired a secondary symbolic value: the commodification of society.
As alluded to above, videopoetry accommodates both modified and unmodified images; whether an image is to be modified or not will always depend on the effectiveness of its juxtaposition with text and sound.
Of the countless effects in post-production (the editing and assembling of the work), two transitions have proven invaluable: the dissolve and the fade. Both affect the viewer’s perception of time.
The (cross) dissolve – the superimposition of one image over another – presents two scenes (one ending, one beginning) simultaneously; as one of the most common transition effects, it is used primarily to indicate that a period of time has elapsed between the two scenes.
In videopoetry, when the superimposition is prolonged, it produces a sustained experience of time suspended while simultaneously signalling the uncontrolled state of dreaming. (Related to these, a freeze-frame can also be seen as a device that “stops” time, while the split-screen effect enables the viewer to follow two scenes on the screen simultaneously; yet both are of lesser poetic value than the dissolve or the fade.)
The fade (or fade-to-black) is used to indicate an end to a scene, usually followed by a fade-in to introduce the next scene; in videopoetry, we can interpret this effect as the blink of an eye or – when it’s prolonged – the shutting of the eyes, followed by “re-awakening” to a new “world” (or at least a new context/scene in the videopoem).

Of image and motion.
In the process of filming, the camera is either locked in position (the still shot), moving with a fluid, tracking motion or is hand-held. Of these three, the still and fluid-motion shot will not cause a disengagement with the work; the hand-held camera shot is more problematic.
The unstable image of the hand-held shot becomes a constant reminder of the operation (and operator) behind the camera; every possible accident of the moment becomes magnified, leaving the viewer unsure whether drawing attention to camera movement is an oversight or an intentional ‘self-referential disruption’. Of these accidents, it can be argued that an element of chance should be always brought into play, as it may produce the most unexpected trophies of “found” imagery. The final decision to include or exclude hand-held shots is determined by their function in the balance act of poetic juxtaposition. Accelerated motion is often associated with a comic scene; in a videopoem, depending on whether the action recorded is for atmospheric or illustrative use, the time-lapse effect can be more forgiving.
Slow motion appeals to videopoetry for a number of reasons: the effect suggests a gradual suspension of time; a dream-like state is evoked; action unfolds like a painting; a perception of reality is emphasized. In the structure of the videopoem, it functions as punctuation.

“Words would be redundant in film if they were used as a further projection from the image. However, if they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the image, but as another dimension relating to it, then it is the two things together that make a poem.” – Maya Deren

Of text.
Videopoetry recognizes that text has the unique capacity to deliver the signs of abstract objects (ideas) as well as concrete objects to the viewer; as such, it performs the most essential function in a videopoem – to provide the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that text – due to its capacity to be displayed on the screen (i.e. freed from its fixity on the page), found in a captured image or voiced on the soundtrack – is in the propitious position of enabling the viewer to experience poetry in a time-based visual form; it is the essential catalyst in the transformation of a work from “poetic” to poetry.
Typically, text is written for the videopoem; in some cases it is “found” and repurposed for the videopoem.
Used in a videopoem, a previously composed/published poem represents only one element of the videopoem, the text element. The “poetry” in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text with image and sound.
When the text is borrowed from a previously composed/published poem, it must be that the artist has discovered a new function for the pre-existing text, based on its juxtaposition with certain imagery, or a certain soundtrack.
In its visual/displayed form, text is “looked at” before read.
The looked-at text applies the strategies derived from concrete poetry, typography, graphic design and motion graphics. Fonts, the characters of type, are selected for their clarity and suggestiveness, always in relation to the image presented on the screen. Positioning, motion, duration and method of appearance (positing by dissolve, pop or typewriter effect, for example) are similarly considered in relation to the image presented on the screen.
While the demonstration of the variety and versatility of text treatment is proof that new ways of seeing words performs a poetic function, effects are not prerequisites of videopoetry.
In the relentless manipulations of the appearance of text – from the textured to the malleable, from the casually handwritten to the finely-chiseled 3-D reflective surfaces – there is a tendency to be preoccupied with the materiality of the written word, sometimes at the expense of “meaning”.
Read or meaning-driven text, wherein the appearance of words is of lesser importance, narrows the context of the moment, favouring interior effects over superficial effects. It is the strategic balance of appearance and meaning – in addition to the ‘judicious juxtaposition’ with images and sound – that produces the “poetry” in a videopoem.


“Where you have music that doesn’t imitate what’s on the screen, but goes against it… is far more interesting than anything imitative.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Of sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that the use of a “soundtrack” significantly augments the sensory perception of the work; as such, it provides the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and text in assisting the viewer to process the effect or meaning of juxtapositions.
The soundtrack is not a prerequisite of videopoetry (silence is an effect and a syntactical decision), but its presence contributes to a richness of effects and meanings.
The three “branches” of the auditory capacity of the soundtrack are: voiced text, music and sound effects. Videopoetry does not differentiate between voiced and displayed text; the genre accommodates both. Voiced text intensifies the videopoem with its range of expression: the “real” voice of the poet provides an authentic connection to the creator of the work; affected or natural, loud or soft, slurred or modulated, metallic or cloyingly sweet, passionate or dull, nasal or throaty, the voice of a nightingale or the filtered voice on the phone, the human voice colours the text with nuance.
On the sound track, the bridge between voiced text and music is occupied by what is commonly termed sound poetry. Of all the various “imports” or repurposed forms of poetry, these vocalizations emphasize more aural than semantic qualities and have proved most compatible with the non-narrative objectives of videopoetry: the declamations, the chants, the recitations of “nonsense words” provide a natural counterpoint when juxtaposed with abstract images.
Music is a considered, measured “device” in videopoetry; it can be used minimally or sporadically, overlapping or underlying selected segments. In certain cases, it can be assigned the more demanding task of delivering the entire soundtrack of the work, from beginning to end, in the form of a score.
Prior to, at the point of, or immediately after a juxtaposition (the introduction of a new element – image, text or voice), music’s primary function is to intensify, diminish or eliminate the emotional content of a particular “scene”, thereby altering the viewer’s interpretation of the meaning of the content.
Music which happens to be present during the shooting (diagetic music) serves to identify the content of a scene as narrative content.
Use of music segments exemplifying specific cultural associations provides cues for the viewer to identify supplemental meanings in the work.
While music tends to emphasize, accent and generally support narrative scenes, sound effects in videopoetry are more often than not isolated, disruptive gestures used to highlight incongruous image- text juxtapositions while contributing dissonance to the internal rhythm of the soundtrack.

Concept videopoems.
Concept or conceptual videopoems focus on the materiality of language, exclude narrative and tend to hold little of intentional semantic value; “meaning” is attributed to the process of presentation, which follows a pre-conceived formula (the idea), often executed in a methodical technical manner.
The dominating element is text; its content is gathered from sourced information: found phrases, statements, lists, etc.
The text element in these works is strong on context but stripped of emotive value.
The viewer may not perceive development or change of perspective throughout the work, as heightening or diminishing effects are superseded by the intention to present an object of examination – the process of presentation – in a pure self-referential state.

Of translation.
Texts in videopoems should be provided in multiple languages; in DVD format, the viewer should be able to select the preferred language. SOUND TEXT videopoems should provide translation as subtitles, optimized for legibility: white, sans-serif font on a separate display below the screen or yellow with black outline at the bottom of the screen.
In the subtitling process, the accurate synchronization of audio and subtitle is essential.
VISUAL TEXT videopoems should provide translation on a separate display below the screen; if the visual text is one or two words, the subtitle should be positioned close to the side of the on-screen text. The subtitles should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text.
In cases where the foreign language uses both SOUND TEXT and VISUAL TEXT, the subtitles of the VISUAL TEXT should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text, using a colour different from the SOUND TEXT subtitles.

© 2011 Tom Konyves


Grateful thanks to all who made this possible.
In the spring of 1978, my friends Endre Farkas and Ken Norris, of our ‘group of 7’ – The Vehicule Poets – for their participation in my first videopoem, Sympathies of War. Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, who drew a line in the sand when he informed me that he wouldn’t look at Sympathies of War because ‘We don’t recognize video. We work only in film.’ Michael Konyves, aged 7, who performed as General Misunderstanding in Ubu’s Blues and held signs in See/Saw. Steve McCaffery. Stephen Morrissey, who published my essay on videopoetry in The Insecurities of Art, 1981. Heather Haley, Vancouver media artist, Visible Verse festival curator, faithful supporter for many years. Vancouver videopoet Susan Cormier, for her confidence in this work. Dean of Arts, Jacqueline Nolte, whose encouragement led to Word and Image, a course in visual creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley. Brad Whittaker, Research Office, UFV. Kin spirit, George Aguilar, whose archive of video poems and cin(e)poetry in San Francisco was invaluable to my research. David Jhave Johnston, multimedia/digital poet of the exquisite short, for his funnybone and suggestions for order. Chicago video artist, e-poet and theoretician, Kurt Heintz, for the endless hours of inspired discussion. Richard Kostelanetz, for access to his home and his many works in and on this genre. Javier Robledo, organizer of the Videobardo Videopoetry Festival and Archive in Buenos Aires, for VIP hospitality and five days of screenings. William C. Wees, Professor Emeritus of English at McGill University in Montreal, editor of The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, for his generosity to discuss some aspects of this at length and introducing me to David Foster’s work on adapting poetry to film, Toronto filmmaker Richard Hancox’ Waterworx, Peter Todd, filmmaker and curator of the London Film Poems Series, and Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice. Al Razutis for Visual Essays. Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, for access to the vast archive at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. The Hungarian connection, Tibor Papp, Paul Nagy and George Galantai’s amazing documentation and research centre, Artpool in Budapest. Eduard Escoffet, for his work in sonorous poetry in Barcelona. Lionel Kearns, a pioneer and friend, and Jim Andrews, vispo, for rescuing bp nichol’s First Screening. George Bowering, for his performance in Lost in the Library. Michael Snow, for So Is This. Toronto Intermedia artist, W. Mark Sutherland, for his encouragement from the start. Eric Cassar, for inventing the videohaiku. Visual poet and meta-blogger, Geof Huth, for asking all the right questions. Ron Silliman, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, critic, Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, for the kick-start to this. Tony Trehy, for the Text Festival evening of videopoetry in Bury. UK artwriter extraordinaire, Tamarin Norwood, for her near-translations and in-sightful comments. Portuguese video artist, Rui Silveira, for translating Oyvind Fahlström into a one-sentence videopoem. Finnish videopoet, Jani Sipila, for spreading the word. Eduardo Kac, multimedia, communications and biological artist, for including E.M. de Melo e Castro’s essay on videopoetry in MEDIA POETRY, Poetic Innovation and New Technologies. Fil Ieropoulos and Chris Funkhauser for historical analysis. Chicago poet, Francesco Levato for works from the Split This Rock Festival. Linden Ontjes, Larissa Moore, for access to Reel to Real, Seattle. Bart Testa for feedback and guidance concerning issues related to screen text. Alex Konyves, for his continued technical assistance. Martin Borycki, for mind-bending distractions. Jack Velvet, CITR, for providing hypnotic musical support. Gary Hill, whose early experiments were most instructive. Mel Vapour, East Bay Media Center, Berkeley. Enzo Minarelli, 3ViTre Archivio di Polipoesia, Cento, Italy. Parisian poet, researcher, Jean Pierre Balpe, for La Poésie Vidéo ou Vidéo Poésie. Dave Bonta, for the Moving Poems forum. Sarah Tremlett, for her continued support. German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg, who proved that 19 poems from the German literary canon can be brought to the big screen as a feature film, Poem. Nico Vassilakis. Jérôme Game. Manuel Portela. Juan F. Egea. John M Bennett/Nicolas Carras. Gary Sherwin. Gary Barwin. Joel Baird. Caterina Davinio. Hubert Sielecki. Victoria Messi. Eric Gamalinda. Nick Carbo.
Special thanks to my wife, Marlene, my terra firma.


Filed under Arts, Media, Poetic Justice


The Arts of Occupation:  A Call for Crowd Sourcing

Critical Inquiry announces a call to assemble a virtual archive of the Arts of Occupation.  We invite our readers to send images in all media, as well as links, anecdotes, brief essays, reports, games, scripts for performance, and videos that will document the aesthetic as well as the tactical and political side of practices of occupation.  We are interested in the “creative” aspect of the global occupation movement, the ways in which it produces new forms of spectacle, space, face, and inscription.  We are asking for our readers’ aesthetic judgments, not just their political views.  What images and statements have impressed them as especially elegant, powerful, salient, eloquent, penetrating, and—well, yes—beautiful?   What specific images (both metaphors and visual images) have had the most impact, and why?    Is there a new image of the crowd  itself, as a bodily presence in a real place, and as a virtual entity, a mass  social movement?  Is there a new image of the individual, at once non-subject and non-sovereign?  How have the media, both old and new, from Twitter to the People’s Mic, produced and reproduced the emergent forms of democracy?   How is the “sensible,” meaning both sensuous and thinkable, re-distributed by the actions and images of the Occupy Movement?

We do not wish to limit the archive to 2011, though this year just past will clearly stand as the historical beginning of a new sense of the words and images associated with “occupation.”  After a half century of thinking of this word as invariably coupled with military occupation, and with landscapes of  conquest and colonization, a new meaning has suddenly imposed itself.   At the same time the image-concept of the camp and encampment has shifted from a site of detention and dehumanization to one of insurgency and non-violent resistance.  “Occupation” has turned from the sphere of power to that of weakness, disenfranchisement, poverty, as well as resistance, insurgency, and creative direct action.   What are the aesthetic aims and effects of lying down under a red carpet at the entrance to a Chamber of Commerce gala? Camping in a public park until the police remove you?  Erecting a tent city in the midst of Tel Aviv?  Shutting down harbors in Oakland, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle?  Opening free clinics, libraries, clothing exchanges, media centers, educational projects?  Scribbling slogans, questions, declarations, accusations,  demands, and jokes?  Assembling as an embodied movement on symbolic sites—capitols, city halls, banks, museums, schools, and foreclosed homes.

And, finally, we invite critical and theoretical reflection on the Arts of Occupation.  There needs to be some recognition of the “black arts” of occupation (violence, exploitation, domination) that have mostly characterized the preceding era.  We want to know which arts, and which specific performances, have had the greatest effect in mobilizing this counter-movement?  What have been the failures and successes, and what can we learn from them?

Submit your entry simply by responding to this post.

And to follow Critical Inquiry contributors Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler on the Occupy movement, click on the following links:

Žižek  in the Guardian

Žižek  in the Observer

Žižek on YouTube

Žižek  on Verso Books

Butler on Salon

Butler on

Butler on Worlds of Change


Filed under Arab Spring, Arts, Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, Media, Occupy