Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

Poetry & Film Fuse in the Works of Maya Deren

Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

One of the most influential filmmakers in American cinema and a pioneer in dance films, Maya Deren (1917-1961) believed the function of film was to offer a viewer an experience that would evoke new conclusions. As with her poetry, Deren’s focus continually evolved and remained dynamic as she combined her interests in subjective psychology, dance and Haitian culture in her short films. Deren’s best-known and most influential experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), beautifully combines poetic elements with cinematic devices. In 2015, the BBC hailed it as one of the top 100 greatest American films. Deren’s popular cinematic works also include At Land, Ritual in Transfigured Time, Meditation in Violence, and A Study in Choreography for Camera.

Maya Deren best expressed her view of the freedoms of independent cinema when she said, “Artistic freedom means that the amateur filmmaker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words…to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot…nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes…Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc. as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.”

‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ and its Influence

Using a second-hand Bolex camera, Deren and husband Alexander Hammid created Meshes of the Afternoon. It was the first narrative work in avant-garde American film, establishing the New American Cinema. The editing and filming techniques used in the short have a deep sense of rhythm and create a sense of continued motion through discontinued space, conveying a deeper meaning of discomfort and distrust. The abandoning of the concepts of space and time in the film, the juxtaposition of shots, and multiple views of “self” convey a stream of consciousness that breaks viewer expectations.

Compelling themes throughout Deren’s work include reflection, dreaming, vision, ritual, identity and rhythm. Meshes of the Afternoon directly inspired David Lynch, John Coney, Su Friedrich, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and other major traditional and experimental filmmakers.

Deren on the Freedoms of Independent Cinema

When discussing the liberties of independent cinema, Deren was opposed to Hollywood’s practices and standards. She felt that artistic freedom meant never sacrificing visual beauty and drama to spoken lines and explanations of plot. Deren took advantage of movements that happened naturally—the wind blowing, balls bouncing, water running—rather than invent plots. She stated that when an artist uses his or her freedom to experiment with visual ideas, mistakes are forgiven.

At the 1953 Poetry and Film Symposium, Deren stated that poetry “is an approach to experience.” She explained that a poem’s structure makes it distinct. Its construct is the result of a situation’s vertical investigation, as it looks into a moment’s implications, qualities and depth. Deren stated that the result is poetry that doesn’t focus on what’s happening, but on how a situation feels or means.

Filmmaker and Poet, Ann Huang, has long been inspired by the Deren’s works. Cinematic and poetic visions influenced her first film, Palpitations of Dust. Reviews received from a film festival’s screening committee further support that Huang’s work reflects the freedom ideas promoted by Maya Deren:

“Interesting juxtaposition of the actors and artwork with the poems.”

“Loved the dichotomy of the Renaissance art with the visuals of the film.”

Surrealists suggest that art is a part of life. Therefore, it is vital that filmmaking be viewed as pure and keen as automatic writing or poetry writing. Poetry, filmmaking and other forms of art make the invisible, undocumented moments in an individual’s life tangible. For example, these moments are eloquent yet mysterious, wise yet innocent, and charismatic yet elusive. The portion of existence that survives without an audience must be preserved for an artist to remain whole.

What is Experimental Poetry & What Does It Mean?

rae armantrout

Like language, poetry is fluid and alive. It evolves, breaks the rules and turns into something new. Just as scientists have thought experiments (Albert Einstein often did this), writers participate in experimental literature. Experimental poetry is a product of modernist and postmodernist poetry. It explores and emphasizes innovation. Individuals who write experimental poetry don’t always write with a conscious awareness of where a work fits into an aesthetic range. The words follow their own form rather than a standard, and sometimes disregard rules related to language and function.

Experimental Poetry Explained

The best way to understand experimental poetry is to see and read it. In “Advent,” Rae Armantrout writes:

In front of the craft shop,
a small nativity,
mother, baby, sheep
made of white
and blue balloons.

*

Sky

god

girl.

Pick out the one
that doesn’t belong.

*

Some thing
close to nothing

flat

from which,
fatherless,
everything has come.

An example of experimental poetry at its finest, Armantrout takes the notion of stanzaic lyrics, and dismantles and reassembles them. She turns them inside out to create productive arrangements from small groups of phrases.

Reading experimental poetry is like listening to impromptu freestyle jazz—the good kind that you only hear late at night at jazz clubs or during a musician’s private practice sessions. The words are original, daring and sometimes stunning. The forms are more organic, loose and spontaneous, as the words are a product of the subject and the poet’s feelings as she writes. The words are often the first thoughts, the best thoughts.

History of Experimental Poetry

Compared to sonnets and lyrical poems—classical forms—experimental poetry and literature is a relatively new, evolving genre. Its earliest form dates back to Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen in 1759. About a century-and-a-half later, in the 1910s, artistic experimentation blew into full force. Often inspired by jazz and abstract expressionist painting, American and European writers began experimenting with poetic forms as they ushered in the modernist movement. Avant-garde movements also largely contributed to evolution of experimental poetry, including Dadaism, futurism and surrealism.

After the 1930s, experimental literature faded from public view until the 1950s and -60s, when uncensored freedom became more appreciated. This is around the same time that Charles Olson, who is associated with the Black Mountain School in North Carolina, developed his theory of projective verse,—an open form of poetry based on the spontaneity of breath pauses and typewriter lines. On the West Coast, the San Franciscan School’s nature-focused poems and anti-establishment yet patriotic beat poetry gained national recognition.

Experimental poetry that came out of the New York School demonstrated the most formal education of any group, as New York City was the birthplace of Abstract Expressionism, which largely inspired experimental poetry. One such writer includes Jean Valentine, whose lyrical poems are both personal and political as she tries to make sense of the unconscious and invisible. Valentine states that as she writes, she pays attention to the sounds of her words. If they don’t sound alive in a draft, she takes them out.

Today’s contemporary experimental writers demonstrate many of the qualities seen in works from the 1960s. Their works, however, tend to have more irony and humor. They tend to be more accessible and are sometimes more emotionally deflating. Elaine Equi is a masterful contemporary experimental poet who writes for literary and non-literary audiences. Much of her inspiration comes from her observations of others, her life and pop culture.

Experimental poetry isn’t necessarily poetry that breaks the rules. It’s poetry with its own borders and boundaries. Rather than haven an antagonistic engagement with literature, as some view it, experimental poetry has an alternative engagement with convention. There’s nothing wrong with a little experimentation. Grab a pen and see what words flow from your fingers.

Understanding Poetry Forms & Structure

reading poetry

 

Poems are like maps. All poetry styles have some type of form, a physical structure that makes it markedly distinguishable from prose. Reading poetry is about more than taking in the words. It’s also about using the arrangements of lines, sounds and rhythms to get to the meaning of the words. The relationship between sounds, repetition and movement push words beyond their literal meanings, making a work larger than the sum of its parts.

Common Poetry Styles

Acrostic: A poem that uses the first letter in each line to spell a word or phrase

Ballad: A poem that tells a story

Cento: A poem that uses lines from other poems

Double-dactyl: An eight-line poem in which each line contains two dactyls, a long syllable followed by two shorter syllables (e.g. Roger L. Robinson wrote in “Double-Dactyl”: “Long-short-short, long-short-short/ Dactyls in dimeter/…One sentence (two stanzas)/Hexasyllabically/ Challenges poets who/ Don’t have the time.”)

Elegy: A sad and thoughtful poem, often about an individual who died

Epic: Long narrative poem

Ghazal: A type of classical Middle Eastern poetry with 5 to 15 rhyming couplets and a shared refrain at the end of the second line

Haiku: Traditional Japanese poem with three lines; the first and third lines have five syllables, the second line has seven syllables

Lyric: A poem about the speaker’s feelings, moods or thoughts

Narrative: A poem that recounts a story

Ode: A three-part poem about a serious subject

Pantoum: A poem with two or more four-line stanzas; the second and fourth lines in one stanza are also the first and third lines of the next stanza

Sonnet: A 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter; common forms include English sonnets and Italian sonnets

Shi: Classical Chinese poems in which the even lines rhyme

Tanka: Similar to a haiku, but follows a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern

Terza rima: A poem with stanzas that follow an aba, bcb, cdc, ded… rhyming pattern

Structural Elements in Poetry Styles

Stanza: A group of lines in a poem

Line: Individual line in a poem; it does not have to complete a sentence or thought

Couplet: Stanzas with two lines

Quatrain: Stanzas with four lines

Enjambment: When an idea in one line carries on to the next

Caesura: Punctuation that doesn’t occur at the end of a line

Feet: The type of two- or three-syllable unit on which a meter is based; a foot is the number and type of syllables in a meter; an iambic foot, for example, has an unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable (e.g. the word “destroy”); types of meters include iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest, spondee and pyrrhic

Meter: Patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, or feet, in a poem; types of meters include monometer, dimeter, trimester, tetrameter, pentameter, hexameter, heptameter and octameter

Metrical patterns: The type of dominant foot in a poem and the number of times it appears in a line, such as iambic pentameter, a line with five iambic feet

Rhythm: The rhythmical sounds in a poem because of accented and unaccented syllables in words

Rhyme schemes: The pattern of rhymes at the end of the lines in a poem, indicated using letters; lines with the same letters rhyme with each other

Knowing about different poetry styles and the elements that make up a work is like having the legend to a map. Incorporate these elements into your own work to give yourself a challenge and to diversify your writing.

[Photo from Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York via CC License 2.0]