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.

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]