Jess Williard on Montage, Utterance, Logic

By guest blogger poet Jess Williard

Movement between images is what I find most fascinating in poems. In this respect, film and poetry are kindred mediums. Logic in both spaces, whether it be conventional narrative logic or something internal and unique, is built through sequence. Montage in film is often described as “poetic,” and this is no mistake: films and poems go places. And they do so through close attention to and manipulation of continuity in image. What’s more, the “frame” in film presents a useful correlative in the image framework of a poem; what appears, how it appears, and the influences exerted on that appearance share a cinematic language.

A film I constantly return to for its “poetry” is Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey [see video excerpt]. The Limey describes the trajectory of its protagonist through temporally disjointed, fractured vignettes. It utilizes omniscient narration in a voice-over track, a technique typically employed to cohere a visually disparate narrative. But coherence isn’t really the point with either the editing or the narration: the continuity of The Limey is offered as felt or understood rather than explained. Where it occurs, the voice-over track is repeated dialogue from elsewhere in the narrative. Or it is recurrent ambient sound (humming, wind chimes, a running shower, the drone of an airplane, all of which occur as diegetic elements before they occur in the temporal sequence of the narrative; flashbacks and flashforwards function in the same way). As articulated by film theorist Guan-Soon Khoo, “the non-continuity montage is not so much a summary of diegetic events as it is an utterance via editing and use of sound by the omniscient narrator.” (Diegetic sound: sound in film that is coming from something within the frame.) This overlay—what’s in frame carrying the scent or sense of something out of frame—broadens the possibility of the poem for me. It instructs me.

For some poem examples of what I perceive to be the play of diegetic and non-diegetic elements, check out “Nothing Stays Put” by Amy Clampitt, or “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope” by Larry Levis.

Jess Williard’s debut book of poetry, Unmanly Griefwas selected by Billy Collins for the Miller Williams Poetry Series from the University of Arkansas Press.