Superpoems, Release 1.0

by Maria Ingold

Until now, poetry has been presented to us in the black and white form of print on paper. While this method captures the words and visual phrase-breaks of the poetry, it does not completely portray the mood or subtleties intended by the poet. Much of this additional insight is provided by how we hear the words spoken and visualize the imagery that accompanies them. By animating the words, or giving them an audiovisual life, the poem becomes both more complete and more effective in its presentation. SUPERPOEMS, a video collection of nine poems (Table 1) written by Edmund Skellings and animated by a group of artists at the Florida Center for Electronic Communications, sets the precedent for this new poetic form.

Poem Length
Ocean 33 seconds
To His Machine One minute 15 seconds
Vincent, Vincent One minute 30 seconds
Flying Circus One minute 13 seconds
Opening Shock One minute 18 seconds
Senior Citizen One minute
Moon Flight Two minutes 41 seconds
The Double Helix Three minutes 5 seconds
Sleight Of One minute 19 seconds
Introduction 9 seconds
Credits 51 seconds

SUPERPOEMS consists of a recording fifteen minutes in length on a video cassette, so viewing the poetry is easy and familiar, just like playing any video. This medium, given the popularity of MTV® and video games, makes sense as the instructional medium for today’s generation of students. Similar to the music video, the superpoem integrates text, the spoken word, imagery, and audio effects or music.

The poem’s written text and spoken words provide the framework and story line around which the images are shaped and the music is scored. The creation of each superpoem starts with the selection and reading of the poem by Dr. Skellings. This reading serves several purposes: first, it provides the mood of the poem; second, it sets the timing to which the imagery is coordinated; and, finally, it establishes the poet’s preferences for how that poem should be read.

The vocalization of a poem enhances the mood through the author’s own inflections and intonations. A superb example of this is “The Double Helix.” This poem, in its written form, is separated into five episodes. Dr. Skellings maintains this separation by changing the tone of his voice to one appropriate for each section. For example, the first part begins with a gentle urging to “believe.” As the section progresses, the gentleness disappears, and the tone becomes more urgent. This urgency starts to abate with the last two lines of the section, only to reappear with the beginning line of the next episode, “At tension.” The word “tension” itself defines the tone, but the way it is spoken, sounding almost like a drill sergeant’s “Attention,” confirms it. Since the imagery comes from the text and the reading, it readily enhances and complements the mood already evoked. “At tension,” for example, is written in red and flies into the face of the viewer. Contrarily, the words “believe” drift in ethereal space and are depicted in more soothing colors. Revisiting the end of the first section, the addition of music enhances the buildup of tension by changing from a melodic sound to one that is more aggressive. Although this is the only superpoem with complete musical composition, the diversity of the poem and its length, three minutes compared to the typical one minute, shows how music, added after the animation has been finished, contributes the final unifying layer to complete the mood.

The timing of the reading with the imagery is very important, especially in SUPERPOEMS, as the words themselves are often an integral part of the animation. Exemplifying this synthesis of word and image, the words in “Ocean” gently curve up and down as they weave across the screen (Figures 1 and 2). Sometimes they even ride animated waves. Going beyond providing simple captioning, the animated words embody and enact their meaning.

The animation of the title “Senior Citizen” provides an excellent demonstration of how imagery can enhance the mental associations with words. The sequence starts with a Celtic cross, a regular cross with a circle centered at the cross-point. The circle moves to form the “O” in SENIOR, and the crossbars break apart to provide the “I”s for CITIZEN (Figures 3 to 7). From this brief animation, we know that this poem is not only about a senior citizen, but about the death of a senior citizen. The movement of the words, even before the poem starts, provides all this information for us. These examples illustrate only a few of the ways in which SUPERPOEMS has shown that coordinating the animation of text with the spoken word can allow text to complement its subject matter, as well as to enhance and extend the meaning of the words.

The recording of the poet’s voice is of inestimable value for posterity. Captured on tape, future generations can still experience the poet. We can only imagine how “The Raven” might sound if Edgar Allan Poe were to actually read it. “Nevermore,” spoken in Poe’s “midnight dreary” voice would surely excite even those with the shortest attention span. For teaching, this is both a valuable complement to written literature, as well as an inspirational medium. Here, it is important to emphasize the word complement rather than the word replacement. While this is an excellent medium for stimulating people’s interest in poetry, it can detract from the reader’s personal interpretation and sensory experiences. This is similar in concept to establishing strong visual and emotional associations with a song and then watching the music video. The interpretation in the video does not necessarily match the personal view, although it can help to augment it. A further reason to retain the written word is that it can carry a different meaning from its verbal equivalent. “At tension” is a good example of this. Another example, also from “The Double Helix,” is the line “I am a sine.” The word “sine” here is symbolically different from the word “sign,” which is what the listener hears when this text is read. In this case, both the written and spoken word are needed to obtain the full effect.

Unlike poetry in book form, one drawback of the video tape format is the difficulty in quickly finding the exact poem or “line” within the poem. While books typically have a table of contents, the SUPERPOEMS video includes a one-page abstract that lists the poems in the order they are shown, and provides a commentary by Dr. Skellings on each of them. This comment serves as a synopsis of the poem and a means of gaining insight into the poet. In the future, the problem of locating materials will diminish as laser disk, CD-ROM, and computer motion video technology become more affordable and accessible to both teachers and students.

In the introduction to the abstract, Dr. Skellings states, “artists have animated my poems using supercomputers, and we have been calling them SUPERPOEMS.” The Florida Center for Electronic Communication is home to four Silicon Graphics supercomputers, several video cameras, two Ensoniq keyboards, and a suite of video and audio editing equipment. While the center is also used for technology demonstrations, it is primarily a production house. The artists use a combination of several advanced computer graphics packages such as Wavefront, TDI, Alias, nTITLE and PandemoniumTM to create the animation and special effects. These are professional quality graphics packages that run on very fast UNIX-based computers that are capable of handling millions of instructions per second. Similar combinations of software and hardware were used in the creation of films such as Jurassic Park. The artists also incorporate scanned images and video. When the animation is complete, the final voice-over is added, plus any musical score or audio effects. While this poetic form requires greater effort on the part of the creator, the result enables a larger variety of people, including those who are visually or hearing impaired, to gain a greater understanding and further enrichment from the poetry.

Category: Video Poetry.
System Requirements: Videocassette player, viewing screen.
Documentation: One page introduction to SUPERPOEMS by Dr. Skellings.
The Florida Center For Electronic Communication
Dr. Edmund Skellings
Florida Atlantic University
University Tower
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida 33301
(305) 760-5618.
Copyright: 1993 Edmund Skellings.
Price: $20.00.
Trademarks: Pandemonium – Xaos Tools Inc.
MTV is ® to Viacom International, Inc.