The Hounds of Hell and other Quiet Entertainments
On our blog, Claire Crowther celebrates the 5th anniversary of her Hercules Editions title, Silents, which is now available again to purchase from our shop
The lockdown this past year has had all the hallmarks of my 2015 session of intense silent film-watching that resulted in Silents. A quiet day in a quiet house, sitting in my living room hour after hour, sheaves of notes for poems tossed to the floor as I watched the curling edges of scenes come and go between minimal words framed in curlicues and scrolls: it was a pleasure then to have more hours to write. It was the formal response – ekphrastic poems, poems about another form of art – that I had time to develop and it was a delight to discover where to place my response to the film, to film making in general, and to the concerns of an era I knew little about.
Horror and humour are what I think of most when I think of those months wrapped in another era, gripped by colourless and silent images (but not wordless and never boring: after all, watching a film made a hundred or so years ago is to time travel and walk the streets of history). These two qualities are exceptionally well done by early film directors: in German expressionist films, for example, or in early Hollywood or even late nineteenth century films made in France and England.
I am not a film academic, I’m an avid watcher, when I have the time, and I like all the ancient legends that a much later wildly successful TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, celebrates: werewolves, vampires, demons, witches, ogres and the general hell of a paradise lost. As in Buffy, Hellmouth is a funny place. It’s as though discovering film meant, primarily, looking fear in the face and laughing.
And what faces there are in these dystopian masterpieces! Renée Falconetti in Passion of Joan of Arc, HD (Hilda Doolittle, a famous poet at the time) in Borderlines, the metal face of the goddess in Metropolis, the agonising close ups of Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh. It’s not possible to see their agony in the theatre even in the front row. But a film massively enlarges the suffering human face.
The black and white dimensions are not, of course, colourless. Or, to put it another way, there is a mass of shading, of tonal variation in scenes. As there should be in the stanzas of a poem. Clever lighting shadow boxes with the unfolding of emotion and of story. Good line breaks and word choices carry a poetry reader through an emotional narrative.
A poem does not (usually) have a visual equivalent. Hercules Editions shows how an image can add immeasurably to a poem. I was delighted when Tamar Yoseloff expressed an interest in developing Silents as a project that balanced visual image with word. A page poem is a thing of words and they enter the heart of the reader in silence. You are locked down with page poems if you buy a book and read it at home. I was locked down with silent films, at home, in my living room. I entered a silent world and, as in a meditation, emerged thoughtful and, hopefully, emotionally toned.
In Silents, Claire Crowther's subject is early cinema, the strange and wordless shadow world of gestures and expressions, populated by witches and vampyres, and impresarios such as Edison and Artaud. The poems provide a script for and a dialogue with the world of silent film, using as a springboard its marginalized figures, and the dawn of modernism. The book is illustrated by stills Crowther has selected from the Ronald Grant Archive, a fascinating collection of film memorabilia housed in an old Lambeth workhouse. As well as the author's foreword, there is also an essay by the writer and broadcaster Kevin Jackson that places these films into the larger context of modernist practice.