The word in poetry is not merely a word, it draws in its wake dozens and thousands of associations.Viktor Shklovsky, The Knight’s Move
I would like to begin by misquoting Shklovsky’s statement from The Knight’s Move about Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, omitting the preposition ‘in’: The word ‘poetry’ is not merely a word, it draws with it dozens and thousands of associations. For Shklovsky, poetry has as much to do with architecture and film as with words. This essay begins to ask why so many critics and filmmakers use the word ‘poetic’ to describe certain films, or certain kinds of cinema, and what qualities, if any, persist across the vast array of films called ‘poetic.’ Why have people thought that poetry matters as a film genre? I will reconsider here some of Shklovsky’s writing on this topic across four texts, “Art as Technique” (1917), “Poetry and Prose in Cinematography” (1927), Their Present Time (1927), and Mayakovsky and his Circle (1940). I will take into account his key examples from the Soviet avant-garde, specifically Dziga Vertov’s documentary A Sixth Part of the World (1926), which the Soviet state trade agency Gostorg commissioned, and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s novel The Mother (1926).
I begin not with the earliest text, but with the one most directly related to my questions, “Poetry and Prose in Cinematography.” Shklovsky begins this essay by writing, “As verbal arts, poetry and prose are not sharply differentiated one from the other. Scholars have frequently found rhythmic segments, [End Page 167] that is, recurrences of the same phrase structure, in a prose work.”1 This signals the instability of the distinction he is about to make, allows him to de-emphasize the question of rhythm since it occurs in prose as well as poetry, and also prepares him to make a similar claim about film, since one of his two key filmic examples, Pudovkin’s The Mother, is also a narrative. He finds the poetic within narrative film, even though the final sentence of the whole is, “Plotless film is poetic film.”2 Here is Shklovsky’s distinction, in this essay, between poetry and prose:
In its plot construction, its semantic composition, a prose work is based primarily on a combination of everyday situations; for example, if a person must speak but cannot, we may resolve the situation by having some other party speak for him… However there may be another method of resolving a work, where the resolution is achieved by a purely compositional rather than a semantic method. Here the compositional value is comparable in effect to the semantic value.
Possibly what basically distinguishes poetry from prose is its greater range of geometric devices; a whole series of arbitrary semantic resolutions can be replaced by a purely formal, geometric resolution. The devices are geometrized, as it were.3
Resolution, in the poetic mode, does not take place primarily in the situational world to which the language refers, but on the compositional level of language itself. The distinction between prose and poetry is quantitative as well as qualitative: poetry has a “greater range” of “geometric devices,” enough to “replace” “semantic resolutions.” “Geometric” and “geometrized” recall the Lobachevskian geometry that also inspired such contemporaries as Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov and Suprematist Kazimir Malevich in the previous decade.4
In that decade, Shklovsky more famously distinguished poetry from prose in “Art as Device.” Through this distinction, he developed his concept of defamiliarization. He also developed it through prose examples such as Tolstoy’s story “Kholstomer,” and War and Peace, and what he called the ‘poetic’ broadens into the artistic more generally. This breadth complicates the term ‘poetic.’ In “Poetry and Prose in Cinematography,” Shklovsky uses ‘poetic’ specifically to describe a “plotless” form of film. In the earlier essay he allowed [End Page 168 ] it to describe various artworks with a defamiliarizing effect. This defamiliarizing art does not necessarily exclude narration. Annie van den Oever’s description of “Art as Technique” as a manifesto rather than coolly systematic theoretical text catches the exuberance of Shklovsky’s sometimes messy theoretical invention. She describes...