Artistic Foundations for New Mediums: How Poetry Inspires Transcendent Cinema

By Joshua Sikora

One of the joys of teaching film at a university is the opportunity to explore the cinematic medium through the lens of other art forms. Working alongside painters, sculptors, composers, and poets, I am often challenged and inspired to see my artistic discipline in a new context.

As such a young medium, cinema has naturally inherited a great deal from surrounding art forms. Its connections to storytelling, theatre, or image-making are obvious — and filmmakers are quite accustomed to drawing from those disciplines. Yet, in years of film school and a decade in Hollywood, I had never seriously considered how cinema might be influenced by the work of poets — that is, not until I found myself teaching alongside a poet, my gifted colleague, Dr. Matthew Boyleston.

Poetry is not a medium I ever thought I would get excited about. My past experiences tended to be marked with confusion or boredom. Yet in discussions with Dr. Boyleston, I began to find common ground between what he was doing with the written word and what I do with the moving image. As I explored some of these shared foundations, I came across deeper influences on cinema than I ever could have imagined.

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) was one of the foremost poets in the Romantic movement, helping set the stage for a new kind of poetry, marked by its focus on the common man, its exploration of man’s relationship with nature, and by extension, man’s relationship with God. Through his essays and critical works, he also offered thoughtful analysis into the purpose of poetry, especially with regard to emotion and memory.

Most striking to me though, was realizing that Wordsworth’s approach to poetry can also be seen as an influence on the cinematic work of Russian filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky (1932 – 1986). Like Wordsworth, Tarkovsky was fascinated by the role of memory in creating art. In his semi-autobiographical film The Mirror, Tarkovsky built the narrative around memories of his own mother. The film is told non-linearly and skips over key events, focusing instead on scenes that seem both ordinary and yet mysteriously transcendent. The film doesn’t quite tell a story, yet it is rich with emotion, history, and life.

Tarkovsky’s approach calls to mind “spots of time,” which served as the foundation of Wordsworth’s own autobiographical poem, The Prelude. Instead of focusing on the seemingly significant landmark events in one’s life, Wordsworth focused his attention on those small, fleeting moments that “[lift] us up when fallen” and “give the profoundest knowledge.”[1] These spots of time might be described as those brief moments where the veil is pulled back just enough that we get a glimpse of the Divine.

In his poetry, Wordsworth focuses our attention on these quietly transcendent, soul-shaping moments that we all experience (often when we least expect them). It is in these moments, he believes, that true emotion and feeling are found.

Wordsworth also views much of childhood through this lens. He believes that instead of remembering childhood as it was, we recollect a past full of defining emotional moments. Often we don’t even understand the significance of these memories, yet they have a powerful influence on our lives. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he describes how these memories can be utilized in his ideal form of poetry:

“I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced…” [2]

While Wordsworth’s emphasis is on poetry, I cannot help but find these ideas resonant in my own filmmaking and storytelling. The process described here is not dramatically different from the way a screenwriter might approach a script, or a director might approach a scene — even if just subconsciously.

When properly executed, these recollected moments hold great emotional power. Through them, an artist can evoke strong, truthful feelings in his audience because the moment that is being captured within the art is already charged with transcendent power. This can be missed when we focus more on the cliché than the truth.

For example, a wedding certainly says something about love and may serve as an effective symbol within a work of art — but it can be difficult for a wedding scene to conjure up the feeling of love. Weddings are marked by a whole host of emotions and distractions, so if the goal is to evoke a feeling of love, it may be better to look elsewhere — to a simpler moment that might not seem as significant, yet is charged with the overwhelming emotion the artist is hoping to convey. Wordsworth’s theory is that an artist will be more effective through recalling these spots of time, than he would be by invoking more common, but less emotionally rich events.

Although Andrey Tarkovsky never directly references Wordsworth, either in his films or his written work, he does describe a very similar view in his landmark book on cinema, Sculpting in Time. Ultimately, Tarkovsky argues that memory is “a spiritual concept […] As a moral being, man is endowed with memory which sows in him a sense of dissatisfaction. It makes us vulnerable, subject to pain.”[3] Out of this dissatisfaction and pain, Tarkovsky finds inspiration to create his films. Works like The Mirror (1975) and Nostalghia (1983) are distinctly autobiographical, drawn from his emotional memories just like Wordsworth’s own poems.

Inspired by his childhood, The Mirror is likely Tarkovsky’s most personal film. Told through the point-of-view of an unseen adult narrator, the film depicts the character’s memories of childhood in three different eras: pre-war 1935, during World War II, and following the war in the 1960s or 1970s. Tarkovsky strings the various scenes together non-linearly, creating a dreamlike structure to the film. Rather than creating a clear narrative, the scenes form an emotional arc, like a piece of music. Over the course of the film, you are drawn into the mind of the central character — or perhaps more literally, into Tarkovsky’s own mind — and invited to share in his emotions and memories. In Sculpting in Time, he explains, “Somewhere here there is an echo of the image of the lyrical hero incarnate in literature, and of course in poetry; he is absent from view, but what he thinks, how he thinks, and what he thinks about build up a graphic and clearly-defined picture of him.” [4]

This “poetic” approach to cinema was rather unprecedented at the time and remains uncommon today, but Tarkovsky saw a natural connection between the work of the poet and the dreamlike nature of cinema. This is perhaps less surprising when we consider that Tarkovsky’s father, Arseny Tarkovsky, was a highly-regarded Russian poet who was no doubt influenced — at least to some extent — by Wordsworth and his fellow Romantic poets.

Tarkovsky’s innovative approach to cinema would go on to influence many other filmmakers, like Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal, Persona) who once wrote, “Tarkovsky is for me the greatest [filmmaker], the one who invented a new language, true to the nature of film, as it captures life as a reflection, life as a dream.” Similarly, Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) is clearly inspired by Tarkovsky’s use of memory, crafting poetic films like his own autobiographical magnum opus, The Tree of Life. Even documentary filmmakers like Ron Fricke (Baraka, Samsara) and Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi, Visitors) seem to have drawn direction from the emotional structure of Tarkovsky’s works.

Tracing these influences back to Wordsworth becomes quite enlightening, as it reveals the deeper purpose and effects that this artistic approach can achieve. In traditional narratives, whether on the page or on the screen, emotion is often present, but it exists in an artificial, contrived state. It exists in service to the plot, yet often lacks authenticity. Instead of employing this arbitrary structure, Tarkovsky and Wordsworth challenge us to look back on our lives and draw from the emotional wellspring of our own experiences. In the tranquil space of reflection, we can invoke our deepest, most powerful memories to serve as the foundation for more truthful and emotionally impactful works.

Indeed, these moments may even be able to offer us a glimpse of the Divine. Tarkovsky argues that the artist’s work “furthers man’s search for what is eternal, transcendent, divine — often in spite of the sinfulness of the poet himself.”[5] Wordsworth offers a similar sentiment in Book II of The Prelude, where he describes the restorative power of reflection and contemplation within nature. He sees these ideas working in concert to form a “purer mind and intellectual life.”[6]

Wordsworth’s poetry is filled with rich images of nature, which on their own might simply be seen as romanticized clichés, but in the context of his work — especially as he connects nature to the past through childhood and memory — Wordsworth creates a powerful sense of nostalgia. We sometimes misuse the term “nostalgia” as a way of conveying an old-fashioned sentimentality, but the Greek origins of the word describe the pain and heartache that we feel when we are away from our home.

Wordsworth’s invocation of nature in his poetry is powerful because he places it within this kind of nostalgic context, creating a heartache within us as we long for an idealized world to be our home. It echoes the longing we feel for the Garden of Eden — humanity’s earthly home to which we can never return. In his poetry, Wordsworth evokes these feelings. Similarly, he connects our memories of childhood to this sense of nostalgia — not because childhood was a purer, simpler time, but because our memories of childhood create a similar sense of longing and loss. It’s in this way that art, rooted in memory, can ultimately draw us back towards the Divine.

This deeper effect of Romantic poetry continues to be reflected in the tradition’s cinematic descendants. Chronologically, the earliest scenes in The Mirror take place in the fertile, beautiful Russian countryside. As war breaks out, the landscape becomes cold and barren. After the war, industry prevails leaving the once beautiful nature as only a distant memory, lost along with the child’s innocence.

In The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick similarly uses childhood as a powerful catalyst for nostalgic feelings. Like The Mirror, the film is framed by an adult reflecting on his youth. Malick goes further with his invocation of nature and the Divine though, by actually juxtaposing the childhood memories with cosmic images of the creation of the universe. The film also ends with a glimpse of Heaven as the man’s family is reunited on the shores of an unseen paradise.

Even Godfrey Reggio’s environmentally-themed Koyaanisqatsi ultimately points us to a similar realization. He carefully assembles his documentary images to show man’s deep conflict with nature as technology and industry erode our once fertile landscape. Reggio spent more than a decade as a Catholic monk before becoming a filmmaker and one senses his deeply contemplative personality through his film. At its core, Koyaanisqatsi seems to argue that we have lost our home and the heart aches because of it: nostalgia.

These are but a few examples of this rich gift that filmmakers have inherited from Romantic poets like Wordsworth — a gift that necessitates filmmakers moving beyond the familiar territory of traditional cinema, exploring the inspiration available from great artists who were reflecting the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation long before the mechanical invention of the motion picture camera.

I find these artistic foundations all the more important with every new technological development. As I work with students to apply cinematic principles into even newer mediums, like video games and virtual reality, I’m struck by just how important it is that we develop strong artistic roots. I want my media students to learn from great filmmakers like Tarkovsky — but I also want them to learn from Wordsworth, Rembrandt, and Shakespeare.

The great joy of teaching at a liberal arts university is watching my students grow, not only within their majors, but ultimately through the rich traditions and deep heritage that are instilled in a wealth of courses in literature, history, philosophy, science, and theology. As we strive to responsibly harness the powers of new technologies, our greatest resources are the artists, storytellers, and thinkers that came before us. As filmmakers and new media pioneers, our best inspiration is not to look just at our contemporaries, but ultimately to learn from the poets, painters, and philosophers that have shaped every facet of our civilization.

References in this work:

[1] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1888, Book XII, lines 218 – 221.

[2] William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems, 1802.

[3] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, pages 57 – 58.

[4] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, page 29.

[5] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, page 239.

[6] Wordsworth, The Prelude, 1805, Book II, lines 333 – 334.


About the Author

Joshua Sikora, MA, is Assistant Professor of Cinema and New Media Arts at Houston Baptist University. He is an award-winning filmmaker and new media entrepreneur who has written, produced, or directed more than a dozen productions including feature films, TV series, and documentaries.