Poetry and Adaptation

[Research] (03.31.09, 9:41 pm)

I am about to look at Catullus, which is on my reading list. I am pretty familiar with Catullus, but addressing his work requires a larger consideration of adaptation and poetry as a whole.

Poetry tends to have a special place in the spectrum of human expressions. Poetry implies pure expression in the clearest sense. It is a distillation of some intention or meaning. What does it mean then to adapt poetry?

Adaptation rarely occurs between poetry and other media. Instead, what must occur is extension. Poetry alone lacks the concrete elements of narrative, but does include the visual descriptive elements that might be found in images. Poetry may be interpreted from these forms, since poetry is a distillation, and can find the relevant substance or essence in something and extract it. Poetry is refined and worked over, meticulously formatted, worked, and reworked.

It is possible to examine the relationships between poetry and other media. I will look at examples of nonpoetic text, the image, the moving image (film, for example), and finally games.

A predominant theme in considering the relationship between poetry and other media is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a rhetorical device, it aims to relate one work of art to another by describing its essence and form (Wikipedia). This may be thought of as a description and extension of the original. Ekphrasis is therefore closely related to adaptation, but is meant to be used synergetically with the original.


Nonpoetic text, the novel especially, is historically about realism. It is about fleshing out the conceptual into a world that is real and rich. In this sense it is the antithesis of poetry, yet the concept of a poem might inspire and form the foundation of a written text. Frequently novels have been written that take lines of poems (or verse, at least) as titles. The Sound and the Fury is a good example. While in these cases, the resulting work is not an adaptation in any literal sense, the work may be considered as having been spun from (or through) the original source.

The Image

Images are often the subject of poetry. Many paintings, especially in the Romantic era were inspired by poems. Poetry is often derived from naturalist images as well. The close relationship between poetry and painting is best felt in the Romantic period, where literature and art were heavily affected by classical influences. The painting in this case may adopt the values of elegance of visual forms. However, unlike the short, succinct dimensions of poetry, painting was instead wide and spacious, complex and rich. While poetry is meant to evoke rich images using few words, an actual image can therefore compliment, but not be exchanged with poetry. Abstract visual art more strongly shares the dimensions of starkness that visually rich paintings lack.

To use an information metaphor, a poem is highly compressed, whereas an image is decompressed. In this I will consider images to be things that are primarily corporeal and nondigital (but even digital images may contain detail at nearly imperceptible depths). Images are often treated lossily, they may be viewed from distance, up close, and are often so rich that they may contain more detail than can be perceived with any one view. Often, an image might contain detail inadvertently placed by the artist, nearly imperceptible, but part of the whole. The relationship between image and poem is much like that between poetry and text, but while text may be losslessly reproduced (in most cases, translation excluded), images retain an issue of depth.

To compare the relationship between adaptation from image to poem, it might be worth comparing the poem to the process that is used to create the image. In Romantic or classical painting, the content might involve references to mythology, use of symbols, and use of color or material to deliberate effect. While the resulting form is dense, beneath it exists a language. This language might be especially simple, as is the case in poetry, where the process is about some core and essential concept. The most clear example of this is Jackson Pollock, whose painting is entirely about his process.

Moving Images

Film, and the moving image in general, initially seem to exacerbate the problem of the depth and complexity of the image. I think that the contrary is the case, that the image is made less deep by extension through time. Casting the image in time instead emphasizes the role of the underlying language. While people routinely look closely into images to discover details, this is more rare with moving images. Details that are important are placed temporally appearing only briefly instead of existing hidden amidst other details in space. In film, the language of the moving image becomes established significantly by cutting and the strategic rearrangement of time. In this sense, the moving image may have some core message or meaning that exists articulated by its visual and temporal metaphors.


The virtues of poetry are generally brevity and elegance. This immediately strikes a chord with programmers (and mathematicians). Programmers tend to have a value of brevity and elegance within code. Elegance in verse and code are both subjective and up to interpretation, but both tend to be readily identifiable. The relationship between code and poetry has not gone unnoticed, but efforts made to unite them have rarely been successful.

Mechanics in games can share similar features of elegance and simplicity. Board games and other (ludologically focused) games tend to value simple rules that lead to complex and elegant play. Lauded examples of these are Go, Chess, Tetris, Conway’s Game of Life (though this is a system rather than a real game), and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (though this is more of a situation or moment than a game). These tend to express relationships and situations that are mathematically interesting, but as such, and despite their elegance, the subject of these mechanics alone rarely have intersections with the space of poetry.

Semiotically speaking, words too have no meaning until we associate meanings to them via reference. In this sense, a game only made of rules has no meaning until elements of the game are associated with the real world. However, because games are cultural artifacts beyond their rules alone, this process of association is made more easy. Rules themselves are denotated objects, they are used within games and thus have meanings associated with them. To say that “love is a zero sum game” has meaning because the mathematical and game theoretic term “zero sum” means something. Likewise, there are genres of games with their own tropes, conventions, features, and implications. Thus connecting a game to some other concept via reference connects all of its tropes and implications as well.

I would argue that existing genres of games may be alluring but are not a viable language for poetic reference. Rather, behind the rules of games are systems, and it is these systems that has the greatest potential for distilled expression. The process of doing this is something like finding the system behind the poem, or behind the image of the poem, and then identifying and defining procedural rules for it.

This leads to a new predicament. What is the system behind a poem?

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.