IN TONY Harrison's fiery new verse-film Prometheus, we have that rarest of celluloid beasts: a film directed and written by a poet. But why do so few poets make films?
There have been two major poet-directors this century: Jean Cocteau (who was born before the Lumiere brothers patented their cinematographe and died just as the French New Wave was coming in) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (who began life as a poet writing in an obsolete Italian dialect and died the victim of a gay-bashing on the coast near Rome).
Andrei Tarkovsky, too, though not strictly speaking a poet, is always seen as a director with a highly developed poetical sense, interested in what he calls "the poetry of memory". In fact, Tarkovsky's father was a reasonably well-known poet in Russia, and films such as Mirror and Nostalgia are studded with quotations from his poetry about the Volga forests and immortality. But Tarkovsky thought that literary elements should not be self- evident in a film; indeed, using a metaphor rich in personal association (the making of a bell in Andrei Rublev is symbolic of all artistic endeavour), he insists that all poetry should be smelted into the whole. Tony Harrison also uses a smelting image in his movie, when the god Hermes oversees the creation of a huge gold statue of Prometheus in a German foundry, adding the sacrificial bodies of a dozen striking Yorkshire miners in order to temper the metal. But Harrison is an polemicist of the old school and there's no smelting down of his dogged, two-line couplets in Prometheus. It's been suggested that Harrison has invented a new cinematic form, where poetry is the engine that drives the film. The poetry is up-front and unabashed, not skulking in the wings as Tarkovsky intended. Cocteau would have approved. Like Harrison, Cocteau always considered himself first and foremost a poet and a writer. His interest in cinema was pretty much that of the dilettante. It was merely one of several forms he might use. "I am not a cineast," he wrote. "I am a poet who uses the camera as a suitable vehicle for allowing us all to dream the same dream." But Harrison is wary of claiming kinship with the wilting lily of Cocteau. He prefers the bracingMarxist-Freudian barrackings of that great neglected genius, Pasolini. "To make films is to be a poet," is the Pasolini quote that heads the printed script of Prometheus. "Pasolini was a poet before he was anything else," insists Harrison. "He is one of the best modern Italian poets, quite aside from his films." In an intriguing mirror image to Tarkovsky's father/ poetry obsession, it seems that Pasolini began writing as a poet as an act of defiance against his own father, who was an army officer and an enthusiastic Fascist. …