– Torsa Ghosal
The American literary experience has been very closely interwoven with other forms of art, especially music and cinema. Afro-American literature, both thematically and structurally, can be fully comprehended with reference to jazz and blues. Similarly, Beats and rock music are closely related as are generic films and generic literature produced in America. Thus, American literature’s multi-dimensionality provides enough scope for interdisciplinary appreciation of texts.
The cinematic technique of montage was incorporated into the structure of American poetry, written especially for socio-political protest and rebellion, by Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsberg. It is important to note that montage here refers to the montage technique as used by Soviet film makers as opposed to that of Hollywood film makers. Hughes and Ginsberg consciously opposed the capitalist and consumer driven concerns of American industries.
Langston Hughes’ poetry attempted to uphold the dreams of black Americans deferred within the inequitable mainstream white American culture. Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, on the other hand, tried to depict that America had become a cultural wasteland post Second World War.
The montage technique is a prominent cinematic method first effectively implemented by Soviet filmmakers like Lev Kuleshov, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin. It was perfected by Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein observed, “montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other”.
Sergei Eisenstein’s films implemented montage to get across specific ideas to his audience. The narrative of his films focused on ideas rather than on telling stories. The collisions of shots in Eisenstein’s montage could be based on conflicts of scale, volume, rhythm, motion, as well as more conceptual values such as class, religion and state. In October Eisenstein subverts the concept of an omnipotent divinity through montage. In this famous sequence Eisenstein starts with the shot of a deity taken from a lower angle, thus endowing divinity with authority. The moods in the clips are juxtaposed and finally, the last shot of this montage presents two figures without arms. The gradual transition is from a powerful image to a powerless one. The shots in Eisenstein’s montage are arranged such that thesis and antithesis alternate. The dialectical nature of montage brackets the central idea which is often based on a Marxian premise. Hence, Soviet montage is a consciously political technique. The montage from October is an intellectual montage harping on collision of ideas. Conflict and collision between shots is central to the montage method.
Langston Hughes had visited Russia and planned to collaborate with Eisenstein in 1932. Acquaintance with Eisenstein influenced Hughes’ poetry. He titled his anthology of poetry- Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). In the volume Hughes deals with a wide range of issues like how to balance modernity and folk culture, how to achieve textual continuity while composing ninety one distinct poetic pieces and so on. Eisenstein’s montage hinges on class, Hughes’ hinges on race.
Hughes’s poem Harlem from the volume uses five images that are disjointed in themselves but connect to the central rhetoric of the poem. The rapidity with which the images flow intensifies their colliding effect creating a durable intellectual montage. Hughes writes in Island:
Between two rivers,
North of the park,
Like darker rivers
The streets are dark.
Black and white,
Gold and Brown-
Pie of a town.
Dream within a dream
Our dream deferred.
Good morning, daddy!
Ain’t you heard?
The poem describes Harlem which is situated between two rivers at the centre of the White dominated New York City. The images that collide in the poem are pigmented black and white symbolizing the skin tones of the Black and White Americans. White America exerts state power and state control which represses the dreams of Black Americans. The rhetoric of equality had existed in America for a long time but was rarely implemented. The streams serve as metonyms for the parallel flow of the two cultural currents within America. The image of ‘Chocolate Cluster/Pie of a town’ is also to be realized in context of the image of food and drink in the poem Harlem. In Harlem Hughes writes:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
Like a syrupy sweet?
The crust formation over sweet is in conflict with the image of the gold and brown chocolate pie but beneath the apparent conflict is the idea of fermentation. The essence of decay and disintegration underlines Hughes’ volume.
Hughes’ method of constructing meaning from a series of images is reminiscent of the Imagist style but there are major differences between the montage and Imagist methods. The objective of Imagist poems is to evoke a third aspect from the given images but the shots or images in montage contain the meaning within themselves which are then juxtaposed. Imagist poems try to capture a moment of high intensity, often emotional but montage upholds dualities that manifest a sense of crisis, usually political.
Ginsberg’s poetry too uses the montage technique. However, whereas Hughes banks on short lines, Ginsberg’s style in poems like Howl and Sunflower Sutra is marked by excesses. At the core of both these poems lie two colliding ideas. In Howl the psychological space of the best minds of Ginsberg’s generation is juxtaposed with the decadent world around them. In Sunflower Sutra the image of the flower is located within the space of the tin can banana dock:
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust-
The warmth of the sunflower’s hue is subverted by the dead gray shadow that the poet visualizes. What follows is a reverie which is hyper-real. The ‘perfect beauty of the sunflower’ as described by Ginsberg is soon followed by the disillusioning picture of flies and rusty rail roads.
Howl offers an array of colliding ideas, antithetical to each other but compressed within the span of a single line. From Howl’s first section which comprises a seventy eight line sentence the following section can be analysed in this context:
streets of shuddering cloud and
lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson,
illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery
In the above passage the flow of supernatural time or eternity is delineated through paradoxical images. The state of timelessness is a static instant which Ginsberg portrays through dynamic images of lightning and shuddering.
Lightning within the mind is a sensation that suspends perceptive faculties while Peyote is a drug that leads to an illusion of timelessness. However, the very concept of America and the infinite possibilities it stands for are temporal. Ginsberg’s antipathy to America’s war tactics and involvement in the Vietnam War is articulated in the poem America where he writes:
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
The growth of America as super power is a temporary moment in the history of the universe. The spiritual decline, on the other hand, is permanent.
who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston
seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the
brilliant Spaniard to converse about America
and Eternity, a hopeless task
The next section of the poem was written by Ginsberg under the influence of peyote. At the core of the first section is the protagonist Who, while the second section is built around the antagonist Moloch. Moloch is the dark side of a state of mind but Ginsberg also claims that everything is holy. Thus, Moloch too is not outside the realm of that holy sphere. The destructive time of Moloch is similarly contested by the time recorded by clocks in space that the hipsters follow.
The backbone of intellectual montage is logic. If a montage uses a dream-like illogicality the focus is on the erosion of sanity as in Howl.
Eisenstein’s montage pitted working class ethics against the upper class exploitation through shots. The idea of conflict within montage carries the impulse of protest and articulates the struggle within. Montages have, thereby, evolved as effective tools to voice anxiety and angst without being overtly didactic.
Ginsberg’s poetry meanders through issues presented in a pseudo-comic fashion while Hughes relies on putting forth his images with precision and lucidity. Both their poems are directed against the values of consumerism, capitalism, exploitation and cultural anarchy dictated by the state and manipulated by the media. Ginsberg specifically uses montage to build up momentum. Hughes does something similar when he writes about the impending explosion of dreams in the last line of Harlem. The rapid succession of images imposed one over the other allows the reader to get involved and extract the argument out of the text.
The multi-dimensionality of these poems lie in the way they internalize the idiom of Soviet Cinema to produce texts that capture moments of crisis in American history.