Loneliness, Adaptation, and Argument
By Thomas L. Burkdall
“The theatre,” says Baudelaire, “is a crystal chandelier.” If one were called upon to offer in comparison a symbol other than this artificial crystal-like object, brilliant, intricate and circular, which refracts the light which plays around its center and holds us prisoners of its aureole, we might say of the cinema that it is the little flashlight of the usher, moving like an uncertain comet across the night of our waking dream, the diffuse space without shape or frontiers that surrounds the screen.
—Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?
The professor here has offered a deceptively simple, and extraordinarily ambitious, assignment, asking his students to “Create a video adaptation of a poem with an argument.” For me, the challenge arises with both the principle of adaptation and the concept of argument.
Turning literature into film has been a staple of the screen throughout the history of cinema—from a nine-minute (!) version of Oliver Twist in 1909 and an adaptation of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1911 to 2010’s film of/about Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and next year’s much-anticipated release of the film based on Suzanne Collins dystopian novel for young adults, The Hunger Games. Both poetry and fiction may serve as the basis of videos and movies to the satisfaction of some and the consternation of others. But what tends to distinguish a notable from a forgettable (or lamentable) adaptation is a new perspective.
The range of possible adaptations from one source text can be extraordinary. Homer’s Odyssey has not only been transmuted into James Joyce’s Ulysses, but also served as the basis of the Coen Brothers’ Southern depression romp, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and a recent Vanity Fair parody of the fourth season of MTV’s Jersey Shore entitled “The Odysnooki.” Each of them brings a distinctive approach and purpose to the adaptation.
Of course, I do not expect a text of the scope or quality anything like those I mention from student projects such as this. But I do wonder, in the mercenary phrase of the day, what is the value added here? What does this brief adaptation of Katherine Mansfield’s sonnet to “Loneliness” offer that one cannot discern from the poem itself? To put it in the metaphoric terms of Charles Baudelaire and André Bazin cited above, if Mansfield’s poetry is a chandelier, I remain uncertain of what the usher’s flashlight illuminates.
In his reflection on the assignment, the instructor invokes Andrea Lunsford’s watchword and title that “Everything’s an argument.” In his brief instructions, the professor suggests that this is also the case for poems. Certainly, we all know of poems with arguments: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and John Donne’s “The Flea” fulfill the purpose of language according to Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating from Dead Poets Society: “to woo women.” Subtler poetic arguments abound, but is there not also a place for the lyric poem which communicates emotion, advocating for nothing at all?
Consider the poem adapted by these students:
Now it is Loneliness who comes at night
Instead of Sleep, to sit beside my bed.
Like a tired child I lie and wait her tread,
I watch her softly blowing out the light.
Motionless sitting, neither left or right
She turns, and weary, weary droops her head.
She, too, is old; she, too, has fought the fight.
So, with the laurel she is garlanded.
Through the sad dark the slowly ebbing tide
Breaks on a barren shore, unsatisfied.
A strange wind flows . . . then silence. I am fain
To turn to Loneliness, to take her hand,
Cling to her, waiting, till the barren land
Fills with the dreadful monotone of rain.
Mansfield had many reasons to feel isolation: as a New Zealander in England and a bisexual in a heterosexual world, an individual frequently ostracized by Bloomsbury society, and a patient even before her death from tuberculosis at age 35, she knew loneliness and might easily be seen as embracing its personification as this poem’s speaker does. But is this lament truly an argument? One can bring context to it and make it an occasion for one. However, I am not sure that this video clarifies the argument or offers the context to create one. What it does provide is a literal rendering of the images and lines, evoking occasional sadness (with its rocking chair shots) and frequent isolation of the protagonist, without truly capturing for me much of the emotional resonance of the language.
This accelerated composition course is to teach “various rhetorical strategies for reading and constructing arguments (written and visual) in both print and digital environments.” If the purpose of this assignment is to teach argument, I prefer a more straightforward approach than that offered by debate twice removed—that is, a position glimpsed through poetic language and offered through cinematic images. More direct means exist for argumentation through multimedia; infographics, podcasts, and slide shows all have their proponents. If, however, the adaptation was to illuminate the argument of the poem, I think I might have preferred a paper. This particular torch does not provide me enough light.
 André Bazin, “Theatre and Cinema—Part Two,” What is Cinema? Vol. I, translated and edited by Hugh Gray, (Berkeley: UC Press, 1967), 107.
 Katherine Mansfield, Poems of Katherine Mansfield, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan, (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988), 31.
A RESPONSE TO BURKDALL
By Jimmy Butts
I think that Dr. Burkdall’s thoughts are helpful and I’m really thankful for the thoughtfulness of his critiques; they’ve really helped me to continue thinking through the project in new ways. But I do feel as though the project does actually illuminate more than he suggests. Both the poem and the video share a simple argument, that the world can be a pretty dreary and lonely place sometimes. And that’s a claim that someone might disagree with. Arguments don’t have to be complex. The video project reflects and reverberates Mansfield’s poetic argument—subtle it may be.
Still, bringing in Bazin is valuable for all of us to think of the way that new media—particularly the kinds of work submitted to this journal—function for audiences. The problem of audience for new media student work is an interesting one, just as the student written essay has always had its own problems of audience. I mean, there is some difficulty of captivating audience when the professor is the one reading another bundle of twenty-page analyses of Hamlet. I love Hamlet, and I love when my students thoughtfully write about something they’ve read, but there are other ways of reading, some of which involve making creative work. Yet, Burkdall concludes that he would prefer a paper.
Burkdall’s critique begins by comparing my students’ work to studio films that span a century, and then says that he doesn’t expect this sort of work from eighteen year olds. But, in spite of all this comparison, my students are up to something different than Universal Studios. After all, I don’t necessarily expect Eisenstein, although I think the poem adaptations like this one end up conveying their arguments more beautifully than some of my more factual or comic student projects have done.
But when my students, in those last years of being teenagers, read poems like Mansfield’s, and read and reread them closely enough to adapt them into some other medium, I think the greatest audience is their own quickening minds. The fact that my students have discerned Mansfield—through adaptation—makes the adaptation have value. They identified with the effect of Manfield’s poem, which in communicating emotion, was—I’d argue—intensely rhetorical. Students have reasons to feel isolated too, especially that first semester of college, away from family, away from home. The container for an argument does, in fact, manipulate the argument in some way—even speaking out the poem as opposed to reading it. We talk about all these things in my composition class, especially as we analyze and makemultimedia together. We talk about how not every argument has to be a jab, and some gentle—emotional—nudges can be full of Burkean “identification.” And these ladies certainly identified with Mansfield.
The most lovely thing about a video, or even an essay, for my composition students is not the light that it affords me—although I’m always quite stricken when my students have wonderful flashes of insight—but the light that is shown inside of them, to stir some still, dark space in their minds—quiet and waiting to wake. Which gives me pause, and reminds me of when Virginia Woolf asks in A Writer’s Diary, “Do I ever write, even here, for my own eye? If not, for whose eye?” With this in mind, then, can we imagine student cinema to not primarily exist for the professors as pseudo-audiences, in a similar way that we think about written undergraduate criticism? The torch, in some ways, was not primarily for Burkdall or for me, and, in the end, providing light through the means of student work, never is for us, for the critics, for the professors, is it?