The e-poem, video, and painting in this study were inspired by William Carlos Williams’ celebrated poem “The Great Figure.” It is fascinating to see how each artist (including Williams) used the materials of his/her medium to capture a vivid moment of human experience.
Williams’ 1921 Imagist poem arranges vivid words into brief, tactical lines that create layers of imagery for the readers: read the poem and think about what color is the “figure 5” in your mind before Williams assigns a color to it in the next line, a background color on the other, and a surface on which it’s inscribed in the following. Space becomes time in written poetry, and Williams was a master of that kind of timing.
Time on a painting, as Williams later explored in Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, can be expressed by directing the reader’s attention through positioning, color, and overall composition. Demuth’s 1928 painting “The Figure 5 in Gold” seeks to capture the impression and echoed layering of the number 5 in the poem, as Williams goes from pure abstract figure to a fully contextualized part of a whole.
The 1988 video produced by the New York Center for Visual History uses sound, moving images, and text to attempt to recreate the experience of seeing a firetruck at night in the city, intercut with images from Demuth’s painting and Williams’ poem. As part of a 1 hour documentary on the poet, it sought to provide a sense of the images and sounds he experienced in his life and captured in his poetry.
Megan Sapnar’s 2001 e-poem “Figure 5 in Gold Goes By” adds to the tradition by creating a responsive multimedia work. The opening animation evokes the setting through abstract images— mostly squares, some with images of buildings “painted” over them— and a fast paced musical beat. The best moment in the poem is when a large square full of bright images composed of close up photographs of a fire engine and Williams’ text takes over the screen, and the reader has about 7 seconds to interact with the square and get some visual impressions before it disappears back into the city and the e-poem ends. The scheduling combined with the reader’s interactivity captures an aspect of the experience that the other versions couldn’t quite get, which is how one can only see certain things in a limited time and then it’s over.
Take the time to savor each of these works and how they’re placed in conversation.