Poetry at the Movies
A Survey of Verse Scribblers on the Silver Screen
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If you hit the trivia section of the Internet
Movie Data Base entry for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 high-tech
adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story Minority Report, you will learn that the director “hired the top
12 contortionist [sic] from around the world to do the futuristic
yoga class scene.” You will also learn that, “The desk clerk at the
hotel where John Anderton (Tom Cruise) finds Leo Crow
is played by Tom Cruise’s real-life cousin, William Mapother,” and
that “During the scenes that show Anderton manipulating the PreCogs’
visions of future crimes, the music in the background is Franz Schubert‘s Symphony
#8 in B Minor—more commonly known as the ‘Unfinished’ symphony.”
to learn that poetry is hidden in plain view within this perfectly
workmanlike Hollywood blockbuster, you’ll have to go elsewhere—maybe
to the listing wooden tables of the Old Colony tavern in Provincetown,
Massachusetts, which is where I heard Matthew Dickman tell of his minor
role in a Spielberg film. The clever and moderately well-read viewer,
Matthew might tell you, will catch that the three PreCogs are named after
iconic mystery authors: Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur
Conan Doyle. But even the cleverest audience member will have no way of
knowing that the two male PreCogs are played by Matthew and his twin
brother Michael, who are both poets—and accomplished ones at that—in
real life. Poetry was all over the set of Minority
Report. He and Michael gave a first edition of O, the Chimneys by Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs
to Spielberg and What We Carry by
Dorianne Laux to Cruise. In the movie’s final scene, Samantha Morton is
shown reading Sachs. If you look closely, he says, he’s pretty sure you
can see the back cover, with its photograph of Sachs’s face.
you know to look for it, none of this poetry is visible in the finished
film. Nor is it easy to wish that it were. For while it’s moving to
think that poems may have influenced Minority
Report in some way, it’s almost impossible to believe that the overt
inclusion of poetry would have made it a better movie. In fact, as
subsequent examples may prove, the quotation of poetry within the film
itself might actually have made it worse, or at least served as a telling
symptom of preexisting weakness. Samantha Morton’s silent, solitary
reading in the last scene of Minority Report encapsulates poetry’s usual relation to the
movies: tiny and unheralded, buried in the mix of a more thrilling and
I do not lament that fact. I will not argue that poetry and the movies should be appreciated equally, nor that the Poetry Foundation and the Poetry Society of America should undertake campaigns to show poems before movies along with the trailers and ads for concessions, nor that celebrities should star in public service announcements extolling the benefits of poetry to the average citizen who might mistakenly think that he or she neither likes nor gets it. I agree with Frank O’Hara when he asks, in his 1959 “Personism: a Manifesto:”
how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if
it improves them. Improves them for what? for death? Why hurry them along?
Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat
too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give
a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness
(effete). Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they
don’t need poetry bully for them, I like the movies too.
And I’m with him again when he writes in “Ave Maria:”
Mothers of America
let your kids go to the movies
get them out of the house so they won’t
what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by
silvery images . . .
only time Frank and I veer apart on this issue is when he declares,
“after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets,
are better than the movies.” Movies can be entertaining and edifying; so
can poems. One can’t plausibly be declared superior to the other, and
it’s preposterous to characterize them as being in competition. We stand
to gain perspective on both disparate forms, however, by examining cases
in which they intersect, and by weighing instances when they go well
together—ice cream and pie, peas and carrots, peanut butter and
chocolate—against those when they do not.
attracts filmmakers to poetry and poets, whether to depict them as
characters, or to use their poems as devices? Some even go so far as to
put actual poets in their movies: George Miller did so with James Merrill
in Lorenzo’s Oil. Warren Beatty cast Amiri Baraka—as Rastaman the
Griot—in Bulworth. Lots of
people have put Viggo Mortensen in lots of stuff. Allen Ginsberg appears
in Ciao Manhattan!, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Don’t
Look Back, and Pull My Daisy,
among many others. Melissa Painter cast Robert Hass—simply as Poet—in
the indie flick Wildflowers, a
film that will be discussed in more detail later, though not exactly
because of Hass’s participation. Perhaps these directors hope to use
their positions of artistic control to work with other artists they
admire, or perhaps having a poet in one’s film lends the piece greater
one might discuss the attraction of actors to poetry. What possessed
Leonard Nimoy to compose Warmed By
Love, A Lifetime of Love,
and These Words Are For You, to
name just a few?
Or Ally Sheedy to publish Yesterday
I Saw the Sun (which by many accounts is “not nearly as bad as
Or Jack Palance to pen The Forest of
Love: a Story in Verse, an offering one fan described on Amazon.com as
providing “something I have only experienced
previously in the reading and writing by Rod McKuen”?
What made Jimmy Stewart think he could write poetry at all?
And why, at the time of this writing, does Val
Kilmer’s 1988 poetry release My
Edens After Burns set the would-be buyer back anywhere between $1200
and $7500 should they want to become the proud owner of one of the four
copies currently on the market, all of them signed, all of them
soft-cover, all of them featuring his picture on the front and back wraps?
One may also address the attraction of poets to the movies, and the ways
in which poets from H.D. to Jorie Graham to Joshua Marie Wilkinson utilize
filmic techniques in their verse, and what successes and failures result
when they do so. What are the differences between the forms and their
aims? How is poetry (almost always encountered on the page, communicating
with one person at a time) suited to certain tasks, while cinema (almost
always intended to communicate in crowded multiplexes) is suited to
might even investigate the small sub-category of poems that have
themselves been adapted—often quite loosely—for the silver screen. Of
course, there’s the almost incalculable number of films based on
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and there have been
several adaptations of the anonymous sixth century epic Beowulf,
culminating this year in the version directed by Robert “Back to the
Future” Zemeckis with a screenplay by Neil Gaiman. There are also
numerous renditions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” including the
1963 version starring Vincent Price, the 1935 version starring Bela Lugosi
and Boris Karloff, a 1915 version, also known as The Love Story of
Edgar Allan Poe, and many, many more. Last but not least, there have
been multiple screen versions of Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there have been far fewer adaptations of more
contemporary poems to the big screen. In fact, I was only able to unearth
one, 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, the heartwarming tale of
three American veterans returning home after World War II was adapted by
screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood (who also earned his keep as a Pulitzer
Prize-winning playwright, and as speech writer for Franklin Delano
Roosevelt) from MacKinlay Kantor’s 500-page blank verse epic Glory
for Me. Though the film won widespread critical and popular acclaim
including seven Oscars
and a slot in the AFI Top 100 list, the poem tanked, selling poorly. It
was never reprinted after its original release in 1943.
as those analyses might prove to be, I’m not going to attempt to
undertake them. Instead, I’m curious to know what contemporary
depictions of poets and poetry in the movies suggest about what the
filmmakers as well as intended audiences for
those movies want and expect from poets and poetry. Of all the ways to
examine the intersections of the two forms, the most interesting to me is
how films represent—and, perhaps, indicate—the function and position
of poetry in contemporary culture.
somewhere—nobody knows for sure who (Elvis Costello? Duke Ellington?
Elvis Costello quoting Duke Ellington?)—once said that writing about
music is like dancing about architecture. If we go with the earliest
verifiable source, Costello in 1983, the quote comes with a caveat:
“it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.” Now that I’ve spent
over a year “working” on this piece, which is to say slowly renting
from Netflix and then watching the pertinent specimens, I’d argue that
the enterprise of making movies about poetry is kind of like that, too:
often doomed, frequently misguided, but understandably appealing, and some
might say necessary.
far the strangest of the dozens of generally terrible movies that I
watched—not to mention the one that most stubbornly defies conclusive
judgment as good or bad, smart or stupid—is Michael Radford’s 2000
ensemble piece Dancing at the Blue
Iguana. From the man who also gave us 1994’s Neruda love-fest Il
DATBI is supposed to be a
warts-and-all portrayal of the lives of five tough hot women who make
their livings shaking their proverbial moneymakers at a fast-paced strip
club in gritty Los Angeles. Unlike any of the other films in the
poets-at-the-movies pantheon, DATBI
developed out of an improvisation workshop during which each of the
actresses got to develop her character; subsequently, it’s an actors’
movie in a way that nothing else under consideration here is.
the aging and enigmatic Stormy, dogged by a secret from her past; the
ditzed-out and childlike Angel (Daryl Hannah, in the finest performance of
her career), perpetually stoned, obsessed with adopting a foster child,
and watched over by a creepy-tender Russian hitman; the ingénue Jessie,
consumed with pleasing everyone; and the hot-headed, whip-wielding Jo
(played to feisty over-the-top perfection by Jennifer Tilly), who works as
a dominatrix on the side and is forced to come to terms with her unwanted
pregnancy—all of whom strut their stuff onstage to improbably hip music.
(Marianne Faithfull? In a dive-y T&A joint?)
the most compelling character by far is Jasmine, the poet, played by
Sandra Oh: writhing and jiggling around the brass pole one minute,
backstage jotting furiously in her notebook the next. Susan Sontag writes
in “Notes on ‘Camp’” that a combination of ambition and a
“seriousness that fails” comprise the essential characteristics of
successful naïve camp. DATBI delivers far more ambition and failed seriousness than the
average exploitation flick, and, as a result, despite its many
considerable flaws, I’d argue that it is actually the model of what a
poetry movie should be: of all the movies I sat through, it provides the
most clear-eyed look at the role poetry plays in contemporary culture.
Considered or not, the film’s inspired conflation of poetry and
stripping strikes me as pleasing.
also wrote “most people still go to the movies in a high-spirited and
unpretentious way.” She wrote this in 1964, but the observation holds
true. In contrast, “high-spirited and unpretentious” is not the way
most people seem to view poetry, and the worst movies are the ones that
play to this pretentiousness. Yet—perhaps because people who go to strip
clubs still do so in a high-spirited and unpretentious way—DATBI
manages to present poetry in a very down-to-earth light. When she’s not
stripping, Jasmine goes to the library to check out books, and to the
local coffee shop to attend, but not participate in, poetry readings. At
one of the readings, she meets Dennis, who organizes them, and who
attempts to lure her with the line, “You never read.” “No,” she
replies. “So what’s on your paper?” he persists. “Your laundry
list?” “Mm-hmm.” “Maybe you should come and read your laundry
list.” “Maybe not,” she shuts him down. End of scene.
Eventually, of course, she does read. Director Radford himself wrote the poem she recites, called “It’s Only Love”:
If in the messy cocktail dregs
of a midnight glass, a teardrop falls,
It’s only love,
but gone in the way of everything.
If in the singing twilight of the dawn,
you give your heart unwanted,
It’s only love,
but gone in the way of everything.
Then what in the hours
of your life is love?
It’s here and gone,
and gives its name to everything.
a line that stretched this viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief,
Dennis tells her afterwards, “that poem was really great.” They get
together, and she ends up accompanying him to “the upcoming poetry slam
in San Francisco […] the most important poetry event on the West
touching here, and what makes it such a pleasing and honest depiction of
the role poetry serves, is the way in which poetry is important to
Jasmine, but is not something about which she makes a Big Deal. Poetry is
not Who She Is, or how she defines herself, but rather is just one way she
constructs her identity. DATBI
stands with the best poetry movies insofar as it represents poetry not
merely as an indicator of passionate and all-consuming inner turmoil, but
as a kind of performance. And in a manner we’ll see again later in the
biopic Wilde, DATBI seems to
suggest that for members of certain disenfranchised subcultures, sometimes
style may be the best thing you have to get by on.
an attraction to poetry, DATBI
tells us, comes a heightened command of language, and a capacity for
greater seriousness—which is not to say pretentiousness—than is
available otherwise, a seriousness that the film identifies with a
willingness to deal with discouraging realities of life in a way that is
artful or slant, and ultimately more satisfying. Lest you think Radford
guilty of literalizing the similarities between the two, he’s not the
first to exploit the connection. Allen Ginsberg mingled poetry with
striptease during a notorious reading in 1956, in a Hollywood boarding
house that doubled as the offices of the literary journal Coastlines.
As John Arthur Maynard has it in his book Venice
West, weary of Ginsberg’s world-weary verse, “a friend of one of
the Coastlines editors stood up to challenge him. Why, he wanted to
know, must Ginsberg write about filth and ugliness. Why must he write
about the slums? ‘Isn’t it enough that we have them?’ The two men
proceeded to argue about nakedness—naked confessions, naked beauty, and
‘naked values’—until Ginsberg, furious, decided to define his
terms” by stripping completely naked, tossing various articles of
clothing—jacket, shirt, boxers, pants!—to a crowd that included Stuart
Perkoff, Gregory Corso, and Anaïs Nin. Ever the showman, Ginsberg
punctuated this display by challenging his critic to “Come and stand
here, stand naked before the world. I dare you! The poet always stands
naked before the world!”
most people can’t stake their long-term financial well being on either
stripping or poetry (though strippers undoubtedly fare better than poets),
living well is the best revenge, and in DATBI,
Jasmine the Poet-Stripper lives better than anyone else in her company. In
poetry, she possesses something extra to get herself through the night
when those around her are breaking down. In the film’s closing moments,
Jasmine finds herself alone backstage with the evening’s guest
headliner, Nico. Thinking Nico’s passed out, Jasmine scribbles away at
her poems, only to be interrupted.
write, right?” slurs Nico. “That’s what you do. You write. You’re
a writer. It’s so fucking funny. I mean, you writers, you all write and
you never want to read what you wrote. So you strip all night here and
then you sit back here and write.”
After a bit of cajoling, Nico learns that Jasmine writes poetry. “I have a friend—I had a friend who used to write poetry,” Nico says. “He wrote really good poems—It’s hard to write good poems. It would really be nice to hear a poem again.” Then—in a moment I love for its insistence that anyone, even strippers, especially strippers, can use a poem every now and then—Jasmine reads her poem, “When light shattered across the floor,” part of a piece by Canadian poet Evelyn Lau, whom Oh once portrayed on Canadian television. After her recitation, nobody is transformed. But both writer and listener are visibly comforted and pleased as the poem is read. What, Nico wants to know, is the poem about? “Is it about a guy? Is it about you?” Jasmine takes a while to answer: No, it’s not about either of those things. “It’s about,” she says at last, “stuff inside you.”
if you want—if you see the movie, you probably will—but if you do,
you’ll feel good about your laughter, like you’re laughing not just at
the movie, but with it. That’s
more than I can say for the incredulous laughter brought on by such
ham-fisted and hagiographic
poetry biopics as Sylvia and Tom and Viv. I know what you’re thinking: there’s no way a
movie about poetry-loving strippers could be that good. Let me be clear
about this: I’m not saying it’s good. I’m saying it’s among the
best of the bunch.
In “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Sontag argues, “Camp doesn’t
reverse things. It doesn’t argue that the good is bad, or the bad is
good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a
supplementary—set of standards.” This offering of an alternative, but
not substitutive, space for performance and expression is what poetry is
shown to be doing in the best poetry movies, Dancing
at the Blue Iguana included. The worst poetry films attempt to make
poetry dominant, to suggest that the world does not value the values of
Poetry-with-a-capital-P, but that it should, and that therefore the world
is to blame for destroying those who are too pure and Poetic to live in
it. Many films about real poets—Sylvia, Piñero, and Before
Night Falls—make this misstep, as do a number of films
about fictional poets, among them Wildflowers and Blue
Satisfying poetry films depict poets as participating in the creation of poetry, but not deluded into thinking that it will permit transcendence of practical concerns, nor that it can somehow correct the world’s injustices, nor that being a genius poet automatically qualifies one for permanent lifetime membership in the Assholes-Who-Treat-the-People-Around-Them-Like-Shit Club. Rather, these films—Slam, Poetic Justice, Love Jones, and Henry Fool, to name a few—portray poets with a firm grasp on the concept of poetry-as-supplement: an art form that they do, and know, and breathe, and love, but also as a pursuit that not everyone around them is going to get. Many of these characters are shown realizing that being an outsider is really okay, if not outright preferable to a world in which, magically, everyone adores poetry and the people who write it. This is why the worst examples are biopics, movies that depict poets ruining their lives largely because the world is harsh and does not care that they are the best minds of their respective generations. (“. . . destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked”—see? Again with the Ginsberg, and the poetry, and the nudity.) These films insist on poetry’s centrality, to create for the art form an importance or a special status that seems woefully naïve, and not in a laugh-along, campy kind of way.
I should pause here, I suppose, to admit that, for me, biopics are
all sort of like Titanic: in the
end, the ship goes down. The story is so inevitable, so predictable, that
no matter how well the actors act as the ship is sinking, it’s difficult
to be surprised or impressed. This
may be why Sylvia struck me,
basically, as a prostitute movie. The titular poetess is thrust into a
version of the role of the doomed whore: by being a poet, says the film,
Plath does this thing that is fascinating and sexy, but also morbid and a
bit repellant. Her pursuit consumes her bodily, ultimately destroying her.
In the end, the film reads almost as a cautionary tale for young women:
Careful, girls, if this is the career you choose! The film’s argument,
to be frank, is bullshit, and this
inexorable breakdown seems to me neither a fair way to read Plath’s
life, nor her work, nor poetry in general. The tagline “life was too
small to contain her,” seems to suggest that poetry is so big that even
life cannot afford the art form adequate space, and a world which won’t
allow poetry or the geniuses who compose it total comfort and support is a
nasty and evil place indeed.
Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter and literary executor, refused to
collaborate with the film’s producers, or to allow them access to her
late mother’s poetry. When one watches the two-dimensional result, one
simultaneously understands her denial, but also wishes she hadn’t denied
them, for the film seems empty without Plath’s iconic work. This
conspicuous absence leads the viewer to turn her thoughts again to the
if a movie insists on leaning so heavily on the awesomeness and centrality
of poetry, then eventually you’re
going to wonder why you’re bothering with a film at all, and not poring
over a collection instead. Rather than giving director Christine Jeffs
access to her mother’s work, Hughes gave us her own 48-line poem “My
Mother.” Although the piece clearly arises from a passionate outpouring
of emotion, it illustrates that righteous anger alone does not a great
poem make: “Now they want to make a film / For anyone lacking the
ability / To imagine the body, head in oven / Orphaning children,” and
“They think I should give them my mother’s words / To fill the mouth
of their monster / Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.”
In fairness, there is something puppet-like about Sylvia’s
depiction of Sylvia, something manipulated about her character, no
matter how fine a job Gwyneth Paltrow does of portraying her. Worse still
is the manipulative way the film seems to treat
the audience’s expectations of how a poet should behave: we can tell
Plath and Hughes are Genius Poets because when they are thinking spare and
sensitive thoughts, there is spare
and sensitive piano music in the background, and they keep looking out at
melancholy and inspiring scenes of nature, including but not limited to:
moody windblown trees, languorous rivers, and crashing surf.
Gilbert’s 1994 release Tom
and Viv, which details the poetic, mental,
and marital struggles of T. S. Eliot and Vivienne Haigh-Wood, treads
similarly dubious ground. Just as Paltrow made a lovely Sylvia, Willem
Dafoe makes a wonderful Tom, but neither his efforts, nor Miranda
Richardson’s efforts as Viv, are enough to save the film from its
questionable assumptions about poets and poetry. Right away, we know that
Tom is truly a poet, because he can’t stop gazing out the classroom
window at nature (and at the comely Viv, prancing upon the lawn) during
Bertrand Russell’s philosophy lecture. And after the disastrous
consummation of his marriage to the spectacularly unstable Viv, he wanders
off to the seaside, gazing at the waves pensively, listening for mermaids
singing, perhaps. But they do not sing for him, and he returns to find
their hotel room trashed, and his new bride tweaked out on prescription
drugs. More such naughtiness and antics ensue, essentially confirming our
growing suspicion that these are two of the least likeable people in the
world. Yet even as it affirms their colossal screwed-up-ness, the film
simultaneously insists that we forgive them for being so neurotic and
horrible to each other because they are both Enormous Geniuses, and
because it’s hard to be a poet in a world that not only does not like,
but also really does not think too much at all about, poetry.
best scene in the film takes place in 1944, after Viv has been unjustly
institutionalized for years. The army doctor assigned to explain to her
that she’s not truly crazy, just tragically hormonally imbalanced, says
“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of T. S. Eliot” in reply to her
declaration that her Tom is the best living poet of the English language.
There you have it: this ignorance about the hierarchy of poetry in, for
lack of a better term, an average citizen, seems intended to indicate the
state of things today—a fact which is heartening, in that it shows that
some current critics’ laments about the lack of an active readership for
poems is nothing new, not a terrible fall from some golden age when
everybody absolutely loved the stuff. Still, we’re meant to understand
that Viv is to be admired for her fortitude in sticking by a genius, and
that Tom is to be forgiven his own transgressions because he was one. The
script of Tom & Viv has
Dafoe declare twice that “Poetry is a mug’s game.” I wonder if maybe
you couldn’t say that making biopics about poets is something of a
mug’s game, too.
more successful biopic is 1995’s Total
Eclipse, directed by Agniezka Holland. The rollicking chronicle of
Verlaine’s infatuation and ensuing relationship with the impetuous
Rimbaud, the film—based on the 1967 stage play by Christopher
“Dangerous Liaisons” Hampton—certainly has its problems, but to
Holland’s credit, an uncritical call for the adulation of its poetic
subjects is not among them. Like the two aforementioned films, Total
Eclipse undoubtedly depicts the French writers as passionate
creatures, but it expects and even encourages us to be critical of their
behavior. Just because one is in the gifted vanguard of the French
Symbolist movement does not mean that one is entitled to treat one’s
fellow human beings like dirt.
you love me?” the boyish Rimbaud, played by a young Leonardo DiCaprio,
asks his beleaguered older lover as they sit drinking at a seedy café.
“What?” “Do you love me?” repeats Rimbaud. “Yes.” “Then put
your hand on the table.” “What?” “Put your hand on the table,”
Rimbaud commands again, before viciously stabbing his beloved, a gesture
the learnèd viewer will appreciate as anticipating Verlaine’s
turnabout-is-fair-play-style shooting of Rimbaud’s hand in Brussels,
further down the line. Yet unlike the senseless destruction wrought by
poets in other biopics, we are not meant to see these actions as romantic
or unstoppable, but rather to understand that Rimbaud is a jerk for doing
it, and Verlaine is a smitten fool for letting him.
by Genius. Cursed by Madness. Blinded by Love.” The film’s tagline
operates as a haiku of theme and content. The protagonists are blinded,
but the audience is not meant to turn a blind eye to what their lives are
really like, which is crappy a great deal of the time, mostly due to their
own bad behavior. Total Eclipse
seems to trust the viewer, and it conveys this trust through effective use
of distance. Poets can be fuckups, the film seems to say, but let’s hold
this fact at arm’s length; this way, we can see how bad it is to act
like this. Ultimately, Holland seems to suggest that we are not to forgive
or lionize Verlaine and Rimbaud, but simply to observe them: to wind them
up, turn them loose, and come to our own conclusions about their actions.
more honest to its audience is Factotum,
an adaptation of Charles Bukowski’s autobiographical novel, which
deliberately avoids treating its subject as an ardent creature of instinct
whose filth and misbehavior we are to take for transcendence. Henry
Chinaski, Bukowski’s fictional alter ego—played with admirable
restraint and hangdog subtlety by Matt Dillon—lives in relative squalor
in Los Angeles, struggling to support himself through a series of menial
jobs, which afford him the time and mental space to pursue his twin
vocations as a writer and drinker. In other words, Hank Chinaski lives
what many would consider a crummy life, but what sets this film apart is
that he knows it, he chooses,
it, and we, the audience, are supposed to know it too. His boozing and
freeloading in the service of his art are not meant to constitute a
superior alternative to so-called respectable life. Rather, they are to be
seen as a different and not necessarily better (in many cases much harder,
and more disgusting) way to exist in the world. Free-spirited and
anti-bourgeois though his lifestyle is, it too is meant to be perceived as
another type of systematized grind. The business of being a writer really
is, the film points out, a business. “I kept stuff in the mail,” he
explains about the tedious but necessary process of sending out one’s
work as an unknown author. Chinaski’s carousing, his unskilled labor,
and his womanizing are punctuated by lonely trips to the mailbox to send
out his manuscripts, in response to which he receives the usual barrage of
A useful counterpoint to this candor and ordinariness is Piñero, director Leon Ichaso’s worshipful version of the life of Latino poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. Here, as in Factotum, we observe the squalid and wasteful existence of an unsavory character, but we’re meant to discern inspiration and magnificence in his petty, bad-boy behavior, a leap which feels forced: difficult if not impossible to make. As a result, the triumphs of the film’s Piñero never feel all that triumphant. By contrast, when Dillon-as- Chinaski tells us calmly “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don’t even start,” we want to cheer, or at least agree that he knows what he’s talking about. “This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs,” he continues:
maybe your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could
mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision.
It could mean mockery, isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others
are a test of your endurance. Of how much you really want to do it. And
you’ll do it, despite rejection in the worst odds. And it will be better
than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the
way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods.
And the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to
perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.
recites this advice in a gravelly deadpan without flash or histrionics,
and as a result, we believe him. In Factotum, Chinaski comes across
as a working schlub, trying to get by in, but not better than, the world around
him, and this viewer is grateful to director Bent Hamer for getting this
depiction of the writing life right.
better is a film that gives us both
author-as-humble-servant-of-his-calling, all in one story. Hal Hartley’s
1997 Henry Fool is no biopic,
but a present-day allegory; the film’s unconcern with the particulars of
any single real life, and indeed of verisimilitude generally, is the main
reason the finished product is more successful than any of the
aforementioned biopics. The tale of the eponymous novelist—grandiose,
charming, and talentless—who stumbles upon the naïve yet capable
garbageman-poet Simon Grim, Henry Fool puts a refreshing spin on the poet-as-asshole issue. Are
people jerks because they are poets? No, suggests Hartley, some people are
just jerks to begin with, so it naturally makes sense that they should
fancy themselves Important Writers.
addition to being extremely funny—featuring a tragi-tough turn by the
inimitable Parker Posey—Henry Fool
is exciting for the way it simultaneously criticizes and debunks the
stereotype of the poet as a justifiably irresponsible ne’er-do-well,
while extolling the virtues of the poet as an individual for whom poetry
is a crucial, but not singular, concern. Simon wants to write, of course,
but he also wants to—and realizes he must—earn a living, to help
support his crackpot family. Hartley’s contrast of the myths and
realities of poetry—the flashy but false belief that poetry can only
thrive in a world sans rules or boundaries, versus the steady and mundane
slogging away that actually characterizes most poets’ lives—lends the
film much of its comic and dramatic tension.
A self-styled Pound to Simon’s Eliot, Henry reads his new tutee’s notebook, wherein the trash-collector has been composing what will eventually become The Great American Poem. “We gotta talk” he says to Simon. “What the hell were you trying to do when you wrote this thing?” “Nothing,” Simon says. “Well, you know, you wrote it in a kind of iambic pentameter.” “Iambic what?” “Verse,” exclaims Henry, before launching into what has to be the most stirring paean to the power of revision in all of cinematic history:
Look. In my opinion, this is pretty powerful stuff. Though your spelling is Neanderthal and your reasoning a little naïve, your instincts are profound. But the whole thing needs to be given a more cohesive shape. It can be expanded, followed through, unified. Do you see what I’m getting at? Are you willing to commit yourself to this? To really work on it? To give it its due in the face of adversity and discouragement? To rise to the challenge you yourself have set? And don’t give me that wonderstruck “I’m only a humble garbage man” bullshit, either.
indispensable to Henry Fool, but
absent from most other films, are scenes of the solitary and intimate act
of reading poetry. While other films dutifully show their poet
protagonists scrawling away, even giving readings to packed lecture halls,
Henry Fool includes episodes of
normal individuals—individuals who probably never gave poetry all that
much thought—responding to Simon’s work. A mute character reads a page
and bursts into song, while a waitress pronounces it “pornography.”
Poetry is not something only a specialized class of people—teachers,
academics, other poets—can understand, Hartley tells us, although one
person’s art may be another’s trash. There’s no such thing as pure
genius, so if genius—with all its excuses and ecstasies—is why
you’re in the mug’s game in the first place, then maybe you’d better
get out. I won’t spoil the ending, since this is one poetry flick I’d
strongly encourage you to see for yourself, but suffice to say that Simon
succeeds and Henry fails, not just because Simon is more talented, but
also because he has a greater capacity for hard work and accountability.
discussion of poetry and responsibility—or lack thereof—can be called
comprehensive without a mention of Dead
Poets Society, so here you go: Dead
Poets Society. This is the one poetry film almost everybody seems to
have seen, and I’d argue that it transcends the rather narrow genre of
Poetry Movie, or at the very least straddles other genres, including the
Inspiring Teacher Movie, or the Coming-of-Age Movie. DPS
is worth a mention here because of the way it too seems at first to
champion poetry as a symbol of freedom and irresponsibility. Professor
John Keating has his young charges read poems, but they rarely have to
write any, and therefore they circumvent issues of talent and hard work
almost entirely. The film appears to conclude that, although it may be
powerful, alluring, and even, on rare occasions, threatening to the
dominant order—as Keating declares, “No matter what anybody tells you,
words and ideas can change the world”—the world of poetry is not to be
taken as a substitute for the quote-unquote real one. To do so, as the
delicate and suggestible Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) illustrates, is
not only naïve, but also suicidal. Rather than providing a whole new
sphere of existence, poetry is best viewed as a means of finding your
place in the already existing sphere, non-conformist though that place may
be. Through poetry, one can always rebel against the status quo, but one
should be wary of tricking oneself into thinking the status quo can be
made to vanish.
Dead Poets Society makes these points through serious drama, but also worth mentioning are films that illustrate the supplementary-but-not-substitutive place of poetry in contemporary society through comedy. These films tend to question the notion that poems are the best way to make a difference. David O. Russell’s 2004 I ♥ Huckabees affectionately but effectively deflates Shelley’s myth of the poet as unacknowledged legislator of the world through its portrayal of the well-meaning yet misguided poet-activist Albert Markovski. At the beginning of the film, Albert suffers from the delusion that his efficacy as the leader of an environmental coalition attempting to save a marsh and its surrounding woods from development by a Wal-Mart-style chain known as Huckabees is not only aided by, but predicated upon, his prowess as a poet. “Nobody sits like this rock sits,” he recites:
You rock, rock.
The rock just sits and is.
You show us how to just sit here
and that’s what we need.
pitting poetry against such superpowers as Huckabees, Russell guarantees
that both Albert and his ludicrous verse have our sympathy, but also that
we know they have no chance of winning the day, a knowledge that makes us
love both Albert and his poetry all the more. Albert learns the hard way
that while there’s a time and a place for poetry, a fight against a
heartless multinational mega-corporation is not necessarily it.
Another comedy that affectionately makes a similar point is 1993’s underrated Mike Myers vehicle So I Married an Axe Murderer. Like Sandra Oh as Jasmine in Dancing At the Blue Iguana, Myers as Charlie Mackenzie participates in the San Francisco coffeehouse poetry scene. Taking as his subjects his fear of commitment and his resulting failed relationships, he delivers hilarious verse accounts of his romantic hijinks to a beatnik crowd. “Woman . . . woe-man . . . whoooa-man,” he recites in a scene you really should rent the movie for, or treat yourself to on YouTube at the very least:
She was a thief
you gotta believe
she stole my heart and my cat.
Betty, Judy, Josie and those hot Pussycats . . .
they make me horny, Saturday morny . . .
girls of cartoo-ins will leave me in ruins . . .
I want to be Betty’s Barney.
Jane . . . get me off this crazy thing . . . called love.
Like Jasmine, Charlie has no illusions about the power of his poetry, nor its value as a part—but not the defining characteristic—of his identity:
Harriet! Har-ee-et. Hard-hearted harbinger of haggis.
Beautiful, bemuse-ed, bellicose butcher.
Un-trust . . . ing. Un-know . . . ing. Un-love . . . ed?
‘He wants you back,’ he screamed into the night
air like a fireman going to a window that has no fire...
except the passion of his heart.
am lonely. It’s really hard. This poem . . . sucks. . .
recites, exhibiting an invigorating degree of self-awareness, largely
absent from “serious” poetry films.
When I read emerging poets in little magazines, online journals,
and all over the blogosphere—the Jen Tyneses, the Elisa Gabberts, the
Tao Lins, to name a few—I frequently find myself laughing out loud at
their comedic pathos, their sadness tinged with wit. When I read
established living poets, on the other hand—Billy Collins, Dean Young,
and Tony Hoagland being exceptions that prove the rule—I often wish more
of them had gotten the memo that it is, in fact, possible to be both comic
and tragic, both funny and profound. Two biopics that do maintain a sense
of humor about their humorous yet sorrowful subjects are Brian Gilbert’s
1997 Wilde and Alan Rudolph’s 1994 Mrs.
Parker and the Vicious Circle. Stephen Fry is superb as Wilde, and
Jennifer Jason Leigh turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as Parker, but
the real secret to these films’ success is the way their fine scripts
conceive of poetry not as a happy byproduct or symptom of madness, nor as
an excuse for poor behavior, but as a talent: a skill that indicates a
higher level of insight, and an intentional and difficult act by which the
poets in question bring themselves into the world.
as “the story of the first modern man,” Wilde
allows Wilde to come across as every bit as fragmented, conflicted,
and multi-dimensional as any character in a good modernist novel, more
than can be said for a great number of movies that depict poets. The film
treats its subject’s poetry not as a pure expression of his untamable
and godlike interiority, but as his means of putting forth a carefully
constructed public face. Unlike the majority of the poets in the other
biopics, Wilde tries hard to do right by the friends and loved ones around
him—to be a decent person, in effect. But he has the misfortune to live
at a time when society categorizes him—with his flamboyant dandyism and
homosexuality—as irredeemably indecent and perverse. Even his charm
can’t charm quite everyone: “Men shouldn’t be charming. It’s
disgusting!” proclaims the Marquess of Queensberry.
As bitchy and witty as Wilde proves he can be, the film succeeds in
rendering him as basically kind and phenomenally talented.
Wilde, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle presents its protagonist as an
essentially decent person who uses her talent as a wordsmith as both a
means of social performance and as a coping mechanism. The proto-feminist
Parker has neither the time nor the inclination to sit around gazing at
the natural landscape waiting for inspiration to strike; she is a writer
by trade, someone who makes her living by her pen. And though she is a
poet, she is also a career woman with a job to do, and therefore poetry
cannot handily stand as the be-all-end-all of her entire identity. Like
Wilde, she constructs herself through social performance, establishing
herself in the so-called vicious circle—the Round Table at the
Algonquin—a witty woman who can more than hold her own among the men.
Because of her three-dimensionality, we can feel more sympathy for Parker than for the subjects of most other biopics. When, at a civilized garden party, the hostess demands of her, “Dorothy, recite one of your little things,” as though the poet were a pet monkey, we’re delighted to hear her shock them all with her obliging yet rebellious selection:
Razors pain you,
rivers are damp,
acids stain you,
drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful,
gas smells awful;
might as well live.
because the film has allowed us to see that Parker does in fact have a
separate public and private persona—that she has attempted on more than
one occasion to kill herself—this comic moment is made sharper by its
Wilde nor Mrs. Parker blame any of their subjects’ miseries on poetry.
Neither film puts forth the specious argument that poetry is always
indicative of hypersensitivity or an inability to deal with the world.
Rather, Wilde and Parker are portrayed as tough, competent, and
intelligent. They want to function like normal people, but various social
strictures—prejudices against homosexuals, women, Jews, and so
forth—make this far from easy, if not out of the question. Thus
poetry—particularly witty, smart, comical poetry—becomes a survival
strategy, and a supplementary means of making a living.
her essay, “The Well-Versed Movie,”
Stacey Harwood has already done a bang-up analysis of many films which are
not, strictly speaking, about poets, but which simply have poetry in them,
so I won’t go over the same ground here. “Fiction writers, dramatists,
and poets resort to quotation constantly in order to create stop-motion
effects” she writes, adding, “Filmmakers too appreciate how verse
creates a change of register, a complicating of character and plot.”
True enough. I’d go on to say that—just as movies that insist on
poetry’s exclusive centrality as an ungovernable force tend to fail,
while ones that show the art form as just one of many important elements
in their characters’ lives tend to succeed—I’ve found this applies
as well to movies like those Harwood describes, those not explicitly about
poets, but which have poetry in them.
As in the biopics, films that quote poems most effectively, or which lend the most insight into how poems actually work, are the ones in which the poems make some kind of sense as part of the broader mosaic of the characters’ lives. The point of highest emotional connection—or, by my lights, the only moment of emotional connection—in the otherwise inane and time-wasting Hugh Grant vehicle Four Weddings and a Funeral occurs when Matthew (John Hannah) recites a poem to eulogize his dead lover, Gareth. “As for me, you may ask how I’ll remember him,” he says, “what I thought of him. Unfortunately there I run out of words. Perhaps you will forgive me if I turn from my own feelings to the words of another splendid bugger: W. H. Auden:”
all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
declaration, “This is actually what I want to say,” points
up the film’s honest and moving illustration of how poetry figures
powerfully, but only occasionally—which is to say, when there is an occasion—into people’s lives. Most non-poets turn to poems when
they are in need of words of comfort or joy, words they can’t think of
themselves but wish they could, which bridge that difficult gap between
thought and utterance, feeling and speech.
films containing poetry that do not work so well, that seem strained or
forced, are those that try to redeem or define irredeemable or ill-defined
characters exclusively through their reactions to poetry. The chick-flick In
Her Shoes tries this with Cameron Diaz’s flat, unlikable character.
Although she’s been little more than a beautiful but selfish bitch for
the duration of the film, we are suddenly to find her sympathetic, even
winsome, when she struggles to read (she has a learning disability, see?)
Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to a dying old man in the nursing home
where she’s been reduced to taking a job. Not only is this act supposed
to signify a total change in Diaz’s character, thereby salvaging her
entire badly-behaved life, it is also supposed to be a pivotal plot point:
she realizes that she really does love and does not want to lose (get it,
“the art of losing”?) her Type A big sister, played by Toni Colette.
More antics ensue, but there’s little doubt that things will work out
okay, and sure enough, they do. The film ends with Colette’s
character’s wedding, at which her now-loving little sister recites e.e.
cummings’s “i carry your heart” to
congratulate her. This type of gesture seems cheap—akin to Zach
Braff’s use of a really strong affinity for the band The Shins to
establish Natalie Portman’s character in his callow and overwrought Garden
State—and more than anything makes you wish you were reading a book
of Bishop’s poems or listening to a Shins album rather than struggling
to like the insipid characters who allegedly like these things.
points for the best and most complex use of poetry to establish character
in films goes to Woody Allen,
who repeatedly uses poems to help flesh out his characters, but does so in
such a way as to show that while these people know that poetry is,
“like, deep,” they lack the capacity to truly appreciate its depth. In
Crimes and Misdemeanors, for instance, characters played by Mia
Farrow, Alan Alda, and Allen himself (of course) share a fondness for
Emily Dickinson. Allen’s character offers his analysis of “Because I
Could Not Stop For Death,” but is promptly upstaged by Alda’s
character, who recites the poem from memory. The characters reduce
Dickinson’s poetry to an accessory: poetry, for them, is not expressive
of some intricate inner passion, but rather allows them express their
middle-class good taste, just as they might do with a handbag.
in Hannah and Her Sisters,
Michael Caine’s character gives a book of e.e. cummings’s poetry to
Barbara Hershey’s character, with the exhortation that she pay
particular attention to “Somewhere I have never traveled.” Caine’s
character seems less concerned with the poem itself than with its power to
help him seduce Hershey. Hershey, for her part, seems too dumb to
understand the poem as anything more than an indication that Caine is a
classy guy. Regardless of how you feel about Allen, you have to hand it to
him: this is a particularly clever use of poetry to denote his
characters’ values. These people treat poetry deplorably—as mere
lifestyle accessory or seduction tool—because they’re deplorable
final group of movies deals with poetry as public ritual: not something
you contemplate in private to get in touch with your own feelings, but
something you consume or recite in public for a specific purpose—to wish
your sister good luck, to get your sister-in-law into the sack, whatever.
That may seem shallow, but it’s not. At its best, it suggests a kind of
self-presence or social acumen: an ability to position yourself and what
you want to say in a tradition and a community.
A similar understanding of poetry is apparent in Poetic
Justice, directed by John “Boyz N the Hood” Singleton, and
released in 1993. For what it’s worth, the film contains some haunting
footage of the burnt-out post-Rodney-King-riot landscape of South Central
Los Angeles. Also for what it’s worth, Poetic
Justice is the kind of movie I would have watched over and over
again—like Dirty Dancing, or The
Princess Bride—if I’d seen it when it came out. I do not mean that
as an insult. I mean that Justice—played by Janet Jackson with spirit
and quiet strength—would have been, and kind of still is, my kind of
heroine. Pretty, smart, poetic, and badass, Justice is a strong,
independent woman, but her boyfriend is murdered by rival gang members in
the film’s opening moments. The rest of the movie focuses on her
subsequent decision to drop out of college, become a hairdresser, and
compose poetry in order to cope with her loss. One of her oft-repeated
poetic refrains is, “Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody. Can make it
out here alone.” For a summary of what some of the best poetry is about,
and for an example of the way poetry can serve to situate an individual
within a community, one could do worse. “Justice’s” poetry was
written by Maya Angelou, who makes a cameo appearance as Aunt June at a
family reunion that Justice and her friends crash on their way from South
Central to Oakland for a hair dressing convention. At one point Justice
recites Angelou’s famous “Phenomenal Woman”; by the film’s end,
her love interest, played by the late Tupac Shakur, does come to realize
through her poems and her personality that Justice is in fact “a woman /
Phenomenally / Phenomenal woman / that’s [her].” They get together,
and life moves on.
Another film that situates poetry as a means of private expression that can serve a social role is 1997’s Love Jones, directed by Theodore Witcher. A cheesy but charming 90s update of a Restoration comedy, Love Jones tells the story of the havoc-filled romance between hotheaded Chicago poet and novelist Darius Lovehall and the gorgeous and up-and-coming photographer Nina Moseley. Still reeling from an unexpected breakup with her fiancé, Nina first encounters Darius at a bar where poetry slams go down. At one point, he tries to woo her with a spoken-word piece, and to an extent succeeds. Sample excerpt?
baby . . . can I be your slave? I’ve got to admit girl, you’re the
shit girl . . . and I’m digging you like a grave. Now, do they call you
daughter to the spinning pulsar . . . or maybe queen of 10,000 moons?
Sister to the distant yet rising star? Is your name Yemaya? Oh, hell no.
Its got to be Oshun. Oooh, is that a smile me put on your face, child . .
. wide as a field of jasmine and clover? Talk that talk, honey. Walk that
walk, money. High on legs that’ll spite Jehovah. Shit. Who am I? It’s
not important. But me they call me brother to the night.
continues to play a role in their star-crossed courtship, until at last
they too wind up together, and order is restored to the community.
is perhaps not a coincidence that films by African-American directors
and/or with African-American casts depict this function of poetry as
social performance particularly effectively. For Woody Allen’s
characters, knowing an Emily Dickinson poem simply indicates that you do
indeed belong at a party, that you should be invited back next time, that
you do deserve to live in Manhattan. For people of color, on the other
hand, poetry can be an assertion of selfhood and community-hood against an
array of hostile forces. It’s not simply a lifestyle accessory; rather,
it’s ingrained into the very fabric of the lifestyle. One does not have
to Be a Poet to find a place in the community, but an appreciation of
verbal skills as a means of expression, cooperation, and self-assertion is
Put another way, these films about poetry with either
African-American directors or chiefly African-American casts seem to
suggest that the barrier between poetic discourse and social discourse is
not always clear, and can be highly permeable—or, to put the equation as
Slam seems to, that the personal
really can be political. Shot in just nine days with a largely improvised
script, Slam stars real-life
slam poetry star Saul Williams, and tells the tale of Ray Joshua, a young
MC from DC who seeks to rise above the poverty and injustice of his
neighborhood with the help of wit and verbal skills. In prison, he uses
his verbal stylings to assert his position among his fellow inmates, while
out of prison he uses them to perform in nightclubs, and to attract the
romantic interest of fellow poet Sonja Sohn. Not unlike Wilde
and Mrs. Parker, here too
poetry becomes both a means of creating and protecting the poet’s self.
Thus, we find once again that poetry movies succeed when they represent poetry not as a private torment or disease-like obsession, but as a kind of honest and artful communication that is unlike—but not entirely unlike—any other. Poetry is a kind of public speech and a small kind of heroism of the sort that movies always love to depict and to champion. Poetry is an opportunity to stand boldly, genuinely, and generously naked before an audience in a darkened theatre.
 Sample excerpt: “I am convinced / That if all mankind / Could only gather together / In one circle /Arms around each other’s shoulders /And dance, laugh, and cry/ Together/ Then much / of the tension and burden of life / Would fall away.”
 Sample poem entitled “on the road”: “brighter and brighter every day / calmer / my insides slosh about like a nauseous ocean / it takes great gulps of air / words from religious books / and Diet Cherry Coke to quiet the sound.”
 Sample excerpt: “Who are you? / A woman, yes, I know, but who? / A spirit force that has entered my being . . .”
 The answer, if you’re curious, is in the introduction to his 32-page heart-warmer: “I’m sure I never said to myself: ‘Now, Jim—why don’t you sit down and write a poem.’ It’s still a mystery to me, but I think probably it’s something that happened by accident—like a lot of things have happened in my life.”
 Two of the Oscars ended up going to the same man, Harold Russell, the real-life veteran and amputee who played the role of Homer Parrish. Since he was not a professional actor, it was suspected that, despite his powerful performance, he stood little chance of winning one of the real awards, so the Academy gave him the “Academy Honorary Award.” To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he managed to win Best Supporting Actor anyway.
2 Il Postino’s message seems to be, as a news filmstrip about Pablo Neruda explains early on, that “women go crazy for […] poetry,” and that Neruda was, like, a really romantic poet. It’s actually fairly poignant in its explanations of metaphors; plus the fact that it’s subtitled—unless you understand Italian, you have to read the entire movie, including the poems contained therein—seems serendipitous and fitting.
Directed by Julian Schnabel and starring
Javier Bardem, Before Night
Falls is a biopic about the Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo
Arenas and his struggles with exile, poverty, freedom of expression,
and AIDS. Unlike other directors whose films will be discussed at
greater length, Schnabel appears to have little interest in dealing
with poetry itself; he’s more concerned with imagery than with
making an argument or conveying a narrative. If anything, his argument
just seems to be that life is beautiful and sad, which is difficult to
dispute, so I won’t.
Wildflowers stars Daryl
Hannah who, thanks to this and her knockout performance in Dancing at the Blue Iguana, proves herself the unacknowledged queen
of the poetry flick. Other contenders? Gwyneth Paltrow for her
appearances in Sylvia—obviously—and
Mrs. Parker and the Vicious
Circle, as well as the lovely Lili Taylor, for her roles in Factotum and Mrs. Parker
also. Unfortunately, to be blunt, Wildflowers
is ludicrous: a movie about a teen who reconnects with her estranged,
freaky-deaky hippie poet mother (whoops! gave away the “surprise”
ending!), and which—despite containing pretty shots of City Lights
bookstore, Daryl Hannah noodle-dancing to Blues Traveler (in 1999 no
less, a time well past the point at which this might have been
considered cool), and Robert Has lying in bed as a dying
Poet—really doesn’t have all that much to offer.
Blue Car, alas, is almost as
dreadful as Wildflowers. A
troubled teen turns to writing Plath-y poetry when her dad walks out
on her, her distant mom, and her suicidal little sister. Her sexy
English teacher Mr. Auster (get it? Auster? Because he is a writer?)
starts to “mentor” her, and Daddy-Daddy-you-bastard-style
 One more thing? Daniel Craig made a disappointingly unimposing Ted Hughes. Plus—though this wouldn’t have been an issue at the time of the film’s 2003 release—this viewer could not get over the fact that Sylvia Plath kept making out with James Bond.
 More honest, too, than its predecessor Barfly (1987).
 Hartley has the sense to present the concept of the GAP with such archness and irony that you can’t help but laugh aloud when it is mentioned by this name. At one point, following the publication of Simon’s masterwork, we are told by a newscaster that, “In Rome today, the Pope issued a message of hope for believers in their fight against what he termed the godless and lost. He did not mention Simon Grim by name, but offered a prayer for the young, whom he described as sadly in need of faith and not the illusion of conviction offered by rock music, drugs and contemporary poetry.” The mere notion of contemporary poetry as a force on par with drugs and music in its influence on young people is presented as both an absurd proposition and a consummation devoutly to be wished.
 Robert Altman’s 2006 Prairie Home Companion could fall into this category (not to mention that it features Mr. Garrison “Writer’s Almanac” Keillor himself). Yet while the poetry in it, recited by Lola Johnson (Lindsay Lohan), is a comically bad example of defiance and rebellion, her character is presented as less Poet, more stereotypical Gloomy Teen, so I’m not going to get too deeply into it. I will tell you, though, that her poem is called “Soliloquy for Blue Guitar,” and that it is a goofy/suicidal Sexton parody, not a Stevens-ian meditation.
All right, all right. For you compulsive list-makers out there (and
because I am among your number), here’s a starter list of various
films which depict non-poet characters putting poems to various uses,
including, but not limited to: Signifying Craziness (“The Hollow
Men” by T. S. Eliot in Apocalypse
Now), Scoring With the
Ladies (“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats in Peggy
Sue Got Married), Telling Pony Boy to Stay Gold (“Nothing Gold
Can Stay” by Robert Frost in The
Outsiders), Intimating Immortality (“Ode: Intimations on
Immortality” by William Wordsworth in A
River Runs Through It), To Show That Lying is Un-American Because
Beauty Is Truth, Truth Beauty (“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John
Keats in Quiz Show), To
Reveal Softness, Sensitivity, and a Complicated Intellect Beneath a
Taciturn and Crusty Tough Guy Exterior (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
by William Butler Yeats in Million
Dollar Baby) and To Give High Quality Titles to Films of Uneven
Quality (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind whose title is from Alexander
Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” Splendor
in the Grass, whose title is also from Wordsworth’s “Ode:
Intimations of Immortality,” and a whole bunch of films named after
lines from Hamlet soliloquies,* including the Shelley Long/Bette
Midler vehicle Outrageous
Fortune, not to mention the Carole Lombard To
Be or Not To Be later remade by Mel Brooks, as well as films
called Perchance to Dream, This Mortal Coil, and All My Sins Remembered. Clearly, I haven’t covered every single
movie containing poetry here in this lengthy, yet still relatively
tiny footnote, but now, if this interests you, you’re already
rolling, and you can print this list or save it to your hard drive or
merge it with your Netflix queue or whatever it is you need to do, and
keep adding to it yourself. Again, Harwood has gotten here first, and
you can see her far more thorough filmography “Poetry in Movies: a
partial list” at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19359
best Hamlet soliloquy-based film title ever, though is Star
Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. In said film, one of the
characters says “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have
read him in the original Klingon.” And of course, if you want to see
for yourself, you can order the Klingon version of Hamlet
 Interestingly, in his attempt at a serious film, Interiors, Allen chooses to make the daughter a poet.
 I’m not kidding. And he goes on: “And right now . . . I’m the blues in your left thigh . . . trying to become the funk in your right. Who am I? I’ll be whoever you say? But right now I’m the sight-raped hunter . . . blindly pursuing you as my prey. And I just want to give you injections . . . of sublime erections... and get you to dance to my rhythm... make you dream archetypes . . . of black angels in flight . . . upon wings of distorted, contorted . . . metaphoric jizm. Come on slim. Fuck your man. I ain’t worried about him. It’s you who I want to step to my scene. ‘cause rather than deal with the fallacy . . . of this dry-ass reality . . . I’d rather dance and romance your sweet ass in a wet dream. Who am I? Well, they call me brother to the night. And right now I’m the blues in your left thigh . . . trying to become the funk in your right. Is that all right?”