Poetry at the Movies

A Survey of Verse Scribblers on the Silver Screen

As Reviewed By: Kathleen Rooney

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.”

But 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.

Unless 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 lucrative amusement.[private]

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:”

But 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:”

The 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.

What 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 solemnity.

Likewise, 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?[1] Or Ally Sheedy to publish Yesterday I Saw the Sun (which by many accounts is “not nearly as bad as you’d expect”)?[2] 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”?[3] What made Jimmy Stewart think he could write poetry at all?[4] 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 certain others?

One 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[5] and a slot in the AFI Top 100 list, the poem tanked, selling poorly. It was never reprinted after its original release in 1943.

Fascinating 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.

Somebody 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.

By 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 Postino,[6] 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.

There’s 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?)

But 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.

Sontag 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.

In 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 Coast.”

What’s 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.

With 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!”

While 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.

“You 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.”

Laugh 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[7]—make this misstep, as do a number of films about fictional poets, among them Wildflowers[8] and Blue Car.[9]

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 dancing-about-architecture problem: 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.[10]

Brian 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.

The 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.

A 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.

“Do 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.

“Touched 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.

Even more honest to its audience is Factotum,[11] 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 impersonal rejections.

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:

And 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.

Dillon 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.

Even better is a film that gives us both author-as-consummate-antisocial-screw-up and 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.

In 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.[12] “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.

Also 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.

No 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.[13] 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.

By 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.

Hey 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.

I am lonely. It’s really hard. This poem . . . sucks. . .

he 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.

Tagged 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.

Like 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,

nooses give,

gas smells awful;

you might as well live.

And 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 tragic implications.

Neither 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.

In her essay, “The Well-Versed Movie,”[14] 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.[15]

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:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Matthew’s 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.

The 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.

Bonus points for the best and most complex use of poetry to establish character in films goes to Woody Allen,[16] 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.

Similarly, 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 people themselves.

A 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?

Say, 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.

Poetry 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.

It 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 strongly encouraged.

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.

[1] 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.”
[2] 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.”
[3] Sample excerpt: “Who are you? / A woman, yes, I know, but who? / A spirit force that has entered my being . . .”
[4] 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.”
[5] 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.
[6] 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.
[7] 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.
[8] 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.
[9] 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 complications ensue.
[10] 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.
[11] More honest, too, than its predecessor Barfly (1987).
[12] 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.
[13] 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.
[14] Read what she says here! So I don’t have to repeat it! http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19358 First published in the Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. XLIII, no. 2.
[15] 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
*Perhaps the 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 on Amazon.com.** ** No joke: www.amazon.com/gp/product/0671035789/102-8871578-8295346?v=glance&n=283155
[16] Interestingly, in his attempt at a serious film, Interiors, Allen chooses to make the daughter a poet.
[17] 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?”[/private]

About KRooney

Kathleen Rooney was born in 1980. Educated at the George Washington University and Pembroke College, Oxford, she is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at Emerson College, where she is the editor in chief of Redivider. A recipient of the Ruth Lilly Fellowship in 2003 from Poetry magazine, her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Sow's Ear, Ilya's Honey, GSU Review, Poet Lore, GW Review and America. Her criticism has appeared in The Nation, and Provincetown Arts, and her reviews appear regularly in Harvard Review and Boston Review. Reading With Oprah: the Book Club That Changed America is her first book.
Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *