As some of you may know, April is National Poetry Month (and according to T.S Eliot, the cruelest month, but that's besides the point.) In honor of the occasion, I thought I would dedicate this blog post to a few films that deal with poetry and great poets, ranging from a broadly appealing romance about John Keats and Fanny Brawne, to an examination of an old South Korean grandmother suffering from dementia. With this post, I am trying to understand how we (the 'we' represented by a filmmaker creating movies for an audience) understand poetry, what examining poetry allows a filmmaker to do, and how this literary art translates onto the big screen.
On the list for today are Poetry (2010), directed by Lee Chang-dong; Slam (1998), directed by Marc Levin; Howl (2010), directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffry Friedman; and Bright Star (2009), directed by Jane Campion. I've tried to compile a diverse group of films; films that look at the same subject in different ways, and that might enrich my own conception of poetry and what it should do.
I think all of these films, different as they are, are asking the same question: what is poetry? They ask it in a few ways: some, like Poetry or Bright Star, have protagonists who want to learn how to write it; Howl shows us the 1957 obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who published Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl) where witnesses are asked to define literature and literary merit; Slam considers whether poetry can act as a form of non-violent protest, or as a means of rehabilitation. There is something opaque about poetry, something that keeps an audience removed; a film must necessarily overcome that barrier between content and viewer if it is to be well received, and one way of doing so is to try to answer that one fundamental question: what is poetry?
The answer, though, is never simple. In Poetry, Mija’s daughter defines a poet as “[someone] who loves flowers and always says odd things”; another woman says, “If you have feeling, you can write poetry.” In Bright Star, John Keats, trying to teach his next door neighbor how to read and write verse, explains, “Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” In some films, poetry is defined by its inability to be explained; an astute witness in Howl explains to the prosecutor, “Sir, you can’t transpose poetry into prose—that’s why it’s poetry.”
Even as our protagonists read it, write it, recite it to us, they are unable to pin it down. We are, instead, ushered into a sort of understanding through the use of unconventional film techniques. Howl is half animated: as James Franco reads Ginsberg’s famous piece in voiceover, we are shown cartoon scenes of “angel headed hipsters” crawling through the streets, jumping off buildings, copulating. The film switches from black and white shots of Ginsberg reading his poem in 1955, to colored scenes of an interview Ginsberg is giving, and the obscenity trial in 1957, then to these odd, bright hued cartoons playing over frenzied jazz music. It is something of a jarring switch: the literal man to the drawing, the clean lines of a black and white café to the uncanny CGI version of a world ruled by a bullheaded monster, Moloch. It doesn’t make sense; but then, that departure from literal sense is an attempt to capture what poetry is, what it means.
Even when the rupturing of reality is not quite so extreme, it is there: in Slam, in between narrative scenes, blurry, overlapped clips play, depicting things we have already seen in the film—a man getting shot, Ray running from the cops—blurring into the future, with Ray in cuffs, and into scenes that have no temporal signature at all: frames of graffiti, sad-eyed boys, crowded sidewalks. Poetry, too, makes some unusual choices. There is no soundtrack except for birdsong; we see frames filled only with glimmering water; we spend stretches of time watching an apple turning in the sunlight or an apricot fallen to the ground; in the last scene, we hear a girl who we saw in the opening drowned in the river recite a poem, we see her face the camera with a half smile before the screen goes dark; we do not know what happens to the protagonist, Mija—she leaves the film before the last five minutes, and we are never given closure. These are odd decisions, things that feel unusual, but that also fit into the landscape of the film, make sense in the artistic context.
These breaks with expectation are the filmmakers’ way of explaining to a viewer what poetry is; if it cannot be stated verbally, if Mija’s teacher cannot explain when one will find poetic inspiration, if Keats cannot tell Fanny Brawne how to become a poet (“if poetry does not come as naturally as leaves to a tree, then it had better not come at all”, he says during their first lesson), then it can be communicated visually. The business of poetry is breaking expectation, making the familiar seem unfamiliar—how better to do that than to disrupt the narrative flow of a film, to use the camera as a poet uses words, featuring images that might otherwise go unseen, forcing the viewer to look, to be confused, to feel something that cannot be identified even as it is familiar.
This focus that poetry allows is a wonderful tool to look at people on the margins of society; people who, like Allen Ginsberg, are gay, like Ray Joshua are black, are prisoners, like Mija are old, suffer from Alzheimer’s, like John Keats are poor, or dealing with depression. This vehicle allows us to look closely at people who might otherwise be ignored. Arm them with images, with a pen, and they speak: poetry becomes a very real force for social change as it allows the stories of marginalized writers to be shared. Poetry is a place, a cultural location that exists through change; unlike many other traditional social spaces, poetry is meant to evolve, to be altered, to tell many stories and take on many forms. It is the ideal vehicle for the ignored, as it is so amenable to change, so easy to take with you. As Ray says when offered a place in a prison gang, “No. All I need is some paper and a pen, then I can figure this out.”
Poetry also allows us to look at subjects that are otherwise uncomfortable, or ignored; sex, in particular, is addressed in surprising ways in these films about poetry. In Slam we see a woman receiving oral sex; in Poetry we watch an old woman have sex with a stroke victim; in Howl we are faced with a forest of (it makes me cringe to write this) playful penises waving in a cartoon wind. All of this is out of the ordinary: women are seldom the recipients of sexual pleasure in film; old people are portrayed as asexual; male genitalia are hidden at all costs. But in these films, the directors use poetry as a vehicle to confront these things, to look unflinchingly, even goofily, at those parts of our sexuality that make us so uncomfortable.
Mental illness too, is examined: we are familiar with the artist as a depressed figure, yet are often more comfortable ignoring mental health problems. These movies shine a spotlight on the depressed, the people who “have been half in love with easeful Death” like Keats, been forced into insane asylums and given shock therapy, like Ginsberg’s friend Solomon, have started forgetting nouns, who have become overwhelmed and confused like Mija. When looking at the biographies of poets, the presence of mental illness cannot be ignored; when looking at poets through the unflinching lens of art, mental illness cannot be left unaddressed or unexploited.
Poetry, then, can do a lot for the marginalized, the outsiders; it may be confusing, may even seem inaccessible, but film allows us to understand visually what we might not be able to on the page. Film, too, allows us to hear poetry rather than read it; we are immersed in it, experience it unfiltered by sight, by the blankness of page margins. As we hear it we cannot look away, we can only let it wash over us. The act of hearing a poem is immersive and complete, allows us to experience a poem in a different way than we do when we see it on the page. Poetry, then, shares a special relationship with film: as it is interpreted visually, it is also delivered orally, presenting the viewer unique access to pieces that may seem alien in a book.
I’m afraid I’ve run out of space, so I will conclude with this: I have heard, as I think most people have, that poetry is dead or dying at best, that maybe a long time ago people got fired up about sonnets, but you'd be lucky if you met someone today who even knew what the word 'sonnet' meant. It was in the hope that what I've heard is wrong that I pursued films about poetry, and why I wrote about them today: poetry, if it can be a part of films like this, reaching audiences who most comfortably navigate culture through screen, is still very much alive and kicking. As poetry is adapted to film it maintains a place in our cultural landscape, and evolves to target an audience who, though they may no longer have Shakespeare or Keats or Ginsberg, have, as all humans do, a basic need for creative expression.