For the final project of my “Contemporary Poetry” class I took this past semester, I had to compile my own anthology. Since I am studying both film and English, I naturally went with the theme of film in poetry.
There is no doubt that two forms of creative expression can inspire each other: for instance, there are movies about poetry, and poetry about movies. Before stepping into the fused realm of the latter, we must trace back about 120 years or so. It was around the time of 1895 when the Lumière Brothers helped breathe life into what is known as modern cinema today. By filming an overflow of factory workers exiting a building, or of a boy playing a harmless prank on a man with a garden hose, these snippets of moving images became known as “actualities.” It was the first time that everyday life had been documented this way, and it significantly broke through the barrier that separates art from reality. I like to think of poems as actualities of our innermost thoughts and sentiments. While poetry does not often document real life as it is, instead, it allows the poet and reader to take form of anyone or anything. It is a way to portray something abstract into a literary and visual sense.
Throughout the years, film has been used for documenting, communication, propaganda, and so on, but has become a creative art form within itself. At the turn of the twentieth century, film started to develop into something of a narrative and visual art. Georges Méliès is one of the pioneers of early film who helped pave the way. Born in France, Méliès studied set design of the theatre and incorporated his artistic knowledge into this curious, new form of technology. By complete accident, he is known to have possibly originated the jump cut, due to a camera malfunction that filmed a carriage magically transforming into something else or disappearing into thin air. Méliès is primarily celebrated for his use of elaborate and stunning special effects in his famed 1902 film Le Voyage dans la lune. Thereafter, the art of cinema feverishly began to take shape throughout the next couple of decades or so, and countless experiments with cinematography were perfected to tell and enhance a story purely through visual image, while working with a selected amount of text for narration and dialogue. Since sound was not incorporated into film until the late 1920s and early 1930s, the silent film is an artistic medium that possesses a certain poetic quality that differs from a talking picture, and combines visual imagery, text, and the imagination.
The early decades of film during both the Silent and Sound eras together carry the inspiration that has attracted and enchanted various poets, whether it be the history of cinema, its movie stars, directors, aesthetics, techniques, the personal (and even religious) experiences of watching movies, or the bittersweet taste of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour during the golden days. Each aspect of cinema reaches out to grab hold of a story to call their own, and poems help to further immortalize these aspects as they are and how they contributed to one of the most popular forms of storytelling.
Paralleling cinema, reading a poem can be done either silently or by speech. It is a very intimate experience that is shared between the poet/speaker and the reader, just like watching a film is something of a personal experience. Many people are going to read the same poem or watch the same film, but will always experience it in their own way. Poems and movies contain a part of human emotion and thought, and the imagery used in these forms of expression adds to the whole of the medium. The art of film is almost like a visual representation of a poem, as both film and poetry rely on imagery, sound (at times), symbolism, a certain set of aesthetics, structure, language, and analytical approaches to these aspects.
As poetry took its roots in the oral tradition, film connects to it thousands of years later by presenting a visual image to a story as a tangible extension of the imagination. Ruth Roach Pierson is the editor of I Found It at the Movies: An Anthology of Film Poems, which includes poems written mainly by contemporary Canadian poets. Although movies are a relatively new art form, they continue to captivate and integrate into our daily lives and thoughts so often that it can take some time to fully realize it. Even though poetry has been around for a much longer time, it is apparent that poems about film are just as young as the birth of film itself. Creativity has found its way through the minds of poets and filmmakers in order to join the two together in a seamless matrimony, almost as if poetry and film have been waiting for this moment to unite as creative mediums that each have their similarities and differences.
For I Found It at the Movies, Pierson collected enough poems to put together under different categories, which is what I have similarly done for this anthology. However, I wanted to focus more on the early years of cinema, and how this important part of film history continues to inspire poets of today. The poems are organized in a chronological timeline, interwoven with pairings of similar subject matter and themes that follow the decades of early film. Starting with Elizabeth Alexander’s “Early Cinema” and Kurt Brown’s “Silent Film,” both poems establish the time period of the Silent Era and the individual experiences that are associated with films, people, and society. Although movies provided an escape for viewers from the real world, the reality that lies just outside of films was always too close to be ignored—as is the case of prejudice. In the days of silent movies, many minorities flocked to the theaters since silent film did not require much in terms of dialogue, which meant that a message or story could easily translate through facial expressions, actions, etc. to a wide and varied audience that otherwise would have been excluded if “talkies” (talking pictures) came earlier. With “Silent Film,” time and sound are the subjects. Silent pictures that survived over a century later have encased only moving images and silence: the hum, noise, and musicality of bygone era life are instantly lost to future viewers who are separated by time. However, the sounds of a silent day can come alive through imagination, poetic techniques (such as alliteration and rhyme found in intertitles), and music.
As an avid movie watcher, I have my share of actors and actresses that I admire, whether it be for their roles, how they were as people outside of the movie industry, their passionate contribution to film, photogenic looks, or all of the above. Opinions on movie stars have been around as long as film became a popular form of entertainment, and still continue to occupy the minds of people to this day. Poetry is a way for those thoughts to be harnessed into something of an ode, and many stars are forever immortalized not just in their films, but also in literary works. Iconic silent film figures such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are rendered in a way that echoes their own visually poetic contributions to the golden age of film, and prominent stars of the 1930s such as Marlene Dietrich and Harpo Marx are sources of inspiration to poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—famous Beat poets who were to share their craft just two decades later. However, as depicted in Mary Jo Salter’s “Video Blues,” the line that divides reality from the world of film can affect people’s relationships with each other. Can the distant fantasy of a swoon-worthy movie star be merely a crush, or rather something dangerously close to overstepping that boundary? The tone of the speaker/spouse in this particular poem evokes an unpleasant attitude towards film being so engrossed in real life that it can be hard to find a distinct separation.
Because movies are meant to be seen, the movie-watching experience is one that is naturally important. A few poems cover the sentimentality of settling down at a theater or drive-in, and inwardly escaping the world for less than two hours or so. Joseph Stanton writes an ekphrastic poem of one of Edward Hopper’s well-known paintings, and Gary Sange writes about how drive-ins are a beacon for teenage romance—hardly anyone pays attention to a film there, as they are too occupied by their own personal spheres. Through these two poems, we can see that the viewing experience changes over time and varies with people. Movies screened at theaters during the Great Depression offered solace from a country so financially torn and downtrodden, and the rise of drive-ins provided opportunities for youths to escape a conservative post-war society. Either way, the flicker of a film and the hum of dialogue or music seemed to provide a means of comfort.
But what happens when one of the senses most vital to experiencing a film is no longer there? In Rachel Hadas’s “The Last Movie,” the imagined turns into reality. Written in couplets, the poem briefly mentions Orson Welles’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Othello. With the use of dark imagery, the poem reflects on both the plot of the film as well as the subject of the poem. The speaker talks about viewing this film in a cinema with a companion, who, as the reader finds out, loses their eyesight just the following week. Welles’s Othello now becomes “the last movie” that this person has seen. When sound came into movies and silent films were thrown out of production, deaf moviegoers lost the unifying sense of watching a film with hearing audience members. Closed captioning did not come about until many decades later, so the Deaf community was left in the dark regarding the unequal access to films that hearing-and-seeing people were now experiencing in the Sound era. While most films include sound and dialogue as part of the norm for production, the visual element of movies is nevertheless highly important in motion pictures. In fact, the term ‘movie’ is a reference to moving pictures; sound just plays a supporting role. Hadas’s poem surfaces the question that most are afraid to ask, or have not even thought about asking. I know if my eyesight had suddenly gone out the next week, it would be personally devastating as a cinephile. The realization of how much media is a part of daily life takes on the form of a poem, and further allows this notion to be explored as an extension of creativity.
Continuing on the streak of shadowy imagery used in “The Last Movie,” film styles have also been written about by poets, especially film noir. The chiaroscuro cinematic style often associated with this term found its way in poetry through poets such as Nicholas Christopher and A. E. Stallings. By taking the set of aesthetics used in film noir, for example, a poem can replicate the feeling and imagery of a film, especially the inky and fatalistic mood that is attributed to this style. Characters are included to bring about an edge, yet described in a way that still leaves a shadowy veil on them. Along with this, poets can find deeper inspiration in a director of a particular genre or style, as shown in B. H. Fairchild’s “Hitchcock.” Alfred Hitchcock is known for his suspense thrillers, to which some might argue overlaps with film noir. Stylistically, these poems are written in a narrative format, almost in the same manner that one might hear as voice-over narration in a film noir. The archetypes found in these films, such as the femme fatale or private eye detective, are now carried over into poems which further bridges the gap between poetry and film.
Most of what we learn is through media, which can be equally wonderful and dangerous. Here, the line between imagined and reality is blurred in the realm of Hollywood. What’s imagined is the glamour and highly sophisticated life that movie stars lead when they make it big in Hollywood—they have wealth, the iconic celebrity status, and everything they could ever want. Life is rosy and peachy in the fantasy world that is often perceived as reality. Poets like Fanny Howe and Frank O’Hara, however, see right through this idealized lifestyle, and comment on the artificiality of the Hollywood industry. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that movie stars are not their characters and that their own reality lies outside of that realm. Often times, the media will overemphasize events of movie stars’ lives that would have otherwise been seen as trivial. O’Hara touches upon this nonsense in “Poem [‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’],” in which the speaker sees a headline exclaiming that the well-known actress has collapsed. Simple things that could happen to almost anyone are now shocking headlines only if such a petty event is associated with a person of elite status. Not surprisingly, this still continues in media coverage today, but there is something almost voyeuristic about wanting to know what exactly a famous movie star has done (or is doing) in order to regard them as a more down-to-earth being.
On another note, movies can also have a religious connotation in our lives. The act of going to a movie theater, sitting down, and watching a 90-minute feature on a weekend afternoon could parallel to the act of going to a church, temple, or mosque. There is a personal connection to be made as a viewer by attending the screening of a film, much like the religious connection formed by visiting a place of worship. In O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” the cinema becomes a place to expand experiences, rather than solely a venue for entertainment. It is where a viewer can watch a film and live vicariously by traveling to never-before-seen places, or indirectly feeling certain emotions that are transmitted through the screen. Viewing a film almost becomes second nature, just as the faithful attend religious services on a regular and weekly basis. As for Robert Polito’s “Hollywood & God,” the religious undertone extends to a spiritual realm and ties it back to combining reality and film. Life becomes a movie, and the line drawn between these two spheres is now seamless.
For a poem that is included in an anthology, there are those that have been excluded. Just like in film, decisions are made for clips to either be shown or removed, which is also known as ellipsis. The poems that I have selected for this anthology are ones that I feel have more of a connection between poetry and film, and how that correlation impacts us as individuals, a society, and as creative beings. The various subjects of film are presented through each poem in such a way that they offer both a defined and combined insight on media theory and the relationship of film culture to society. The differences of subject matter in relation to film show how certain aspects can end up affecting us in a similar manner as viewers and as readers.
ᴄʟɪᴄᴋ ᴛʜᴇ ʟɪɴᴋ ᴛᴏ ʀᴇᴀᴅ ᴇᴀᴄʜ ᴘᴏᴇᴍ
- “Early Cinema” by Elizabeth Alexander
- “Silent Film” by Kurt Brown
- “Keaton” by Elizabeth Bishop
- “Charlie Chaplin Impersonates a Poet” by Cornelius Eady
- “The Blue Angel” by Allen Ginsberg
- “To Harpo Marx” by Jack Kerouac
- “Video Blues” by Mary Jo Salter
- “Edward Hopper’s New York Movie” by Joseph Stanton
- “Drive In Movie” by Gary Sange
- “Film Noir” by Nicholas Christopher
- “Noir” by A. E. Stallings
- “Hitchcock” by B. H. Fairchild
- “The Last Movie” by Rachel Hadas
- “Heroic Simile” by Robert Hass
- “Love and Marilyn Monroe (after Spillane)” by Delmore Schwartz
- “Main Character” by Jimmy Santiago Baca
- “Everything’s a Fake” by Fanny Howe
- “Poem [‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’]” by Frank O’Hara
- “Ave Maria” by Frank O’Hara
- “Hollywood & God” by Robert Polito