Five Film Favorites: Poetry in the Movies

With the announcement that my favorite poet, Philip Levine, was named the Poet Laureate of the United States, I thought it apropos to write a piece about the moments in movies when poetry is recited, or invoked.

The movies below all feature incredible moments involving poetry. There’s a few that have been left out, of course, most notably Four Weddings and a Funeral, since that scene is so ubiquitous as to be a joke. And don’t ask me about Dead Poets Society, since I loathe that one.

Before Sunset: W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”. I love this movie, and love this scene. After a day’s spent talking, sharing secrets, and eventually making (and falling in) love, perfect strangers Jesse and Celine sit and try to understand the beauty of that evening. Like the rest of this movie, the scene is perfect: Jesse invokes Auden, but it’s Auden as read by Dylan Thomas, a great poet but an incredible performer. Jesse clearly enjoys impressing his girl with poetry, but he’s having a blast impersonating Thomas.

The scene is at the 9:07 mark.

Hannah and Her Sisters: e. e. cummings’ “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond”. One of the most powerful scenes ever involving the power of the written word to move a person into feelings of love… even when every ounce of one’s reason urges you to run the other way. Michael Caine’s Elliot (a role which won him his first Oscar) uncovers feelings long buried in a bland but stable marriage, and in this treasure chest he finds the jewel of e. e. cummings, which he presents to Lee (Barbara Hershey), to whom he’s growing more and more attracted. “Page 112,” he shouts, the magic number. How can she resist? The answer: she cannot.

A plaintive “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” plays in the background, which is in itself poetry, in a way.

Wit: John Donne’s “Death, Thou Shalt Die”. I’ve included this one, which is not fun or lighthearted, because you should just see this fucking movie. Frankly, Emma Thompson should’ve dropped the costume dramas now and again and ripped through a role like she does here. She plays Vivian Bearing, a PhD and expert on John Donne. She’s a total bitch, and someone who has allowed life to pass her by as she shoves her nose in books. Thompson’s performance is brutally–brutally–honest, angry and loving and never maudlin.

But Wit is not about lighthearted redemption, for the author, Margaret Edson, and the director of the film, Mike Nichols, who was never more spot-on, seem to have read Donne and understood his complexity (which is a lot more than I can say.) For Vivian gets cancer… and she does not survive. She does not meet a fellow who gives her love before she’s gone, none of that treacle. No, in her struggle with this disease, she watches, both in joy and horror, as the poetry that has consumed her life opens up and reveals itself as her life dwindles to a close.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”. This one belongs for the great scene below, from the great movie about the absurdity of love, and the pain of memory. Kirsten Dunst’s recital of the aforementioned poem is the punctuation mark on the end of this strange, yet moving fable, and director Michel Gondry for once doesn’t gild the lily. We are in the soon-to-be-erased memory of Jim Carrey’s Joel, who suddenly finds this moving scene, a memory that helped make him an emotional human being, vanishing before him. Pope’s poem drives this moment home, and it enriches the title of the film. We emerge stunned.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Bull Durham: Various Poets. I’m including these last two movies as one because there’s not one poem or poet, but quite a few. Willy Wonka wanders through the movie quoting this poem and that, and usually to reflect upon the utter stupidity of the greedy children in the film. It’s rather fun to watch, in that venomous Roald Dahl way.

Bull Durham isn’t just about baseball, it was, in this English Major’s mind, a triumph of intellectual joy over athletic prowess. Costner’s Crash Davis and Sarandon’s Annie Savoy duke it out over Blake, Whitman, and a few other poets, and eventually come together over some awesome R&B and spilled milk. I wish real life were more generous: I’m still waiting for a catcher who invokes William Blake.

Here, Mr. Wonka invokes Arthur O’Shaughnessy. (Sorry, you can’t embed this one.) “We are the music makers…”

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2 Responses to Five Film Favorites: Poetry in the Movies

  1. thstarkweather says:

    Peter,

    I love this list, both the concept and the items that you included. “Wit” is a tremendous and far too often overlooked film. Everything you write about it is absolutely correct. I would add Jane Campion’s “Bright Star” as another film that incorporates poetry in a manner that brings the poems to life.

    Todd

  2. Elli Sacks says:

    e e cummings and Elizabeth Bishop in “In Her Shoes”

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