The Well Versed Movie*
Katherine Hepburn intones lines from The Song of
Hiawatha in Desk Set.
In the opening pages of the novel Mrs.
Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's time-haunted heroine drifts
toward Bond Street for some early-morning shopping, hardly noticing
the busy thoroughfare as happy and unhappy memories swirl in her
mind. Suddenly, an open book in the window of Hatchard's bookstore
catches her eye, and she reads these lines of Shakespeare:
Fear no more the heat o' the sun
Nor the furious winter's rages.
The lines stop her cold. They frame her thoughts and put her mind
in order, giving form and meaning to the welter of momentary
impressions and recollections that had previously overwhelmed her.
"The late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all
men and women, a well of tears"—this is what the poem tells her,
this fundamental and inescapable truth. It is a defining moment in
the momentous day that stretches before her, a day in which the
lines recur as a bass note in her consciousness.
In Long Day's Journey into Night,
Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical melodrama, James Tyrone, the
patriarch of the dysfunctional Tyrone family, delivers speeches from
Shakespeare to remind his feckless sons that he was once a great
actor. (They respond by spouting passages from Swinburne and Dowson,
whom they know he detests.) In A Touch of
the Poet, O'Neill's later play, the lead character,
Cornelius Melody, poses in front of the mirror and recites
histrionically from Byron's "Childe Harold":
I have not loved the World, nor the World
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed
To its idolatries a patient knee....
Like T. S. Eliot embedding bits and pieces of Baudelaire, Dante,
Goldsmith, and many others in his brief epic,
The Waste Land, O'Neill knows that
an enlarged vision of experience is incomplete without the verbal
formulations made by earlier writers for a range of rhetorical
Fiction writers, dramatists, and poets resort to quotation
constantly in order to create stop-motion effects like Woolf's and
O'Neill's. Filmmakers too appreciate how verse creates a change of
register, a complicating of character and plot. If poetry naturally
pops up in films about poet's lives or in "toast and eulogy" scenes
that mimic real life—Shakespeare quoted by Gwyneth Paltrow in
Shakespeare in Love, a Tennyson pep
talk uttered by Robin Williams in Dead Poets
Society, Auden's "Funeral Blues" recited by John
Hannah in Four Weddings and a Funeral—it
also appears in dramatic ways that go beyond the expected.
The journey from storyboard to celluloid presents the filmmaker
with a series of complex problems to be solved, and poetry has been
a solution since the dawn of the talkies. Poems have been the means
by which a filmmaker reveals a character's state of mind, animates a
plot, or introduces a movie's overarching theme. The well-placed
poem can intensify, illuminate, and complicate the dramatic arc of a
story. Paradoxically, by incorporating a poem into a movie, a
filmmaker can use words to communicate non-verbal experiences such
as grief, longing, and nostalgia without sentimentality. Writing in
the Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Woolf
observed that, "when some new symbol for expressing thought is
found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command." She
imagined that such symbols would be "something abstract, something
which moves with controlled and conscious art."
The late Kenneth Koch describes poetry as a language within a
language. In the language of poetry, he writes, "the sound of the
words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning."
Poetry can have a magical or intoxicating effect, even when it is
not understood. In a movie this effect can be potent. The quoted
poem acts the way a metaphor does within a poem, concentrating or
crystallizing the emotion by extending, virtually doubling, the
means of its expression. If viewers don't immediately grasp the
meaning or pertinence of an Emily Dickinson poem intoned by Kevin
Kline in Sophie's Choice, they
will absorb the change in rhythm and syntax occasioned by the poem,
as if the characters had briefly switched to speaking French, with
words both familiar and strange. Those unfamiliar with poetry will
experience the language viscerally, if not consciously, the way a
child responds to a nursery rhyme because its rhythm matches the
heartbeat. Just as minor-key strings alert movie-viewers to imminent
danger, poetry tells them that something important is about to
happen, or that some profound truth has been revealed. The poem
provides a pause to allow for an investigation of emotion, like a
briefer and less self-conscious version of the song-and-dance number
in a musical. Those who do hear and identify lines of poetry while
watching a movie experience an "Aha!" moment that sets off a series
of pleasing memories and associations. The lines of poetry resonate
deeply in the cerebral cortex as the viewer recalls the poem quoted,
the pleasures of first reading and learning the poem, and the
emotions it aroused, while simultaneously absorbing and responding
to the action on the screen.
The avant-garde film director Maya Deren likens the appearance of
poetry in film to the placement of a soliloquy in a Shakespeare
tragedy. Though she has in mind the "poetic" film with its cinematic
bursts of memories, reflections, and dream sequences, her
explanation of the function of the poetic moment is apt in a
discussion of the verbal as well as the visual poem. "In
Shakespeare," she says, "you have the drama moving forward on a
'horizontal' plane of development, of one circumstance—one
action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every
once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he
wants to illuminate the meaning of this moment of drama, and, at
that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it 'vertically,' so
that you have a 'horizontal' development with periodic 'vertical'
investigations, which are the monologues."
Such a vertical interruption of the horizontal narrative occurs
briefly during last year's Le Divorce.
Naomi Watts is an American poet living in Paris, pregnant with her
second child, when her husband suddenly leaves her for another
woman. She's been invited to give a reading from a recently
published anthology of poetry by women. Her first selection is Anne
Bradstreet's "To My Dear and Loving Husband," which she reads with
great emotional restraint. The poem is a declaration of marital love
and how those who commit to such a love will be rewarded with
everlasting life. ("Then while we live in love let's so persevere, /
That when we live no more, we may live ever."). The poem articulates
a moral and spiritual ideal, against which each subsequent
relationship portrayed in the movie falls short. Spoken by the
character with the greatest moral authority, the poem communicates
the film's attitude toward marriage. The poem also introduces the
link between love and death, a subject that the film explores as it
follows the couplings and uncouplings of its characters.
When a poem appears early in the film, it can subliminally
prepare the audience for subsequent action without giving the story
away. During the opening scene of In and Out
(1997), a comedy about the
inadvertent "outing" of a high school English teacher, Kevin Kline
recites lines from Shelley's "Love's
Philosophy" ("And the sunlight clasps the earth, / And the
moonbeams kiss the sea; / What are all these kissings worth, / If
thou kiss not me?") The poem's moment passes quickly, yet it serves
as a kind of coded message to the audience. Similarly, in
Seabiscuit, a dinnertime recitation
of Emily Dickinson's "We never know how high we are" introduces the
fundamental words that the future jockey Red Pollard comes to live
In the 2001 award-winning In the Bedroom,
lines from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" and Henry
Wadsworth Longfellow's "My Lost Youth" bring to a close the two
card-game scenes that frame the film's central tragedy. Both poems
share a multiplicity of themes; it's appropriate that they are
spoken during a poker game, where chance and individual choice
determine the game's outcome. During the first game, W. Clapham
Murray, in his gravely down-east twang, quotes eight of Blake's
lines, including these:
The Beggar's Dog and Widow's Cat,
Feed them and thou wilt grow fat.
The Gnat that sings his Summer's song
Poison gets from Slander's tongue.
The poetry elicits good-natured ribbing from around the table,
which prompts Tom Wilkinson to bid his hand. It also creates a hum,
like that of a tuning fork, that foreshadows the violence to come.
For those unfamiliar with Blake, the lines taken out of context are
not readily understood, yet as spoken by Murray they achieve a tone
of prophecy, especially the resonating words "Poison," "Slander" and
Others will be reminded of the need to be aware that one's
actions have consequences. "We are led to Believe a Lie / When we
see not Thro' the Eye," cautions Blake
toward the end of the "Auguries." The audience will hear the lines
as a warning to Wilkinson that goes unheeded at his peril.
The second card game follows the murder of Wilkinson's son, and
the atmosphere around the table is palpably changed from the easy
camaraderie of the earlier game. Wilkinson is reeling with grief;
his friends treat him gingerly. This time, Murray recites
There are things of which I may not speak;
There are dreams that cannot die;
There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak,
And bring a pallor into the cheek,
And a mist before the eye.
And the words of that fatal song
Come over me like a chill:
"A boy's will is the wind's will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts."
The last two lines, repeated throughout the Longfellow poem, are
from a song recalled by the poem's narrator. The song is
characterized by turns as a "burden," "old," "sweet," "mournful,"
and "fatal" as the poem's narrator is flooded with memories. In the
quiet moment of Murray's recitation, Wilkinson inwardly moves toward
the ugly act of vengeance that condemns him to an existence more
joyless than the one he had already imagined for himself. Taken
together, the scenes underscore how quickly happiness can turn to
grief and how maturity brings with it the realization that rough
justice harrows the spirit even as it satisfies the tribal
Both Le Divorce and
In the Bedroom are screenplay
adaptations of written works. These movies demonstrate that poetry
can be an effective tool for the screenwriter hoping to translate
the world on paper, in which the action may take place over a period
of months or years, to the world on screen, where convention
dictates that complex dynamics of cause and effect must be captured
in two hours. The language of poetry is condensed. Poems make their
point quickly. Marilyn Monroe once remarked that she "read poetry to
save time." In a sense, filmmakers use poetry to save time. A
screenwriter working on an adaptation can improvise with poetry to
"save time." The right poem in the right place can capture pages and
pages of a character's interior life or add a subtle thematic
element that might otherwise consume larger units of valuable screen
When Atom Egoyan adapted Russell Banks's novel
The Sweet Hereafter, he made
strategic use of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."
Sarah Poley, the wheelchair-bound survivor of a school-bus accident,
recites swaths of the poem in voice-over during crucial scenes. The
audience is lulled into watching brutal tragedies—the death of
children, father-daughter incest—by listening to a fairy tale
generally associated with bedtime. The juxtaposition is
disorienting, like listening to Malcom MacDowell belt out "Singin'
in the Rain" while he beats his victim in A
Clockwork Orange. It's what makes the impulse to look
conquer the impulse to look away. (Or as described by Phillip Lopate,
it "cools down" the "heat" of the film's difficult subject.) At the
same time, the poem introduces ambiguity to Egoyan's story: Who is
the Pied Piper after all? Is it the bus driver who steers the
children to their death? Is it Sarah Poley, who rescues the town
from divisiveness by skewing her eyewitness account of the fatal
accident? Is it Ian Holm's lawyer? The questions are ultimately
unanswerable in the way life's most difficult questions generally
are. Had they been posed more directly to the audience, the effect
would have been off-putting.
Pleasance sends line by Robert Frost as a code signal to trigger a
sabotage act in Telefon.
In his screenplay adaptation of Walter Wager's 1974 thriller
Telefon, director Don Siegel put one
of Robert Frost's most famous poems to brilliantly innovative use.
The book and movie are underrated. In both, the U. S. and Soviets
are taking tentative steps toward détente. But a crazed KGB agent,
played with maniacal glee by the bespectacled Donald Pleasance, is
on the loose and activating a 1950s espionage plot that planted
"deep cover" agents in the U. S. with identities as working-class
Americans. A phone call from Pleasance turns a seemingly ordinary
car mechanic or bartender into a mad bomber who destroys military
installations and critical infrastructure sites; the trigger phrase
is the final stanza of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy
Evening," whispered into the mouthpiece:
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
In Wager's book, a phrase tailored to each "deep cover" agent's
particular domestic situation induces the hypnotic spell. The choice
of Frost as the single trigger is inspired and infinitely more
clever. Keep in mind that the fictional "deep cover" plot is
supposed to have been hatched when relations between the US and the
Soviets were at their "frostiest" and the ironies proliferate.
Robert Frost was the ultimate Cold War poet, known and admired in
the USSR as well as by schoolchildren and presidents in the US. In
1960, John F. Kennedy recited the final lines of "Stopping by Woods"
to conclude his set campaign speech, as he stumped his way around
the country. During his 1962 visit to the Soviet Union, Frost
recited the poem from memory to a café full of Soviet intellectuals.
One could hear the poem's "I'm not dead yet" message as an anthem to
the triumph of the American way of life over the Soviet's. The
appropriation of the poem for the film's unorthodox use doesn't
injure the Frost poem: a good poem gains thereby, giving listeners
the opportunity to experience the poetry in a surprising way. At the
very least, it lends new meaning to Lionel Trilling's statement,
made on the occasion of Frost's eighty-fifth birthday, that Frost is
"a terrifying poet" who conceives a "terrifying universe."
A final screenplay adaptation worth mentioning is that of the
slimmest chapter in Richard Goodwin's memoir,
Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,
adapted for Robert Redford's Quiz Show,
the 1994 film about the television scandal that ended the promising
intellectual and academic career of Charles Van Doren.
The movie is based on the scandals of the 1950s, when TV quiz
shows were rigged to attract higher ratings and lucrative
sponsorships. The fact-based story focuses on the program
Twenty-One and popular contestant
Charles Van Doren, a telegenic, well-bred intellectual who agreed to
win the game by receiving the questions in advance and using answers
supplied by the show's producers. He defeats the reigning champion,
Herb Stempel, a working-class Jew from Queens. If the battle between
Van Doren and Stempel is presented as a microcosm of American class
warfare—WASP vs. Jew, handsome vs. ugly, have vs. have not—it also
has much to say about the struggle between low culture (television)
and high. This aspect of the struggle is played out during the
exchanges between Charles Van Doren and his father, the formidable
Columbia University professor Mark Van Doren, who neither owns a
television set nor understands his son's interest in game shows.
During an early scene, the ambitious congressional investigator
Richard Goodwin is invited to the Van Doren Connecticut home where
family and friends are celebrating the senior Van Doren's birthday.
Over a picnic lunch, Junior and Senior square off in a game of
"what's that line," during which they test each other's knowledge of
Shakespeare. The senior Van Doren triumphs when he corrects Charles'
misquote of lines from Macbeth.
Later, Mark Van Doren attempts to recite one of his own poems, a
mournful verse about coming to terms with aging ("Now see summer
bloom upon this lee / Three score rings around this tree / Once
green now bare / Once lush now sere / Consoled only that I am
planted here. . .").
But he is silenced by several of the guests who would rather quiz
Charles about his growing celebrity than hear a poem. "Charlie is
famous, like Elvis," cries one of the young women, giving television
the momentary advantage over art. As Goodwin closes in on the
scandal, he watches a recording of an early episode of
Twenty-One in which a contestant
correctly answers a question that he was clearly supposed to flub to
end a winning streak that had become unpopular with viewers. The
contestant is asked to identify the author of each of three poems.
When he correctly identifies Dickinson as the author of, "Hope is
the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul," host Jack
Barry's double-take and slip-of-the-tongue reveals that he had been
prepped to hear the wrong answer. The contestant, willing to go
along with TV's demands up to a point, could not bring himself to
deny his love of Dickinson. Poetry gives Goodwin the final evidence
he needs to corner the quiz show's corrupt producers. In the end, he
fails to implicate the network higher-ups or Geritol, the program's
sponsor. "I thought I was going to get television," Goodwin says.
"The truth is television is going to get us."
Poems make "the unsayable said," writes Donald Hall. And just as
in life, a poem in a movie can give voice to the otherwise
dumbstruck and inarticulate. It's no surprise that Woody Allen, one
of our most sophisticated and literary filmmakers, has been slipping
poetry into his screenplays all along.
Woody Allen's characters are educated and accomplished, yet
despite their uptown ways and years on the couch, they are often
tongue-tied and miserable. Here is Michael Caine in
Hannah and Her Sisters sick with
longing for his sister-in-law Barbara Hershey. When he can bear it
no longer, he confesses his feelings by pressing a volume of e. e.
cummings's verse into her hands, imploring her to read "somewhere I
have never traveled gladly beyond" with its romantic lines "your
slightest look will easily unclose me / though I have closed myself
as fingers, / you open always petal by petal myself as Spring
opens." Allen's camera cuts between Michael Caine wandering
disconsolately through his dark apartment, his features sagging
under the burden of his desire, and Barbara Hershey reclining as she
reads the poem. Shortly thereafter, the affair is consummated.
Then there's the moment in Crimes and
Misdemeanors when Mia Farrow and Alan Alda discover
during dinner that they share a love of Emily Dickinson. Woody
Allen, also making a romantic play for Farrow, chimes in with his
interpretation of Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop For Death,"
only to be outdone by Alda, who recites most of the poem from
memory. Allen is crestfallen as he watches Alda, an otherwise
superficial media star, gain the upper hand with Farrow. Woody
Allen's choice of Emily Dickinson is brilliant; Dickinson, a
clear-eyed and death-haunted poet of inflexible integrity, with a
deep ironic strain to her work, is the perfect choice to underscore
the moral ambiguities raised by the heinous and venial crimes
committed in the movie.
There are poems in Allen's Another Woman
too. It is one of Allen's most affecting dramas, with an outstanding
cast, at the center of which is Gena Rowlands playing a woman at
midlife coming to terms with her choice to lead an ordered yet
unexamined life without passion. As she struggles with long-buried
emotions, she turns to Rilke, her mother's favorite German poet.
It's as if Rowlands is trying to recapture the fullness of youth by
returning to the literature that once gave her great pleasure. First
she reads "The Panther" with its depiction of the caged animal that
lifts its gaze and "An image enters in, / rushes down through the
tensed, arrested muscles, / plunges into the heart and is gone."
She's about to turn away from the poetry when she rereads "Archaic
Torso of Apollo," Rilke's poem about the transfixing presence he
observes in a headless statue. This poem supplies Rowlands' epiphany
with its one-two punch of a final line: "for here there is no place
/ that does not see you. You must change your life." There is no
hiding from Art. Just as we read a poem or look at a sculpture, it
looks back at us. Art can be both a comfort and an irritant: it
shakes us up precisely because it insists on wresting us from our
ordinary habits and, like Rowlands, making us think about altering
and enriching our life. Think how much dialogue it would take to
substitute for those few concentrated lines of verse!
Natalie Wood struggles to interpret lines by Wordsworth
in Splendor in the Grass.
Sometimes the poem seems to be the tail that wags the dog, the
reason for a movie's very existence.
Splendor in the Grass, which takes its title from William
Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," is one such film.
With an original screenplay by William Inge (who won the movie's
sole Oscar for his efforts), the movie tells of the unconsummated
love between a rich Midwestern boy and a sensitive girl, played by
Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. In a climactic classroom scene, Miss
Metcalf—the archetype of the spinster English teacher—wonders what
the Romantic Wordsworth meant when he wrote:
What though the radiance which was once so
Be now forever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
Miss Metcalf chooses Wood to explain the poem to her classmates
but Wood is distraught, having learned of Warren Beatty's
water-logged tryst with the class tramp. She strains to conceal the
pain in her heart but the poem, with its bittersweet depiction of
innocence lost, forces Wood to see that her youthful ideals must
give way to adulthood. She bursts into tears and flees the room. The
irony is painful in that particular way of 1950s adolescent dramas:
she does not find "strength in what remains behind," and grief,
rather than "the song of thanks and praise," is appropriate.
The more you watch this melodrama, the more suited the poem
becomes to the movie's parallel stories. While Wood and Beatty
struggle with their raging adolescent hormones, their rural Kansas
community is experiencing growing pains of its own. Families have
invested their life savings and hopes in Stamper Oil Company, owned
by Pat Hingle's boorish Ace Stamper. Dreams of the good life
evaporate when Stamper Oil goes under with the onset of the Great
Depression, leaving the townspeople bereft like ex-Enron employees.
The final scenes of the movie depict the townspeople soldiering on
despite their losses, finding strength, "In the soothing thoughts
that spring / Out of human suffering."
Hope Davis discovers a poem by Andrew Marvell in her husband's
coat pocket in The Daytrippers.
It's also hard to imagine the Indie comedy
The Daytrippers succeeding without
Andrew Marvell's metaphysical verse. Director Greg Mottola assembled
an ultra-hip cast to populate his 1994 road-trip story that travels
from suburban Long Island (past the Walt Whitman mall, in an opening
shot), to the mysterious world of Manhattan publishing. But none of
it would have been possible without Mr. Marvell.
It's the morning after lovemaking. In an inspired twist on the
lover's note cliché, a languorous Hope Davis finds a note in husband
Stanley Tucci's pocket including these lines from Marvell's "The
Definition of Love": "Therefore the love which us doth bind, / But
fate so enviously debars, / Is the conjunction of the mind, / And
opposition of the stars." The puzzled Davis takes a trip—destination
SoHo—to demand that Tucci explain the poem. Along the way, she
absorbs a full range of interpretations, none quite right, until she
meets Campbell Scott, who plays an up-and-coming author camping out
in Tucci's office. Scott, in a performance that is an early glimpse
of his tour-de-force as a misogynist in
Roger Dodger, knows his seduction poems. He gathers all
of his charms to help the wide-eyed Davis. He is Marvell incarnate,
using words to disarm.
It's not until Davis spies her husband cavorting at a party with
his homosexual lover that she appreciates the complexities of
Marvell and why the poem, with its reference to a love that, "though
infinite / can never meet," is appropriate to her husband situation.
In order for a poem to be an effective piece of the cinematic
whole, it must seem essential. Properly used, a poem or lines of
poetry can change the tone of a filmed sequence, but it must be
seamlessly part of the dialogue and mise-en-scène so that if it were
to be removed, the impact of a scene would be qualitatively
different. There are instances where the "stop-motion" created by
the poetry is awkward; the movie's spell is momentarily broken,
either because the poem is poorly delivered or unlikely to be part
of the character's natural speech. It is hard for the audience to
accept C. Thomas Howell's recitation of Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold
Can Stay" (The Outsiders,1983) no matter
how sensitive a boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-town he's supposed to be.
Similarly, when Paul Franklin Dano's suburban teenager turns the
table on his pedophiliac friend Brian Cox in
L.I.E., he does so by reciting lines from Whitman's "Out of
the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking." The scene is almost painful to
watch, with Dano mumbling the lines incoherently (and out of order)
while Cox's expression changes from awe to infatuation. It's
something other than bad acting. One gets the feeling that the
screenwriters were determined to use the single poem they recalled
from college no matter what damage they did to the poem, or their
Recognizing poetry that is buried more deeply than usual as a
kind of inside joke can be particularly satisfying. Snippets of
Blake are spoken throughout Dead Man
(1995), and the entire movie seems to be
an explication of Emily Dickinson's "My Life had stood—a Loaded
Gun," though none of the poem is quoted. And one wouldn't expect to
hear anything other than Shakespeare in a film of
Richard III. It takes a well-tuned ear
to tease out the poetry in Ian McKellen's version, which sets the
Shakespeare drama of multiple murder and political intrigue in 1930s
England during a fascist coup. During the opening ballroom scene,
the rich and royal glide over the dance floor as chanteuse Stacey
Kent sings a swinging tune (think Helen Ward backed by Benny
Goodman) with lyrics that sound vaguely familiar. "Come live with
me, and be my love," she begins, "and we will all the pleasures
prove / That hills and valleys, dales and fields / and all the
craggy mountains yield." Six verses later, as the film's major
characters embrace and twirl about, Kent concludes her song with,
"If all the world and love were young, / And truth in every
shepherd's tongue, / These pretty pleasures might me move / To live
with you and be your love."
While Shakespeare wrote plenty of songs, these are not his words.
McKellen's idea was to smuggle in poems by Shakespeare
contemporaries (and rivals) Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter
Raleigh. The first six stanzas of the catchy lyric are from
Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love," a poem that would
have been on the Elizabethan top-ten list, if anyone were keeping
score. The final verse is from "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd,"
Raleigh's witty response to Marlowe. The song cleverly conflates the
two poems into one inspired literary comment, an example of the
sublime meeting of form and content that shows in the most
entertainingly possible way that the wit of an Elizabethan love poem
still has the power to enchant and delight.
If there were an award for poetry's best moment in film, top
honors should go to W. B. Yeats' cameo in 84
Charing Cross Road, a movie that is otherwise only fair. It
depicts the epistolary relationship between London bookseller
Anthony Hopkins and New York writer Anne Bancroft. When Hopkins
learns that Bancroft must cancel her visit to his shop, he turns to
Yeats' eight-line "Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven." While the
camera lingers over the written poem, Hopkins's gentle voice-over
reveals the longing in this otherwise reticent character: "But I,
being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under
your feet; / Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams." It is a
scene of deep emotion that lifts the movie above mediocrity, and
casts a sudden sharp light on Hopkins's character, similar to the
closure of The Quiet American when
Michael Caine, in reverie, bitterly savors some lines from Arthur
Hugh Clough's "Dipsychus" that represent his own divided psyche upon
losing his beloved Vietnamese mistress.
One history of the movies called it "the motley art"
in a provocative subtitle. From the beginning, cinema has thrived on
the vitality of other art forms, incorporating or patching them into
its own body of work. In the case of poetry, this magpie habit has
created the kind of anthology of "movie moments" described in this
essay. Poetry is a sister art to film, and there is a sibling
rivalry as well as a family solidarity about the way quoted poems
roughen the texture of a film, making momentary demands on the
viewer. Poems condense meanings in sudden bursts of revelation, as
with the Virginia Woolf example at the beginning of this essay, and
filmmakers, like novelists, have learned how to punctuate "the
hours" with extraordinary lyric language in order to lead viewers
further into the strange story-world acted out on the screen
* University of Michigan, Ann Arbor: Michigan Quarterly Review,
vol. XLIII, no. 2, pp. 145-159, Spring 2004, Laurence Goldstein,
Poetry in Movies: A Partial List, by Stacey Harwood, on the Michigan Quarterly Review
Stacey Harwood lives in New York City where she works as a
policy analyst for the New York State Public Service Commission, the
agency that regulates gas, electric, telephone, and water utilities
in New York. Her poetry, essays, and book reviews have appeared in
the Michigan Quarterly Review, LIT, The Lost Angeles Times, The
New York Times, and The Villager Weekly. Paul Muldoon
chose her poem "Contributors' Notes" for inclusion in Best
American Poetry 2005.