I’ve been thinking about the ways that poetry is used in films, and after watching a number of films and rooting out some examples I arrived at the conclusion that poetry is used in, essentially, three different ways. The first way is when the theme of the poem or what the poet was trying to say agrees with what the film is trying to say. We might have a poem about loss being read at a funeral, for example. The second use of poetry is when some of the words of the poem can be interpreted to mean something the poet did not intend, but which supports the film’s themes. There might, for example, be a couple of lines about cycling taken out of a poem about the rat race of modern living, but used to illustrate a point in a film about a competitive cyclist. The third use is when the words themselves are largely irellevant, what matters is that the character is reading or has read some poetry. Take a devoted advertising executive with his head stuck largely up his ass but have him recite some poetry to a pretty girl in the lift and he suddenly becomes more like a human being.
A good example of the first use can be found in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, and Sam Shepard. The date is September 7, 1881. The James brothers and their gang are having lunch in the woods at Blue Cut, just outside Glendale, Missouri while waiting for the train to arrive for what will turn out to be their last train robbery. The boys are placing logs and lumber on the line to stop the train, and virtually lost behind the narration by Hugh Ross and the music, while the camera is looking at Jesse James (Brad Pitt), we can hear very quietly a second voice, almost as though someone were talking to himself. Then the camera cuts to Frank James (Sam Shepard) and we see him muttering under his breath and if you listen very carefully you can hear him say:
“Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye, And all my soul and all my every part; And for this sin there is no remedy, It is so grounded inward in my heart.”
These are the first four lines (of 13) from Sonnet 62 by William Shakespeare.
“Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.
But when my glass shows me myself indeed,
Beated and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity,
Mine own self-love quite contrary I read;
Self so self-loving were iniquity.
‘Tis thee, myself, that for myself I praise,
Painting my age with beauty of thy days.”
The poem is considered to be part of a conversation between the poet and a youth who charges him with the sin of self-love, of being absorbed with himself and the sonnet is the poet’s response to that charge. He says that the sin is so much a part of him (so grounded inward in my heart) that he can do nothing about it. He is guilty as charged and does indeed see himself and judge himself (Methinks no face so gracious is as mine) in a promising light (No shape so true, no truth of such account) and thinks of himself as better than other men and what’s more, that he is the only one qualified to be the judge of this (And for myself mine own worth do define). Then he says that in the mirror (But when my glass shows me myself indeed), which is considered to be the truth, he sees himself to be an old man with skin like tanned leather, who is obviously not the perfection previously alluded to (quite contrary I read) but that what we are seeing in him is not self-love (so self-loving were iniquity) but the true love of the beloved (Tis thee, … I praise).
Here he turns the whole sonnet inside out and says that he is in love with the love he has for another. He is in love not with himself, but with the idea of being in love. In the context of the film this can be interpreted as Frank ruing that he is at this point because of his love for another. Considering that they are about to rob a train, I see this as him saying that he knows that what he is doing is wrong, and that it pains him to do it, but that he does it anyway because he loves his brother Jesse. After the robbery Frank tells one of his accomplices that the James boys will be giving up their nightriding for good, as indeed they do. This poem, heard indistinctly in the film and barely noticeable to any but the most observant viewer, is Frank explaining why he became a nightriding train robber in the first place.
An example of the second use of poetry, where the words have been coerced into meaning something the poet did not intend, can be found in A River Runs Through It (1988), starring Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer and Tom Skerrit, based on a semi-biographical novel by Norman Maclean.
Norman Maclean (Craig Sheffer) has just received a letter (dated 14-Jul-1926) accepting him to the post of instructor of English literature at Chicago University, commencing in the fall quarter of 1926. He walks inside the house and his father, the Reverend Maclean (Tom Skerritt) is in the study, reading aloud from a book…
[Rev.] …had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar, not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.
Norman stands by the half open door of his father’s study, and continues the poem.
[Norman] Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind,
[Rev.] In the primal sympathy which having been must ever be;
[Norman] In the soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering;
[Rev.] In the faith that looks through death,
[Norman] Thanks to the human heart by which we live; Thanks to it’s tenderness, it’s joys, it’s fears, to me, the meanest flower that grows,
[both] can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
These words are from a poem by William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, sometimes called the Great Ode or the Immortality Ode. The words as spoken in the film, however, are not a continuous series of lines from the poem. Rev’d Maclean starts at line 62, and his words, before Norman speaks are a direct quote:
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
…but Norman starts from much later in the poem, line 182:
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
… then they miss out another big section and resume at line 205:
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that grows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
The purpose of this, within the story of the film, seems to be to tell us how the family will handle the death of Norman’s brother Paul (Brad Pitt) when it happens. They will not grieve the passing of the, “splendour in the grass,” but will rather find, “strength in what remains behind.” The poem serves the same purpose as prefiguring, it tells us what they know and how they think they will respond when the climactic event occurs.
Which is a shame, in a way, because it misses what the poem is actually about. The Ode is a question and answer in 11 stanzas. The first four stanzas ask two questions about the innocence of childhood, of how children can see the splendour of the divine in the beauty of nature but how as they mature into adults they lose this sense of wonder and the questions the Ode asks are where this vision goes and whether it will return. The rest of the poem provides two answers to these questions. Reverend Maclean’s opening lines are from the beginning of the first answer, so we have missed completely the statement of the two questions and his words taken out of this context have the effect of describing what might be perceived as the perfect state from which we are born. So this is an example of the poetic words being used in the film to say something their original author had not intended.
An example of the third use, where it is the poetry rather than the words that matter, can be found in The Notebook (2004), starring Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner and Gina Rowlands. Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) is sitting on his front porch at night reading poetry to his father Frank Calhoun (Sam Shepard). Allison “Allie” Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) rides up on a bicycle. She has previously met Noah, briefly, and has come to his house to be introduced to his father, but before they realise she has arrived she stops to listen to him reading.
“…the beautiful dripping fragments, the negligent list of one after another as I happen to call them to me, or think of them, the real poems (what we call poems being merely pictures), the poems of the privacy of the night, and of men like me, this poem, drooping shy and unseen, that I always carry, and that all men carry…“
This is an extract from a poem called Spontaneous Me by Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892), the American poet who is sometimes called the father of free verse, particularly for his collection Leaves of Grass from which this poem is taken. I don’t think the words of the poem serve any purpose within the story, but that Noah is reading poetry shows a soft and sentimental side to his nature in contrast to the rather brusque and arrogant young man we have seen up to this point. This then is part of rounding out his character and creating for us a believeable whole person rather than just a boy for Allison to kiss. In creative writing class this is your typical show don’t tell scenario.