Tough Guys Recite: The 5 Best Poetry Spittin' TV Characters

Edward Woodward as Robert McCall in The Equalizer (1985) -- about to spew bullets? or Yeats?

Every generic hero on TV can finish a poetic quotation or identify a poignant quatrain (down to the line numbers). But few can spit Tennyson or Yeats with such venom as these guys.

While preparing for the upcoming video conference The Poetry and Poetics of Popular Culture (11-12 November 2011), Retro Remote naturally started thinking about all those TV heroes of the past still flickering through his static-filled brain, and one question always came to mind:

How did they know all that poetry that they could easily recite at the drop of a hat -- or the draw of a gun?

TV taught me pretty quickly that every generic hero could finish off a wryly delivered quotation (usually to undermine the original reciter) or identify a poignant quatrain (down to the line numbers), even though they never seemed to have much time for books in between knocking over stacks of empty boxes in car chases or making goo-goo eyes at the sole recurring female character. (The villains usually knew all the poetry, too, but generally didn't have the decency to keep it under their (black) hats, especially if they were Alan Rickman-style, Euro-types.)

It probably wasn't until early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation that I started to recognise this as a contrivance of lazy writing rather than a secret universal knowledge of all the world's literature that I was unfairly excluded from (modern technology hadn't even eviscerated my capacity for memory, at that point). Writers seem to love literary references because it pays off for everyone: the characters look smart, the writers look smart, the producers and the networks get to feel smart, and audiences can smugly bathe in a reference to authentic lit-er-a-ture in between villain-smashings. Now, thanks to Google, a wealth of literary tokens are just clicks away for all kinds of sophistication-seeking writers (note: any and every literary or cultural reference in any series of the Law & Order franchise is officially the stupidest thing you will ever see).

Not to be picking on TV (Retro Remote kinda likes it, y'know); it's just that this kind of lazy use of poetry as a trigger for "sophistication" really just reinforces the needless divide between popular and literary culture, rather than truly suggesting that both realms might be able to build from each other. It's a bit like that clip of Steve Allen "reciting" Gene Vincent's (too-often taken-for-granted) "Be-Bop-a-Lula", which isn't mistaken in looking for poetry, it's just looking for the wrong kind:

But broad commentary about the state of television always misses the bright spots, and there's still plenty of literate heroes out there whose credentials don't seem to have been formed solely by lazy scriptwriters and three minutes spent searching on Google. So, in classic inverse Homeric hysteron proteron last-first "internet list" format (i.e., regular), here five great moments of poetry on TV...

#5: Babylon 5
"The Parliament of Dreams" and Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Babylon 5 tended to tiptoe that line between pop and pretension, but pretension can also be tied up with authentic ideals and worthy ambition. While much of Babylon 5 is heavy-handed, it also remains an intriguing example of long-form and multi-level television narrative, stretching its story over a pre-planned five-year arc before this kind of approach was widely embraced as part of most television narratives. Even now, with long-form narrative expected for high-end television, we rarely get the sense that the storylines are planned in any real depth for more than a year at a time (ongoing narrative is often the result of convenience, flukes, standard correlation, or Lost-style writing on-the-fly), so it's still exciting to see Babylon 5 set up some of its major conflicts long before they pay off (the big story doesn't really get moving until season three) and, best of all, flash-forward to one of its final scenes, years before it would actually air.

With that kind of lofty ambition ticking away behind the scenes, it seems suitable that space station Babylon 5's commander (in the first season, anyway) Jeffrey Sinclair (played by the underrated Michael O'Hare, who never quite got his "moment" in the series) spends some time brooding Batman-style in his quarters, pretentiously over-identifying with Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses" and wondering why he "metes and doles unequal laws" unto a savage space race.

To emphasise the point, generic sassy former-love-interest #1 wanders in and reminds him that he's been pretentiously brooding over that poem since college (in contrast to Jerry Doyle's Michael Garibaldi, who spends most of his time watching Looney Tunes cartoons). Sinclair should probably let it go (self-aggrandise much?), but such indulgences are clearly part of creator J. Michael Straczynski's serious attempt to draw some powerful and complex resonances from his space station story, and this poem, along with many other references, seem to be setting lofty, but sincere, goals. Straczynski was pushing for something big and, for the most part, it paid off (in ways that most of his later work so far hasn't been able to match). It's by no means a throwaway moment; Straczynski also draws on Tennyson's poem when, in pilot episode "The Gathering", Sinclair is asked to explain his motivations for persisting with Babylon 5; motivations that are, no doubt, both his and Straczynski's.

#4: The Union Bank of Switzerland Poetry Campaign

Speaking of Tennyson's "Ulysses", what could be a better use for TV than to broadcast a John Gielgud reading of the great poem? Score one, television.

Of course, there's a catch.

Somehow, this time Tennyson isn't just calling us to consider the lofty ideals that Straczynski recognised above – he's also trying to tell us where to bank.

As part of a corporate re-branding for the Union Bank of Switzerland, the old poetry-equals-sophistication connection was pushed into high gear. Through advertising agency Young & Rubicam, ad-man Neil French gathered an extraordinary collection of some of the world's greatest living actors reading some of the world's greatest poetry. Sir John Gielgud read Tennyson's "Ulysses" and Shakespeare's "There is a tide in the affairs of men", Alan Bates read William Ernest Henley's "Invictus" and Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", Harvey Keitel read Rudyard Kipling's "If", William Butler Yeats' "The Cloths of Heaven", and so on (take a look at Neil French's site for a full list with videos).

Somehow it all turns into something so very, very ugly.

Nothing wrong with the recitations of course, and there's nothing wrong with the poetry, but the smug, crass, and cynical appropriation of great poetry for the sole aim of targeting a higher class of client – described by Neil French as "the disgracefully rich, basically" – leaves the whole thing with a markedly unpleasant aftertaste. Maybe it's the overdone "artsy" production, the mediocre and unnecessary application of background music, or the cringe-worthy "thoughts that transcend time from Union Bank of Switzerland" label that opens the performance. Most of all, perhaps it's the terrible undercutting of any real value that's suggested by the great works in the ugly anti-poetry that closes each recitation: "Union Bank of Switzerland: Here Today. Here Tomorrow". The idiocy of the slogan is all the more apparent when placed after their production of Ben Kingsley reading Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias".

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