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Why Hollywood Filmmakers Turn to Poetry When Dialogue Fails

From comedies to horror, biographies to romance, there’s a reason why Hollywood filmmakers turn to poetry when dialogue fails.

It happened most recently while I was watching 2023’s high-profile film, Maestro, on Netflix. Absorbed in the story of American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (played here by Bradley Cooper), I was suddenly pulled into the story within the story, the image within the imagery. In short, I was lured by the poem within the film.

In the case of Maestro, the scene involves Leonard and his wife, Felicia (Carey Mulligan). Feeling overworked and depressed, Leonard sighs: “Summer sang in me a little while, that in me sings no more.” I snapped to attention. I recognized both poem and poet: “What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”, by Pulitzer Prize winner Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Clearly, writer/director Bradley Cooper was using Millay’s words to get at something about the flighty creative impulse and how it comes and goes within an artist. Felicia puts her arm around Leonard before getting practical, pointing out, “If summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. And if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music.” Leonard takes the hint: find a way to access your creativity or lose your career.

Why do poems appear so often in Hollywood films? Filmmakers already wield the godlike ability to conjure oversized moving images for our eyes, not to mention voluptuous sound and music for our ears. Why bother with poetry? Why use a medium that so many viewers (American, if not British) consider antiquated, irrelevant, and inaccessible, and most of whom won’t even recognize the poems?

The answer is multi-fold. Some Hollywood filmmakers seem to crave the literary caché that poetry might provide their films. Others like to co-opt the rhymes or imagery. The best cinematic practitioners use poems to enrich their film’s story or deepen their characters in a way that action or dialogue cannot. 

The most obvious examples of poetry in Hollywood cinema are those films about a poet herself or biopics. Some of the better ones include Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily (2018), starring Molly Shannon as sexually and professionally repressed poet Emily Dickinson; John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings (2013) with Daniel Radcliff as radical Beat poet Alan Ginsberg; and Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly (1987) featuring Mickey Roarke playing angry alcoholic writer Henry Chinaski, aka, Charles Bukowski. Hollywood filmmakers generally have a field day with poems since they can scour the poet’s oeuvre for any lines that serve the film’s plot. Take Sylvia (2003), directed by Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as suicidal poet Sylvia Plath. In the opening scene, the camera lingers over the face of an unmoving woman, her eyes closed. Is she sleeping? Unconscious?  Or dead? Finally, we hear some lines from Plath’s seminal “Lady Lazarus”: 

is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

The woman’s eyes fly open, and we begin her story. The moment feels magically macabre and cleverly foreshadows Plath’s story as a struggle against self-destruction.

Some Hollywood filmmakers use lines from famous poems in lieu of dialogue, as if the character had come up with them herself. I feel conflicted about this approach. On the one hand, I’m pleased to hear any poem given attention, much less a closeup in a film. On the other hand, the filmmaker often distorts the intended meaning. Or is that acceptable? Consider how Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s 2014 sci-fi epic Interstellar utilizes Dylan Thomas’ much-loved and much-quoted “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. Thomas originally penned the poem while watching his father on his deathbed. Thomas exhorts him to live, crying that:

Old men should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

However, in Interstellar, we understand “night” to be a different kind of death: the oxygenless atmosphere of outer space. A team of astronauts is preparing to enter a wormhole in search of habitable planets on the other side. NASA scientist Dr. Brand (Michael Caine) wishes them well from Earth, before launching into the poem at the same time as the ship launches into the unknown. The astronauts’ blend of anxiety and hope nicely mirrors the same mixed emotions of Dylan’s son toward his dying father. 

Another clever use of poetry-as-dialogue is how director Denis Villeneuve deploys lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s 999-line poem “Pale Fire” in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). The poem describes a near-death experience followed by a rapturous vision: 

a system of cells interlinked within 
cells interlinked within cells interlinked
Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

The moment couldn’t feel more human, as a mortal man gets a tantalizing glimpse of a heavenly afterlife. Ironically, Villeneuve uses the same lines as Nabokov for the opposite purpose. Officer K (Ryan Gosling), a widely-despised “replicant”, must recite them back to his minder to pass the Voight-Kampff test and prove his non-human status. 

The most satisfying use of poems in cinema is when characters treat the poem like the written artifact it is. In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 crime drama The Outsiders, Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell) and Johnny (Ralph Macchio) stand on a hill watching a sumptuous sunrise. Johnny is reminded of Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”, which he learned in high school:

Nature’s first green is gold.
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour.

The scene satisfies on several levels. The outside world the boys watch with physical eyes blends seamlessly with the inner world they observe with their minds’ eyes. Johnny’s teacher would have been pleased.

Poetry appearing in films in academic settings could be a category unto itself. The most famous of these is probably Peter Weir’s 1989 comedy, Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams, as John Keating, quotes Walt William to the class and asks them to call him “Captain, My Captain”. I also enjoy the cameo of T.S Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” in David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 horror film, It Follows, about an evil entity migrating from person to person through sexual intercourse. As the dazed protagonist, Jay Height ( Maika Monroe) sits in English class worrying about the entity’s next visit, she can only half-listen to her teacher recite Eliot’s poem. Jay glances out the window. Just then, an out-of-place old woman emerges and zombie-walks toward the classroom. She is visible only to Jay. At the same time, we hear Jay’s teacher recite Eliot’s lugubrious lines:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker
I have seen the Eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker
And in short, I was afraid.

In Mike Newell’s 1994 comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral, John Hannah’s Matthew, a friend of the deceased, has just taken the stage to eulogize his friend Gareth. After a few awkward remarks, Matthew decides to recite WH Auden’s “Funeral Blues”. His recitation accomplishes two things. First, it reveals the depth of the relationship between the two men in a way that Matthew is perhaps unable to do himself, either because he is too upset or doesn’t want to reveal his homosexual relationship with the deceased. Second, the poem’s rollicking rhymes radiate dark energy, as if the speaker of the poem – and Matthew himself – refuse to feel paralyzed by sadness. On the contrary, he demands nothing less than that celestial forces cease altogether:

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun:
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can come to any good.

Throughout the reading, the mourners listen quietly. This approach seems like the ideal way to use a famous poem in a film. The two mediums play off one another, the poem performing its magic on the characters in the film as well as the audience. 

Moviegoers and poetry readers can debate whether a poem is deployed well or poorly, but ultimately – and happily – it will not affect the poem. This is as it should be. A poem – brief, transcendent, and, above all, mysterious – is interpreted in myriad ways. It has stood the test of time; it can surely endure the Hollywood treatment. 

Perhaps Romantic poet John Keats, doomed to die of Tuberculosis at age 25, understood this best. In 2009’s Bright Star, her biopic of Keats, writer/director Jane Campion presents a scene in which Keats (played by Ben Whishaw) and his lover, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), discuss how best to experience a poem. Brawne admits she is still trying to “work out” how a poem functions. Keats suggests that reading a poem resembles swimming in a lake. “The point of diving in a lake is not to immediately swim to shore,” he says. One must “luxuriate in the sensation of water.” The same could be said of watching a film that applies poetry to its dialogue, not least the expression of the inexpressible in Christopher Nolan’s explosive 2023 biography, Oppenheimer. One of Oppenheimer’s favorite poets was the metaphysical John Donne, whose poems often seem to speak directly to his maker. In “Holy Sonnet IV: Oh my black soul!” Donne exhorts God:

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me,
And bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and
make me new.