“It’s true that fresh air is good for the body / but what about the soul / that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images.”
— Frank O’Hara, “Ave Maria”
It’s the start of summer and we’re taking Frank O’Hara’s advice and staying inside to see some movies. We love the movies — the illuminated dark, the rush of being alone and together with others, the pleasures of escape and return — and all this month we’re featuring essays by poets about silent films, poetic realism, controversial directors, and more. Meet us in the balcony. The popcorn is on us.
— Joshua Rivkin, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Elizabeth Metzger for LARB Poetry
Silence was Pleased: From Poem to Film
WHEN POEMS AND MOVIES TALK about one another, I feel uncomfortable. An airheaded female character reads Bishop by someone’s bedside. A man reads Whitman to his lifelong love at both the beginning and the end of their epic love story. None of this deepens the characters or makes terrible movies better. And must they bring in poor Tennyson at the end of a James Bond movie? Does Hollywood really think it can give itself weight by dropping in the work of poets?
With some exceptions, most obviously Frank O’Hara, poets are generally no better at this conversation. When it comes to many contemporary poets writing about the movies, whether they are offering a portrait of a star or a film, the poems are so often caught in the same nostalgic voice that it is as if we’re reading the same reflective poem on repeat, like hearing my father tell stories about the old Saturday matinees over and over again. Everyone seems to either want to wax on about what movies once were, or they get caught up cataloguing the personal images of memory. Music is too often left by the wayside, as if the poem has taken on the flat surface of the screen, losing its own medium’s texture.
Poetry, the sister art to music, to painting, yes, but film? If these are sisters, it seems they are the sort that could go years without speaking, and no one would mind.
It is Thanksgiving, and my sister’s intern from the Metropolitan Museum of Art is sitting in the living room with me talking about movies because we have nothing else to say to one another. Admittedly, I’m a terrible person to talk mainstream movies with: I’m a poet who’s slightly allergic to contemporary Hollywood. She’s talking about No Country for Old Men.
My father walks into the room, and, once he hears the movie title, breaks into Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” He has not seen the movie, but he has read the novel and knows the title as the opening line of the Yeats poem. The young intern, a Canadian taken in by my sister for the American holiday, stares in disbelief as he recites the full poem. Her pretty jaw remains slightly dropped.
Such recitations are not uncommon in my family. I grew up in a home where my father and his friend Arnold would read Milton in the living room, the lines booming through the rest of the house. This was a boisterous break from our everyday configuration, which was my father, mother, and me tucked into separate rooms reading our books, my sister having left us to visit her friends’ more talkative households, ones with televisions and VCRs, ones with movies.
I am of the generation raised on Star Wars and E.T., on The Breakfast Club and Purple Rain, on Top Gun. I am of the generation that came of age alongside the video store. If my parents’ generation was that of the wide-eyed consumers of the Saturday matinee, my generation was the generation of VHS, of teen films and cult films. Yet I lived as if born of my parents’ era: my parents never took me to the regular movies. In fact, I didn’t see Star Wars until graduate school when a boyfriend sat me down and made me watch all the films in one weekend: he believed I had a serious gap in my education. E.T. I knew by heart, not because I ever saw it, but because during my two months away at ballet camp the year of its release, the other girls recapped every moment of it to me over and over again. I ate it up, the storytelling without the images. I did not think that I had missed anything.
My own childhood movie watching consisted of going with my father to an art house theater, the Vinegar Hill Theatre, just blocks away from my family home in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. Downtown hadn’t had its renewal yet: many of my friends’ suburban parents wouldn’t let them come over to my house to play. By age eight I walked alone to the library, to ballet classes in the old school turned arts building, to the park, to Woolworths to buy candy and Christmas presents. When going to the movie theater, however, I was always with my father.
We saw double features: Fred and Ginger, Hepburn or Hepburn, Hitchcock films. In elementary school I had seen Vertigo and The Birds. I could debate the merits of Philadelphia Story over High Society. Or could have, if my peers had wanted to talk about something besides The Brady Bunch, which I couldn’t watch since we didn’t have a television.
I never learned the pleasure of blockbusters, the joys of being part of a chattering pack of kids in a movie theater. To me, the movie, like reading, was a solitary affair, spent silently next to my father and followed by a silent walk up the few blocks home. Later, as a 17-year-old freshman at Barnard, I spent my free afternoons going alone to French films. Like Barthes’s speaker in “Leaving the Movie Theater,” who “walks in silence (he doesn’t like discussing the film he’s just seen),” I have never been able to bear the demand of conversation immediately after a film. We generally don’t ask someone, the moment they close a book, “So what did you think?” Why then must film be a collective affair?
Not long after the graduate school boyfriend moved out, I saw one of his colleagues with her husband and another couple at the large theater on the Boston Common. It was a Friday night, and I was alone, as I almost always am when I go to the movies. They all looked around, confused, and then asked where he was. I fumbled for words. He’s gone? But I’d have come alone anyway? The colleague pressed my arm with marked sympathy and urged that we must go to a movie together soon. A romantic comedy, she suggested.
The magic, that private silence of the after-film, was broken.
D.W. Griffith’s 1911 silent film Enoch Arden tells the story of a woman, Annie Lee, caught between two men who have loved her since childhood. One, Enoch, an orphaned sailor, marries her, breaking the heart of the other, Philip Ray, who is the only child of a wealthy miller. Enoch is shipwrecked while trying to go make money to help his struggling family survive, and after many years pass with no word of him, Annie Lee marries Philip. He provides her and her children with the life that Enoch could not offer her. Years later, Enoch is rescued and returns to see his wife happy with Philip, with whom she has had a new baby.
Enoch does not disrupt Annie Lee’s new life. He loves her too much. It is not until he is on his deathbed that he reveals his identity to the woman at his bedside.
This is the stuff of Hollywood: a love triangle, a deserted island, the martyrdom of true love. But this tale began as a poem, Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden,” which is the source of the narrative, and from which the intertitles are taken. In the poem, Philip first learns of the love between the other two when he sees:
Enoch and Annie, sitting hand-in-hand,
His large gray eyes and weather-beaten face
All-kindled by a still and sacred fire,
That burn’d as on an altar. Philip look’d,
And in their eyes and faces read his doom;
Then, as their faces drew together, groan’d,
And slipt aside, and like a wounded life
Crept down into the hollows of the wood;
There, while the rest were loud in merrymaking,
Had his dark hour unseen, and rose and past
Bearing a lifelong hunger in his heart.
In the film, we experience a close shot of Philip alone in the woods — the grown man, stricken, sinks into a cave of bushes, looking oversized and displaced. He does nothing but breathe. The camera hovers on this image for a full 30 seconds, letting us see the “dark hour unseen,” that human suffering that is not meant to be seen, and that takes place offstage in the poem. We are also witnessing Griffith’s expansion and exploration of what this new medium can do: film slows down time as it keeps us with an image in a way that a poem cannot. The shot shapes the psychology of the character by manipulating space and time.
But before we zoom in on Philip, the intertitle provides us with my favorite lines of this scene in the poem: he “slipt aside, and like a wounded life /crept down into the hollows of the wood.” The simile allows him to become animal-like, yet by suffering a most human wound. “Hollows” can echo back to his state as well as describing the woods he escapes to. The flexibility of language is withheld, as is the music of the repeated sounds.
Only in a silent film could the line still do its job, remaining present and intact, music and all, as read by each viewer.
Perhaps, then, poetry and film could be on pleasant speaking terms in the era of the silent film. This poem is not stuck in like a prop. Do we need Tennyson’s line? Or does the line need the unsettling image of the grown man grieving in the bushes? For this particular film, born of the conventions of Victorian narrative, but carrying us visually into the psychological focus of the modern character, the answer is yes: the images and text have been brought together to make something new.
The silent movie asks us to engage, to look for what is happening. As someone who is hard of hearing, I find this both exhausting and exhilarating. The process of watching is too much like the way I already read the moving world, always trying to fill in the gaps, to read bodies and faces when words slip by me.
At the same time, sitting in the silent film is as if everyone else has been allowed into my world. At first, there is the struggle to try to read the lips, the urge to unmute the volume. When this fails, as it must, there is the work to begin to read the face beyond the lips, the gestures of the body. Finally, the relaxation into the quiet, or into the music, as the tableaux unfolds. We learn to read people, to build stories out of their bodies, their actions. We learn to understand them without language. This is something I have done my entire life in the world outside of books. I often retreat to a book, because a book lets me in completely and effortlessly. I am never left out.
Watching the silent film, for once I am not alone. Everyone watching is doing the work.
My favorite scene from a movie is the early library scene in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, in which the angels move through the library amidst the overlapping murmurs of the thoughts of the people reading and thinking. Reading in the library, like the watching of a film, is a solitary activity shared with others. Reading to ourselves, however, is not a silent act, and Wenders reveals this. The rich internal lives of the humans seeps up to the surface, reminding us of the wonder beneath the skin of silent reading. Wenders captures the magic of the library, of the act of reading, of human thought. Look: all of these humans, speechless, but not quiet. To be able to hear what surges beneath is part of the magic of film.
What then would we hear on entering the movie theater with the gifts of the angels?
In 2010, the BBC produced the short film The Song of Lunch, directed by Niall MacCormick and scripted with Christopher Reid’s poem of the same name. The film follows a failed poet to a meeting with a former lover after 15 years, during which she has married the now “celebrated novelist” who she left him for and now has a family with in Paris. The former lovers are played by Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, and while there is a sprinkling of dialogue between them, and a few lines for the wait staff, the majority of the poem is the narrative voice-over spoken by Rickman. The narration is in third person, which allows the character’s internal monologue to mirror the distance we have as we physically watch him on the screen.
Unlike the silent films, with the snippets of poem in the intertitles, here we get the full poem voiced through the movie. But the actors work almost as if in silent film, for in the absence of much dialogue, the attention returns to the physical. What is stunning is that Rickman’s face seems to tell us the whole story through most of the film, whether it is the smugness on his face after their welcoming hello kiss is a meeting of lips, or his look of dismay at the menu, which has changed over the years to include too much pizza.
At times the narration of the poem feels redundant in the film, perhaps because the narrator obsesses over details. Those details offer perfect stage directions, but then render themselves obsolete when we can see the action, whether it is descriptions of the waiter opening the wine, or Rickman drinking his water, or the waitress grinding the pepper, as they are described. Robert Bresson, in Notes on Cinematography, says, “What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear. If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.” Here lies the challenge of the poem script: when are we to listen to it with all ear, and when do we need to experience the eye of the film?
I tried watching the film with the sound off, no captions, to get rid of the “ear” and rely on “all eye,” convinced for a moment by Rickman’s opening solo scenes that this could be a silent film, a visual version of the poem. But unlike Tennyson’s poem’s world of hardship and heroes, in which characters work from the simple motive of love, this contemporary poem maintains a modern psychologically complex internal narration that depends on self-doubt and obsession. With the poem’s emphasis on the thoughts and observations of the speaker, the language itself reveals his particular weaknesses and neuroses. The protagonist’s prioritization of self and the past, an imagined superior past, surfaces in the particularity of his diction.
What happens no longer matters.
The film and the poem each aim to be a portrait of a man’s way of seeing the world and the past, and Rickman, in his performance, shows the power of uniting the two mediums to that end. I am reminded of how poetry’s beginnings are in performance.
Vachel Lindsay, one of the most popular American poets during the early twentieth century due to his performances reciting and singing poetry around the country, was also one of the earliest film theorists. In The Art of the Moving Picture, he says of a later version of Enoch Arden featuring Lillian Gish, “it fills my eye-imagination and eye-memory more than that particular piece of Tennyson’s fills word-imagination and word-memory.” Not surprisingly, the earliest literary adaptations of films were already drawing comparisons to the original texts, as if one always has to take the lead. The battle between the “eye-imagination” and “word-imagination” had begun.
Lindsay’s comments are part of his larger argument about film, in which he breaks down the people of the “present-day” into scientific inventors and those he calls prophet-wizards, the ranks of which include Blake, Poe, Yeats, and Tennyson. He warns against the dangers of the medium of film being held in the hands of the scientific inventors, declaring that “machine-ridden men have temporarily lost the power of seeing their thoughts as pictures in the air.” His own prophesy is that “man will not only see visions again, but machines themselves, in the hands of prophets, will see visions.” I can’t help but wonder at how the computer, in the hands of poets and filmmakers and other artists, is what “sees” vision now. Who is leading, the machine, or the prophet?
For while Lindsay’s theories about film are trapped in certain idealizations of the primitive, and at times are based in his own theology, it is not hard to see the brilliance of that prophesy as we watch the contemporary struggle for the soul of film. What interests me most about this chapter on the prophet wizard is that at the end Lindsay acknowledges the care with which some poems should be approached for film, warning against the use of Yeats, for example. But he doesn’t end there; he adds that a poem does not merely have to be used as a direct source for a script; it can shape the filmmaker himself, for “the man that reads Yeats will be better prepared to do his own work in the films.”
What poet wouldn’t want to be the muse of a filmmaker? Griffith himself came to Enoch Arden twice: he shot After Many Years, an earlier adaptation of the poem, in 1908. Tennyson had left his mark.
One of the most action-packed adapted poems is Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem, The Wild Party, which, with its open sexuality, orgies, and violence, created a scandal at the time of its publication. The fast-moving narrative is packed with rhyme and rings with colloquial diction of the time. In an early scene, Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, turns on her abusive lover Burrs, a vaudeville clown, who tries to talk her down:
“Come on,” urged Burrs: “Be a sport!
Go on, Cutie — drop the knife!
Let’s call it quits.
I like my life!”
While there is a playfulness to the language itself, the scenes are graphic. In the scene before these lines, Burrs has grabbed Queenie and begun to force himself on her sexually. She remains limp through his actions, then finally kisses him and “he quivered; and he gasped;/And he almost came,” at which point she strikes him in the mouth and makes him bleed. He chases her until she grabs the knife and turns on him. March does not hold back in his graphic depictions that shape the complexity of his characters. Queenie is no mere object; she has agency as she fights back physically and psychologically, calculatingly executing revenge and a possible escape from Burrs.
These relationships and characters are lost in James Ivory’s 1975 film adaptation, a bomb of a film that tries to move the poem from New York to 1920s Hollywood, making Burrs a fading movie maker named Jolly. Ivory and Walter Marks, the lyricist who wrote the screenplay, fail to capture the merits of the poem, particularly its momentum (the film is incredibly slow until we get to the party) and its characters who round themselves into interesting types through action set against the stylized language of the poem.
In the bedroom scene in the movie, when Queenie is unresponsive, Jolly gives up and flops beside her, appearing to feel guilty. Queenie herself is cast as more of a victim; while she raises something as if to strike Jolly, there’s no calculation, and the psychosexual drama of March’s scene is missing. Queenie is made a flat character, merely the beloved for the failing movie man. With the loss of the grit of these characters, the world March tries to portray is lost as well.
The most disappointing aspect of the film, however, is the way that it so halfheartedly tries to hold on to the text of the poem. A poet character is thrown in, and sometimes verse comes from him facing the camera, while at other times verse is served as a voice-over; it becomes hard to understand why the poem is still there at all. In fact, even what seems to be the poem is not the poem, but jumps between March’s lines and Marks’ rewrites and additions.
To read March’s original poem first is to discover the delight of his narrative, even in the absurdity of some of the rhymes, which somehow are forgiven as part of the larger sweeping project of his. A jazz-age riffing by a taleteller, the poem is performative by nature, even cinematic in its scope and pace. But butchered into “rewritten” lines inconsistently slipped into a film that can’t seem to maintain its own style or vision, the poem is unrecognizable shaved down to some of its own catchy lines mixed in with imitation.
The irony is that Jolly is a silent filmmaker. When one of the producers to whom he is trying to sell his new, self-funded film asks, “Where’s the sound?” I found myself wondering that about The Wild Party as I heard the new lines of verse. The “eye-imagination,” the cinematography, of The Wild Party, is not all bad. It is the language that has gone terribly wrong.
I can’t help but wish that they had gone for it fully and made an entire film narrated in March’s rhyming and fast-moving verse: this might have made for a more interesting film, even if it were a more interesting failure. Even a silent film, with March’s sharpest lines as the intertitles, would have been a better bet.
Sometimes it is hard to see why poetry goes to the movies at all.
As a poet, my preferred world will always be one of “word-imagination,” the world of the ear, the internal ear that a poem on the page can sing to when external noise falls silent, or does not suffice. Still, I miss those dark afternoons at Vinegar Hill, miss the availability of art house theaters, which we are now losing many more of due to the deadline for digital conversion, as Hollywood phases out celluloid film prints this year. To watch old movies, one has to generally watch them at home, whether on old VHS tapes, DVDs, or online.
Watching movies at home is difficult for me without captions. The volume I need in order to understand speech makes the other sound effects unbearable to me, much less a companion with sharp ears: video night can be the date night of my nightmares. I always hated that extended wandering through video stores, anyway, the searching for something you would both settle for, for something neither of you had seen or were willing to see again. Imagine if every time you wanted to read a book, you had to agree on one with your partner.
I’m reminded again of Robert Bresson’s Notes on Cinematography: “[t]o find a kinship between image, sound and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place. Milton: Silence was pleased.” That kinship is not always easy to find in either poetry or film. Silence is one of the gifts that film can give a poem: this seems clear to me in the moments of Enoch Arden and The Song of Lunch, when we’re able to sit with the character, as if we’ve put the book down and stayed in the moment of his emotion or revelation. We don’t have to keep moving.
At the same time, film can give the poem back its rightful place as performance, as The Song of Lunch demonstrates. The bard can now travel around the world with the help of machines. You could download the poem-film right now and watch it from home, like I did, captions or not.
But maybe we all need to leave the house again, together, in silence. Maybe the ideal pairing for the poem, and certainly for this poet, is indeed the silent movie. In Japan, the silent film era lasted longer than in the States, thanks to the benshi, who narrated and interpreted films. I would like to step into one of the old theaters and to hear the piano start up, then hear a poet benshi step in and begin to narrate what the modern camera can do. We can watch the two old sisters of film and poetry converse. I would need the text in my hand, but I wouldn’t be alone.
Photo: Some rights reserved by roeyahram, CC.