When events and emotions confuse us, we often turn to poetry. We write our own, or quote the greats to help make sense of troubling situations and to communicate our feelings about them to others.
So too, as it turns out, do filmmakers. Though critics rarely note it, screen characters are continually reading, quoting and reciting poems. Beyond the obvious uses -- Shakespeare quoted by Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love" -- and "toast and eulogy" scenes that mimic real life -- Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" as Kevin Kline's hilarious toast in "The Anniversary Party," Auden's "Funeral Blues" recited by John Hannah in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" -- they also appear in ways that go beyond the expected.
Recent releases give plenty of examples. Michael Petroni's "Till Human Voices Wake Us" draws its title from T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and snippets of the poem are quoted throughout by Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce, who resembles the spiritually exhausted narrator of "Prufrock." The poem provides the action (a drowning) and the imagery (water, "sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown") that releases Pearce from his emotionally flat existence.
In "The Quiet American," Michael Caine's British journalist uses "Dipsychus" by A.H. Clough as a test of Brendan Fraser's character. Fraser, the "quiet American" of the film's title, fails the test when he recognizes the lines ("I drive through the street, and I care not a damn, / The people they stare, and they ask who I am, / And if I should chance to run over a cad / I can pay for damage, if ever so bad") without grasping how they apply to his own actions in Vietnam. Coming at a pivotal moment in Caine's struggle to maintain his journalist's aloofness, the poem becomes an ironic comment on the treachery in unbridled political idealism.
A well-placed poem can have a profound effect on the audience's experience of a movie. Poet Kenneth Koch writes that poetry is a language within a language, one in which "the sound of the words is raised to an importance equal to that of their meaning." Even if movie viewers don't immediately grasp what a poem is about, they're likely to absorb the change in rhythm and syntax it brings, as if the characters 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.
A poem alerts viewers to a shift in story. And, along with other atmospheric details, it can help propel a movie forward.
Consider 2001's award-winning "In the Bedroom," in which 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.
During the first game, W. Clapham Murray, as an otherwise minor character, quotes eight of Blake's lines, including these, when Tom Wilkinson can't decide whether to bid or fold:
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 easily understood, yet as spoken by Murray they achieve a tone of prophesy, with the resonating words "Poison," "Slander" and "Widow."
Others might be reminded of Blake's insistence on individual responsibility and the need to be aware that one's actions have consequences. They'll hear the lines as a warning to Wilkinson that goes unheeded at his peril.
The second card game follows a murder, and the atmosphere around the table is palpably different from the camaraderie of the earlier game. Wilkinson is reeling with grief; his friends treat him gingerly. This time, Murray quotes Longfellow:
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.
Here, in the quiet moment of the poem, Wilkinson inwardly moves toward the ugly act that condemns him to a joyless existence. Taken together, the scenes underscore how quickly happiness can turn to grief and how age brings the realization that both emotions must necessarily coexist.
Poems make "the unsayable said," writes poet Donald Hall. In a movie, they can add a thematic element or provide a concise way to reveal a character's inner epiphany, saving minutes of valuable screen time. It's no surprise that Woody Allen, one of our most sophisticated and literary filmmakers, has been slipping poetry into his screenplays all along.