A lot of the time, real poetry gets a bad rap. It’s foisted on teenagers in high school English classes, most of whom have no idea why they’re reading it, and who are excited to put it permanently behind them. Or at least, that was my experience.
Poetry, however, doesn’t all suck. And in fact, this month is officially National Poetry Month, which celebrates the best works by both living and dead poets. (Yes, there still are people writing serious poetry — and it isn’t all penned by “anonymous” or ideally suited to church.) So if you haven’t read a poem since looking at “The Red Wheelbarrow” when you were 15, now is a perfect time to give it a second chance. Poetry, after all, may be a dying art, but knowing a thing or two about it can still make you look like a badass.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, what follows is a list of poetry-related movies. Maybe you’ve seen them, maybe you haven’t, but chances are you haven’t read everything by all the poets they depict. So this April, watch a movie, read a poem, and impress a girl or boy.
Dead Poet’s Society (1998) — Let’s just get this one out of the way. It’s a great film and drops the names of a bunch of poets. If you’re like me you’ve also probably seen the “carpe diem scene” dozens of times in school and church. If you haven’t seen this movie, crawl out from under your rock. It’s worth a watch, or a bunch of watches, but if this is the only poetry movie you’ve seen lately, try some of the others.
The Raven (1963) — This film is classic Vincent Price: campy, funny in a strangely knowing way, and macabrely delicious. The fact that it also stars the the legendary Boris Karloff is icing on the cake. It’s based, rather loosely, on Edgar Allen Poe’s long poem “The Raven, which you may have read in an English class. Or, you may be familiar with the poem from The Simpsons‘ episode “Treehouse of Horror,” in which it was read by the velvet-voiced James Earl Jones. In any case, Price’s version of “The Raven” provides a good introduction to two cultural essentials: classic poetry, and classic B movies.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) — Sure, you’ve seen this one, but were you thinking about “The Odyssey” while you were watching it? This Coen brothers film is indeed based on Homer’s epic poem, and also happens to be one of the auteur-ish duo’s most beloved works. Apparently, the Coen’s decided to base the film on “The Odyssey” only after they had started working on it and noticed the similarities between the two stories. Still, it features a great soundtrack, tragicomedy laughs, and manages to familiarize people with one of the greatest literary works in Western civilization.
I’m Not There (2007) — This movie could arguably appear on this list simply for being about Bob Dylan. However, as good as Dylan’s lyrics are, I’d argue that they’re still just that: lyrics. Instead, this film is here for its depiction of the seminal American poet, Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg is typically associated with the beat movement, and is accordingly still an icon of angsty, disaffected counterculturalism. His most famous work, “Howl,” was even considered obscene and put on trial (via obsenity charges against its publisher). In I’m Not There, actor David Cross’ depiction of Ginsberg — as a kind of ironic sage — manages to capture an artist’s poetic ethos as few films have.
Il Postino (1994) — I like all the movies on this list, but Il Postino might be my favorite. It’s the kind of film that’s unwaveringly committed to its story, while somehow also managing to be heartwarming and charming. The story depicts a chapter Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s exile, as well as the fictional relationship that he forms with an Italian postman. As the postman delivers mail to Neruda he learns about the power of poetry, first in love and eventually in politics. Neruda’s poetry is affective and simply amazing, and few films that include poetry are as overtly about it as Il Postino. However, and perhaps most importantly, Il Postino ultimately makes the argument that poetry matters as a force for good in the world.
A Knight’s Tale (2001) — With Heath Ledger’s death in 2008, this film will always be remembered as one of the star’s funnest and most adored works. Yet, it’s also important to remember that the film is possibly the most entertaining depiction of Chaucer in all of cinema. In the film, Chaucer is basically Ledger’s PR man, giving rousing speeches before violent tournaments. In real life, Chaucer is perhaps the first person ever to write poetry in actual English. He wrote The Canterbury Tales about a bunch of pilgrims, which along with his other works helped turn English into a formal, normalized language. Of course, none of that is shown in A Knight’s Tale, but the film at least portrays the poet as a man with a propensity for eloquence.