I attended a seminar recently given by Peter Rose, editor of the Australian Book Review and also of the forthcoming The Best Australian Poems 2007. One of the issues he raised was not so much about the quality of Australian poetry, but the presence of poetry readers. Books of Australian poetry can’t expect sales of more than a few hundred copies (if they’re lucky). In his introduction to this 2007 anthology, Rose laments the public loss of “faith in contemporary poetry – all poetry perhaps”. He asks: “When was the last time you heard a poem being discussed around a dinner table? New films, plays, novels [. . .] they crop up all the time. But a poem? Inconceivable.” I don’t doubt that he’s right, and that we pay too little attention to poetry.
But poetry sneaks in. It may not be as prominent as cinema, but I think that cinema needs it. I don’t just mean the idea of poetry, or a film as visual poetry, or the poetic impulse to give form to the world or understand experience or see things intensely and differently. I’m talking about poetry itself. Away From Her, which I wrote about previously, depends quite a lot on W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland. Auden’s poetry forms a core of meaning for the film and suggests both connection and disconnection between the characters of Grant and Fiona.
There’s an essay by Stacey Harwood, originally published in the Michigan Quaterly Review, where she examines the ways in which poetry does things like change the pace of the movie narrative, reveal internal states, and suggest emotions that might not be apparent or easily shown. Harwood’s essay is in the ‘Poetry in Film, Radio & TV’ section of the website of the Academy of American Poets, which has a roundup of a whole bunch of poetry movies.
One film that’s not on the list is a French short, Décroche (Pick Up, 2006; see an extract from here), by Manuel Schapira. The plot is simple: A woman calls a phone box outside her apartment and talks to strangers. One of the things the film turns on is a conversation with two guys, one of whom is played by the slam poet Fabien Marsaud (a.k.a. Grand Corps Malade). Marsaud speaks his own poem into the phone and by so doing paves the way for his friend to make a connection with the woman. (“One day, on my way, I bumped into love / I had things on my mind to tell him of . . .”) C’est charmant, bravo.
[images from Décroche, wr. & dir. Manuel Schapira]
Amid all this I also can’t help thinking of Jack Kerouac’s introduction to Robert Frank’s book of photographs The Americans, where he makes a firm connection between great images and poetry. They’re not the same thing, but they’re together and separately both vitally important experiences: “Anybody doesn’t like these pitchers dont like potry, see? Anybody dont like potry go home see Television shots of big hatted cowboys being tolerated by kind horses.”