An Exploration of Poetry in Film
Poetry and film are two of the most stunning ways to use language, and combining the two mediums creates a unique opportunity to explore the best aspects of both. Dead Poets Society (1989), 4 Weddings And A Funeral (1994), and 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) are three iconic films that have pivotal scenes involving poets that have an impact on the central themes.
Dead Poets Society gives us Robin Williams as Mr Keating, an English teacher, as he tries to teach his students about free thinking and seizing every moment. Ethan Hawke plays the shy new kid Todd Anderson, and Robert Sean Leonard plays academically gifted, actor wannabe Neil Perry. The first poem we hear in the film is Keating getting one of his students to recite the opening stanza of “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The poem fits perfectly with the ‘carpe diem’ theme that is the foundation of Dead Poets Society, capturing the impermanence of life. This stanza is foreshadowing Neil Perry’s death later in the film, as Neil takes Keating’s words to heart (gathering his rosebuds while he may) and follows his dream of becoming an actor against his father’s wishes. At the end of his appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we see his bright smile as the audience applauds his performance; however, Neil’s father tells him that he still can’t be an actor, even after seeing how radiant he was on stage, and enrolls him in military school. Later that night, Neil commits suicide as he can see no way out- but being able to pursue his passion no matter how briefly it was allowed to last let him seize the moment like both the poem and Keating taught him. For one night, he got to have everything he wanted, but his time was “still a-flying”. No matter how joyful and optimistic Neil was that day, his life ultimately still circled back to the poem: “and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying”.
10 Things I Hate About You (one of the most iconic rom-coms from the 20th century!) follows Kat, played by Julia Stiles, and the journey of her antisocial character falling in love with bad-boy Patrick, played by Heath Ledger. After finding out that Patrick initially only showed interest in her because he was being paid for it, Kat writes a poem about him in response to the English homework they were set, which was to write a poem.
I hate the way you talk to me
And the way you cut your hair
I hate the way you drive my car
I hate it when you stare
I hate your big dumb combat boots
And the way you read my mind
I hate you so much that it makes me sick
It even makes me rhyme
I hate the way you're always right
I hate it when you lie
I hate it when you make me laugh
Even worse when you make me cry
I hate the way you're not around
And the fact that you didn't call
But mostly I hate the way I don't hate you
Not even close, not even a little bit, not even at all.
The poem gives us a unique insight into how she feels about Patrick’s betrayal, and how she’s processing it. The majority of the poem gives us the impression that she is over him and is simply highlighting her pet peeves and the things she hates about him. The third stanza turns more personal with “I hate the way you’re always right”- showing us that she can acknowledge positive things about him- and “I hate it when you make me laugh”- as she’s telling us that he does make her laugh. The final stanza is when the audience can finally understand that she hasn’t processed his betrayal in the way we thought; we expect her to hate him and move on, but she actually misses him being around and can’t bring herself to hate him- “not even at all”.
The decision to have this realisation in the form of a poem conforms to the romance element of the rom com category, but modernises it by making it a school assignment that uses accessible language and a simple ABAB rhyme scheme. It’s in keeping with poetic conventions, using stanzas and expressing emotion, yet isn’t ‘waxing poetic’ with elaborate metaphors and cheesy declarations of love that would put off the desired young viewers.
4 Weddings and a Funeral follows a group of best friends navigating adulthood and the many weddings it involves attending, and, later, a funeral for a member of the group. One of the main characters, Matthew, recites the poem “Funeral Blues” by W.H. Auden to express the sadness he feels over the loss of his partner.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
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 ever come to any good.
Matthew’s reading of the poem is stunning, and is arguably one of the most high profile poetry scenes in cinematic history. The decision to have him read Auden’s poem envelops the total devastation experienced when grieving. “Stop all the clocks” captures the feeling that everything continues for everyone else, while you are left behind mourning. “Scribbling on the sky the message ‘he is dead’” is the perfect analogy for not understanding how people aren’t aware that the world has just suffered a monumental loss. The line about the sun and the moon, the oceans and the wood, symbolises how wholeheartedly we can love someone and that when they die we don’t know what the world keeps turning for. ‘Funeral Blues’ serves as a reminder that when someone is at the centre of our hearts, they are the centre of our world, too, the axis around which everything spins and rises and sets and grows and turns.
Poetry is proof, in the wise words of John Keating from Dead Poets Society, that “words and ideas can change the world”, and they achieve this by expressing everything we wish we had the words for. Poems can help us express or better understand a new emotion, and realise that everything we feel has been felt by someone before us, too. From the floral symbolism in ‘To The Virgins, To Make Much Of Time, to the simplicity of Kat’s poem in ‘10 Things I Hate About You’, to the metaphors in ‘Funeral Blues’: we can often say in stanza what we can’t in speech- and that is poetry’s superpower.