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World Poetry Day: What is the best use of poems in cinema?

What are the best uses of poetry on the big screen? (Pictured here: Before Sunrise & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind)
What are the best uses of poetry on the big screen? (Pictured here: Before Sunrise & Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) Copyright Columbia Pictures - Focus Features
Copyright Columbia Pictures - Focus Features
By David Mouriquand
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Whether it’s a quoted sonnet or some long forgotten quatrain, some films are bolstered by the recital of a good poem...

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Hollywood loves delving into literary classics in search of inspiration – and poetry is a huge source of inspiration in filmmaking.

Whether it’s a quoted sonnet or some long forgotten quatrain, some films are bolstered by the recital of a good poem. After all, what better way to tug on the heartstrings or enrich a thematical strand than to include well-chosen verse?

On World Poetry Day, Euronews Culture counts down the best uses of poetry in film – without so much considering the overall quality of the films themselves, but rather how well the poem has been woven into the fabric of the film’s narrative and tone.

10) Interstellar (2014): Dylan Thomas – Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(…)
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Dylan Thomas’ defiance-against-death poem ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ features in several films: 1972’s Butterflies Are Free, 1995’s Dangerous Minds and Interstellar (2014), to name but a few.

Christopher Nolan’s use of Thomas’ poignant poem in Interstellar (2014) is the most emphatic and, yes, heavy-handed. It works well within the film’s narrative, specifically when it comes to buttressing the themes of fatherhood and the pioneering spirit that humanity possesses when faced with the loss of hope. However, though thematically apt, it does feel like a rather an obvious choice of verse and its clunky repetition by Michael Caine’s character comes across as Nolan looming over the viewer in a “Have you got it yet? Look how much attention I paid in Year 8” sort of way.

Still, the inclusion of the Welsh poet’s poem (in form of a villanelle) shows how poetry can be used to maximize a film’s thematic content. Provided it’s used sparingly.

9) Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001): William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

William Blake is an oft-quoted poet in films. Here, Lara Croft’s deceased father leaves her a note in order to find the film’s MacGuffin. That memo from beyond the grave contains some lines from Blake as a clue to put her on the right track…

This is not the subtlest use of poetry but it adds a mysterious dimension to Croft’s quest – elevated to something otherworldly through verse – and serves as an ethereal glint of genius in a mediocre video game adaptation.

8) Red Dragon (2002): William Blake – Auguries of Innocence

A Robin red breast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage

Blake and his 'Auguries of Innocence' again… 

The crafty Dr Lecter toys with Agent Will Graham and uses these two lines to lead him to better understand the motivations of the Tooth Fairy killer, who is obsessed with one of Blake’s paintings.

Once more, Blake’s verse is laced with mystery and its inclusion makes the film more fascinating (and well-read) than it actually is.

7) Invictus (2009): William Ernest Henley - Invictus

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

'Invictus' was written by William Ernest Henley after his leg was amputated, and was made famous because Nelson Mandela recited it to fellow prisoners on Robben Island. He stated that the poem empowered him and thus, Clint Eastwood made it central to his 2009 film. He even named the film after the poem.

The film doesn’t dwell on the verse too much but wisely includes a scene which sees Mandela (Morgan Freeman) presenting a copy of Henley’s poem to Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon). 

In reality, Mandela gave Pienaar a copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s 'Citizenship in a Republic', but considering Invictus encapsulates Mandela’s long journey, it seems a solid choice, one pregnant with meaning.

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6) Blade Runner (1982): William Blake - America: A Prophesy

Fiery the Angels rose and as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.

Last Blake to make this list, promise.

This is an odd one as Blake’s verse is misquoted in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic, but deliberately so.

Nexus-6 combat replicant Roy Batty (played to perfection by the late Rutger Hauer) says that “Fiery the angels fell, Deep thunder roll’d around their shores, Burning with the fires of Orc”.

What feels like a glitch in his programming (much like David and Walter in Scott's 2017 film Alien: Covenant when the evil David misattributes the poem 'Ozymandias' to Byron instead of Shelley) actually carries more weight. The change from “rose” to “fell” is significant as it not only portrays the replicants as fallen angels but shows that, as angels, they are at the mercy of a god – in this case Tyrell, who cruelly created imperfect beings with a short life.

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The inclusion of the paraphrased poem adds a powerful layer to the replicants’ plight and shows that they may not be the heartless antagonists we initially feared, but rather tragic antiheroes fated to fall.

5) Before Sunrise (1995): W.H. Auden – As I Walked Out One Evening

The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
And the first love of the world.
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime
‘O let not Time deceive you
You cannot conquer Time.

During a walkabout scene in Before Sunrise, a Viennese poet asks the two would-be lovers Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) to pick a word so that he can write a spur of the moment poem. His ‘milkshake’ verse is terrific, but it is the use of Auden’s poem later on that strikes a chord in this beautiful film.

The use of Auden here is both simple and effective, seamlessly illustrating the point that these modern star-crossed lovers do not have time on their side, and that time spent wishing is indeed time wasted…

4) Dead Poet's Society (1989): Walt Whitman – O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain!
Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack,
The prize we sought is won

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Of course this one was going to come up…

In Dead Poet’s Society, we follow Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating as he inspires his students to think beyond graphs and strict curriculums but actually get to the core of what poetry - and life - is. Considering the film is essentially an ode to poetry, there are too many poems to choose from – Frost, Tennyson, Shakespeare are all quoted.

However, it had to be Whitman, who is quoted several times. 

Mr. Keating jokingly tells his students they may refer to him as ‘O Captain, My Captain’ and the final scene sees the boys rebel against authority, stand on their desks and salute the man that may have changed their lives.

 Even if the first line of the poem is the only one quoted, this verse is now forever linked with Peter Weir’s film.

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3) Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994): W.H. Auden – Funeral Blues

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.

Another Auden poem, and one of the most memorable. 

Just try arguing that Mike Newell’s film would have been as impactful without the inclusion of this poem...

It is tearily recited by John Hannah at the titular funeral, the film’s pivotal moment. Without this verse, the scene (and the film as a whole) would not have achieved heartbreaking and classic status.

2) The Piano (1993): Thomas Hood - Silence

There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave – under the deep deep sea,
Or in the wide desert where no life is found,
Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound.

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Starting a film on a few well-chosen lines of verse is very powerful - but ending a film using the same poem has a goosebump-inducing effect.

Director Jane Campion nailed it by looping the loop and choosing a poem by Thomas Hood that is not only appropriate because of the mute protagonist Ada (Holly Hunter) but also because it’s a haunting foreshadowing of the titular piano’s watery grave.

A masterclass use of verse.

1) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Alexander Pope – Eloisa to Abelard

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.

Titled after Pope’s poem based on a well-known medieval story, director Michel Gondry adds layers of poignancy and meaning with the inclusion of the poet's verse epistle. It recounts a tragic love affair where the heroine’s only comfort was to forget.

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Sound familiar? The cited extract is about praying for forgetfulness, that the act of forgetting might be easier than forgiving. 

Within the context of the film, it rings true and has a mirror effect – the film is all about deleting memories in order to move on and how painful recollections are not only inextricably linked to joyful ones, but can also paradoxically be the ones we cherish the most.

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