10 Movies About Poetry That Are Worth Your Time

10-movies-about-poetryPoetry in film can be a tricky thing. Often when something is described as “poetic” in cinema, it can refer to either the sweeping cinematography of a Terrence Malick or Peter Jackson epic, or it can refer to a contrived storyline about fathers and sons over multiple generations with plenty of Biblical allusions and a whole lot of death and misery.
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More often than not, poetry in cinema is used to advance a plot or lend some deeper significance to an event where the protagonist is faced with a dilemma.
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Something like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, for example, where Dylan Thomas’s ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ serves as a kind of refrain for George Clooney’s character undergoing a personal crisis in the heart of deep space; or Four Weddings and a Funeral, where W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ (shock of shocks) is read at the funeral service of one of the film’s deceased main characters.
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What this list serves to do is examine the best that cinema has to offer poetry as a subject, and since so many excellent movies have been made in recent years that manage to treat the topic seriously, it seemed as good a time as any to set it out before you. Enjoy.

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Protest

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

protestTo sin by silence, when we should protest,

Makes cowards out of men. The human race

Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised

Against injustice, ignorance and lust,

The Inquisition yet would serve the law,

And guillotines decide our least disputes.

The few who dare, must speak and speak again

To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,

No vested power in this great day and land

Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry

Loud disapproval of existing ills,

May criticise oppression and condemn

The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws

That let the children and child-bearers toil

To purchase ease for idle millionaires.
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Therefore do I protest against the boast

Of independence in this mighty land.

Call no chain strong which holds one rusted link,

Call no land free that holds one fettered slave.

Until the manacled, slim wrists of babes

Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,

Until the Mother bears no burden save

The precious one beneath her heart, until

God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed

And given back to labor, let no man

Call this the land of freedom.
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“Protest” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, from her 1914 book Poems of Problems, was written at the peak of the Women’s Suffrage movement and just as WWI was about to erupt. A powerful and rallying cry against silence, this poem is an anthem for our own time.

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Writing badly: Would Ezra Pound have blue-pencilled “The Dry Salvages”?

writing-badlyExcerpted from “Writing Badly” in The Virtues of Poetry by James Longenbach.
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Recall the imagist Pound proclaiming that a good poem contains “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” Compare this highly compressed passage from the final movement of The Wasteland

“What is the city over the mountains

Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air

Falling towers

Jerusalem Athens Alexandria

Vienna London

Unreal.”

– with a passage from “The Dry Salvages,” the third of the Four Quartets, written twenty years later. The quartets contain scattered moments of compressed intensity, but these moments are set against passages of rhythmically flaccid and imagistically imprecise writing – passages that, in the context of the quartets ultimately feel more unsettling that the intensities.
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“It seems, as one becomes older,

That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—

Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy

Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,

Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,

Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,

Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—

We had the experience but missed the meaning,

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness. I have said before

That the past experience revived in the meaning

Is not the experience of one life only

But of many generations.”
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One can imagine how quickly Pound’s blue pencil would have excised this passage from The Wasteland, the phrase “even a very good dinner” pushing him probably into despair.
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Read the complete excerpt: writing_badly
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Thanks to everyone who contributed to a truly super session on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” on Thursday, February 23. This is an early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of  T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.
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Please note the following changes to the 2017 schedule: T’ang Dynasty (618–907) poetry has been moved from June to November 23. Our customary summer “free-for-all” session of everyone bringing a favourite poem(s) or excerpt to read and discuss has been moved from July 27 to June 22. On July 27, Josie will lead a reading and discussion on one of the leading lights in the “confessional” school of poetry, the brilliant, but troubled Anne Sexton.

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“What Might Have Been and What Has Been”: How T. S. Eliot Looked at Lives

by Lyndall Gordon

what-might-have-beenFifty years ago, at the time of T. S. Eliot’s death in January 1965, his reputation seemed unassailable. The Waste Land was the poem of the century, and Eliot stood in line with England’s great poet-critics: Dryden, Dr. Johnson, Coleridge and Arnold. In America, the poet had addressed 12,000 in a football stadium on the subject of Criticism. His judgements seemed to come from on high. Then, in the nineties, came a reaction, probing Eliot’s own flaws: the incitement to anti-Semitism in the early poetry; his misogyny; his elitism.
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Now, half a century beyond his lifetime, there are signs that the old, embattled camps—on the one side his supporters who refused to hear a word against him, on the other, detractors who fixed exclusively on prejudice—are fading, to make way for a more nuanced view, one that will not ignore his flaws—as Eliot himself puts it, “things ill done and done to others’ harm”—but not permitting the man’s imperfections to undercut a renewed sense of the poet’s stature. How did he come to transcend his time?

Read the complete article
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A final reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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Time and Permanence in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets

In my beginning is my end….
… to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

By PEDRO BLAS GONZÁLEZ

T.S. Eliot begins Burnt Norton with a reflection of time as cyclical. Because time-past and present are enveloped by time-future, Eliot suggests that “all time is unredeemable.” This means that time cannot be treated in abstraction but as the vital ground of human reality. Lived time, as this is embodied by individual human beings, is Eliot’s main focus in Four Quartets.
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Eliot informs us that “what might have been” is an abstract notion that can only be entertained as speculation. Instead, we only know what has actually come to pass, not what could or might have been. Eliot’s contention serves thoughtful people as a forewarning of the nihilistic demons to be unleashed by postmodernity in the coming decades. Human reality is often stringent, more hit-or-miss than postmodernists care to realize. The poet engages Parmenides’ argument that only being exists. Being denotes permanence. Nothingness, Eliot points out, cannot inform human reality because it never forms part of the present. For this reason, possibility—what might have been—is hemmed in by what has actually taken place:

time-and-permanenceFootfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.…
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Read the complete article
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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With the Four Quartets, TS Eliot’s poetic powers trump his mysticism

We may find the spirituality of this great work questionable, but the humanity behind it and his continuing brilliance, is not

By Roz Kaveney

with-the-four-quartetsEliot at his best is one of the greatest of poets, but it is impossible to divorce much of the best of his work from the most despicable or disturbing parts of his life.
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We have to accept that art is alchemy, that memories, reading, love and fear fuse together, and are transmuted in the process. The rapist Byron, the whoremonger Rochester and the Stalinist quasi-plagiarist Brecht were contemptible human beings, and yet I love their work, and have been changed and influenced by it often for the better. So it is with Eliot. Even if, in the end, we turn our face away from the particular kind of mystical spirituality that in his last and greatest poems he expresses, it is not because of any thinning of his poetic powers.
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It is important to disagree profoundly with George Orwell on this point. In a review of the first three of the Four Quartets, Orwell saw their poetic language as a falling off from the work that he loved – Prufrock, the quatrain poems, The Waste Land – as lacking their tense memorable language and fascinating despair. Because Orwell regarded religious belief as childish and nonsensical, rather than sustainable but wrong, he could not properly respect work to which a sense of the spiritual life is central.

Read the complete review
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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The Predetermined Doom of the Poet: An Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s “East Coker”

By Dustin Kidd

the_predeterminedThe early poetry of T. S. Eliot, poems such as “The Wasteland” or “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, is filled his despair of the human condition. Man is a weak soul, easily tempted and filled with lusts, who has no hope of redemption. These views of man did not change when Eliot converted to Catholicism. Eliot still maintained man’s desperate plight, but supplemented that belief with the notion that man has some hope through the work of Christ. This expanded view first appeared with the publication of “Burnt Norton” in 1935. From this poem, Eliot built a delicately intricate set of Christian devotional poems, Four Quartets.
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The second of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, “East Coker”, is the poet’s reflection on the English village in which his ancestor Sir Thomas Elyot wrote The Governour, and from which Andrew Elyot embarked for the New World (Blamires 41). Eliot understood poetry to be a series of images, phrases, and feelings deposited into the consciousness of the poet and then fused together to form something new (Eliot 55). Often, this collection is unified by a device that has little to do with the actual emotions that are the subject of the poem. In “East Coker,” the village in Somersetshire is only a departure point for two discussions. The primary issue is the determinism that governs man’s activities and ultimately makes a failure of all his pursuits. The second issue is like the first: that the poet’s words fail in their attempts to elucidate the problem of determinism. Eliot prefaces Four Quartets with the words of Heraclitus: “The way up and the way down are the same.” This quote highlights Eliot’s concern with naturalistic determinism in that it reminds the poet that every construction is followed by destruction, every creation is followed by demolition.
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Eliot opens the first section of “East Coker” with the banner “In my beginning is my end” (l.1). This line is a reversal of the motto of Mary Queen of Scots, in my end is my beginning (Blamires 41). Here lies the foundation of Eliot’s notion of determinism. It suggests that a man’s life and death has been determined at the time of his birth. In the act of coming into the world he is resigned merely to enact that which has already been planned for him. Eliot goes on to describe the birth and death cycle of houses, both physical houses and dynasties (Blamires 41). He reminds the reader that every home will eventually be torn down and replaced, every ruling family will yield power to another. Once a house falls its elements are recycled and recombine to form the next generation.

Read the complete essay
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

 

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East Coker does not deserve the taint of TS Eliot’s narcissistic gloom

Simon Jenkins

A Somerset village with a golden-toned church was done a serious disservice by this bleak, American poet.
east_cokerEast Coker church on Good Friday. The day may be immaterial to a non-believer, but to any lover of English churches Holy Week has drenched their architecture in terror and faith down the centuries, depicted in roods, screens, sepulchres and sanctuaries. But why East Coker? The answer is that it was here that TS Eliot chose to evoke, in the second of his Four Quartets, not just the gloom of the Good Friday season but his vision of mystical misery for all humankind. Were Eliot not a devout Anglican we might think him the bleakest of atheists on the strength of this poem. What did the village do to him, that he should use it to evoke such nihilism?
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Eliot’s ashes are buried in East Coker. He discovered that his Elyot ancestors went from here to America in the 1660s and one served on the jury at the Salem witch trials. The family eventually migrated to Missouri, where Eliot himself was born in St Louis. He had no other attachment to the place. In the late-1930s he cycled over when staying with friends nearby and on his last visit in 1939 took some photographs, but did not return before his death in 1965.
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The village was to Eliot rather an idea, a metaphor to put to poetic use, an idyll of England at the start of the second world war. To an expatriate it was also soil, roots, something to which, however much he ignored it, he should dutifully return. “In my beginning is my end,” he began the poem and ended it, “in my end is my beginning”. This faintly oriental paradox leaves Eliot pilgrims scratching their heads before stomping off to the Helyar Arms down the road.

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Another early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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T. S. ELIOT’S FOUR QUARTETS: A PATTERN OF TIMELESS MOMENTS

BY GLENN HUGHES

eliot_guinnessMy first encounter with T. S. Eliot’s masterpiece, the poem-cycle Four Quar­tets, took place when I was twenty years old. The conditions were unusually felicitous. I was visiting family friends in southeast England, and during a pe­riod when my host family was away for a few days, I noticed a BBC program announcement in the newspaper. That evening there was to be a broadcast of Alec Guinness reading Eliot’s Four Quartets in its entirety.
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At the appointed time I turned off all but one lamp, lay down on a couch, and listened. This first encounter with the Quartets was therefore appropriately audito­ry and incantatory. It was also vision-inducing, strangely moving, and deeply perplexing. Eliot has said, famously, that great poetry communicates before it is understood; this experience remains my touchstone for the truth of that remark. (The remark also reminds us that art is concerned with elemental meaning: “communication” occurs before “understanding” because a great poem conveys, through the music and imagery of poetic language, the mean­ingfulness of certain “purely experiential patterns,” prior to any careful anal­ysis of a poem’s meaning or structure.)1
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Within days I had bought a cheap paperback edition of the Quartets and had begun the process of reading and rereading what I am inclined to think of as the greatest English-language poem of the twentieth century. In order to critically explicate some of the spiritual aspects of Eliot’s com­municative aims in Four Quartets, no guidance is more useful than that provided by Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness and history.
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Where Voegelin’s thought was helpful for understanding the viewpoint informing Dickinson’s poetry [alluding to an earlier essay in the book–ed], it is more so, indeed seems tailor-made for understanding the design of Eliot’s thinking and artistic intentions in this work. As we shall see, Eliot’s poetic vision of existence and history in Four Quartets and Voegelin’s philo­sophical analysis of existence and history are mutually compatible and illumi­nating to an extraordinary degree, not only in overall vision but in significant detail.

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Listen to Alec Guinness read Four Quartets
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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T. S. Eliot Four Quartets: The Sign and the Symbol

by Nick Ambler

The use of language, (taking into account the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser), and the cyclical nature of East Coker

the-sign-and-the-symbolIn this discussion I shall be examining Eliot’s use of a range of linguistic devices in East Coker. The discussion will focus on how T. S. Eliot (1888 – 1965) employs the medium of language to parallel and reflect his perception of the cyclical and repetitive patterns of the life and death process. As well as the linguistic aspects of Eliot’s poem I shall be referring to the reader-response theory of Wolfgang Iser to demonstrate how the symbols used to convey the cyclic repetitive patterns of being are as much the fruit of the reader’s interpretation as they are of the poet’s intent. Account is taken of how Eliot’s use of cyclical images, and the language he uses to create them, impacts on the reader’s perception of the division and unity between the physical and spiritual dimensions of human existence.
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It is all-too-easy when studying the Four Quartets [1] to become diverted by the range of erudite references which Eliot uses. One can become so immersed in researching the derivation of the material that a preoccupation with the sources can obfuscate the poet’s primary purpose – the poem as a holistic form, not a series of obscure references.
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In East Coker one is confronted with this challenge. It seems that in this second of the Four Quartets Eliot is not so much displaying scholarly references, as testing the finite nature of language to probe the limitations and the extremities of human thoughts, conditions and existence.
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What has been thus far propounded, however, one could argue, is a reader’s selected and specific response, superimposed on the text. The argument puts language rather than, for example, religion, as the central critical theme of East Coker.

Read the complete essay
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Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.

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