Film: Poetry in motion pictures

Film offers endless opportunities for writers of all types of literature, so why have poets so rarely exploited its possibilities?

IN TONY Harrison's fiery new verse-film Prometheus, we have that rarest of celluloid beasts: a film directed and written by a poet. But why do so few poets make films?

There have been two major poet-directors this century: Jean Cocteau (who was born before the Lumiere brothers patented their cinematographe and died just as the French New Wave was coming in) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (who began life as a poet writing in an obsolete Italian dialect and died the victim of a gay-bashing on the coast near Rome).

Andrei Tarkovsky, too, though not strictly speaking a poet, is always seen as a director with a highly developed poetical sense, interested in what he calls "the poetry of memory".

In fact, Tarkovsky's father was a reasonably well-known poet in Russia, and films such as Mirror and Nostalgia are studded with quotations from his poetry about the Volga forests and immortality. But Tarkovsky thought that literary elements should not be self-evident in a film; indeed, using a metaphor rich in personal association (the making of a bell in Andrei Rublev is symbolic of all artistic endeavour), he insists that all poetry should be smelted into the whole.

Tony Harrison also uses a smelting image in his movie, when the god Hermes oversees the creation of a huge gold statue of Prometheus in a German foundry, adding the sacrificial bodies of a dozen striking Yorkshire miners in order to temper the metal. But Harrison is an polemicist of the old school and there's no smelting down of his dogged, two-line couplets in Prometheus.

It's been suggested that Harrison has invented a new cinematic form, where poetry is the engine that drives the film. The poetry is up-front and unabashed, not skulking in the wings as Tarkovsky intended. Cocteau would have approved. Like Harrison, Cocteau always considered himself first and foremost a poet and a writer. His interest in cinema was pretty much that of the dilettante. It was merely one of several forms he might use.

"I am not a cineast," he wrote. "I am a poet who uses the camera as a suitable vehicle for allowing us all to dream the same dream."

But Harrison is wary of claiming kinship with the wilting lily of Cocteau. He prefers the bracingMarxist-Freudian barrackings of that great neglected genius, Pasolini.

"To make films is to be a poet," is the Pasolini quote that heads the printed script of Prometheus.

"Pasolini was a poet before he was anything else," insists Harrison. "He is one of the best modern Italian poets, quite aside from his films."

In an intriguing mirror image to Tarkovsky's father/ poetry obsession, it seems that Pasolini began writing as a poet as an act of defiance against his own father, who was an army officer and an enthusiastic Fascist. In 1942 he dedicated his first book of poems to his father; the poems, eccentrically written in his mother's native dialect, were inimical to his father's political views because "Fascism is hostile to dialects" (Pasolini's words).

But Pasolini's interest in dialect was only part of the picture, part ofhis journey towards being a world-class director.

"Stylistically, I am a pasticheur," he told an interviewer in 1968. "I use the most disparate stylistic material - dialect poetry, decadent poetry, certain attempts at Socialist poetry."

It was this interest in politics that led Pasolini to poetry and then away from it - that and being in Rome (and broke) after the publication of his first novel. He started hammering out scripts to pay the rent.

Poets have never been as successful as novelists at turning their hands to the donkey-work of script-writing; they also tend to find the lack of control over the final product intolerable. They chase chimeras and exhalations, something a lunching producer would never understand.

"I'm often asked to write scripts for money," says Harrison. "But I never do - poets don't make merchandise, they make gifts."

Tarkovsky is scathing about poets prostituting themselves for what Cocteau calls "the seventh art".

"I do not understand why anyone with literary talent should ever want to be a scriptwriter," he pronounces in his memoir, Sculpting in Time - forgetful, perhaps, of the shining example of the French poet Jacques Prevert. Prevert was a poet whose scripts from the mid-Thirties exerted a huge influence on the poetic realism of Carne and Renoir, and in 1945 he received an Oscar nomination for Les Enfants du Paradis, still regarded as the greatest French film.

WH Auden, John Betjeman and Dylan Thomas all contributed to film projects but never showed any great interest in exploring the nuts and bolts of cinema.

Novelists tend to have better instincts and fewer scruples on the subject of commercialism: the cross-fertilisation between films and novels is now commonplace. William Boyd has recently finished his first directing job and Ian McEwan is considering following suit.

Poets worry people in the same way that undertakers do. But if their intimacy with language isn't allowed to get in their way, there's no reason why poets shouldn't sit in a director's chair - if they can, just for a while, forget that they are poets. To paraphrase Keats on the subject of poetry, it had better come to film as naturally as leaves to a tree - or it had better not come at all.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried