Lights, camera...type!

As Beat fans await the new Allen Ginsberg biopic, Kevin Jackson recites an elegy for the tragic history of poetry on film

If you are old enough, you may recall a much-seen short film from the mid 1980s.

It begins with shots of the Lake District – mighty fells, ominous cloud formations, plashing waterfalls. Elgar flows nobly on the soundtrack, and then is joined by the posh tones of a man declaiming: "I walked around a bit on my own ...." The fellow breaks off, sighs, starts again. "I strolled about without anyone else ...." Breaks off again. "Oh dear, oh dear ...." Finally, we see the chap himself, supping an al fresco pint. Elgar swells in triumph, and so does his voice: "I WANDERED!!!, lonely as a cloud that floats on high ...". And then comes the pay-off to this lager commercial: "Heineken Refreshes the Poets Other Beers Cannot Reach".

An amusing sales pitch; and also, in its modest way, one of the most accurate films ever made about the actual business of writing poems – a business which demands hour after hour of sitting quietly on one's own, fiddling with words until they come more or less right. Julien Temple's film Pandaemonium, a much more sombre take on Wordsworth and his youthful oppo Coleridge, uses exactly the same conceit as the witty lager ad: "I wandered lonely as a cow", Temple's Wordsworth ventures at one point. His sister, Dorothy Wordsworth, suggests that a cloud might be classier.

Even the most supposedly "spontaneous" of poets have been chronic textual tinkerers, though they have tended to be discreet about the habit in case it tarnished their image. Whitman, a wild and impulsive bard if ever there was one, revised "Song of Myself" through edition after edition; while Whitman's 20th-century counterpart, Allen Ginsberg, sweated for hours at his typewriter to craft his breakthrough work, "Howl", as the lavish annotated edition of 1986 showed. Some of Ginsberg's fans were dismayed at this revelation: the assumption that Ginsberg simply opened his mouth and let the universe speak through him used to be a Beat truth universally acknowledged. The English poet Clive Wilmer recalls once going into the lavatory at a 1960s poetry reading and laughing at the cruel graffiti: "Ginsberg Revises!"

Ginsberg is the hero of a forthcoming biopic, Howl, which stars James Franco – who, by the way, catches the poet's idiosyncratic speech patterns with admirable precision. It's easy to see the appeal of Ginsberg for film-makers. His life was crammed with incident – love affairs both gay and straight, a spell in a mental hospital, intense friendships with Kerouac and other Beats, and a juicy obscenity trial. Ginsberg was also the first famous poet to deliver his works with the volume, intensity and passion of a bebop sax solo. The film's sequences of Ginsberg belting out "Howl" to coffee-house audiences shows how thrilling it must have been to hear him when the poem was still new. (On a personal note, I once filmed the middle-aged Ginsberg reading "Howl" to an audience of professors at a literary conference in New York. It was about as wild as a Women's Institute evening.)

And when it comes to showing Allen in the throes of composition ... well, there is a kind of gentle thrill in seeing someone furiously beating up their typewriter in search of precise phrases. That mechanical era is past, and poets who work on laptops will, for the most part, no longer leave a rich paper trail of their revisions for the scholars to ponder. But the new movie about Ginsberg and company is an honourable exception to the otherwise general rule that poets on film still go in for pen, pencil or quill. And are hardly ever seen to scratch out words or stanzas.

For example, take a shufty at the notebooks of Janet Jackson's character in Poetic Justice (incidentally, a strong contender for the title of silliest film ever made about a poet). She writes in pencil; and the pages are utterly clean, with not so much as an altered comma. Zero out of 10 for plausibility, though the filmic convention is forgivable. We tend to say that extremely boring experiences are "like watching paint dry"; but watching paint being applied to canvas and drying on the big screen can sometimes be an exhilarating thing, as in Scorsese's Life Lessons, or – a more extreme version – in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse. If you sat in a cinema watching some equally sedentary man or woman scribbling in silence for two hours, you might well start to hunger for the raw excitement of a paint-drying sequence.

Painting, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, dance and film-making itself: all are eminently well-suited to certain types of screen adaptation, and often fairly accurate adaptation at that: think of Lust for Life, Savage Messiah (and lots of other Ken Russell films), Topsy-Turvy, The Belly of an Architect, The Red Shoes, Day for Night. But the creation of poetry eventually boils down to a sheet of paper and a pen. To be sure, films about poets can and do strive to provide adequate visual counterparts to their words. This is a long and distinguished tradition – Auden's verses in Night Mail, for example, or Blake and Milton in Words for Battle, by Humphrey Jennings, himself a poet. It takes uncommon talent, though, to do this in ways which do not seem either like a redundant spelling-out of a poem's literal sense, or an irritating irrelevance.

Faced with this obstacle, film-makers have tended to take the fact of poetic composition more or less for granted – or to leave it out entirely – and to opt for more colourful details from Lives of the Poets. This is a crowd-pleasing option as well as an easy one, since in the popular imagination the very word "poet", when it does not imply someone who is utterly wet and a weed, still tends to summon up a wild boyo like Dylan Thomas rather than a boring insurance executive like Wallace Stevens, a spat-wearing banker like Eliot or a grumpy librarian like Larkin. A short roll-call of examples, including both the sublime and the daft:

Drunks and drug fiends

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Ken Russell and Pandaemonium); Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Russell's television film Dante's Inferno; Charles Bukowski in Barfly (Mickey Rourke) and Factotum (Matt Dillon); Dylan Thomas (Matthew Rhys) in John Maybury's The Edge of Love; Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle; Michael Caine's alcoholic teacher in Educating Rita.

Martyrs, rebels and weirdos

Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) in Total Eclipse; Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls; the nameless protagonist of the justly neglected British avant-garde Herostratus; T S Eliot (Willem Dafoe) in Tom and Viv; Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (Daniel Craig played Ted Hughes).

Swashbucklers, lovers and romantic heroes

David Niven's Marvell-quoting fighter pilot cum poet in A Matter of Life and Death – not only one of Powell and Pressburger's best films, but one of the best British films ever; Fredric March as Robert Browning and Norma Shearer as Elizabeth Barrett in The Barretts of Wimpole Street; William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love; Depardieu as Cyrano de Bergerac; Fabrice Luchini as Molière, Byron in Bride of Frankenstein (a whimsical delight by James Whale), The Bad Lord Byron (Dennis Price), in Lady Caroline Lamb (Richard Chamberlain) and Nikos Koundouros's Byron; John Keats in Jane Campion's Bright Star.

By no means a contemptible list, though it shows how selective the poet-picking has been. Novelists and dramatists, in their less expensive media, have ranged wider and aimed higher: Milton has been the subject of at least one novel, as has John Clare, and Virgil, and countless others, including the Roman dialect poet Belli (in Anthony Burgess's novel ABBA ABBA).

There are some other poets whose lives have been so extraordinary as virtually to scream out for the screen: Ezra Pound's, for example. Pound's imprisonment by the US Army for treason at the end of the Second World War offers not merely gripping drama but a chance to ponder questions that go deep to the heart of poetry. When does a word become a deed? (Perhaps when, like Pound, one uses the broadcasting services of an enemy nation, Italy, to transmit messages urging disaffection on Allied troops.) Can poetry sometimes be literally – not just in a Powell/Pressburger film – a matter of life and death? Not everyone's beaker is full of the warm south; yet poetry is surely preferable to yet more bardic boozing and wenching.

The greatest representation of a poet on film is surely Cocteau's Orphée, with its brilliantly simple metaphor of poetic inspiration as cryptic messages from the Underworld, heard on a car radio. We do not hear any of Orpheus's own verses, and we don't need to hear them. The film itself is a poem.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game