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Ekphrasis in reverse: The use and abuse of poetry in popular films

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1 Ekphrasis in reverse: The use and abuse of poetry in popular films
Bent Sørensen Aalborg University, Denmark

2 Abstract This paper discusses the uses and abuses of poetry in two recent, popular American and British films. Poetry in some instances travels from the field of high culture and is recuperated from obscurity by being quoted in mainstream feel-good dramas. However, along the transtextual path something is also lost, and rather than simple quotation, what happens to the poems in question is something beyond the list of relations suggested in the call for papers: “quotation, allusion, plagiarism, pastiche, parody, counterfeit[ing]…”

3 Abstract cont’d In 4 Weddings and a Funeral (1993) we all share a common tear at the death of one of the minor characters, especially when his male lover recites a W.H. Auden poem at his funeral. Poetry is thus used to heighten emotional expression and character empathy, but is only present in this one interlude in what remains a quintessential low culture product, a romantic comedy. In contrast a thoroughly melodramatic film such as Dead Poets Society (1989) uses Walt Whitman throughout as a poetic beacon, whose poems and life are suggested as a model for the young protagonists to follow in their quest for individuality and Bildung. In this film poetry functions as a metaphor for pedagogy and guided self-expression. 

4 Abstract cont’d Despite the contrasts between how poetry is represented in the two movies, both can be regarded as instances of ekphrasis in reverse. In these films the presence of poems as high culture manifestations is further used to signify queerness, which in the English case is safely bracketed via its status as the one funeral among four weddings, and which in the American film is only suggested as a deeply buried subtext (a homosocial rather than homoerotic bonding). Why is poetry queer and Scottish, or mad and Indian when used as reverse ekphrastic interludes in popular films such as these?

5 Poetry and Film Poetry as paratext: Titles etc.
Poetry as accompaniment: Quotation Poets as subject matter: Biopics Poetry as subject matter: Theme (or Metaphor for Life)

6 Ekphrasis ek (out) phrasein (to speak) – speaking out
Give a full account Make a vivid description Perform a translation from one medium to another, for instance image into words

7 Poetry as Ekphrasis Poem about an image (portrait)
Images about a poem (portrait in words), i.e. reverse ekphrasis

8 Ut pictura poesis Ut pictura poesis: “as is painting so is poetry,” is often either implicitly or explicitly reversed to “as is poetry so is painting,” to indicate an extended analogy, if not an identification, between the two media. This classical theory of parallels between the arts was widely held and developed, especially from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, and served as the testing ground for theories of imitation and as the incubator for systematic aesthetics. The discussions often revolved around “natural” (painting) and “arbitrary” (language) signs and symbols, and the ques- tions, usually unstated until the eighteenth century, were “How does painting or poetry communicate?” and “What are the limits of each medium in time and space?”

9 4 Weddings and a Funeral, 1993 Directed by Mike Newell, written by Richard Curtis Comedy of manners, happy ending, tragic interlude featuring poetry

10 4 Weddings

11 “Funeral Blues” 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.

12 “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. 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 woods; For nothing now can ever come to any good.

13 W.H. Auden,

14 Auden caricature

15 Auden in the garden

16 Isherwood & Auden

17 Auden as his own double Photo by Cecil Beaton

18 Auden & Chester Kallman

19 Another Auden poem O but he was fair as a garden in flower, As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower, When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart; 'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey': But he frowned like thunder and he went away. O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover, You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other, The sea it was blue and the grass it was green, Every star rattled a round tambourine; Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay: But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

20 Sexuality in Auden Auden did not categorize himself a gay poet, but had no trouble with his sexual orientation. Knowledgeable readers and associates knew Auden was gay, despite the fact that he never published any of his blatantly homoerotic work under his own name. Among that “blatant” work were sexually explicit poems written in German in the 1920s, “Pleasure Island” and a poem not included in any of his collections called “A Day for a Lay” which describes the process of picking up and performing oral sex on a 24-year-old mechanic named Bud.

21 Reception of Auden Auden's early poetry breathed an air of revolutionary freshness. In language at once exotic and earthy, alternately banal and elegant, colloquial yet faintly archaic, Auden's verse diagnosed psychic disturbances with an extraordinary resonance. Although most of his early poems have their origins in his personal anxieties, especially those related to his homosexuality and his search for psychic healing, they seemed to voice the fears and uncertainties of his entire generation. - Claude J. Summers

22 Dead Poets Society, 1989 Directed by Peter Weir, written by Tom Schulman Drama, tragic ending, comic interludes featuring poetry


24 Sweaty Toothed Madman

25 Walt Whitman ( )

26 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, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

27 O Captain! cont’d O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung -- for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths -- for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You've fallen cold and dead. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

28 Song of Myself 52 I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

29 Calamus poem We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving, Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making, Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching, Armed and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, No law less than ourselves owning—sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening, Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf of the sea-beach dancing, Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing, Fulfilling our foray.

30 Calamus symbolism Whitman's symbol for gay love is the calamus plant, calamus acornus, colloquially called the “sweet-flag” which he refers to as “the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.” It is a hardy perennial that grows by ponds in the mid-eastern States, and has three-foot high tufts, long pointed leaves, yellow-green spikes, and huge sprawling rhizomes (tubers or “roots”) that closely resemble penises in various stages of tumescence. It is named after the river god Calamus who grieved for the death by drowning of his boy lover Carpus. – Rictor Norton

31 Song of Myself 45 O span of youth! ever-push'd elasticity!
O manhood, balanced, florid and full. My lovers suffocate me, Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin, Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night, Crying by day, Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head, Calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush, Lighting on every moment of my life, Bussing my body with soft balsamic busses, Noiselessly passing handfuls out of their hearts and giving them to be mine.

32 Song of Myself cont’d A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span or make it impatient, They are but parts, any thing is but a part. See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that, Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that. My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain, The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms, The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there.

33 Whitman nude?

34 Whitman with Doyle

35 Whitman in a sea of poems

36 Sexuality in Whitman Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book's reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called “Song of Myself,” “The Sleepers,” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” which are ‘about’ sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of ‘manly love’ and ‘sexual love,’ with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: “amativeness” for man-woman love and “adhesiveness” for “manly love.” – James E. Miller, Jr.

37 Reception of Whitman Betsy Erkkila relates the case of a public service announcement dealing with Whitman's sexual orientation (in an attempt to offer support to lesbian and gay teenagers) that was refused by all six Philadelphia television stations, in two cases on the advice of the director of the Walt Whitman Poetry Center, who feared that the announcement would be “detrimental” to the Center's educational efforts. Leaves of Grass still appears on the usual lists of banned books, and anyone who has taught Whitman knows that both of the objections current in 1855 remain firmly entrenched: his poems are not really poems, and whatever they are, they are “dirty.” – Jason Paul Mitchell

38 An All-American Queer? Whitman is America's greatest embarrassment, because if what he says about democracy is true, then the American ideal of universal equality is inherently homosexual, and homosexual love is the physiological basis of democracy. Whitman is a much more subversive and radical poet than even Jean Genet, and American school children for the past half-century have been carefully protected from exposure to America's greatest poet. - Rictor Norton

39 4 Weddings and a Funeral Primary objective in life is to love and marry (in fact marry the one you love) Marriage only temporarily pauses in the face of death, but love persists To the marriage of true minds we admit no impediments… (cf. Shakespeare)

40 4 Weddings cont’d Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. Not even queerness! (Although the vast majority of the characters are straight….)

41 Dead Poets Society Carpe diem To thine own self be true
Don’t be afraid to be different Don’t be too different, if you can help it It’s OK to be different as long as your father doesn’t know how different you are Acting out/Coming out can be fatal!

42 Discourse Hierarchy in 4 Weddings: Queer - Straight
Queerness is an anomaly but acceptable if bracketed by hetero-sexuality Queerness is punishable by death in a figurative sense

43 Discourse Hierarchy in 4 Weddings: Sexuality and nation
Queerness is related to Scottish-ness, a form of primitivism English-ness and American-ness can go together, but not without prolonged negotiation Scottish-ness is therefore the excluded middle in that equation

44 Discourse Hierarchy in Dead Poets Society: Queer - Straight
Queerness is an anomaly, but homo-social behaviour is acceptable if bracketed by hetero-sexuality Queerness is punishable by death, but suicide is sufficient self-punishment Queerness is related to art, poetry and teaching (cf. pederasty)

45 Discourse Hierarchy in Dead Poets Society: Nation/Ethnicity and Sexuality
Queerness is always already inscribed in American-ness, but covertly… Primitivism (Native Indian) is equated with virility, but still a bit queer… Bonding and mating rituals are closely intertwined

46 It’s all straightened out now…
The (happy) end: It’s all straightened out now…

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