Keep Me In By Keeping Me Out: Poetry On Screen

by Carrie Oeding
Featured Art: Viennese Café: The Man of Letters by Moriz Jung

In the late Nineties I repeatedly watched Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool (1997), not really certain why. I had first rented it only because Parker Posey was in it, but the cult film stayed with me like the Sylvia Plath poems I fanatically read as a teen in my small county library in rural Minnesota. Both seemed like mostly impenetrable, but meaningful code. Both were transgressive.

The big difference between these obsessions was that I trusted what Plath was doing and didn’t trust Hartley. Or, I didn’t trust my obsession with the film, which follows the lives of two aspiring writers. What I find compelling twenty years later is that I have the same response. Henry Fool is funny, repulsive, wildly off the mark about the process of writing, and wildly provocative; and I now think that it’s something this otherwise explicit film withholds—the book-length, controversial poem which the plot is built on—that continues to fascinate and repel. Though we’re bombarded with gruesome details of the characters’ lives, we never have to (get to?) hear or read the increasingly mythic poem that one of the main characters writes, and which brings him incredible success. In fact, if we did, it would probably ruin the story and too clearly define what the film thinks good art is. Without it, though, we’re also left in the dark about the film’s judgment. We’re left questioning. Still, the fact that the poem remains inaccessible to the audience does make the mystery of the practice of poetry more compelling. Plus, we’re never made to roll our eyes about a “good” movie poem that’s actually very bad.

Henry Fool follows the buffoonish criminal and self-styled important writer, Henry, who rents a room in Queens from a dysfunctional family: a mother and her two adult children, Fay and Simon Grimm. Henry seems to be running from the authorities, who we find out later are investigating him for sexual relationships with minors. I am never fully invested in Henry, and the film doesn’t seem to want me to be. In fact, I am puzzled by what it’s really trying to say with its characterization of this arrogant, over-testosteroned sleazebag, and with its tonal shifts. Hartley vacillates between presenting Henry as a joke—a dramatic, wasted wannabe—and an influential mentor to Simon. Between a ne’er-do-well narcissist and a somewhat reformed, somewhat virtuous husband and protector (late in the film, he spuriously marries Fay after she gets pregnant, and he defends a young girl against abuse).

Simon, meanwhile, is a garbage man and a bad-postured outcast who gets beat up by neighborhood drug addicts. He’s got nothing going for him. (The film is almost hilariously dismal.) Amidst this grit, Henry continues to posture about the great American memoir he’s written, and he gives Simon a notebook of his own. Simon fills the book with a poem that is so effective it brings various characters to tears and even causes one of them to harm herself. It eventually gets outsized attention after he drops it off at a publishing house. Consequently, Simon also finds out at the publisher’s that Henry was not an author of theirs, as he had claimed, but a former janitor. Simon’s book eventually wins a Pulitzer and Simon the Nobel Prize.

Where is poetic talent lurking? In garbage collection and the hard-scrabble stuff of bad neighborhoods, the film seems to suggest. It’s never clear, though, if this is a sincere belief.

The dark comedy makes for a good story, for the most part, even though it sometimes loses control and seems unclear in its stances. The film pokes fun at literary fame and clichéd ideas of “the writer,” via Henry, while also commenting on what fame does to people when they want it and don’t want it. As Simon’s poem gets passed around the neighborhood and his neighbors have different reactions to it—calling it genius, transformative, or pornography—it’s almost as if Hartley is wishing for a world in which poetry could have this much impact. At the same time, the film seems to be lampooning writers who take themselves too seriously, who think they might actually be read. Still, the focus on the effect of the poem allows the film to have some wiggle room. Could this poem actually be great? Could this film? Are things that break the rules inherently misunderstood? And are the poem and the film saying something revelatory about the power of art? A teenage-me thought so. But the message I took from it, even then, was just that a revelation could exist. Not that it did. As we ask ourselves all of these questions, meanwhile, the story relies on a major cliché without seeming to investigate it—it accepts whole-hog that the point of view the culture needs is that of an uneducated, white-male everyman. An outsider genius.

These clichés come from limited understanding of poets and poetry, and those limitations create skepticism in the general public about poets, like me, who try to exist in real life. I once took a few art classes taught by talented working artists. One of my teachers doubted me when I said I was a writer. I had a handful of degrees in creative writing and a position at a university. My first collection of poems was coming out. I felt like a somewhat-kinda-actual poet. I couldn’t draw, had never really drawn, and just decided I wanted to start taking classes because visual art was important to my poetry. Most of my teachers and classmates were kind or indifferent about my lack of experience, and I loved every minute. Though I was trespassing, I was not self-conscious. But my teacher scratched her head at break once and said: “I’d be interested to see your book,” sounding as if it would be what she suspected, a counterfeit passport or a collection of ink-stained napkins. Maybe it was just the way I held myself, or something I didn’t project (something poetic?). But it is curious that even a painter would doubt the validity of a poet in her classroom. Poets, maybe, are creatures we don’t encounter anymore.

As Henry Fool presents a classic writerly character—alcohol-soaked, brooding, sexually irrepressible and harmful—it mocks the caricature but also trades on its power. And it’s the durability of this image that I believe made it difficult for another artist to see me as a real-life poet. The instinct to present poets as stormy, larger-than-life figures may be one of the weaknesses, in general, of films with poet characters, and it certainly skews viewers’ understanding of what it means to write.

*

Like Henry Fool, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson wants to show poetry in “real” life and invites us to think about the character of the poet. Poetry is written on screen; poetry is in Paterson’s head. Differently from Hartley, though, Jarmusch gives us a poet who’s not tumultuous, not seeking fame. Paterson, played by Adam Driver, is an isolated, quiet bus driver who writes, and the film is an homage to William Carlos Williams’s poetry in general, rather than a direct (impossible) embodiment of the epic book-length poem, Paterson. Still, it maintains some of the poem’s sense of quiet, and quiet seems to be the way the film wants us to think of poets. Set in contemporary Paterson, New Jersey, it shows us Paterson the bus driver writing stanzas outside of work and living a modest, near-silent life with his more vibrant wife.

In both Henry Fool and Paterson, we can’t escape the poems. The difference: in Henry Fool the poets are bombastic and their unseen work dominates our imagination. In Paterson, the poet is silent and we’re asked to evaluate his actual words. In Henry Fool the withheld poem is always present as we see its (implausibly large) effect within the community, and then the whole world. In Paterson, only the viewers, the poet, and his wife are reading the character’s work. Paterson writes poems, we read them on screen, and we have to evaluate. (Jarmusch commissioned the poet, Ron Padgett, to write these original pieces.) The film is the poem, in a way, not its embellished effect, and Paterson isn’t destined to be plucked from obscurity and published into fame like Simon Grimm. Nor is Paterson a dramatic character on screen. He goes to work, writes, and walks the couple’s dog to his neighborhood bar for a nightly drink. Paterson barely talks. Paterson is just a person who likes Willam Carlos Williams and writes his own poetry. Isn’t it nice to live a quiet life in which you write poetry for yourself, the film asks? How do you live and write based on Williams’s celebrated maxim no ideas but in things?

Where Henry Fool shows us poetry emerging from messy lives, Paterson wants us to imagine a calmer existence for the poet.

Because Paterson, the town, and Williams’s poetry are consistent mile markers in the film, I expected the narrative to inhabit Williams’s ideas, and the film does create tension and purposeful confusion with its literary allusions and references to Williams’s biography. After all, Paterson reads William Carlos Williams. He writes poetry similar to the work in Williams’s spare, concrete Spring and All. He picks up fragments of public, urban conversations with a Williams-like interest in American vernacular. And he even thinks to himself, in voice-over, Williams’s “no ideas but in things” while listening to a rapper freestyle in a laundromat. In that moment, the film cuts to a shot of the washer washing clothes. Ah, things, we’re asked to think. But does this shot have an impact akin to Williams’s poems?

In an earlier scene Paterson fixates on an Ohio Blue Tip matchbox, writing a love poem through this object. But he doesn’t seem to have chemistry with “things” in the film. Or, for that matter, with his wife. Laura is the more creative and animated one in the relationship, but she is brushed aside as having hair-brained ideas to get rich by expressing herself, like selling cupcakes at a farmer’s market. The film implies that her extroverted creativity is less “real” than her husband’s interior, which we have no access to except for the poems he writes on screen. He writes in notebooks that only his wife has read. She urges him to take the notebooks to a copy center and make copies. “I’ll even do it for you,” she offers, because he might want to show his “poems to the world one day.” Laura and Patterson, then, become the caricatures of supportive muse and unrecognized genius respectively. The film, though, insists on the idea of genius without us getting to see the thing itself in the poetry, and this is particularly frustrating because Williams’s focus on discrete image could translate wonderfully to the screen. Though Jarmusch gestures, we’re never allowed to linger with images alone.

I wonder what the film could be if the clichés and poems were replaced with more things, slower images. How can a camera have chemistry with “things” in a film? How can a film successfully communicate about reading or writing poetry, or the poetic?

Each time Paterson writes on a shift break or at the Great Falls of the Passaic River, instrumental music begins and the words of his poems appear in white script on screen. It reminds me of the scene in Walk the Line when Reese Witherspoon, as June Carter Cash, stumbles into writing “Ring of Fire.” The lines just “come” to both characters in a sitting, and they sound out the words as if learning an alphabet. It’s poetry-as-immediate-inspiration, and it’s hard to watch.

It is of course difficult to film the moment, or moments, of poetic discovery, since the actual act of writing isn’t visually interesting or even an individual act at all. But Paterson’s writing moments thud. They don’t seem to emerge from the things he glimpses during his day. There isn’t enough world-making in the film. Nothing depends on a red wheelbarrow, gazed by the camera. And we never truly experience no-ideas-but-in-things.

This failing might arise from a similar misunderstanding of poetry that plagues Henry Fool. In one scene, Laura asks Paterson to read Williams’s “This is Just to Say,” and it’s never been more obvious that this poem, despite the savoring and hmm-ing that Laura has in reaction, is not a poem to savor. It’s a poem that uses plain language and the conceit that it’s a handwritten note in order to be anti-poetic. I wanted to experience that cinematic translation, to see something “so sweet / and so cold,” but it didn’t happen.

I am surprised by the uselessness of things and images in Paterson because Jarmusch’s Western Dead Man (1999) has always felt to me like it was influenced by poetry, without actually being about poetry. The protagonist, William Blake, is often inexplicably mistaken for the poet William Blake as he travels through the untamed West, and there are so many “things” that Jarmusch focuses on to make this world: a train, tobacco, a hat, faces. I think of other films—The 400 Blows, Moonlight—that treat images the way poems do, that use associative leaps and other tools used in poetry, and I’m left frustrated that I have yet to see that in a film about poetry.

Both Henry Fool and Paterson, though, get it a little bit right. One attempts to, and mostly succeeds in, depicting the deliberate lifestyle of a working poet, but it forces us to consider weak poetry that wakes us up from the dream. The other—in withholding the “great” poem—creates some of the mystery and longing we feel when we encounter challenging poems. And its logical leaps sometimes approximate poetic logic. But its tonal inconsistency leaves us with poet characters who are essentially ridiculous in their canned transgressiveness and overnight success.

I’ll admit I mostly don’t want to see poets or hear poetry in film. It’s so often embarrassing! And maybe that embarrassment starts with the word poetic, and all the awful ways poetic is used in our culture. The word creates expectations of grandeur, or self-seriousness. Of wisdom, or phony wispiness. It makes us think of the eternal, not of entertainment. And it invites us in—this will be short—while keeping us out—this will be deep.

You don’t really know if your work is good until you’re dead anyway, someone, who didn’t read poetry, once told me. It’s an idea that comes up in Henry Fool, too. How poetic.

At the same time, I wouldn’t get into an argument with someone who wanted to claim Jarmusch’s Dead Man was poetic. Poetic can mean world-making, resonant, lyrical, associative. And that film, like the best poems, has an incredible vision of people, places, and things. In Paterson, Jarmusch just can’t figure out how to tell the story of the Ohio Blue Tip matchbox or the laundry machine. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking I’d rather be reading Stacey Szymaszek’s A Year from Today or A Journal of Ugly Sites, in which the dailiness of her poems makes me incredibly excited about things, ordinariness, readymades. The work is too good to quote out of context, which is something films about poetry don’t always understand.


Carrie Oeding is the author of Our List of Solutions, from 42 Miles Press. Her work has appeared in such places as Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Pleiades, and Columbia Poetry Journal. She is the 2020 recipient of the Rhode Island Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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