Thursday, May 1, 2008

Poetry, Movies, and Pop Music

Howdy! Things are back to relatively normal. Thanks to Virilelit and Ravenswingpoetry for the links.

Last time, I left with two quotes about poetry and movies. The first by a certain brilliant young man name of Aaron Shapiro.

I will resume by letting Aaron speak for me:

"If the goal is to popularize poetry, then we need more poems that can be made into movies. Beowulf, Troy. Not great movies, no ... but only that kind of multimedia, franchise approach has any chance in the contemporary entertainment market. Look what happened to sales of Neruda after Il Postino! Imagine: The Wasteland, starring Keanu Reeves and directed by David Cronenberg; The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock directed by Robert Altman, starring Anthony Hopkins!

The real problem is that the lyric mode does NOT lend itself to film at all. Narrative poems and biopics that displace the poetry in favor of the poet's life are pretty much all Hollywood can handle. Seriously, how do you shoot the Dream Songs?

Performance poetry offers a different option. We need more poetry shows. Def Jam is fine if you’re a postconfessional poet and have a sense of the melodrama slam poetry requires. And if you’re cool looking and not too avant. Kevin Young, for example, is brilliant and cool looking, and every bit as hiphoppishly lyrical as Saul Williams. But he’s not on Def Jam. Too odd, too much aggressive enjambment, and far too much terza rima. In short, too poetic.

It’s never going to beat out film, though. As a culture, we love and need our stories, perhaps more than our poems, especially since the lyric has been coopted by pop music anyway. Still, maybe we could get some poems and poets inserted into films, product-placement-wise. For example, in the inevitable American Psycho 3, instead of rattling on for hours about Huey Lewis, our intrepid serial murderer might extemporize on My Last Duchess before chainsawing his present last duchess’s face off. And Auden said poetry makes nothing happen. . ."

And there you have it.

For my part, I think that Aaron wraps up the "let's hold off on this lyric poetry crap for a while" experiment I've been proposing. See that bold hyperlink up there? the one just a few lines up? Read it again in paraphrase:

Lyric poetry has been replaced by pop music.

Now, this may be overstating a wee bit. But not a wee lot. It's pretty obvious that poetry that is short enough has always had some stiff competition in song (what the heck did you think all those ballads Robbie Burns collected were?) and when we have the revolution digitized (i.e. one is likely to have far more .mp3s than books), it's easy for short poetry (especially heartfelt lyric poetry) to get washed pretty effectively away (all that angst that went into loving poetry now has its own genre of music). What this means for me is that I'm done arguing against lyric poetry -- I will focus instead on Aaron's first three paragraphs. I will defer to Aaron's statement on this and if anyone continues to harp on it, I will simply ask if their little poem is catchier than "Dancing Queen." The sad truth is that it probably won't be.

So what to do? Before I go much further, I think we should be introduced to this theorist. Granted, B.H.O. is an interesting cat but I think what's far more interesting is those organizing principles he seems to be working with.

This clears up a second sticking point for some of my readers. Audacity and arrogance. If you want to change poetry and our perception of poetry you certainly can't do it by paying your dues and doing it the old way. The old way hasn't worked. The old way has gotten us less recognition in a year than genitalia gets in 36 hours. So if you get all bristly because I tell you you must do something or you have to do something, get over it. Those other folks certainly are wrong -- their theories of audience and subject and prosody are incoherent if existent (or free from poor readings of Derrida). My approach is at least grounded in reality -- that is, the world as it is and not as it ought to be.

So we are left with three points of work from Aaron:

1) poetry-as-basis-for-film
2) a "multimedia, franchise approach" to poetry promotion
3) a need for reexamining the performance poetry scene

For the first, I have already talked at length about the need for long, clear, compelling narrative poetry. But even relatively short narrative poetry could easily be made into a movie (filmmakers -- feel free to email me about that last link). In fact, given the constraints of the screenplay process, I think that a narrative poem as short as Palm Sunday would be an excellent choice for filmmaking -- since it is fairly brief (312 lines), there's no claim that a 120-minute movie can't "cover it all."

So that brings up the problem of catching filmmakers/screenwriters. How do we do this? Thoughts? Ideas? Because I sure as heck don't know.

For the second, I am all about this. Perhaps those filmmaking/screenwriting buddies that we are meeting right now can't use one of our narratives for a film. I bet they could have a character quote us or go to a poetry reading where our work is read aloud. This is no different from Gibson's shameless merch plugs in Juno -- except that we don't have that kind of money to throw around (and if we do, why aren't we starting a publishing company?). Moreover, we need to use the internet to disburse and promote our work. We should be reviewing as much great and good poetry as we possibly can. Also, if we come up with some popular sort of poem, why not write several of them (for instance, Palm Sunday has two companion pieces and I am working on a Civil War epic to match my American Revolution epic)?

For the third, we need two things in our poetry readings:

excellent readers and
excellent poems.

The problem is that since poetry readings are aural entertainment, listeners can often forgive bad poetry because of a good reading. We can't tolerate this. Unfortunately, like bad karaoke, you just have to grin and bear it at an open mike.

Which is why we should promote something else -- like performance poetry at a restaurant or hang-out-spot/coffee shop. We should charge admission. Before you howl about how people won't pay, check these folks out. I can assure you their events are well-attended. Having invitation-only poetry events may go against your silly notions of egalitarianism but come on. Would you pay several hundred dollars for a rock festival if the headliners were open mike emo kids and karaoke queens? Hardly.

I will tackle all three topics in turn as Spring gets sprung.


sefton said...

Stage actors, rappers, singers, comedians, and slam poets memorize their lines. They practice them over and over until they can deliver the words without thinking about them, so that when they're onstage, they can worry about other things, including timing, projection, moving their voices up and down, making eye contact with the audience, and creating a compelling performance.

Meanwhile, "serious" poets think it's fine to take the stage with a notebook and a textgazing monotone. You know, because the innate fabulousness of the words will surely transfix the crowd...

Why should live audiences give a crap about serious poets, when serious poets don't give a crap about them?

G. M. Palmer said...

Sefton --

There's a huge difference between taking the stage with text in hand and reading in a "textgazing monotone." One of my favorite poetry readers ever (A. Kyle Strohmann) always used printouts -- but was just, if not more, engaging and fascinating as any performer who memorized their lines.

What we really need, though, is not poetry readings of brief 5-10 minute stints. We need readings of 30+ minute narratives that sweep the audience up in the rhythm and the story. I don't care whether or not the work is memorized (I, for one, can memorize anybody else's work buy my own -- don't have a clue why). What I do care about is that the work is equally well-written and performed.

Brett said...

The problem with turning narrative poetry into film isn't simply about narrative poetry not being written well enough or often enough, or (even) that it's not being placed in front of the faces of producers...

The reality is that the reason Troy and Beowulf were made into movies is because they're already a part of the zeitgeist, and therefore marketable.

Otherwise, if you write a poem for the purpose of wanting it to be made into a movie, you're doing it wrong!

Especially a 'short' narrative. There's already a form that does this better than poetry.

It's called a 'treatment,' and if you're going to have 1-10 pages of lines to describe the actions, settings, plots, and characters that will become a movie, it might as well just be a 'treatment,' which is superior because it is Designed for and has the Explicit Goal of selling itself as a movie.

Now, write a long narrative poem and let it gain the popularity of 'The Davinci Code' or even, shooting lower, something like 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,' and you're getting somewhere.

So the project, it seems, would be to re-introduce poetry as a vehicle for narrative in popular culture. THEN it would be able to have a somewhat substantial relationship with the movie industry.

But retraining the masses and the intelligencia in that way is a long and arduous project, and the question is 'how do you do that?'

Good luck!

G. M. Palmer said...


Thanks for posting! As I say, I am woefully unschooled on such matters.

Couldn't you use a poem as a basis for a treatment? I could see a shortish poem (5-20 pages) being used as excellent advertising material.

And while I am certainly trying to re-introduce verse as a viable vehicle for narrative, I hope to pursue several approaches at once, not just the meaningless "get people to read more." The first step is to get poets to write better.

Brett said...

You could use a poem as a basis for a treatment, if the poem had character, setting, drama, plot, etc.

(much the way you would use a short story for a treatment).

Many times the best movies-from-books come from novellas and short stories...long novels are much clunkier.

So one could imagine that a good 30-page narrative poem, or even a 15-page narrative poem, could catch the eye of a producer, writer, or director who would either turn it into a script or a treatment.

If the movie-people were looking for ideas in poetry, and if poets were writing narratives.

Neither of which is really happening.

So I think you attack it on two fronts:

Try to influence producers, screenwriters, directors, so that they start Looking for movies in poetry.

Try to influence writers so that they write good, substantial, dramatic narrative poetry.

I just don't think you should inspire poets to write narrative poetry so those poems could be turned into movies.

If you want to write something to be turned into a movie, write a treatment.

Another avenue to consider is the short film - trying to encourage independent filmmakers to adapt poetry into the short film format, which would also lend itself to less narratively-driven work, and there is less of a drive for profit, movies from poems might be an easier 'sell.'

Shorts don't get nearly the same exposure as big feature films, but going down that route might help create bonds between the poetry and cinematic communities, and get the idea that 'poetry can be made into film' into the zeitgeist.

At the very least, though, I think your right in trying to get poets to write better. And there's also the fact that poetry seems like such an insular community. The vast majority of people who seem interested in contemporary poetry are poets.

There's not even the NPR-like 'high art' interest in it, the way there is with jazz or classical music, because a lot of it is condescending to things like ideas, meaning, and emotion.

(though I gather that I'm preaching to the choir here...)

Brett said...

Sheesh, a lot of typos in that last post.

'you're,' not 'your.' And some run-on sentences. Forgive me! I must be tired or something.

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