11th June 2020
In this week’s blogpost, David Whitley explores representations of poetry recitation and performance in a range of popular films. Head over to the Learning Zone to find clips of poems being recited in films for pupils to explore at home or in school. How many others can they find and what are they doing there?
Film and TV drama have long been vital sites in our culture offering a range of insights into the value memorised poems may hold still for us. Among many examples from popular film drama you might recall: W.E.Henley’s poem ‘Invictus’ as the centrepiece of the film of the same name about Nelson Mandela’s attempt to unite post-apartheid South Africa; the recitation of W.H.Auden’s ‘Stop All the Clocks’ providing a scene of unforgettable emotional weight at the centre of Four Weddings and a Funeral; and apt quotations from poems at key moments providing dramatic focus in various episodes of the Inspector Morse series and its spin-offs.
The Morse example is perhaps particularly interesting, since the image of having extensive knowledge of memorised poetry to call upon is positioned ambivalently in the series. It is seen as a cultural marker of cleverness and elite education; but it is also a significant mental resource in problem solving, enabling connections between things that seem initially obscure. “Poetry recitation solves crimes” – it’s not something you’ll hear the Justice Secretary say very often! But the general principle the Morse films draw on – poetry developing capacity for lateral thinking – is nevertheless a sound one, with potential value in a wide variety of different contexts.
There is an important sub-category of films staging poetry recitation that engages with children and classrooms, too. And I think there are some valuable lessons we can draw from these films. Here are three examples that offer things we can usefully chew on. First the 1961 film, Splendor in the Grass, which features a young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood. The pair give a powerful and sensitive portrayal of high school students, whose doom-laden love affair results in Natalie Wood’s character, Deanie, suffering a prolonged mental breakdown. A film about vulnerability as well as resilience, set in a period when the economy enters a phase of economic recession – it has resonance for our own time.
There is a key classroom scene halfway through the film, when Deanie is emotionally distraught having been rejected by Bud. The teacher begins the lesson reciting a few lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality’. The first thing that strikes you about it is that this is a rather bad model of how to deliver a poetry lesson: the teacher recites the Wordsworth lines in a way that displays her own expertise, sighs wearily in expectation of very limited response from the class, and then – with no attempt to mediate or frame discussion – picks on Deanie, demanding that she explain ‘what the poet meant’ by these lines. Deanie – locked into the inner world of her own pain – is forced to read the lines herself from a book and then offer a faltering explanation for Wordsworth’s assertion that we may ‘find strength in what remains behind’ after our initial apprehension of ‘splendour’ at key moments in life have faded. Watch the classroom scene in the clip available on YouTube here.
What is most interesting here is not so much the emotional drama generated by an ill-judged pedagogy, though. Rather it is the film’s modelling of a process whereby the lines – even though forced upon Deanie at a moment when she cannot process them – find their way into her inner life and do end up – paradoxically – becoming a significant emotional resource for her. This should have been the teacher’s primary aim for the class in the first place, of course. The film finishes with Deanie reciting the lines which have now fully cleaved to her memory in a voice-over monologue, where they resonate deeply with her inner life and hard-won emotional balance. Watch the final scene in the clip available on YouTube here.
Splendor in the Grass shows how memorised lines of verse may give shape and focus to the deepest currents of our lives, even without our willing this to happen consciously. By contrast, Dead Poets’ Society focuses on a school culture – and the uncontrolled sub-culture this engenders – where poetry is memorised and performed in a more highly self-conscious, even self-dramatizing, manner. Robin Williams plays the charismatic teacher who puts poetry and self-expression at the heart of an otherwise repressive 1950s school’s curriculum – with ultimately tragic consequences. This is an inspirational, though also flawed, film in many ways.
The flaws in Dead Poets’ Society seem to me to stem from the film’s promoting the performative value of poetry over its connection to the complexity of inner life. The boys – the protagonists are all boys from privileged backgrounds – are intoxicated by Robin Williams’ idea that poetry offers a path towards living a more authentic life. But they imbibe this notion in the group context of a secret society where the adolescent male prerogative of display takes over. The boys use poetry to show off to each other – and occasionally to the girls they persuade to join them – indulging a group fantasy that they are non-conformist rebels. Although the film does explore some of the adolescent narcissism and underlying vulnerability involved in this, the heroic status it gives to Robin Williams’ role means that it never really examines in depth what lies beneath the performative aspects of poetry. Many of us – perhaps particularly men – need the motivation of showing off, or emulating others, at times to acquire new knowledge and expand our ways of being. But the film doesn’t quite grasp how poetry’s real power to get inside us is a longer – and less flashy – process.
Perhaps the richest film to probe the many forms in which poetry may get inside us and make connections with many of the deepest, most difficult, and even troubling aspects of our lives is The History Boys. This is an adaptation of Alan Bennett’s acclaimed play, first staged at the National Theatre. The focus of the drama is on the very different teaching styles used to coach a group of boys, from non-privileged backgrounds, at a Northern English grammar school who are trying to get places at Oxbridge. As a dramatic forum, opening up debate about the efficacy and value of competing pedagogies, it continues to have subtly probing resonance.
One of the teachers in The History Boys, Hector, exemplifies an idiosyncratic, highly unsystematic approach to developing the boys’ understanding that places the memorisation and recitation of poetry, especially, at the heart of his method and values. The scene in which he listens to his pupil Possner’s recitation of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’ could stand as a fitting counterpoint to the bad teaching modelled in Splendor in the Grass. Apart from the sensitivity, personal engagement and depth of understanding that are embodied so brilliantly here, what is striking about this scene is the way it moves so freely between what one might call objective kinds of knowledge (details of language and historical context) and the poem’s providing a space in which difficult, personal feelings can be expressed in safe ways. Memorizing, performing and listening become interdependent, creative activities, within which aspects of identity that are complex and difficult can be brought out and shared, even in some way validated, without being fully disclosed.
But the poem itself is not left behind in this process, nor does it become simply a vehicle for self-assertion – or even self-promotion – as is sometimes the case in Dead Poets’ Society. Instead, because it resonates with personal elements in the two characters’ emotional struggles, the poem becomes more vivid in its own right, its details registered with full attentiveness. The poem – almost literally – comes alive in conjunction with the emotional lives of those who are engaging with it. David Fuller discriminates what is at stake here in a particularly insightful form when he observes that:
Reading should reveal the expressivity the poet has found in the language and built into its organization, not apply expressivity from outside. There may be a great deal of colour present [in a poem being performed], but it should be the colours of the poem’s words interacting with the colours of the reader’s personality.
To do this fully the reader has to live with a poem. Part of that ‘living with’ is to read the poem repeatedly, working it into one’s own voice, interiorizing a sense of its feelings and ideas. (David Fuller, The Life in the Sonnets, 2011, p.87)
What this scene dramatizes so effectively is the ‘colours’ of the poem’s words interacting with, not just the speaker and listener’s personalities, but also elements of their core identities that are shown as under extreme pressure at this point in the film’s narrative. But – as reflection on a particular form of pedagogy – the film also shows the value of ‘living with’ a poem through the repeated readings necessary to internalize, remember and then perform it to a sensitive, engaged audience.
Films and TV drama generally are also a rich resource reflecting – and reflecting on – the many ways in which we still value poetry in contemporary culture.
David Whitley is an Emeritus Fellow of Homerton College, Cambridge. He led the 3-year Leverhulme Trust funded Poetry and Memory research project, an interdisciplinary enquiry into the value and experience of poetry in the memory, and examining the relationship between memorisation and understanding. He has an interest in poetry that has deepened throughout his lifetime.