In the last 100 years, perhaps no other artistic medium has provided more fodder for poetry than the cinema. Movies have become central to the poetic imagination, whether the poet celebrates the movies or reacts against celluloid saturation. While Sidney and Shelley exhausted a good deal of effort in their defense of poetry, Frank O’Hara would rather spend his time defending the great art of the cinema in poems such as “Ave Maria.”
In his poem “A Step Away from Them,” O’Hara builds on Ezra Pound’s Eisensteinian methods (“In a Station of the Metro”) by portraying an otherwise quotidian experience—his lunch hour—using cinematic techniques, rushing headlong through a series of jump cuts that make it an exhilarating scene. It is as if the eye of the poet has become the camera lens, and composition is merely an act of editing.
O’Hara was not the first writer to recognize that the imagination of the poet had been thoroughly cinematized in the 20th century. Kenneth Fearing’s “St. Agnes’ Eve” reads like a script for a 1930s gangster film, complete with a cue for a “Close-up of Dolan’s widow. Of Louie’s mother. / Picture of the fly-specked Monday evening and fade out slow.”
Poets may engage with movies in a variety of ways: by re-creating the experience of being in a movie theater, as May Swenson does in her poem “The James Bond Movie,” or by appropriating dialogue from Gone with the Wind like Vanessa Place, or by merging memory and identity around the experience of watching a film, as Virgil Suárez does in his poem “Isla.” Film has undeniably reshaped the poetic imagination, and it has further opened poetry to the possibility of capturing diverse aspects of modern life.
In celebration of Oscar season, here are a few poems from the archive that demonstrate the rich relationship between poetry and film.
The Cinema Experience
Edward Hopper's New York Movie
Please Refrain from Talking During the Movie
Hollywood & God