Poem Sampler

Poetry Goes to the Movies

To celebrate the Oscars, a collection of poems about the big screen.

Poetry Goes to the Movies
Glen Scarborough

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.

Celebrating Film

Frank O'Hara
Ave Maria
A Step Away from Them

Kim Addonizio
Scary Movie

Amiri Baraka
A New Reality is Better than a New Movie!

Mary Jo Salter
Video Blues

Gail Mazur
I Wish I Want I Need

Virgil Suarez

The Cinema Experience

Elizabeth Alexander
Early Cinema

May Swenson
The James Bond Movie

Joseph Stanton
Edward Hopper's New York Movie

Robert Polito
Please Refrain from Talking During the Movie

Cinema Technique

Kenneth Fearing
St. Agnes' Eve

Rachel Hadas
The Last Movie

Vanessa Place
Miss Scarlett

Brenda Hillman
Walking the Dunes

Cornelius Eady
Charlie Chaplin Impersonates a Poet

Kurt Brown
Silent Film

Eileen Myles


Fanny Howe
Everything's a Fake

Dean Young
Sean Penn Anti-Ode

Robert Polito
Hollywood & God


Originally Published: March 4, 2010


On March 5, 2010 at 12:53am MT wrote:
No Ashbery?

On February 28, 2014 at 8:51pm Shad Schroeder wrote:
Don't forget Richard Wilber's The Prisoner of Zenda.

On March 1, 2014 at 8:11am Vicky E wrote:
Love the list, and can use some of these in an upcoming film class I'll be teaching. Here's a great one to add, by Louise Erdrich: "Dear John Wayne."


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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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