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Poetry Noir

By John S. O'Connor

This year I’m teaching a new class called Literature and Film. Since I’m always thinking of ways to use poetry in the classroom, we started the year by screening Run Lola Run while we read Oedipus the King (the brilliant Robert Fagles translation replete with devastatingly ironic line breaks). In our film noir unit, we read some terrific noir poems from Kevin Young’s Black Maria . (title links to an NPR interview with Young) and some excerpts from Robert Polito’s fine new collection, Holywood and God. Check out the podcast on Poetry Noir from Poetry off the Shelf.

Then, while we were examining mise-en-scene (for our purposes, the physical setting of the film) in movies such as Double Indemnity and Chinatown, I asked students to write noir poems of their own. As a first step, I had students work in small groups to make a list of 50 concrete nouns, objects that fill the frame. When they were finished, I asked them to write down 10 “tough guy” lines. With that group-generated word pool, I asked individual students to tell a story that uses no verbs or adjectives that were not on their lists. (They could feel free to add “small words” such as articles and prepositions). For the sake of coherence, I didn’t really care if they broke these arbitrary rules, but for the most part they stayed within the parameters I laid out. Here is an example from Michael:

Fedora City

Candle-lit brooches blinds the darkness
Whiskey perfumes the pearled dame:
Her thin eyebrows, false lashes, painted red lips. Manicured nails
Put pen to pad to pistol
Bourbon shadows suffocate
Every crowded bar

Police fire on the heels of her fur coat
Streetlamps spit halos of light in the boozy night
The Fedora City lights like a knife
A neon scream hits my gut like a brick
Gasping for my life, my lungs find only stale air
I need a drink

The broad beat it outta there quick,
dangling rope
earrings her only trace
A doll on the run,
a run in her stockings –
Camera to crime to cuffs.
Set match to photograph
Smothering the city in Venetian streaks
The blinds are drawn shut
Case closed.

Comments (7)

  • On October 27, 2009 at 3:36 pm Jordan wrote:

    Michael Gizzi’s poems might work with this project too.

    • On November 6, 2009 at 10:57 am metin sahin wrote:

      Pleade write metişn sahin the poet on google and read my poems black or white.

  • On October 28, 2009 at 9:21 pm Paul Murciano wrote:

    Heavily atmospheric and yet understated. Filled with moody, gritty imagery that addresses all the senses. One gets the impression that this poem was written by a spectator from that period or at least someone who lived, ate and slept noir.

    Well done and Bravo!!! Bravo!!!

  • On October 30, 2009 at 8:48 am anne wrote:

    Thanks, I love this post & the links. Your students are scary-good–c’mon, John, there’s already enough competition! I’ve had Young’s book on my shelf waiting for that stiletto in the… well, you know. Jim Tate’s last book is small-town noir, like Lynch or Hitch.Peter Shippy has an outre noir, ALPHAVILLE, an abecedarian riff on Godard’s noir riff: blazevox.org/MIM-shippy.pdf Also, there’s a cool poem by Ben Doyle, “Our Man”–that I like. I think Ben Doyle has a new name–Doller?–which is pretty noir!

  • On October 30, 2009 at 8:33 pm Terreson wrote:

    I’ve been trying to decide if the blog is worth the post investment. I’ve decided it is.

    Rather than pointing a so-called poet noir to a film, what is almost always an artificial manufacture of Hollywood operating in cliches, I would be more inclined to point the poet to the story behind the film. Dashiell Hammett for example. His Sam Spade regularly predicated a story’s denouement on intense dialogue, in which moments Spade was less the tough guy working in Cliff Eastwood type one liners and more the interlocuter. A Hammett novel has always put me in mind of a tragedy written by Sophocles: there action gets carried in dialogue.

    Then there is Raymond Chandler, another creator, mostly by default, of Hollywood’s film noir. I had read most of his novels, many of his short stories, his classic essay on detective fiction, then by chance I came upon his poetry written before he emmigrated to America from England. This was key. I got he was Georgian (as in Edward Marsh’s group) in his poetic inclinations and agriculturally-centric. I figure his move to California with his mother was traumatic, environmentally traumatic. And I figure his penchant for description and mood painting imprinted all of his novels. Name me one Hollywood production of a Chandler story that brings out Chandler’s many descriptors of environment.

    Since the movie “Double Indimnenty” has been exampled I got one more example to cite of Hollywood’s bastardization of lit. I had read Cain’s novel before I finally got around to seeing a replay of the movie. I was blown away by the travesty. It is a bad movie trading on a great story. (I figure that Caine was the best of the bunch.) I guess I also figure that any poet looking to model herself or himself on Hollywood cliches is screwed from the start.

    Terreson

  • On October 31, 2009 at 6:56 pm Mariana Larrazabal wrote:

    Its almost unbelievable that a high school student could have come up with such a descriptive environment. I think is absolutely wonderful. Congratulations

  • On November 1, 2009 at 7:26 pm Jessie Carty wrote:

    Great exercise and result :)


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, October 27th, 2009 by John S. O'Connor.