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In Youth Beside the Lonely Sea: Poetry in Silent Movies

By Harriet Staff

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Gregory Robinson, who runs a website “a bit like Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but on a much smaller scale,” has a great post up today about poetry in silent movies:

The term “poetry” is often used metaphorically to describe silent movies. However, actual poems in silent movies appear pretty rarely. One explanation comes from Jack Natteford, a title writer who printed this in a 1923 New York Times article:

The titling of the first series of animated cartoon drawings fell to me. The drawings impressed the office staff as being genuinely amusing, as well as novel, therefore I determined to be a bit novel myself. But how? Perhaps verse would do — something bright and topical to give continuity to the action in the drawings. I wrote some doggerel, and all of us, including the creator of the cartoons, agreed that it ought to go big.

Verses Fail.

On the night my verses had their premiére I was among those standing three rows deep in the rear of the crowded orchestra floor. Surely a fine audience on which to test the novelty. My emotions must have been akin to a playwright about to see the curtain rise on his new play. I was prepared to experience a real kick when the audience laughed. But it didn’t laugh — at least not at my verses. They flopped with such convincing finality that I never again departed from the straight and narrow path of prose in writing titles.

“‘The game has started,’ he cries out. / ‘I’ll miss the fun, I fear.’ / He jumps into his runabout / and slaps her into gear.” That’s from an animated 1915 short called Colonel Heeza Liar at the Bat. For more examples (from Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and Charles Kingsley), visit Robinson’s post here. In fact, the Theda Bara film A Fool There Was was based completely on Kipling’s “The Vampire.” Here it is:

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, July 10th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.