Throughout the month of April, the National Post, a paper up here in Canada (or down here, if you live in Wasilla or something) has been conducting brief E-mail interviews with poets, for its books blog. I thought I would reproduce one of the quirkier questions here: “Novels are always being adapted into movies. What are some poems that deserve the Hollywood treatment?”

(My answer to this question, by the way, was: “Not Beowulf.”)

Originally Published: April 28th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. April 28, 2009
     michael robbins

    I would like to see a movie made of "The Cremation of Sam McGee." A kids' movie, natch.

  2. April 28, 2009
     Jack Conway

    I would like to see an x-rated version of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” but I doubt any adults would go to see it.

  3. April 28, 2009
     Benjamin Glass

    Maybe a Fritz Lang (a la "Metropoilis") version of Ginsberg's "Howl."

  4. April 28, 2009

    "The Destruction of Sennacherib" has definite blockbuster potential. I'm sure Mel Gibson could be convinced.

  5. April 28, 2009
     Henry Gould


    to William Baziotes\r

    Watching, beside the road,\r
    A turtle crawl (with smells\r
    Of autumn closing in,\r
    Night traffic roaring by),\r

    I felt a husk that moved\r
    Inside me, torpid, dry\r
    As air from a long-closed room\r
    That drifts through an opening door\r

    When the wind in the hall is right -\r
    Moved as a turtle moves\r
    Into the covering grass,\r
    Far into the woods, at night.\r

    Screenplay by Weldon Kees. (Tapeworm : Coen Bros., Hitchcock, the Blue Velvet guy (forget the name), Hollywood)

  6. April 28, 2009
     Jack Conway

    Awful boring selection Hank.

  7. April 28, 2009
     Former Berkeley Girl

    A. The Iliad, again. Without Brad Pitt as Achilles, and with the gods in full effect. \r

    B. The Faerie Queene, Book III. A cross-dressing female knight as the main character, c'mon! Not to mention damsels in distress, monsters, enchanted castles, magic mirrors. Malbecco! The False Florimell! Be Bold, But Not Too Bold. That's entertainment. \r

    C. Gilgamesh. Bromances are all the rage right now, PLUS a quest for immortality. Big box office bucks. Especially if Ridley Scott directs. Or Judd Apatow.\r


  8. April 28, 2009
     Jack Conway

    I think I hear an echo.\r


    Yes, it would be something to see, “soon to be a major motion picture,” on a book of poems. What a hoot! Very funny. As usual…\r

    Posted By: Jennifer Hawes on April 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm \r

    Yup. I do.

  9. April 28, 2009
     Marty Elwell

    There is actually a movie coming out in 2010 called "Howl", although not an adaptation of the poem:\r\r

    But seriously, how about a Disney version of "The Cows on Killing Day" it has all of the necessary ingredients for an animated classic.

  10. April 28, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    Be still my heart, FBG. YES to B.!! I've been in love with Britomart forever.

  11. April 28, 2009
     Former Berkeley Girl

    Mary, \r

    Hooray! \r

    They'd have to pick the right actress, though. Someone who could strut her stuff in the fighting scenes but also capture Brit's essential naivete. Any ideas?\r


  12. April 28, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    'Buffalo Bill's' by E.E. Cummings would make a fine western.\r

    Buffalo Bill's\r

    Buffalo Bill's\r
    who used to\r
    ride a watersmooth-silver\r
    and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat\r

    he was a handsome man\r
    and what i want to know is\r
    how do you like your blueeyed boy\r
    Mister Death \r

    E. E. Cummings

  13. April 29, 2009
     Stephen Sturgeon

    Death's Jest Book would be good if the director could avoid turning it into a stoner classic. An unabridged adaptation, by Kenneth Branaugh.

  14. April 29, 2009
     Stephen Sturgeon

    Also Maud, with extensive Crimean War flashback scenes.\r

    I saw a lecture once on Paradise Regained in which the lecturer mentioned as an aside that Milton had anticipated the panorama view in photography and film with that poem. Can anyone else think of instances in poetry before the invention of film that translate well into film?\r

    You can imagine cut-away reaction shots in Donne's poems. In for instance "To His Mistress Going to Bed."\r

    His "The Calm" would make a good short film.

  15. April 29, 2009
     Evan Jones

    The TLS asked a similar question recently, though theirs was aimed at figuring out what poems had been made into movies: 'Gunga Din', 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin', 'Evangeline', 'El Cid' and 'The Iliad' all qualify. Apparently, too, Pierce Brosnan was threatening to make a film based on 'Lochinvar' by Sir Walter Scott, but the project has never gotten off the ground. Perhaps Michael Bay, when he finishes with Thundercats, will be free and he could take on the project.

  16. April 29, 2009
     Zachariah Wells

    My answer to same was Les Murray's Fredy Neptune. Blockbuster written all over it.

  17. April 29, 2009
     Mary Meriam

    FBG, you sound like a casting director! I'm not a moviegoer, but I like Jessica Lange. Hate to say this, but she may be too old for the part. Would have to be someone with really good hair, so we all gasp when it tumbles out of the helmet. Who's around nowadays? Tilda Swinton? I've never seen her in a movie - just vaguely aware of her - not sure about her hair.

  18. April 29, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    A lot of great suggestions here. Thanks for the input, Michael, Jack, Jamie, Zach, and Mary.\r

    Benjamin, I'm quite taken w/ a Fritz Lang a la Metropolis-style Howl - but imagine something comparable in terms of "The Waste Land"?\r

    "Can anyone else think of instances in poetry before the invention of film that translate well into film?" - Great question, Stephen. For what it's worth, Paglia has suggested that "Ozymandias" has a certain cinematic quality - the panning across the "'boundless and bare' landscape", etc. I'm sure there are other and better examples. (PS I like the "cut-away reaction shots" in Donne!)\r

    Marty's right. And I think a lot of poems would make great animated shorts.\r

    FBG, I would never have thought of Gilgamesh as a "Bromance." Thank you. So now, of course, I'm thinking of all of the great bromances in literature. Ulysses, etc.\r

    Thanks, Henry. I think The Coen Brothers should do Weldon Kees' Robinson series, and David Lynch should do some short films based on Seidel's work.\r

    Evan, could one ever truly be finished with Thundercats? That's a work one abandons, I think.\r

    Good suggestion, Gary. I would add Ondaatje's Collected Works of Billy the Kid to the mix. Tarantino as director, of course.

  19. April 29, 2009

    Someone made a movie of the incredibly cinematic "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," but I haven't seen it.\r

    Likewise silent adaptations of 19th-century ballads "Casey at the Bat" and "The Face on the Bar-room Floor," the latter of which Chaplin made.\r

    How'd the "Iliad" movie handle Achilles' shield? That in itself could inspire a whole movie!\r

    Edward Thomas's "The Owl" could inspire a good short movie. Pop songs come to mind too -- "She's Leaving Home," "Burn Hollywood Burn."

  20. April 29, 2009
     Kent Johnson

    They wouldn't be based on a particular poem, but I've thought there are film scripts waiting to be done on Weldon Kees (Jason mentions him above) or Lew Welch. Mystery/Detective scripts, where the ancient hermit Kees, say, is tracked down deep in the Cascades or the Sierras by a band of young American "Savage Detectives" ["Hi boys, I've been waiting for you!"], or where Lew Welch comes walking out of the mountains like Rip Van Winkle, hangs around the 1980s Language poetry scene, furtive, ghost-like, unrecognized, then disappears into the wild again, completely bemused, for good.\r

    Or something like that.\r


  21. April 29, 2009
     Don Share

    If anyone can bring Weldon Kees back, I'd say Kent can. And Lew Welch could be in an episode of Mad Men!\r

    Maybe Kubrick could have made a film out of some of Blake's prophetic poems... and Martin Scorsese should do the Divine Comedy.

  22. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady

    The Victorians got their movies in poetry. \r

    Come to think of it, the Romantics did, too. \r

    Byron, Keats, Coleridge and Shelley all wrote movies.\r

    Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton were not so much epic as big-budget. \r

    Now the question should be:\r

    How are we to make poems into film?\r

    1. Tons of films recently use what are obviously the filmmaker’s favorite pop songs as soundtrack. Can actual poems serve a function like this? Can actual poems function as 'voice-over’ or 'spoken word’ soundtrack/narrative in a substantial way? \r
    I don’t see why not. AND YET, I’m not familiar with this ever being seriously done!\r

    2. Next, we have the poems introduced 'as poems’ in the film, like that cummings poem in that Woody Allen film. This is not the same as #1, but if more actual poems were used in the story itself, it could be almost as substantial an input, though of a different type.\r

    3. Last, you have the way Jason puts it: “Hollywood Treatment,” where the poem itself 'becomes’ the film. But how is this to be done? \r

    Loose adaptations are fine, but what is it exactly, in this case, that gets 'lost in the translation?’ \r

    What part of the poem is used and what part is lost? \r

    Finally, are poem sufficient unto themselves as cine-poems resistant to translation into actual films?\r

    Elizabeth Barrett has had two of her poems turned into films, but I've not seen them.\r

    The Cry of the Children (1912), an anti-child labor film.\r
    Here's a couple of stanzas from Barrett's poem:\r

    “For, all day, the wheels are droning, turning,---\r
    Their wind comes in our faces,---\r
    Till our hearts turn,---our head, with pulses burning,\r
    And the walls turn in their places---\r
    Turns the sky in the high window blank and reeling---\r
    Turns the long light that droppeth down the wall---\r
    Turn the black flies that crawl along the ceiling---\r
    All are turning, all the day, and we with all.---\r
    And, all day, the iron wheels are droning;\r
    And sometimes we could pray,\r
    'O ye wheels,' (breaking out in a mad moaning)\r
    'Stop! be silent for to-day!' "\r

    Ay! be silent! Let them hear each other breathing\r
    For a moment, mouth to mouth---\r
    Let them touch each other's hands, in a fresh wreathing\r
    Of their tender human youth!\r
    Let them feel that this cold metallic motion\r
    Is not all the life God fashions or reveals---\r
    Let them prove their inward souls against the notion\r
    That they live in you, as under you, O wheels!---\r
    Still, all day, the iron wheels go onward,\r
    Grinding life down from its mark;\r
    And the children's souls, which God is calling sunward,\r
    Spin on blindly in the dark.\r

    The Cry of the Children is a silent film. It would be interesting to see how exactly they incorporated Barrett's verses into the movie.\r

    Then we have the film 'Aurora Leigh' (1915), based on Barrett's long poem. Again, I haven't seen the film, so I don't know how the treatment worked.\r

    Here's two different stanzas from Barrett's 'Aurora Leigh,'\r
    which is already a movie in itself, a cine-ready poem:\r

    'A few months, so. My mistress, young and light,\r
    Was easy with me, less for kindness than \r
    Because she led, herself, an easy time\r
    Betwixt her lover and her looking-glass,\r
    Scarce knowing which way she was praised the most.\r
    She felt so pretty and so pleased all day\r
    She could not take the trouble to be cross,\r
    But sometimes, as I stooped to tie her shoe,\r
    Would tap me softly with her slender foot\r
    Still restless with the last night's dancing in't,\r
    And say 'Fie, pale-face! are you English girls\r
    'All grave and silent? mass-book still, and Lent?\r
    'And first-communion colours on your cheeks,\r
    'Worn past the time for't? little fool, be gay!'\r
    At which she vanished, like a fairy, through\r
    A gap of silver laughter.\r

    I rode once to the little mountain-house\r
    As fast as if to find my father there,\r
    But, when in sight of't, within fifty yards,\r
    I dropped my horse's bridle on his neck\r
    And paused upon his flank. The house's front\r
    Was cased with lingots of ripe Indian corn\r
    In tesselated order, and device\r
    Of golden patterns: not a stone of wall\r
    Uncovered,-not an inch of room to grow \r
    A vine-leaf. The old porch had disappeared;\r
    And, in the open doorway, sate a girl\r
    At plaiting straws,-her black hair strained away\r
    To a scarlet kerchief caught beneath her chin\r
    In Tuscan fashion,-her full ebon eyes, \r
    Which looked too heavy to be lifted so,\r
    Still dropt and lifted toward the mulberry-tree\r
    On which the lads were busy with their staves\r
    In shout and laughter, stripping all the boughs\r
    As bare as winter, of those summer leaves\r
    My father had not changed for all the silk\r
    In which the ugly silkworms hide themselves.\r
    Enough. My horse recoiled before my heart-\r
    I turned the rein abruptly. Back we went\r
    As fast, to Florence.

  23. April 29, 2009
     Don Share

    Good stuff there, Thomas - thank you.\r

    Anyone ever see Auden's "Night Mail"? Here's pt. 1:\r\r

    Text of poem here:\r

  24. April 29, 2009
     Colin Ward

    I suppose one could make a fine historical romantic drama out of sonnet LXXIII's bare ruined choirs. Speaking of sonnets, surely EBB's #43, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways", is perfect for a porn series.\r

    Then there are poems out of movies. For what it's worth, one of the most exquisite 21st century free verse poems I've encountered is Erin Hopson's "When Aimee Met Jaguar", based on Max Färberböck's under-rated and overlooked 1999 film "Aimee and Jaguar".

  25. April 29, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Have you all seen the Poetry Everywhere animated shorts of poems made by students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee? They're here:\r\r

    I especially like Geoffrey Brock's "And Day Brought Back My Night":\r

  26. April 29, 2009
     Cathy Halley

    Kent should well try. We're going to be posting a "Poetry Without Pity: Make Your Own Film Based on a Poem" contest over at our Facebook page soon. Of course, those will be public domain poems...

  27. April 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Jason and all: I sincerely apologize for my off-topic intrusion here, but I think I’m in trouble and need some help. I’m afraid I have accidentally (well, sort of) picked a fight with some 'post-avant/language’ types over at Silliman’s blog. Thomas Brady, or anyone, I need you to defend my position in favor of 'accessible’ poetry. They are saying that it was Pound and the New Critics who actually made poetry popular again rather than alienating the general public from it. Is that true? They are saying something to the effect that Olds, Bly, Guest, Kooser, Rumi and Service are 'contemptibly bad’ and 'tripe’. Is that true? They're kickin' around the ol' 'SoQ' again.\r

    This is occurring on the comments stream to Silliman's 4/22 post.\r


  28. April 29, 2009
     Stephen Sturgeon

    Thomas Brady,\r

    Andrei Tarkovsky used recordings of his father, Arsenii, reading his own poems as a narrative device in some of his films in quite beautiful ways, perhaps most notably and majorly in Mirror. The familial commentary aside, I think the elder Tarkovksy's poems play that role extremely well, though I only hear them in translation so I'm not one to give a solid word on this. \r

    There is also this question to be asked the other way around, what poems have come out of specific films? Geoffrey Hill talks about in his Paris Review interview, if I remember correctly, scenes from Kurosawa that have shaped parts of his poems. Anything similar ever happen to anyone here?

  29. April 29, 2009
     Don Share

    Re Kurosawa, there's that Robert Hass poem, "Heroic Simile," that begins: "When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai..."

  30. April 29, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Stephen, the Faber Book of Movie Verse is worth a look. Lots of good stuff in there.

  31. April 29, 2009

    In the 1984 film from Soviet Georgia, title translated "Repentance," a character based on Stalin recites, to powerful effect, Shakespeare's Sonnet 66, "Tired with all these for restful death I cry."\r

    Both of the films Sherman Alexie wrote -- one of which he directed -- are concerned with poetry, and they're both terrific. The first one, "Smoke Signals," which he didn't direct, quotes a Dick Lourie poem, in voice-over as Thomas was talking about if I remember correctly -- and it's great.

  32. April 29, 2009
     Stephen Sturgeon

    Don, thanks for the Hass poem. Good to see the heaviness of one epic merged smoothly into another inside this smaller unit.\r

    Jason, I didn't know about that book, thanks for pointing me to it -- must have a good introduction, no?\r

    Funny now that I look at the Paris Review Geoffrey Hill interview I can't find Kurosawa there, but do find mention of Charlton Heston and John Huston in discussion of The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Peguy, and Jean Cocteau concerning The Triumph of Love. And this,\r

    "It was my wife Alice who first pointed out to me, quite some time ago, that the way I write has been very much influenced by techniques of film-cutting."\r

    Which goes some way to explain Speech! Speech!'s section 34 (missing the accent marks):\r

    That caught-short trot-pace of early film: did minds\r
    adjust automatically then? Could they\r
    watch the stiff gallantry jig-jog, go knees up\r
    into, half-over, the wire | follow it and know\r
    this was not farce --\r

    going on to a look at Chaplin. Now that I'm reminded, the movies are frequent in his work. Powell & Pressburger . . .

  33. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    I LOVE Auden's "Night Mail!" \r

    Did Auden & his cruising buddies joke: night male? \r

    Thanks, I'd NEVER seen that poem and I'm a huge Auden fan!\r

    It's read too quickly by the documentary voice. Amateurs!\r

    I wonder if this train poem inspired Larkin's "The Whitsun Weddings?"\r

    I also wonder about Auden's choice of trochaic tetrameter for the train plunging forward; it gives rather the opposite effect.\r

    There's also Auden's funeral poem from '4 Weddings & a Funeral.'\r

    The Auden cine-poem which came to my mind first was 'Victor;' here's a few stanzas:\r

    They were married early in August,\r
    She said; 'Kiss me, you funny boy';\r
    Victor took her in his arms and said;\r
    'O my Helen of Troy.'\r

    It was the middle of September,\r
    Victor came to the office one day;\r
    He was wearing a flower in his buttonhole,\r
    He was late but he was gay.\r

    The clerks were talking of Anna,\r
    The door was just ajar:\r
    One said, 'Poor old Victor, but where ignorance\r
    Is bliss, et cetera.'\r

    Victor stood still as a statue,\r
    The door was just ajar:\r
    One said, 'God, what fun I had with her\r
    In that Baby Austin car.'\r

    Victor walked out into the High Street,\r
    He walked to the edge of town:\r
    He came to the allotments and the rubbish heap\r
    And his tears came tumbling down.\r


  34. April 29, 2009
     Don Share

    "Victor," yes, Thomas! And let's not forget the cinematic "Miss Gee"!

  35. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    I've seen "Smoke Signals" and I'll be damned if I don't remember the poem! Movies fade on me after a year or two.. \r


    I've seen some Tarkovsky, but it was a long time ago, and I may have seen 'Mirror' because I vaguely remember what you're talking about.\r

    Interesting point re: movies inspiring poems. You know, I don't think I've ever been inspired to write a poem after seeing a least not that I can remember...I think I instinctively click into 'review' mode when I see a film, or the film fills up too many of my senses and therefore the desire to write poetry is in abeyance...? I'll have to ponder this next time I'm at a movie...\r


  36. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    "They are saying that it was Pound and the New Critics who actually made poetry popular again rather than alienating the general public from it. Is that true?"\r

    No, they're wrong.\r

    OK, Gary, I'm on it.\r

    See you on Silliman...\r


  37. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    "Miss Gee" is great too, and it goes with "Victor." \r

    I don't know why that stuff didn't catch on more. Auden should have been a rock star with those...\r


  38. April 29, 2009

    Worth noting in the cine-poetry connection that the first great film critic was a poet -- Vachel Lindsay. A leading film critic mid-century was a poet too -- James Agee.\r


    The poem in "Smoke Signals" comes right near the end, giving it dramatic pride of place.

  39. April 29, 2009
     thomas brady


    I can't find the comments section in Silliman's blog.\r

    I have to go be a soccer dad now.\r

    It sounds like a good debate, though...\r

    Catch you later...\r


  40. April 29, 2009
     Benjamin Glass

    Last one:\r
    Frost's "A Hundred Collars," could make for a Wes Anderson situational-visceral short. I can envision the camera panning between the characters as they recite their strange lines.

  41. April 29, 2009

    Maybe "Out, out- " too!

  42. April 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Thomas: Let me comment on Annie Finch's Simone Weil post, which seems to have run its course, so we don't disturb this thread any further.\r

  43. April 29, 2009
     Don Share

    OK, here's Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winner, Fanny Howe's "After Watching Klimov’s &lqauo;Agoniya», from Life as we Show It: Writing on Film, edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn, City Lights Books. \r

  44. April 29, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Never mind, Thomas. I think I've handled the Silliman thing.\r

    Has anyone else realized just how difficult this 'reply mode' thread concept will be? We'll have to read it over and over and over and over again in order to find all of the replies, won't we? Yikes!

  45. April 30, 2009
     Don Share

    Via Ken Tucker at the Best American Poetry blog:\r

    "The Hollywood Reporter has a story saying not one, but two, films of Paradise Lost are in, as they say, development. The first adaptation of John Milton was done by the writer John Collier (yes, the late author of "His Monkey Wife" and other fine short stories). What's that, you say? Collier died in 1980? Ah, the magic of Hollywood: producer Martin Poll has maintained the option on that script lo these many years, and has now found financial backing from a group of Philadelphia-based investors who usually make Bollywood extravaganzas. ("I tell ya, Marty, we keep the poetry but re-title it Slumdog Satan!")\r

    The second Paradise Lost (not to be confused with Paradise Regained) is being planned by an even bigger outfit: Warner Bros. Yes, the studio that brought you the Batman movies. Personally, I'm hoping Tim Burton is tapped to direct. Few living souls can "justify the ways of God to men" than the fellow who directed both the first Batman film, Beetle Juice, Mars Attacks!, and Pee-wee's Big Adventure."

  46. May 1, 2009
     Erica Mena

    I've been thinking a lot about the potential overlap between poetry and visual media and came across this pretty interesting event: \r
    The Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin
    . \r
    While the site is in both German and English it's a bit tough to navigate, but if you look at previous years they have the winning entries available for viewing online. Some very interesting poems from all over the world, and very interesting adaptions. Some are very straightforward, some more experimental, some true adaptions to a different media in a kind of cross-media translation in which things are both lost and gained. I think that having seen a few of these, I'm most interested in the translation between genres rather than explication or illustration of the poem. While necessarily requiring a move away from the actual text, there seems to be more possibility for re-creating the poem in a new media.