Poetry in Modern Culture

I wrote a feature on Perfume in Modern Culture…

Waves rock back and forth on a sandy beach, filmed in black and white. The words: ‘i carry your heart with me(i carry it in my heart)i am never without it’, spoken by Jake Gyllenhaal, bridge the gap as the scene changes: a young child walks towards the camera, sleepily, smiling. She is lifted into Gyllenhaal’s arms and they lie down on the sofa together. She then waddles over to a bed and runs into the arms of Liya Kebede, who carries on E. E. Cummings’ poem: ‘and whatever is done by only me is your doing,my darling.’ They speak alternate lines from the poem as the scene flits between the child being cuddled by each of them. Finally the last line of the poem, ‘i carry you heart(i carry it in my heart)’ is read by Gyllenhaal and Kebede, who each hug the child tightly. Then, two bottles of Calvin Klein perfume fill the screen. ‘Eternity for men’ and ‘Eternity’ stand side by side powerfully like skyscrapers.

The perfume advert is a big budget production, directed by Emmy Award-winning director, Cary Fukunaga. It projects a cosy family moment played out in slow motion. Until, on closer inspection, you realise that the man and woman are shot entirely separately, and the child changes clothes between each visit. The man and woman seem to be directing Cummings’ words at the little girl (‘And this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart,’) as though to reassure her that they both love her, despite not being together. A couple’s separation is a strange topic to highlight for a perfume advert. Perhaps I am reading too deeply. 

Cummings’ poetry is a popular choice for conveying feelings in modern culture. In ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’, Elliot, played by Michael Caine, relies on Cummings’ words to make his affections for his sister-in-law Lee (played by Barbara Hershey) known to her. After buying her a book of Cummings’ work (where he gets so flustered in her presence he says, “I read a poem of you and thought of his last week,”) she reads a couple of verses of ‘somewhere i have never travelled’ and can be in no doubt of Elliot’s love for her. 

Other poets have exerted a similar power over filmmakers. Bill Nighy recites lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses in ‘The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ for a wedding speech: ‘I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees: all times have I enjoy’d greatly.’ In the ‘Dead Poets Society’ film, a student selects a passage near the end of the same poem to share with his friends: ‘Come, my friends, T’is not too late to seek a newer world.’ Judi Dench as ‘M’ chooses the same lines in ‘Skyfall’ as she defends her department’s relevancy, ‘We are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’ Frasier closes his popular sitcom after eleven years with these lines spoken to his radio audience. 

In one of his many attempts to woo Andie MacDowell in ‘Groundhog Day’, Bill Murray impresses her with his knowledge of French poetry. She told him on the previous day that she studied 19th century French poetry at college and, knowing that she will have forgotten their conversation overnight, (and his knee-jerk reaction of “What a waste of time!”), he delivers a few French lines, as though off the cuff. The poem he selects is ‘La Bourrée Du Célibataire’ by Jaques Brel. He says (translated): ‘The girl I will love is like a fine wine that gets better every morning.’ In pithy response to Murray eating everything on the menu at a café, MacDowell quotes a poem from Sir Walter Scott: ‘The wretch, concentered all in self, living, shall forfeit fair renown, and, doubly dying, shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.’ She mistakes his greed for egotism and encourages him to think about things other than himself.  

In a very moving moment in the film Awakenings, Robert Di Niro, a patient in a catatonic state, is asked to spell out his name to the specialist doctor, Robin Williams, using a pointer and the alphabet. Instead, he spells out ‘Rilke Panther’ which leads the doctor to Rilke’s Panther poem: ‘His gaze, from staring through the bars has grown so weary that it can take in nothing more. For him, it is as though there were a thousand bars and behind the thousand bars, no world.’ De Niro’s character turned to Rilke’s poem not only to communicate his feelings, but also to show the doctor that he holds Rilke’s poetry in his head and that he is still very much alive. 

The same idea could be extended to the appearance of poetry in adverts and films as a whole. It enriches viewers’ experience, makes us feel alive, and turns everyday activity (a hug, eating a meal, communicating) into something much more.  

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