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					Poetry as a mediator of differences in national film
*** Bent Sørensen

Abstract
Poetry as a mediator of differences in national film. This lecture discusses the uses and abuses of poetry in two recent, popular American and British films. Poetry can be demonstrated to function as a device which both highlights difference (a major component in identity construction is to show how we are all different individuals), and universality of emotion (a major component of identity construction is to show how we are all alike in our shared humanity). In films such as 4 Weddings and a Funeral we all share a common tear at the death of one of the minor characters, especially when his male lover recites a W.H. Auden poem at his funeral. Despite the fact that the characters are queer, and the poem obviously homoerotic, even straight audience members find a commonality in the universality of the characters‘ and the poem‘s grief. The difference of sexual orientation is further overlayered by a national specificity in the characters‘ Scottishness, but even the non Scots among us may feel downright tartan‘ed at the end of the scene.

Abstract cont’d
In contrast a film such as Dead Poets Society is extremely American in its use of Walt Whitman as a poetic beacon, whose poems and life are suggested as a model for the young protagonists to follow in their quest for individuality and self-realisation. Whitman was of course as queer as Auden, but this fact remains a very deeply buried subtext in this movie (no doubt also a reflection of the film‘s setting in an educational environment). The contrast between how queerness and poetry are handled could be suggested to have something to do with national differences in not only movie-making, but also the wider cultural climate surrounding sexuality as a marker of respectable individuality.

Thus, local differences of sexuality and ethnicity are smoothed over by the American film, whereas the British film highlights, yet brackets them. The lecture will offer an analysis of difference discourse hierarchies in an effort to explain why.

Poetry and Film
• Poetry as paratext: Titles etc. • Poetry as accompaniment: Quotation • Poets as subject matter: Biopics • Poetry as subject matter: Theme (or Metaphor for Life)

Ekphrasis
• ek (out) phrasein (to speak) – speaking out • Give a full account • Make a vivid description • Perform a translation from one medium to another, for instance image into words

Poetry as Ekphrasis
• Poem about an image (portrait) • Images about a poem (portrait in words), i.e. reverse ekphrasis

Ut pictura poesis
Ut pictura poesis: ―as is painting so is poetry,‖ is often either implicitly or explicitly reversed to ―as is poetry so is painting,‖ to indicate an extended analogy, if not an identification, between the two media. This classical theory of parallels between the arts was widely held and developed, especially from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, and served as the testing ground for theories of imitation and as the incubator for systematic aesthetics. The discussions often revolved around ―natural‖ (painting) and ―arbitrary‖ (language) signs and symbols, and the questions, usually unstated until the eighteenth century, were ―How does painting or poetry communicate?‖ and ―What are the limits of each medium in time and space?‖

Ut pictura poesis - ekphrasis
With ekphrasis, an essentially rhetorical device in which an object formed in one art becomes the matter for another, the theory only apparently changes or takes on another dimension. The poet may indeed complete with the painter or the painter with the poet to render some art object, may attempt, in effect, to translate it either literally or spiritually. The poet may, however, be responding to a painting, simply revealing his reactions rather than attempting in any way a reproduction. The converse is also true: the painter need not be trying to reproduce the poem, or even to illustrate a facet of it, but may be revealing his intellectual and emotional reaction to the verbal art work.

4 Weddings and a Funeral, 1993
Directed by Mike Newell, written by Richard Curtis Comedy of manners, happy ending, tragic interlude featuring poetry

W.H. Auden, 1907-1973

Auden caricature

Auden in the garden

“Funeral Blues”
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead. Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong. The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods; For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Isherwood & Auden

Auden as his own double

Photo by Cecil Beaton

Auden & Chester Kallman

Another Auden poem
O but he was fair as a garden in flower, As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower, When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart; 'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey': But he frowned like thunder and he went away. O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover, You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other, The sea it was blue and the grass it was green, Every star rattled a round tambourine; Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay: But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Sexuality in Auden
Auden did not categorize himself a gay poet, but had no trouble with his sexual orientation. Knowledgeable readers and associates knew Auden was gay, despite the fact that he never published any of his blatantly homoerotic work under his own name. Among that ―blatant‖ work were sexually explicit poems written in German in the 1920s, ―Pleasure Island‖ and a poem not included in any of his collections called ―A Day for a Lay‖ which describes the process of picking up and performing oral sex on a 24-year-old mechanic named Bud.

Reception of Auden
Auden's early poetry breathed an air of revolutionary freshness. In language at once exotic and earthy, alternately banal and elegant, colloquial yet faintly archaic, Auden's verse diagnosed psychic disturbances with an extraordinary resonance. Although most of his early poems have their origins in his personal anxieties, especially those related to his homosexuality and his search for psychic healing, they seemed to voice the fears and uncertainties of his entire generation. - Claude J. Summers

Dead Poets Society, 1989
Directed by Peter Weir, written by Tom Schulman Drama, tragic ending, comic interludes featuring poetry

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won, The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring; But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! cont’d
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells; Rise up--for you the flag is flung -- for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths -- for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! This arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, You've fallen cold and dead. My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will, The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won; Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.

Sweaty Toothed Madman

Song of Myself
52 I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable; I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Whitman nude?

Song of Myself
45 O span of youth! ever-push'd elasticity! O manhood, balanced, florid and full. My lovers suffocate me, Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin, Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night, Crying by day, Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head, Calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush, Lighting on every moment of my life, Bussing my body with soft balsamic busses, Noiselessly passing handfuls out of their hearts and giving them to be mine. Old age superbly rising! O welcome, ineffable grace of dying days! Every condition promulges not only itself, it promulges what grows after and out of itself, And the dark hush promulges as much as any.

Song of Myself cont’d
I open my scuttle at night and see the far-sprinkled systems, And all I see multiplied as high as I can cipher edge but the rim of the farther systems. Wider and wider they spread, expanding, always expanding, Outward and outward and forever outward. My sun has his sun and round him obediently wheels, He joins with his partners a group of superior circuit, And greater sets follow, making specks of the greatest inside them. There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage, If I, you, and the worlds, and all beneath or upon their surfaces, were this moment reduced back to a pallid float, it would not avail the long run, We should surely bring up again where we now stand, And surely go as much farther, and then farther and farther.

Song of Myself cont’d

A few quadrillions of eras, a few octillions of cubic leagues, do not hazard the span or make it impatient, They are but parts, any thing is but a part. See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that, Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that. My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain, The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms, The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there.

Calamus poem
WE two boys together clinging, One the other never leaving, Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making, Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching, Armed and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving, No law less than ourselves owning—sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening, Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf of the sea-beach dancing, Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing, Fulfilling our foray.

Calamus symbolism
Whitman's symbol for gay love is the calamus plant, calamus acornus, colloquially called the ―sweet-flag‖ which he refers to as ―the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.‖ It is a hardy perennial that grows by ponds in the mid-eastern States, and has three-foot high tufts, long pointed leaves, yellow-green spikes, and huge sprawling rhizomes (tubers or ―roots‖) that closely resemble penises in various stages of tumescence. It is named after the river god Calamus who grieved for the death by drowning of his boy lover Carpus. – Rictor Norton

Whitman with Doyle

Sexuality in Whitman
Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of the book's reception. The first edition in 1855 contained what were to be called ―Song of Myself,‖ ―The Sleepers,‖ and ―I Sing the Body Electric,‖ which are ‗about‘ sexuality (though of course not exclusively) throughout. From the very beginning, Whitman wove together themes of ‗manly love‘ and ‗sexual love,‘ with great emphasis on intensely passionate attraction and interaction, as well as bodily contact (touch, embrace) in both. Simultaneously in sounding these themes, he equated the body with the soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: ―amativeness‖ for man-woman love and ―adhesiveness‖ for ―manly love.‖ – James E. Miller, Jr.

Whitman in a sea of poems

Reception of Whitman
Betsy Erkkila relates the case of a public service announcement dealing with Whitman's sexual orientation (in an attempt to offer support to lesbian and gay teenagers) that was refused by all six Philadelphia television stations, in two cases on the advice of the director of the Walt Whitman Poetry Center, who feared that the announcement would be ―detrimental‖ to the Center's educational efforts. Leaves of Grass still appears on the usual lists of banned books, and anyone who has taught Whitman knows that both of the objections current in 1855 remain firmly entrenched: his poems are not really poems, and whatever they are, they are ―dirty.‖ – Jason Paul Mitchell

An American Queer?
Whitman is America's greatest embarrassment, because if what he says about democracy is true, then the American ideal of universal equality is inherently homosexual, and homosexual love is the physiological basis of democracy. Whitman is a much more subversive and radical poet than even Jean Genet, and American school children for the past half-century have been carefully protected from exposure to America's greatest poet. - Rictor Norton

Difference discourses
• Gender/Sexuality • Race/Ethnicity • Age/Generationality • Class/Status • Nation/Place • Belief/Religion

Discourse Hierarchies
• All texts construct differences • All texts operate with primary and secondary differences in constructed hierarchies • All such hierarchies are contingent and locally negotiated • All such hierarchies can be reversed and deconstructed

4 Weddings and a Funeral
• Primary objective in life is to love and marry (in fact marry the one you love) • Marriage only temporarily pauses in the face of death, but love persists • To the marriage of true minds we admit no impediments… (cf. Shakespeare)

Shakespeare: Sonnet 116
Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove: O no! it is an ever-fixed mark That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bark, Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his bending sickle's compass come: Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom. If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

4 Weddings cont’d
• Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. • Not even queerness! • (Although the vast majority of the characters are straight….)

Dead Poets Society
• To thine own self be true • Carpe Diem • Don‘t be afraid to be different • Don‘t be too different, if you can help it • It‘s OK to be different as long as your father doesn‘t know how different you are • Acting/Coming out can be fatal!

Discourse Hierarchy in 4 Weddings: Queer - Straight
• Queerness is an anomaly but acceptable if bracketed by hetero-sexuality • Queerness is punishable by death in a figurative sense

Discourse Hierarchy in 4 Weddings: Sexuality and nation
• Queerness is related to Scottish-ness, a form of primitivism • English-ness and American-ness can go together, but not without prolonged negotiation • Scottish-ness is therefore the excluded middle in that equation

Discourse Hierarchy in Dead Poets Society: Queer - Straight
• Queerness is an anomaly, but homo-social behaviour is acceptable if bracketed by heterosexuality • Queerness is punishable by death, or suicide is sufficient self-punishment • Queerness is related to art, poetry and teaching (cf. pederasty)

Discourse Hierarchy in Dead Poets Society: Nation/Ethnicity and Sexuality
• Queerness is always already inscribed in American-ness, but covertly… • Primitivism (Native Indian) is equated with virility • Bonding and mating rituals are intertwined


				
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