The Los Angeles Review of Books has just begun a series that they’re calling “But What About the Soul: Poets at the Movies.” Fans of Frank O’Hara will recognize the title, which comes from a line in “Ave Maria,” one of his best and funniest “movie poems” (the one that memorably begins “Mothers of America / let your kids go to the movies!”):
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
The editors, Joshua Rivkin, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Elizabeth Metzger, kick off the series by writing:
It’s the start of summer and we’re taking Frank O’Hara’s advice and staying inside to see some movies. We love the movies — the illuminated dark, the rush of being alone and together with others, the pleasures of escape and return — and all this month we’re featuring essays by poets about silent films, poetic realism, controversial directors, and more. Meet us in the balcony. The popcorn is on us.
In the first installment, Rebecca Morgan Frank discusses her ambivalent feelings about the relationship between poetry and film.
When poems and movies talk about one another, I feel uncomfortable. An airheaded female character reads Bishop by someone’s bedside. A man reads Whitman to his lifelong love at both the beginning and the end of their epic love story. None of this deepens the characters or makes terrible movies better. And must they bring in poor Tennyson at the end of a James Bond movie? Does Hollywood really think it can give itself weight by dropping in the work of poets?
With some exceptions, most obviously Frank O’Hara, poets are generally no better at this conversation. When it comes to many contemporary poets writing about the movies, whether they are offering a portrait of a star or a film, the poems are so often caught in the same nostalgic voice that it is as if we’re reading the same reflective poem on repeat, like hearing my father tell stories about the old Saturday matinees over and over again …
Poetry, the sister art to music, to painting, yes, but film? If these are sisters, it seems they are the sort that could go years without speaking, and no one would mind.
Frank’s piece becomes part personal essay, part meditation on several examples of the poetry-film conversation. It will be interesting to see future installments of this compelling series, written under the sign (and title) of Frank O’Hara, generally considered the greatest poet of the movies we’ve had.
If you’re interested in O’Hara’s fascination with film, check out Daniel Kane’s recent book, We Saw the Light: Conversations between New American Cinema and Poetry (which focuses on avant-garde film) or my own essay, “‘I Want to Be At Least as Alive as the Vulgar: Frank O’Hara and the Cinema,” which you can find here.