Since the invention of moving pictures or ‘movies’ (or films) in the late nineteenth century, writers have incorporated this new medium into their work. Rudyard Kipling wrote an early short story about the new technology of the cinema; and it didn’t take long for the poets to follow suit. So, without more ado, here’s our pick of ten of the very best poems about movies, cinema, and film. Many of the following poems (though not all) are included in Faber Book of Movie Verse, a wonderful anthology of classic poems about movies and Hollywood which we picked up for £1 in a local charity shop. We’d heartily recommend it.
Henry Newbolt, ‘The War Films’. Let’s kick off this selection of great cinema poems with a couple of poems about early war films. Newbolt (1862-1938) is best-known for his patriotic English poem ‘Drake’s Drum’ and ‘Vitaï Lampada’ (perhaps the most famous poem about cricket in the English language), but he also wrote this fine poem about the film reels during the First World War: ‘O living pictures of the dead, / O songs without a sound, / O fellowship whose phantom tread / Hallows a phantom ground – / How in a gleam have these revealed / The faith we had not found.’
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Picture-Show’. The war poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was among the first to realise the emotive power in the flickering images of soldiers that became popular during the war (more tickets were sold in British cinemas for the 1916 silent documentary on the Battle of the Somme than for the blockbuster Star Wars). Here, however, Sassoon merely draws on the metaphor of the cinematic image or moving picture to describe the recurring dreams he had featuring those who had died.
Richard Aldington, ‘Cinema Exit’. Aldington (1892-1962, pictured right) made his name as an imagist poet, and ‘Cinema Exit’ – describing the swarms of people leaving the flickering pictures during wartime, is one of his finest urban poems. It’s not easy to find a copy of this poem online, but it’s available via the link above (search for ‘Cinema Exit’ or scroll down to locate this miniature masterpiece).
May Swenson, ‘The James Bond Movie’. Swenson (1913-89) has been called (by Harold Bloom) one of the most important and original poets of the twentieth century, yet her work remains undervalued. In this poem – which, as the title indicates, is about going to see a James Bond film – subtly captures the indifference the (presumably female) speaker feels as she sits through the movies’ most famous embodiment of male fantasy.
Vernon Scannell, ‘Autobiographical Note’. There can’t be too many famous poets who were also boxers, but Scannell (1922-2007) certainly donned boxing gloves when he wasn’t wielding a pen. In ‘Autobiographical Note’, the British poet describes going to the pictures in ‘Beeston, the place, near Nottingham’ in England every Saturday afternoon for the matinee film. There isn’t a reliable text-copy of the poem online anywhere, but you can hear the poem recited by clicking on the link above.
Elizabeth Jennings, ‘Two Deaths’. Jennings (1926-2001) deserves a wider readership than she currently enjoys. This poem ponders how some images we see on film stay with us, and why we find them so upsetting: she recalls a film she saw with a disturbingly violent image of a boy having been shot and gripping his bloody wound, and then an injured ‘broken cat’ on a path.
Allen Ginsberg, ‘The Blue Angel’. Opening with a description of the film star Marlene Dietrich singing a ‘lament / for mechanical love’, this poem is fine example of ‘film ekphrasis’: describing (moving) pictures in words.
Frank O’Hara, ‘Ave Maria’. An ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘Hail Mary’ is a prayer to the Mother of Jesus, but in this prayer-poem, O’Hara (1926-66) addresses all the ‘Mothers of America’, using teenage trips to the cinema to explore coming of age, the way we view our own relationships in light of the relationships we see depicted on the silver screen, and much else.
Tony Harrison, ‘Continuous’. When his parents died, Tony Harrison wrote a series of sonnets about them, innovating with the usual 14-line sonnet form to create a Meredithian 16-line sonnet. The result was some of the most moving poetry written about the poet’s own grief: poems which Stephen Spender said were the kind of poems he’d been waiting his whole life to read. ‘Continuous’ sees Harrison recalling his boyhood trips to the cinema with his father to see James Cagney films, one of the things they bonded over. If you don’t have a bit of grit in your eye by the end of this poem, you’re made of sterner stuff than we are.
Don Paterson, ‘Rain’. This poem features in our pick of the greatest rain poems, but it’s a nature poem with a difference, since the weather is viewed through the lens of the film camera: Paterson (b. 1963), as he says, loves ‘all films that start with rain’. From that direct opening (‘start’, you’ll note, rather than the more formal ‘begin’), Paterson considers how the poetry of rainfall at the beginning of a film can persuade him to overlook a multitude of filmic weaknesses: the actor’s native accent slipping in, for instance, or the boom mic dropping into view. A fine poem to cap off our selection of the greatest poems about the movies. You can listen to Paterson reading his poem here.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).