Sabtu, 12 September 2009

Poetry and Movies

I’ve had a strange concentration of Japanese culture in the last month or so. Yes, Tommy and I saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, but I also recently read Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, mostly set in a bourgeois building in an upscale neighborhood in Paris. The concierge in that building is fascinated by Japanese culture, reads Tolstoy, listens to Mozart, and shares a kindred spirit and a wonderful friendship with a new resident, the wealthy Japanese filmmaker Kakuro Ozu. Last week, I rented Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I have not seen that yet. I was going to watch it last night, but the evening was too nice to sit in a dark basement, so I walked up to Wells Hall to see Departures, presented by the East Lansing Film Society. This was directed by Yojiro Takita and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

If you haven’t seen the film but intend to do so, skip on ahead to the next paragraph but don’t read anymore of this one. I’m heading straight to the end of the film here. It’s the endings, in part, that differentiate so many films from so many poems. (Among other things, of course. Cinematography. Popcorn. Soundtracks.) Is it fair to compare two genres? Maybe not, but I can’t stop considering the differences. That scene at the end of the film, in which Daigo is kneeling beside his dead father, preparing the body for departure, is incredibly sentimental. On my walk home last night, I kept thinking how this sort of sentimentality works in a film, but wrecks a poem. I knew when Daigo was trying to unclench his father’s hand what was inside the fist. There was this sudden swell of knowledge, which maybe every viewer felt and registered as a private knowledge. But when the stone drops out of the fist, it is not a surprise. We know it’s coming. And that is one difference between a film and a poem.

A film can still be good even when it is predictable and sentimental, but a poem must surprise the reader. There are so many ways of describing what a poem is, or what a poem does. Yeats said a finished poem makes a sound like the click of the lid on a perfectly made box. I read a review of Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist in Thursday’s New York Times. Here are the last three sentences of that: “An essay, he says, is a glass of water. But if a few drops of that water fall on a hot frying pan and sizzle? Then you have a poem.”

I think, in a good poem, one cannot read the first half of it and figure out what happens in the second half. If there is a clenched fist in a poem, one cannot guess what is inside it. If one can guess what is inside the clenched fist, the poem has probably failed. I’m not saying a poem has to end with fireworks…or even sizzle. Fireworks can be pretty predictable. But when a poem clicks shut it ought to leave the reader feeling a little… unbalanced. Poetry is not yoga. It’s not intended to relax us or help us sleep well. It’s also, usually, not terribly cathartic. Which means it often stops short of making us cry. The thing with poems is, they will often make you ache without delivering, or inducing, the full relief of tears. Films are good for tears, and that is why I’d classify most films as entertainment. Poems, like much of life, leave us aching.

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