Poetry: using words to combine rhythm and sounds in defiance of the rules of prose.
It can be abstract. In can be explicit. It can be bouncy and childlike. It can be driving and adult. Although the term “poet” may never have the same loftiness it once did, poetry is much more powerful and ubiquitous than most of us realize or give it credit for. Take movies for example.
I bet if you tried to think of all the movies you’ve seen that quote a poem, you’d be surprised by how many there are. Horror films that have a child reciting a warning verse of some superstition, fantasy movies with a prophecy, a drama where someone taunts someone else in a sing-song tone of voice with rhyme – poetry is slipped into the background with a thoroughness that is astounding. Here are a few examples to get you started:
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit Roger quotes and changes “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Yes, a cartoon/live action mix quotes a classic sonnet.
The Blind Side
The Blind Side is a family drama about American football (and socioeconomic problems). A major plot point is comparing “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with football – with country music superstar Tim McGraw (who plays the dad) quoting parts of the poem on screen because “he loves it.”
The M*A*S*H* series uses any number of poems – from Rudyard Kipling’s “Gunga Din” to limerick references like “There was a young lady from Kent…” It’s part of the characterization and banter that are so integral to the series.
The Lord of the Rings Series
The Lord of the Rings book series and movies are full of original poetry. Some of them are intended to be songs, and some of them are recited for the simple pleasure of reciting poetry (Samwise is particularly apt to quote poetry as a comfort whether the poem is about trolls or oliphaunts).
In the first season of Criminal Minds, there is a serial killer who leaves verses of “Death and the Lady” (an old ballad) at the scene of the crime. A different episode quotes “The Parliament of Fowls” by Chaucer, and I would not be surprised if later seasons (that I haven’t seen) use more.
“Two by two, hands of blue” is River Tam’s repeated response to the Alliance’s agents in Firefly. It’s not a famous, recognizable poem, and since it’s spoken, you might not even think about it as poetry. But look at the rhythm and rhyme. It’s definitely more verse than prose. Plus, having a character speak in verse is usually a way of indicating madness or supernatural powers (or both). That certainly suits River’s unique situation.
The Big Bang Theory
And what about “Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty / Little ball of fur”? Yes, this hit from The Big Bang Theory is a children’s song, but take away the notes of a song, and you’ll find a poem. That’s right. Songs are poems set to music (but that’s a discussion for another post).
Dead Poets Society, The Harry Potter series, Animaniacs, musicals, standup comedians, reporters, mnemonic tricks for tests, and more – as much as people dismiss poetry as outdated or boring, poems are woven throughout our entertainment and communication, and that’s not even counting all of the slang, titles, and other references to famous poems that are a part of our everyday lives.
But what does that mean for writers?
Well, poetry is catchy, it’s memorable, and it’s powerful. Instead of treating it like the plague, why not think about how you can use it to strengthen your story? Learn from other authors and screenwriters about how to weave it in. Who knows? A little snippet of poetry could be the quote most remembered from your book and a fond memory for all of your fans – but only if you write one.