Poems have helped to create some of the most poignant scenes in movies—think of W.H. Auden’s "Funeral Blues" in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Elizabeth Bishop’s "One Art" in In Her Shoes. Movies, in turn, have inspired some spectacular poems. In honor of National Poetry Month, here are 11 poems to keep you well-versed in the poesy of cinema.
1. "Ave Maria" // Frank O'Hara
“Mothers of America,” O’Hara pleads, “let your kids go to the movies!” O’Hara frequently referenced films and actors in his poems, though none were as direct about how movies teach us about life as this 1964 classic. What happens, asks O’Hara, if you don’t let the kids go? They will “grow old and blind in front of a TV set / seeing / movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young.”
2. “Big Sue and Now, Voyager” // Carol Ann Duffy
Duffy paints a masterful portrait of a woman named Sue who spends each night eating Mars bars and forgetting the day’s sorrows by watching a 1942 Bette Davis film (with an iconic ending) that takes its title from a Walt Whitman poem. “This is where she lives, the wrong side of the glass / in black-and-white,” Duffy writes.
3. “Late Movies with Skyler” // Michael Ondaatje
The narrator of this poem watches old movies each night, too. But for him it’s a chance to bond, fleetingly, with the enigmatic Skyler over the 1952 film The Prisoner of Zenda. Other Ondaatje poems have been inspired by movies, he’s written films and a book about film editing, and one of his novels, The English Patient, was adapted into the 1997 Oscar winner for Best Picture.
4. “The Prisoner of Zenda” // Richard Wilbur
Zenda’s heart-wrenching ending also inspired this bit of light verse from the witty Wilbur. Princess Flavia must reject the kind Rudolf (played by Stewart Granger) in order to fulfill her duties and marry his lookalike, the irascible King, who “Far from being a stranger, / Is also Stewart Granger.”
5. "Anna May Wong on Silent Films" // Sally Wen Mao
Another poem inspired by a silver-screen legend is Mao’s moving tribute to the film star Anna May Wong. Though she achieved success in a nearly all-white industry and even started her own production company, Wong was often typecast as a dangerous femme fatale. “To be first lady on the celluloid / screen—I had to marry / my own cinematic death,” Mao writes.
6. “Working for Dr. No” // Valery Nash
Movie poems are frequently opportunities to explore larger moral questions, like why a talented scientist such as Dr. No’s Professor Dent would work for a villain. “Perhaps it was the beautiful efficiency / of the Doctor’s organization / or the attraction of strict discipline, / the little luxuries that those on the payroll let show,” Nash muses.
7. "The James Bond Movie" // May Swenson
A different Bond film prompted Swenson to consider a different moral problem: the impossible (and uninteresting) beauty standards that some films promote. “They’re nose-perfect replicas of each other,” she writes of the Bond Girls.
8. “Werewolf Movies” // Margaret Atwood
Before she dreamed up the dystopian patriarchy of The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood used poetry—and her wry humor—to ponder why some men might be drawn to violent genre films. “Some last escape / from having to be lawyers?” she asks.
9. "Who Makes Love to Us After We Die" // Diana Marie Delgado
Delgado cites not one but two movies (The Wizard of Oz and Bram Stoker’s Dracula) in this tour-de-force meditation on film, relationships, power, and art. “The best movies begin with an / encounter and end with someone setting someone free,” she writes.
10. "The Movies" // Billy Collins
Collins, the hopeless optimist, reminds readers that watching a movie can itself be a poetic activity. He writes that he would like to enjoy a Western “lying down / with the bed hitched up to the television … so the movie could pull me along / the crooked, dusty road of its adventures.”
11. “Double Feature” // Robert Hayden
The fantasy of film and the moral certainty it offered inspired Hayden to write this fond childhood remembrance of escaping into the movie houses of his Detroit neighborhood. “Oh how we cheered to see the good we were / destroy the bad we’d never be,” he wrote. Let your kids go to the movies, indeed!