Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cinematic Poetry: Wit

If there is such a thing as cinematic poetry, Wit fits the description. John Donne's poems serve as the backdrop for this drama, the story of a middle aged college professor (Vivian Bearing) who has spent her life studying and teaching his poetry. During her final, eight- month battle with ovarian cancer, Vivian has much to say in monologue fashion. Her words reflect some of the wit that John Donne is known for:

"This is my play's last scene Here... 'Heavens appoint my pilgrimage's last mile And my race Idly, yet quickly run Hath this last pace My span's last inch My minute's last point And gluttonous death Will instantly unjoint my body and soul' John Donne... I've always particularly liked that poem. In the abstract. Now I find the image of my minute's last point, a little too, shall we say... pointed."

Vivian flashes back to a time when she sat at the feet of her mentor, learning about the significant comma in Donne's poem Death Be Not Proud:

"Do you think that the punctuation of the last line of this sonnet is merely an insignificant detail? The sonnet begins with a valiant struggle with Death calling on all the forces of intellect and drama to vanquish the enemy. But it is ultimately about overcoming the seemingly insuperable barriers separating life death and eternal life. In the edition you choose, this profoundly simple meaning is sacrificed to hysterical punctuation.
'And Death, Capital D, shall be no more, semi-colon. Death, Capital D comma, thou shalt die, exclamation mark! '

If you go in for this sort of thing I suggest you take up Shakespeare. Gardner's edition of the Holy Sonnets returns to the Westmoreland manuscript of 1610, not for sentimental reasons I assure you, but because Helen Gardner is a scholar. It reads,

'And death shall be no more' comma 'death, thou shalt die.'

Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

Very simple, really. With the original punctuation restored Death is no longer something to act out on a stage with exclamation marks. It is a comma. A pause.

In this way, the uncompromising way one learns something from the poem, wouldn't you say? Life, death, soul, God, past present. Not insuperable barriers. Not semi-colons. Just a comma. "

Poetry, lovely though it be, cannot meet Vivian's true human need in the final moments of her life. The mentor who spoke the eloquent words above is Vivian's last visitor and she offers to recite Donne as a well-meaning act of consolation. But Vivian's need is not poetry; her need is love. In a most touching final scene, the elderly mentor climbs into bed with Vivian and extends that love to her. She cradles her head and speaks to her soothingly, as a mother. She opens her bag and takes out a children's book (The Runaway Bunny) and reads it to her. Vivian is comforted and quieted by her touch and her simple ministrations.

This is the kind of movie that leaves a mark on your heart and mind, and I've found myself thinking on it and digesting its message for several weeks following my initial viewing. If you are a crier, you'll want to have kleenex handy for this one.

As an addendum: Shortly after viewing Wit, I came across some interesting information about "poetry of wit" in my current reading, How Does a Poem Mean? The author cites John Donne as the consummate poet of wit. This type of poet "welcome into their poems the rush of every sort of experience." In contrast, poets of high seriousness (Wordsworth is an example) are more concerned with diction and fine writing. This type of poet would exclude certain words or metaphors as being crass or unworthy of mention.

It's always enriching to connect threads of understanding from disparate sources. That is the delight of intellectual freedom.

1 comment: