Somewhere in the film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, if memory serves, the tycoon, Monroe Stahr, who can “rent your brains,” confronts a screenwriter. Stahr berates the writer, telling him that if he doesn’t like his job in Hollywood’s script factory, “you can go back to your poetry.”

Even if I have misremembered the quote—I swear I saw it somewhere—it will serve as an apt example of the movie mogul versus the puny writer. Fitzgerald, a fiction writer, belonged to the first wave of literary writers to head west from the concrete canyons of New York, or from the expat life in Paris, to the sunny shores of California in search of fatter paychecks and new adventures.

His time in Hollywood was not especially a happy one. Fitzgerald worked hard in his cubicle on the MGM lot, churning out several thousand pages of screenplays, treatments and notes, with very little to show for it other than a $1,000+ per week paycheck, great money during the Depression. He earned a credit for the 1938 movie The Three Comrades, starring Robert Taylor. Apparently, the studio deemed Fitzgerald’s dialogue “insufficiently catty.” Anita Loos was brought in to replace him on one project.

Nonetheless, Hollywood stereotypes notwithstanding, poems have shown up in a surprising number of films, in whole or in part. Three show up in Blade Runner: “The Fly,” “America: A Prophesy,” and William Blake’s “The Tyger.” W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” was prominently quoted in full in “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which prompted a new edition of Auden’s poems with the film mentioned on the cover.

More recently, “Invictus,” a stirring lyric poem by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, supplied the title to the movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. When Mr. Freeman was interviewed by Charlie Rose, he recited the poem perfectly from memory. Snippets of verse pop up in other Eastwood movies.

Other films have featured a poet (Jane Campion’s Bright Star; Christine Jeff’s Sylvia; Howl, starring James Franco as the young Allen Ginsberg), or made poetry the main theme of the movie (Dead Poet’s Society; Jean Cocteau’s Orpheé, in which poetry emanates from a car radio.)

So it is not the case that bullying film dances in one corner while feeble poetry cowers across the ring.

What I am getting at is more the routine understanding of how actors speak in movies, particularly American males. In the general view, Americans talk like cowboys or detectives: keep it short, stupid. Just the facts. Our hearts and minds are filled with the joys and sorrows of the world; by the time such thoughts and emotions come to our mouths, though, we clam up. We’re too busy shooting guns or avoiding collisions in the high speed car chase to say much. We hem and haw, stutter, can’t quite get it together. Our action heroes are little more than extensions of their weapons.

The Brits, on the other hand, don’t mind telling you in detail just how things are with them. They’re not just voluble, they seem to enjoy the sound of their voices. Shakespeare made it ok for them to run through “all the stations of the breath,” as Dylan Thomas put it. Shakespeare was bigger than any tycoon. We give poets rich cash awards or name a bridge after them, but reserve the franchise for prose: The Great American Novel. The Baltimore Ravens were so named by the City of Baltimore due to its connection to Edgar Allen Poe, which I believe is the only American sports franchise named after a poem.

Poetry is vision. We know this from the classics, from Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, the Greeks. To announce a vision requires courage and clarity. The best we can manage in most cases, is the poetry of light; the art of the cinematographer. We expect even the most vile action movie to be beautifully filmed; that is, we expect the camera to be eloquent. Thus we have the poetry of light. Dialogue is necessary to move the story along, but we often seem to take little pleasure in the words.

In film, we have the poetry of silence. Seldom the poetry of poetry, despite the valiant exceptions I have noted.

Screenplays are made up of words—no diagrams, digital photos, or graphs. The screenwriter has no control over the lighting or music, in spec scripts. That leaves only dialogue and description. I prefer the full range of the voice; all the stations of the breath, not all of the time—the laconic mode has its charms—but I want to let it all out some of the time. Anger is not poetry, in my view, not according to the school of Beauty & Truth. Ranting is not the same thing as Henry V summoning his band of brothers.

Unfortunately, most script readers today, the gatekeepers, working for agents and production companies, fail to recognize poetry when they see it on the page. They apparently don’t learn literature in film school. They all know about character arc. They all know to scold the writer for dialogue of more than three or four sentences at a time. After all, if you don’t like the heat in the film world kitchen, you can go back to your poetry, where the lights are not quite as bright and the checks are minimal, although in a crowded world, getting to the top of the heap in any art form is a challenge.

By Hudson Owen. All rights reserved. April is National Poetry Month.

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