Becoming a “real” poet meant burying an old favourite movie.
When people ask what my occupation is, I enjoy replying with “poet”. I just enjoy the facial expressions it provokes.
Technically this is true. I do write a lot of poetry and perform it, and occasionally get paid for doing so. I have yet to publish any of it in print (working on getting a chapbook out this year) other than in a couple of anthologies, but I’ve certainly generated more income from poetry — either through Medium or through the many spoken word events I’ve been involved in — than most people who purport to be poets. At the very least it’s a viable side hustle.
But it took me a long time to get back to poetry after having all but given up writing it in my mid-twenties. For a time poetry simply seemed like a silly thing to be spending my time on — not real writing per se. And in part at least I blame the movie Dead Poets Society for feeding me this idea.
I should perhaps emphasize before I proceed to trash this movie that none of the disparagement aimed at it is directed at the late Robin Williams’ stirring performance as the inspiring New England prep school English teacher John Keating. It was in fact Williams’ heartbreaking suicide in 2014 that made me want to revisit the film, and while the movie as a whole annoyed me for reasons that I will get to, his performance remains every bit as golden as it ever was — coming as it did at his career’s high watermark in the late eighties and early nineties together with Good Morning, Vietnam, Awakenings, and The Fisher King. Robin will always be close to my heart.
Dead Poets Society is not, it should be said, a bad movie, although it is definitely of the weakest of the four films that make up Robin Williams’ golden era. Good Morning, Vietnam, which this month has seen a resurgence in interest with the death of Adrian Cronauer, the loudmouth US air force disc jockey who Williams portrayed in the 1987 comedy-drama, still stands as one of the greatest Vietnam War films of all time, with Williams’ providing the perfect comic foil for the otherwise harrowing backdrop of a bloody and futile war. The Fisher King is a tragically underrated gem of a film by Monty Python alum Terry Gilliam, in which Robin goes full Python as a homeless man on quest for the Holy Grail in a magic realist take on crime-ridden 1980s New York. And then there’s Awakenings, which features the man at his most genteel as neurologist Dr. Malcolm Sayer (in a story based on Oliver Sacks’ memoirs) alongside an equally brilliant Robert DeNiro.
While Williams’ performance as Mr. Keating in DPS was criticized by some (most notably Roger Ebert) for veering off too often into Robin’s stand-up persona (which it did), it was still classic Robin in his prime, and imbued with a pathos that only Robin Williams could ever conjure up. It should also be noted that Robin Williams’ wasn’t the only standout performance in the film. Eighteen-year-old Ethan Hawke was also golden in his career-launching performance as the shy student Todd Anderson, as was the now 103-year-old Norman Lloyd (a longtime Alfred Hitchcock favourite) as Gale Nolan, the hard-ass headmaster for the fictitious Welton Academy, and of course the great Kurtwood Smith as the ill-fated Neil Perry’s dictatorial father.
Dead Poets Society is also, it should be conceded, a beautifully shot film. Set amid the gorgeous autumnal hues of New England, the cinematography, particularly as coupled with Maurice Jarre’s elegiac Celtic harp-driven soundtrack, is totally sublime. For all the mangled verse that masquerades as poetry in the film, the movie is itself a piece of visual poetry, and this critique is in no way a blanket rebuke of the film. Nor do my issues with the film have anything to do with the opprobrium it would no doubt face had it come out a few decades later for focusing exclusively on a group of ultra-privileged white boys. Yes, Neil, Todd, Knox, and the rest of the boys in the film are walking testimonies to white male privilege, but given the constraints of the time in which it was set, nothing else would have made any sense.
No, my beef with this film dwells elsewhere.
My issue with it is what it taught me about poetry, takeaways that ultimately resulted in my giving up writing it completely until I was a very different type of writer in my late thirties. As painfully well-intentioned as Mr. Keating is in the film, he is, to put it bluntly, a terrible teacher. Had I had the guy as a university professor or even a high school instructor, I have no doubt I wouldn’t have gotten anything valuable out of it, and after a few giddy weeks (or maybe a month) of excitement over such a freewheeling instructor, I’m certain I would have gotten bored and given him a terrible end-of-term evaluation.
In a nutshell, Mr. Keating’s teaching methodology can be distilled down to the following tactics:
- Ordering students to tear out bits of the textbook they don’t like. Or rather, bits of the textbook that Mr. Keating doesn’t like. You’ll notice that in the film he doesn’t even give the boys a chance to evaluate Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s comically mechanistic rubric for evaluating poetry for themselves before admonishing them to tear out the entire chapter. That’s not freedom of expression — that’s Maoism.
- Having students stand on their desks. You know, to see things from a different perspective. OK. Cool, I guess.
- Giving a shy kid a near nervous breakdown by forcing him to ad-lib a poem in front of the class. Nice one.
- For some reason attempting to teach poetry and coach soccer simultaneously. Not sure what the point of this interdisciplinary activity is, but OK, I guess.
- Having kids march around in the school courtyard ostensibly to encourage individuality. Also kind of Maoist.
- Cutting up poems into inspirational poster-esque quotes like carpe diem and other shit. No emphasis on real substance or word craft, just grab a line and yell it to the heavens like participants in some sort of Ivy League prep-school version of a Tony Robbins event.
It’s this last point that as a “real poet” truly raises my hackles anymore. The “dead poets society” that the boys form appears to involve little more than bits and pieces of great poems completely denuded of context. Of course, in the time period in which the film is set nobody in such rarified rich white circles would have cared too much that Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo” was, at around the same time, being blasted by the NAACP and the likes of W.E.B. DuBois for its naked racism, but dodgy bits of this poem are entirely excised (together with almost all of the rest of the poem) in favour of a single line repeated ad nauseam to the beat of a drum like a really pretentious Hare Krishna parade.
This, in sum, is the lesson I took away from DPS. Poetry isn’t serious. Poetry doesn’t require any actual craft or discipline. Poetry is just simply supposed to “seep through your pores” and be somehow the stuff of life itself. Like breathing, except with words. Whatever word pasta you can throw together without much thought.
Here’s where it gets a bit embarrassing. As a teen, a group of friends and I started something analogous to a dead poets society — the name of which is, in retrospect, too cringe-inducing for me even to share here in this confessional part of the essay. I’m sure we were far from the only kids in the early nineties to have watched the film way too much, ultimately leading to the formation of bad poetry circles, consisting of whiny white boys with bad Reality Bites-vintage Ethan Hawke goatees, clove cigarettes, and all manner of other pretentious accoutrements. And yeah, bad poetry. LOTS of that.
Now at this point you’re probably going to object, saying “Hang on! ALL 19-year-old kids write bad poetry. It’s virtually an integral part of being that age together with acne, misguided facial hair, and a vague feeling of certainty about absolutely everything.”
Yes. And no. Yes, there’s nothing wrong with kids writing terrible poetry. Poetry is like any other skill — you have to spend time sucking at it before you can get any good. That said, had my head not been contaminated by Mr. Keating’s teaching philosophy, I might have actually taken poetry seriously as a field of study and pursued it in a way that would have actually allowed me to learn from my heroes at the time — people like Allen Ginsberg, Henri Michaux, Federico García Lorca, and Audre Lorde. As a reader I had great taste in poetry as a young thing, but thanks to my view of poetry as being something natural that you simply had rather than developed through practice, I had no roadmap for getting there. It never occurred to me to study it because, you know, carpe diem and shit!
This worked so long as I was naive enough to think that my earnest 19-year-old scribbling were somehow the equal of my favourite poet’s work. It didn’t take me that long, however, to realize that they weren’t. By that point I had moved on to other things in my life and other forms of writing — mostly journalistic and essayistic writing. I wrote maybe two or three poems in my early to mid twenties and then simply stopped. It felt like a youthful phase that I had gotten out of my system, and from which it was now time to move on.
Clinical depression and my faltering recovery from it pushed me back to poetry — first by way of reading, and then writing. It felt like some invisible force was bringing me back to it, after a 15-year sabbatical. And then, shortly after I had written perhaps a half-dozen new poems, I did something I had never done before in my life and walked into an open mic poetry club (Edmonton’s Breath in Poetry collective) and put my name on the list.
I quickly wished I hadn’t. The performers, most of whom were at least a decade younger than me, were good. Really good! Like “I’m a BFA/MFA student and I work on my craft every day” good. Most of the material was razor-sharp in its wordcraft, and the delivery and stage presence was first rate as well. By comparison, I was nervous and faltering — tripping over my own words (even with booze in my system, which I had yet to kick), and the material, while not completely terrible, was not at all suited to the open mic format. It was bad. Bad poetry from a dude in his late thirties. Bad poetry from a 19-year-old is excusable, but I was now 37. This simply wouldn’t do.
Fortunately I made the most of this humbling experience and really started to work on my material. I read and this time I J-Evans-Pritcharded the hell out of the material I liked in an attempt to reverse-engineer the stuff. I attended workshops. I listened to spoken word artists on YouTube. (This of course was not available to my 19-year-old self.) I did everything I could short of enrolling in a university lit program. And I slowly but surely started to improve.
The first performance poem I wrote that I was actually proud of is a Ginsberg-inspired piece entitled “New Orleans Is Clawing At My Bones” which I still think is quite good, written in 2014. But in truth it’s taken me about five years to get to a point where I have a critical mass of material that I actually can stand behind for publication. Even most of the material I wrote two or three years ago now feels in want of polish or more precision. Of course there’s nothing wrong with rawness, and some of the stuff — especially poems written during depressive relapses — is pretty damn punk. But the job title “poet” was something I had to earn the hard way, and it’s taken a great deal more work than my Hollywood prep-school education would have had me believe.
I now call myself a poet with little-to-no embarrassment. But in order to get to that point, I had to bury Dead Poets Society and Mr. Keating in the graveyard of youthful misadventures. I am no longer one of the kids at the end of the movie standing on his desk saying “Oh Captain, My Captain”. I’m one of the few not standing — the ones who, perhaps, actually would become real poets in an alternate universe. One of the great ironies of this iconic film is that two of its lead actors, Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry) and Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet) would eventually go on to greater fame in TV land portraying the very professions that their DPS characters’ parents had sanctioned for them — namely as the congenial oncologist Dr. James Wilson in House M.D. and as the cutthroat attorney Will Gardner in The Good Wife. Am I the only person to have noticed this stinging irony?
I’m a living poet now, and as such I had to lay Dead Poets Society to rest and move on. Carpe diem indeed.