“Poetry,” according to Paul Valéry, “is a separate language, or more specifically, a language within a language.” As with a matryoshka doll, a poem is a deceptive structure with endless possibilities for combination and recombination. While television can lean on visual and musical cues for an audience—flashbacks that flesh out backstory, songs that recur at key moments to reiterate narrative through lines—there are certain depths that only poetry can plumb. In 1975 John Williams invented a villain with two musical notes. The Jaws theme later became the de facto signifier for an audience to recognize danger. On the small screen, poetry has become a verbal siren alerting the audience to important, often seismic shifts in a story.
For television, which relies on time as a parameter for its storytelling, poems can replace clunky exposition, condensing into a few lines what would have taken pages of dialogue to reproduce: an understanding of the emotional stakes of the scene. In Elementary, the CBS adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” series, Holmes is a recovering drug addict who works as a consultant for the NYPD, a position contingent upon his sobriety. In “Dead Man’s Switch,” his one-year “soberversary” arrives but he refuses to collect his sobriety chip because, after a recent relapse, he does not feel he deserves the recognition. In lieu of contriving a scenario for him to pick it up, his investigative partner and one-time sober sponsor, Joan Watson, gifts him a framed copy of the final stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. The passage reads,
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Written in 1923, Frost’s poem about one man’s journey through the woods offers a sort of quasi-historical precedent for Holmes, for whom sobriety is a moving target on a dimly lit road. Earlier in the poem Frost’s journeyman notes the events of the poem take place on “the darkest evening of the year,” a line that acts as a metaphor for Holmes’s darkest hour, when relapse seems imminent. This gives dual meaning to the subsequent line, “I have promises to keep.” First, the line is a reminder of the promise Holmes made to himself to kick his addiction. The fact that the poem was a gift reveals a second promise, one of companionship and forgiveness, being made to Holmes by Watson. It is a proffer of solidarity for the duration of Holmes’s journey, whose lengthiness is foreshadowed by the repetition of the last line of the poem. What Casablanca accomplished in its final conversation between Rick and Louis, this scene achieves through a gesture: the gift of a poem telling the audience that this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A poem introduces a break in the rhythm of dialogue not unlike a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, occasioning a pause and moment’s reflection. This technique can be used to hammer home a plot point as in HBO’s The Newsroom (“The Blackout Part II: Mock Debate”), when a news producer played by Emily Mortimer knows a young member of her staff, Jim, is reticent to pursue a girl he likes. In lieu of urging him to action with the tired mention of the poetic exhortion “carpe diem,” she recites Robert Herrick’s “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time.” Unlike the dull pitch of Horace’s well-worn platitude, Herrick’s exuberant rhyme, “Then be not coy, but use your time, And while ye may, go marry,” is a full-bodied rallying cry.
The intimacy of the poetic form can be leveraged to reveal the inner life of a character and accelerate character development. Speaking to the New York Times, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said that upon reading Frank O’Hara’s “Mayakovsky,” he exclaimed, ”This is the story of the season!’” The season in question, the show’s second, is set in the murky political climate of the early 1960s and finds the series’ protagonist, Don Draper, confronted by the inescapable monotony of both his corporate and suburban lives. Fittingly, it and other poems from O’Hara’s 1957 book Meditations In An Emergency, are woven into the season’s thirteen episodes to either set or underscore the tone of a scene. To the outside world Don Draper is inscrutable yet unquestionably—almost cartoonishly—masculine: a man known only by his outline, the dark helmet of hair, the perfectly tailored gray flannel suits. At the end of the first episode Draper is alone at his desk having just finished reading “Mayakovsky,” and we hear him read the poem via voice over as the scene changes from the office to his house where he is walking his dog at night: “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” The coupling of first-person narrative and voice-over with O’Hara’s colloquial language conspires to create the illusion that the viewer has gained entry into Draper’s mind. It is a bold choice to supplant the dialogue of an ad man renowned for his skill as a smooth talking slogan-generator with borrowed words. But the “I” in O’Hara’s searching prose is a dead ringer for the side of Don he keeps hidden, paradoxically ambivalent and anxious, desiring connection and reveling in isolation.
“The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.”
These extracts of “Mayakovsky” collapse time, simultaneously offering an overview of Draper’s current state and a foreshadowing of the story arc for the rest of the season. As the voice-over recites the final stanza, Draper takes a drag of a cigarette and stares off into the distance at a neighborhood obscured by a soft mist.
“It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.”
After a brief moment, he turns back onto the same path he started from, and both poem and scene arrive at their shared thesis that in order to answer the nagging question, “Who am I?” Draper must reconcile his past identity with the one he constructed.
A poem in the wild is jarring. If we encounter one outside of a wedding or funeral our eyes instinctively begin to roll. But when wielded properly, poetry can be the Swiss Army knife of a storyteller’s toolbox; the elasticity of each syllable, sound, and word in a poem give it the power to allude to or create worlds within worlds.