Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bright Star is a Mother's Dream

Moms, if you'd like to share a wonderful, passionate, CHASTE love story with your daughters or sons, go find "Bright Star," Jane Campion's gorgeous new film about Romantic poet John Keats and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. Unfortunately, it's only playing in select theatres, so you may have to hunt for it (go to and enter your zip code to find the theatre closest to you), but it's worth whatever distance you have to drive. If you're an action movie buff, I should warn you that you may have trouble staying awake; the pace of the film makes a tortoise look manic. But if you love period pieces, lush European-style cinematography, character studies, romance, family drama, or poetry, this is two hours of bliss.

There are so many positive aspects to "Bright Star," it's hard to know where to start. The fact that John and Fanny's relationship is based completely on affection and admiration, with virtually no physical contact--an all but foreign concept in this day and age--is certainly key, but I'll come back to that. Equally as satisfying is Campion's portrayal of Fanny and her mother as strong, capable women--a welcome change from the simpering females typically associated with the early nineteenth century. Fanny's father was long dead by the time John Keats became her neighbor, so one assumes the portrayal of the Brawne women is accurate since, without father, older brother, or other male relative at hand, they were forced to be self-sufficient of necessity. Perhaps because of that need to pull together, the Brawne family had a genuine affection for one another; that affection is evident throughout the film. Though Fanny admits in one scene that her little sister can be annoying, the closeness of the family members is obvious, and they continually, and willingly, look out for one another.

Actor Ben Whishaw didn't make my heart beat faster, but I suspect teen girls will find it easy to fall in love with Campion's scruffy version of John Keats. And they will certainly identify with young Fanny's passion for clothes (forget the mall: when Fanny wants the latest fashion, she just whips out her trusty needle and thread), annoyance with Keats' boorish buddy, and frustration with strict societal rules (Keats is deemed an inappropriate match because he has no reliable income). I especially enjoyed the portrayal of this young woman's relationship with her mother, who appeared to trust Fanny's judgment to do the right thing, but stood ready to offer comfort and advice as needed.

It is the pure--literally--passion of this love affair, though, that makes this film so important for teen viewing. Hollywood has taught this generation that love and sex are one and the same, that it's inconceivable to date a boy without bedding him, that hooking up is just the thing you do. Watching the ardor grow between this young couple creates a tangible ache. When they place their palms on opposite sides of a wall each night, we feel their connection; when they steal shy kisses on a walk through the countryside, we feel their giddy joy; when they make a conscious decision not to consummate their love before what they both know, but deny, is their last night together, we ache with their grief and longing. The inevitable tragic ending will leave only the hardest of hearts dry-eyed; again, I found Fanny's reaching out for her mother's comfort particularly touching.

Unlike Shakespeare's Juliet, Fanny Brawne had sense enough to know that much as she loved John Keats, her life would go on. The film leads us to believe she spent the rest of her life in mourning but, in truth, Fanny eventually married and had three children. I think the film would be more valuable to impressionable young minds had that fact been included because at forty, you know you'll survive the loss of love, but at fifteen, you don't; moving on with her life in no way diminished Fanny's love for Keats or his effect on her life, but it was the necessary, healthy thing to do.

Meanwhile, we are all better for Keats having been in this world. His body of poetry was not large, but his impact on the world of literature is undeniable, and if you are not familiar with his work or the bittersweet, brief tale of his life, you should see "Bright Star."

Video trailer:

John Keats' poetry:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is It Poetry or Is It Prose? Does It Matter?

I've been a fan of prose poet Louis Jenkins for years. His work makes me grin--always a good characteristic in a poem. It's witty, to the point, and often does a little pointed skewering in deft, understated satire--good stuff. Thanks to the wonderful Jeanette Guinn, a longtime friend from the South Carolina Arts Commission, I found out about a grant from the Southern Arts Federation and partnered with my home county's library system to bring Louis to our fair city for a series of readings and workshops. I'm excited: high school students, adult literacy students, area writers, and the general public will all benefit from his visit to Greenville next month.

I'll confess right up front that I'm not a big fan of prose poetry. I like my poems to look like poems--nice, short lines stacked up on the page...a vertical rectangle the size of an index card is about right. Give that rectangle a 90 degree twist and, to me, it becomes a paragraph--not a poem--so I'm eager to sit at this master's feet to see if I can figure out exactly what about his horizontal rectangles constitutes poetry. What makes his paragraph poetry and someone else's flash fiction?

Louis says he could care less about form; he's written "line poetry," as he calls it, too, but feels more comfortable and less restricted in paragraph mode. Most of us poets seem to have a place that feels most natural: my friend Kay Day enjoys writing sonnets; Gregory Orr says what he has to say in short, sparse spurts; Keith Flynn burst into songs in the middle of his poems; ee cummings eschewed capital letters, and Emily Dickinson completely abused them. Yet each of these gifted writers creates appealing, powerful poetry.

I tend to think Louis is right; does form really matter? Isn't it the words themselves that make the difference? As with so many other areas of life, "rules" often get in the way of the experience. I almost drove myself--and more than a few others--crazy in my first crack at motherhood. I read every how-to book available in my determination to do it "right" and to internalize all the experts' "shoulds" and "musts" and "essentials." By the time I got to Child #3, I'd tossed out most of that advice in exchange for routines borne of convenience and practicality. (Undoubtedly, this is why the youngest child in most families is more laid back than older siblings; we moms eventually figure out that doing what comes naturally makes life much happier!)

Poetry might benefit from that trade-off. Less focus on form and more on fodder would perhaps make this genre not so offputting to those unfamiliar (or unimpressed) with the rigid rhyme scheme of a terza rima or the syllabic specifications of haiku. I'm certainly not suggesting we start throwing words on a page all namby-pamby, but a little more oomph and a little less oeuvre might bring poetry a few more fans.

You'll get plenty of both if you come hear Louis do what he does best on Friday, November 6th, at 7 PM in the Hughes Main Library in downtown Greenville, SC. I promise you will be entertained. And if you'd like to learn more about weaving words into a prose poem, sign up for his workshop for the nominal fee of $25 (thanks to the aforementioned grant!). It's Saturday, November 7th, from 10 AM till noon at the same place. Just contact Sandy Merrill at 864-527-9293 or e-mail her at