by John S. O’Connor
Reprinted from (2009)

This year I’m teaching a new class called Literature and Film. Since I’m always thinking of ways to use poetry in the classroom, we started the year by screening Run Lola Run while we read Oedipus the King (the brilliant Robert Fagles translation replete with devastatingly ironic line breaks). In our film noir unit, we read some terrific noir poems from Kevin Young’s Black Maria and some excerpts from Robert Polito’s fine new collection, Holywood and God. (Check out the podcast on Poetry Noir from Poetry off the Shelf.)

Then, while we were examining mise-en-scene (for our purposes, the physical setting of the film) in movies such as Double Indemnity and Chinatown, I asked students to write noir poems of their own. As a first step, I had students work in small groups to make a list of 50 concrete nouns, objects that fill the frame. When they were finished, I asked them to write down 10 “tough guy” lines. With that group-generated word pool, I asked individual students to tell a story that uses no verbs or adjectives that were not on their lists. (They could feel free to add “small words” such as articles and prepositions). For the sake of coherence, I didn’t really care if they broke these arbitrary rules, but for the most part they stayed within the parameters I laid out. Here is an example from Michael:

Candle-lit brooches blinds the darkness

Whiskey perfumes the pearled dame:

Her thin eyebrows, false lashes, painted red lips. Manicured nails

Put pen to pad to pistol

Bourbon shadows suffocate

Every crowded bar
Police fire on the heels of her fur coat

Streetlamps spit halos of light in the boozy night

The Fedora City lights like a knife

A neon scream hits my gut like a brick

Gasping for my life, my lungs find only stale air

I need a drink
The broad beat it outta there quick,

dangling rope

earrings her only trace

A doll on the run,

a run in her stockings–
Camera to crime to cuffs.

Set match to photograph

Smothering the city in Venetian streaks

The blinds are drawn shut

Case closed.

Photo: Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, based on Dashiell Hammett‘s novel.