Campion Gets Keats

This evening, I went to see Jane Campion's new film "Bright Star," about the romance between John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. The film takes its title from Keats' sonnet of the same name, which many believe was inspired by Ms. Brawne.

I have long been an admirer of Jane Campion's films (and of John Keats' poetry). One of my favorites, "Holy Smoke," starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, concerns itself with spiritual enlightenment and mind control. It is an intense, sexy, layered, complex work--and it made me a devotee of Campion.

Campion is both writer and director. She also has a background as a painter and, throughout her films, you see this manifested. "Bright Star" is no exception. The film is a moving painting. In the scenes with Fanny and her family, all is light, clean and fresh. Fanny has an interest in fashion, so there is a focus on fabrics and the way light shines through them. In the scenes with the poets, the colors are brown and navy; there is a dusty, musty look to everything; and the rooms are ill-lit. When Keats' friend Mr. Brown asks Fanny what color his eyes are, she describes them as "suitcase brown."

"Bright Star" is the classic tragic love story, and Campion doesn't try to make it anything other than that. A less sensitive filmmaker might have cheesed things up a bit, cluttered the film with romantic inanities, glossed over the emotional depths and trivialized the poetry. But in the expert hands of Campion, none of this happens. She highlights the best bits, especially the moment when Keats compares the experience of reading a poem to that of jumping into a lake; with elegant restraint she convincingly shows the bond of love and affection that forms between Keats and Brawne; and, without it seeming forced or awkward, interweaves Keats' poetry seamlessly into the film.

I was lucky enough to catch a screening where the filmmaker was present for a Q&A. She mentioned that when she turned 50, she decided something needed to be done about her problem with poetry. Now, I'm not sure exactly what she meant by this, but I gathered that she had the same experience many people have of being taught poetry in school and never feeling like she "got" it. As an accomplished artist herself, I would imagine she felt guilty for not being more in touch with this under-appreciated art form. She decided a good approach for her would be to set about reading poetry in the context of the poet's life. She began with Andrew Motion's biography Keats, which led to her discovery of the love letters between Keats and Fanny Brawne, which inspired the screenplay.

Hats off to Campion for taking on the challenge of poetry. I hope her film will inspire others who are fearful of the medium to take the plunge.



It never ceases to surprise me how many poets, for no apparent reason, don't use punctuation. There are cases where this works wonders (thank you ee cummings), but for the most part, I appreciate punctuation and miss it when it's gone.

I suppose there's the potential that a poem will look cleaner or more modern when words float freely and unencumbered on the page, but it can also look incomplete, like a cat with a piece of its ear missing or a lizard without its tail.

Punctuation is one of the most valuable tools I have as a poet. One could argue that no punctuation is itself a form of punctuation. Nevertheless, I wouldn't throw it away lightly. I've heard of a Japanese building style (and a good joke) that's all tongue and groove, but you have to be a precision craftsperson to achieve lasting results with this technique. These people were building shrines. They invented zen.

How do I love punctuation? Let me count the ways:
  1. Punctuation allows me to pause mid-sentence, take a breath, soutenu and keep on dancing without having to break my line.
  2. I can say "Merde," and everyone knows it.
  3. Fragments? No problem.
  4. My favorite punctuation mark—the emdash, baby.
  5. I can even invent my own whim-of-the-moment adjective.
  6. Or I could go on in the fashion of Marcel Proust, except instead of talking about tea and madeleines, little girls and toy boats (wait, maybe that was a different book), I'd rant for at least four pages with no period in sight about when to capitalize the first word of a phrase after a colon (: You must change your life) and when not to (: your money or your life), although there are poets who eschew the colon and its poor cousin the semicolon entirely; but I wouldn't want to bore you, especially since no discussion of punctuation could be as revelatory as a passage by Proust—if you can just make it through to the end.
  7. Punctuation is there to help you throw words around the ring, fashion them into intricate coils, breathe air and light into them, ball them up into tight wads with which to pellet the reader or spin them into seductive silks.
Use it sparingly or with abandon. But if you're tempted to drop punctuation altogether, please be sure it's for a very good reason.