The Freedom of Poetry, Dead Poets Society Edition

Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers for the 1989 film Dead Poets Society.

“Rip, shred, tear. Rip it out. I want to hear nothing but the ripping of Mr Pritchard!” Mr Keating shouts, his voice filled with ferocity. 

The room is heavy with hesitation. The students’ muscles are locked in, a reflex born out of the strictness of Hellton, where the motto of  “tradition, honour, discipline, excellency” disallows any room to breathe. They’re frozen in shock until they realise that their new English teacher is deadly serious. The page that suggests that a poem is measured by “perfection” and “importance” must be ripped into shreds, leaving no trace behind. After all, it is complete rubbish. 

For most of the boys, this is their first act of freedom. Freedom in the face of controlling teachers, suffocating parents and dreams that never belonged to them. Their eyes light up for the first time, marking this moment as the first pivotal scene of Dead Poets Society. The grand exclamation that humans are creatures of passion, emotions, imperfection, and by extension, so are our poems, is a powerful start to the movie.

We begin with Todd Anderson, a character who starts off the story as a timid and soft-spoken person. Without a word, he lets the others carry him away with their ideas. Insecurities shroud him, and there is a creeping fear that comes when he’s expected to read aloud in front of others. It isn’t surprising, given how he’s been living in the shadow of his older brother. He’s been taught to hide his emotions, his feelings, and opinions. In the teasing words of Mr Keating, “Mr Anderson thinks everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing”. 

For an assignment, the boys are told to write a poem of their own. Todd is shown working tirelessly on it, revision after revision, but ends up being unable to share it to the class. He chooses to trash it instead, telling Mr Keating that he never completed the assignment. He’s unable to say anything to his parents, who gift him the same old desk set he never liked for each of his birthdays. He puts up with unhappiness so that he doesn’t bother anyone, remaining safe at the cost of having his true feelings buried away. 

A remarkable scene happens where Todd is made to come up with a poem on the spot. It is forced at first, with Mr Keating trying to push him out of his comfort zone. “Forget them, forget them!” he urges, as Todd becomes subject to the other students’ snickers. 

“I close my eyes and this image floats beside me

The sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brains

His hands reach out and choke me

And all the time he’s mumbling

Truth, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.

You push it, stretch it, it will never be enough

Kick it beat it, it will never cover any of us.

From the moment we enter crying, to the moment we leave dying,

it will just cover your face

as you wail and cry and scream.”

The moment is intoxicating. All the words come naturally at once, and the lines that come forth drapes a haunting silence over the chaotic class of boys. This is when Todd starts to open up and realises that his voice is valued. It deserves to be heard. Throughout this, his character continues to gain the courage and confidence he needs. In fact, Todd is the first of the boys to rebel against the authorities by standing on his desk and shouting “O Captain! My Captain!” as Mr Keating is made to leave the school for good. 

Ultimately, poetry brought Todd growth and freedom, even in the midst of tragedy. And Neil, his friend, would’ve been immensely proud had he been alive to see it.

Neil may have some parallels with Todd, but on the surface they’re polar opposites. He’s outspoken and confident among the boys. He’s always cheerful, always beautiful in the way spring undoubtedly comes after a long, harsh winter. He gets bolder and bolder after each English class, making full use of the phrase “Carpe Diem”. It starts off with the revival of the Dead Poets Society, meetings occuring in a secluded cave long after the tide of darkness approaches. Besides, he directly opposes his father by secretly auditioning for the school play. 

“So, I’m gonna act. Yes, yes! I’m gonna be an actor! Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to try this. I even tried to go to summer stock auditions last year, but, of course, my father wouldn’t let me. For the first time in my whole life, I know what I wanna do, and for the first time, I’m gonna do it whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!”

Unfortunately, Neil still has trouble standing up for his wants, unlike Todd who shows consistent growth from start to finish. In the classroom, he is told he has the power to do anything and acts accordingly. However, when he returns home, he is forced to obey his parents. The contrast is overwhelming, and when his father finally gives him a chance to give voice to his feelings, Neil chooses to remain silent.

As a final act of freedom, Neil performs in the school play in front of his disapproving father. He is perfect. It’s an incredible performance, leaving his friends as well as Mr Keating proud. But this perfect is not the kind of “perfect” his father wants. Though fleeting, Neil caught hold of freedom. Momentarily, yes, but it is all we have. It is enough.

Poetry isn’t limited to the same conventions we conform to with other forms of literature. There are guidelines we tend to follow, but they can be broken and will eventually be broken with purpose. There are no rules. You’re free to play with language to convey different feelings and emotions, making discoveries with an almost childlike wonder. The acclaimed “anyone lived in a pretty how town” by E. E. Cummings tells us this:

“anyone lived in a pretty how town

(with up so floating many bells down)

spring summer autumn winter

he sang his didn’t he danced his did.

Women and men(both little and small)

cared for anyone not at all

they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same

sun moon stars rain

children guessed(but only a few

and down they forgot as up they grew

autumn winter spring summer)

that noone loved him more by more

when by now and tree by leaf

she laughed his joy she cried his grief

bird by snow and stir by still

anyone’s any was all to her

someones married their everyones

laughed their cryings and did their dance

(sleep wake hope and then)they

said their nevers they slept their dream

stars rain sun moon

(and only the snow can begin to explain

how children are apt to forget to remember

with up so floating many bells down)

one day anyone died i guess

(and noone stooped to kiss his face)

busy folk buried them side by side

little by little and was by was

all by all and deep by deep

and more by more they dream their sleep

noone and anyone earth by april

wish by spirit and if by yes.

Women and men (both dong and ding)

summer autumn winter spring

reaped their sowing and went their came

sun moon stars rain”

This is a poem that refrains from following standard grammar rules, including punctuation and capitalisation. Often, even the author’s name is written in lowercase letters. This stylistic choice gives a specific shape to the poem. Otherwise, it would have an entirely different character. 

He describes the life and death of lovers “anyone” and “noone” amongst a community who do the same repetitive tasks every day, too busy to notice the world turning all the while. The poem discusses themes of social conformity as well as the cycle of life and death, and though it may seem confusing at first glance, there is intent behind his words— meaning behind what seems insignificant. And we analyse it all, just like we do with other works of literature. 

Following that, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound is a poem which consists of only two lines.

“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough” 

Yes, two line poems are poems. There are even poems with over 10 000 lines. Any amount of lines you need to release the spillage in your heart is alright. Writing exists as a form of catharsis. That is, there should be no fear of creating something “bad”, as poetry shouldn’t be made to serve others in the first place. 

Dead Poets Society affirms this when a student who presents a tongue-in-cheek poem “A cat sat on the mat” (Yup, that’s the entire poem) is met with gentle encouragement by Mr Keating: “I don’t mind that your poem had a simple theme. Sometimes the most beautiful poetry can be about simple things like a cat, or a flower”.

He’s right. Your notes app poetry is valid. The late night rants and vents you jot down half-asleep are valid, even with drool resting at the corner of your lips. Even Instagram poetry, which isn’t to my taste, is so viscerally human that there is no way it can be wrong. Art can be inaccessible at times, but never poetry.

So… what exactly makes a poem? 

My answer to that is: A human makes a poem. A poem makes a poem, and the birth of one is the most natural and spontaneous thing in the world. We breathe poetry every day through lyrical songs and conversation. Through life and death. It is intimate. It is a dance. 

It is yours.

Written by: Zara

Edited by: Jia Xuan

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