Last week, The Atlantic published an excellent essay about the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, and what a terrible job it does representing the humanities. It’s definitely recommended reading, particularly if you have foggy memories of the film from your youth, as I do. Writer and literature professor Kevin J.H. Dettmar satisfyingly expresses his anger at the poor representation that film offers his little-understood, much-underestimated profession.
However, for all that’s good in that essay, he misses (indeed, he kind of participates in) the thing that bothers me the most about Dead Poets Society.
My biggest problem with the movie is glaring right there in the title. People, even a lot of people who claim to love poetry, have a tendency to treat it as something dead. Specifically, as something that dead white men did (with a tiny space usually carved out for Dickinson). "Thoreau, Whitman, Shelley, the biggies," says Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). Nothing wrong with those writers, but for someone who presents himself as a radical who wants his students to live life in the now, Keating is just as dedicated to the dead white male canon as the stuffy professors he derides.
Obviously, as a part of Switchback, a press that publishes new books by living women poets, this gets under my skin a bit. But even in the historical setting of the movie, which Wikipedia tells me is 1959, Keating chooses to focus on the archaic over the radical. Langston Hughes had been publishing for decades. So had Edna St. Vincent Millay. Even a mention of a more contemporary white male poet like Philip Larkin or Wallace Stevens would have spoken to a belief in poetry as a living thriving thing, instead of an artifact to be discovered in a cave. But no, for Keating, Thoreau, Whitman, and Shelley are still "the biggies."
For that matter, by the time this story takes place, Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems had been out for three years, and anyone interested in poetry had at least heard of it in the news. If Keating is such a radical, so unconcerned with what might get him fired, why not blow his students' minds with a work that was in the process of permanently altering the literary landscape. Think of how much Ginsberg's articulation of gay desire (so much more overt and shameless than Whitman's) might have meant to deeply closeted young Todd (Ethan Hawke), who's so incapable of processing his feelings for Neil (Robert Sean Leonard).
And the movie's outlook wouldn't be so offensive if it wasn't so widely shared, especially among the "appreciation" community. Far too many people who tell you they love poetry will have a list of favorite poets that includes not one living writer. In my experience, it's often the much-derided "critical analysis" types who are actually engaging with poetry as the living, breathing thing that it is, rather than something an agreed-upon list of dead people left for us to discover in the old Indian Cave.
Elle Collins is the in-house graphic designer for Switchback Books. She holds degrees in puppetry and film theory, and works in Chicago as a designer, editor, and digital asset manager.