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A Tapestry Untyped: The Adaptive Power of Poetry

An essay by Vance Hatton

Despite the prevalence of adaptation in the contemporary multimedia landscape, poetry is rarely considered in discussions surrounding writing that transcends its mode. Drawing on her studies, interests and experiences, Vance explores why this is, and how poetry could be incorporated into the modern zeitgeist to profound effect - and takes a stab at presenting an adaptation herself.

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A Tapestry Untyped: The Adaptive Power of Poetry

What is the highest honour we can bestow upon a literary work? In years gone by, we might have suggested this was where it was published, screened or performed, who praised it, or how widely it was transmitted. In the 21st century, awards are widely publicised: walk into Waterstones, and you’ll find the “New York Times Bestseller” banner flying across the tops of books; stroll into GAME, and you’ll pretty quickly find out what the “Game of the Year” was; a movie on a streaming service may declare itself an “Academy Award Nominee.” Unofficially, sites like IMDb and Goodreads are heralded as determinants of a work’s quality. Yet in the 21st century, perhaps the highest honour a work can attain is multimedia status.


Of course, this is hardly limited to the 21st century; as far back as the 19th century, Christina Rossetti’s poem A Christmas Carol became the song we now know as In the Bleak Mid-Winter, while Charles Gounod adapted Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust into an opera, which was itself based on traditional German stories, as was Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, written in the 16th century. Adaptation is a foundational element of storytelling; all art is based on real events, personal experience, or other art. More often, it is a combination of all three. Art-to-art adaptation therefore is a symbol of a work’s influence over later artists which can be traced back centuries.


However, adaptation is a cornerstone of contemporary popular culture more so than ever: both ABBA and Queen have seen their 70s and 80s classics adapted into jukebox musicals both on screen and on stage; the comic universe created by Stan Lee during the Second World War now enjoys innumerable movie, television and videogame adaptations; Disney’s 1937 animated debut Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, itself an adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s take on the eponymous young woman, has since inspired live action versions and theme park rides of the same name. Fanart and fanfiction add yet another layer to the palimpsest of adapted works. At the other end of the spectrum, academics have identified the interweaving of art forms, going so far as to declare that “to study one artistic medium in isolation from others is to study an inadequacy” (Albright ix). Yet in this cultural mélange of books, movies, plays and digital experiences, poetry is notably excluded, which begs the question: why?


Of course, the most obvious exception is epic poetry, primarily the Homeric epics. The Iliad has seen its fair share of Hollywood adaptations, while the 2018 videogame Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey. Both works have also inspired modern novels; consider Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad respectively. The inverse is equally true: in 2021, Jack Mitchell completed his undertaking of adapting the original Star Wars trilogy into epic-style poetry, with excerpts from 2016’s Rogue One and allusions to the prequel trilogy. What sets Homer’s epics apart from the poetry of, say, Ted Hughes or Tishani Doshi? There are many valid answers to such a question. Homer’s work is millennia older, passed from generation to generation first orally and then in writing, and thus has become ingrained in global culture. 16-year-old English students will have heard of Homer’s Odyssey, but recognition of Tishani Doshi’s Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods will be sparser. Age clearly isn’t everything, though – John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars boasted a movie adaptation only two years after its initial publication in 2012.

Perhaps, then, the length of the works is more important. Indeed, the volume of text in the respective works is vastly different; most contemporary poems rarely exceed a few pages, dwarfed by the 500+ page Homeric epics, which provide much more material to base any adaptations upon. Yet if a short fairy tale written in 1812 can spawn a globally replicated theme park attraction 200 years later, what restricts poetry? In a word, narrative. Poetry stands alone as perhaps the only literary art form capable of functioning without an inherent story. Where a novel often needs at least a 2-hour blockbuster to adapt with any level of faith, even with multiple cuts, the sentiment of a poem can sometimes be captured in a single image. Indeed, Horace cited this as a goal of poetry, claiming “Ut pictura poesis – the poem should be like a picture” (Albright ix).


This hardly accounts for the inverse, however. While poems without a narrative might be challenging to adapt into digital media, why can a movie not be adapted into poetry? While an epic poem such as Jack Mitchell’s aforementioned The Odyssey of Star Wars benefits from the vast existing mythos, the creator of which was particularly interested in the tenets of ancient storytelling and “motifs from mythology all over the world” (Lucas 9:52), it’s perfectly possible to create poetry of a more contemporary style based on any given Hollywood production – look no further than Grace Simmonds’ My Jolly Sailor Bold (Simmonds), which takes clear inspiration from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and more specifically the song of the mermaids.


Indeed, poetry’s closest multimedia relative is undoubtedly song. As discussed above, as early as the 19th century poets such as Christina Rossetti saw their work set to music. Indeed, the setting of poetry to music is perhaps the only consistent foray of poetry into the multimedia landscape. While the impact of poetry on music in the 19th century was, outside of specific examples like Rossetti, “negligible” (Kramer xvii), the 20th saw a greater trend of poetry set to music, with an especially marked presence in certain subcultures; consider the circles of gay poets, in which works such as Marc Blitzstein’s nine compositions set to Whitman’s verse “represent significant works” (Metzer 66). A particularly interesting dialogue between poetry and song begins with Abel Meeropol’s poem Strange Fruit, written in 1937 in response to a photograph of the lynching of two men in Indiana (Carvalho 111). He set the song to music, and it was recorded by Billie Holiday, “selling around fifty thousand copies by 1945” (Stone 55). The song then went on to inspire the practice of musicians such as Bob Dylan (Dylan 48:29), and bringing it full circle, a “critically acclaimed” (McConnell 1) poem of the same name by Seamus Heaney in 1975 (Heaney 39).


Such adaptation of song into poetry is particularly uncommon, however, perhaps due to the more normalised rhythms of music than poetry in the modern age, but most songs could easily be experienced as a poem by directly reading their lyrics, or even with some added visual or rhythmic poetic flair to justify the process of adaptation; to cite Mitchell, “different art forms sometimes call for different elements” (Baver). Like poetry, songs rarely contain a full narrative, but rather allude to a specific scene, sentiment, or idea. This is hardly a barrier for jukebox musicals such as Mama Mia or We Will Rock You; rather, it allows a narrative to be shaped around the music by taking advantage of its malleability. Why then could we not see a poetry collection inspire a movie? Could a selection of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry not inspire a movie in the vein of 1917? While the exact lines of poetry might not all naturally fit as do songs in a musical, their influence on dialogue, set and sound design could be innovative.


Very occasionally, Hollywood scrapes the surface of this veritable gold mine of literary brilliance. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings contains a wealth of poetry and song, and while barely any of it is front and centre in Peter Jackson’s ground-breaking trilogy, it is woven into the soundtrack and worldbuilding masterfully. The elvish choir creates the sense of a unique culture, while Sir Christopher Lee’s reading of the One Ring poem efficiently attributes an aura of mythic grandeur to the artefact. Billy Boyd’s performance of The Edge of Night, written by Tolkien, is frequently cited as one of the most powerful moments of the final instalment of the trilogy. Ankeny identifies how “the kinds of poetry woven in ties The Lord of the Rings to other kinds of literature, undergirding for us the systems of meanings” (Ankeny 88); while she said this of the books, it is equally true of the films. Both versions use “poetry as a moral marker” (Ankeny 89), although whereas it largely represents the forces of good in the original text, signalling “the increasing danger in Middle Earth by the number of songs” decreasing (Ankeny 89), Peter Jackson and Howard Shore instead distinguish between poetry and song as a focus and as a backdrop. As discussed above, Tolkien’s poetry is situated in the soundtrack backing the elven scenes, while it forces its way to the front in moments of darkness; both the One Ring poem and Pippin’s song demonstrate this. This display of poetry’s power to enhance a viewer’s experience when properly adapted makes the general absence of poetry from the silver screen ever more frustrating.


As a literary experiment, as well as an attempt to alleviate some of this frustration, let us propose a narrative that, as suggested above, is centred around poetry as a musical is its songs. We will endeavour to create a war film based on the poetry of Wilfred Owen.


Our movie begins in the Pyrenees (Owen 45), where a French potter overlooks a glistening lake. Young men swim and call to one another jovially. As the potter stands to leave, we cut to his workshop at night (Owen 46), thunder rumbling, and lightning striking. As he works, we fade to dawn, black clouds still lingering over the mountains. The fields have been freshened by the night’s rain (Owen 49). He awakens on a well-cushioned bed (Owen 48), dresses and picks up a golden bowl he has fired. As he heads out the door to deliver it, the same young men from the day before march by in uniform, wives and mothers huddled under awnings and burying their teary faces in their shawls. An orchestra plays down the road in earnest (Owen 50), dissonant to the atmosphere of the people, yet the soldiers sing merrily in time (Owen 61).


Already in the first ten minutes of the movie, the influence of Owen’s poetry has been instrumental in forming the narrative. It is not a treatment that includes poetry; it is a treatment built on poetry.


We cut to the soldiers’ transport, and through their conversations about their pride to be fighting for their country, we learn that Guillaume is recently married, Jean “Jimmy” the eldest child of a single mother. Fritz has recently become a father. As they arrive at the barracks and are presented with their weapons they admire them (Owen 58), but their smiles fade as the dead soldiers who once wielded them are carted by (Owen 63). The next day they are escorted into the forward trenches (Owen 55) and briefed by their new commander. That night, in hushed tones, they discuss their excitement to go over the top (Owen 68), and charge with a cry when the morning comes. Intercut with the potter firing the kiln, we see the young men embroiled in battle, and one among their number, Fritz, the new father, is shot dead. He falls with the excitement of brotherhood still on his face (Owen 56). Jimmy spears an enemy soldier with his bayonet, his eyes aflame with violent rage. The battle draws on and the men tire until a retreat is called. As the survivors retreat, gas is tossed after them (Owen 66); some are unable to escape, but the surviving main characters slide into the trenches unharmed. Jimmy wants to go back for Fritz, but Guillaume restrains him.


As autumn fades to winter, the men huddle in the trenches. One of the soldiers from the transport at the beginning falls ill, so Jimmy and Guillaume try to keep him in what little warmth the sun provides (Owen 73). Despite their efforts, one day he does not wake up (Owen 69). The two men begin to doubt the war; what is it that they are fighting for (Owen 53)? Jimmy struggles with the guilt of murder, fearing that in serving his country he has dishonoured his mother (Owen 52). In an effort to cheer him up, Guillaume starts to sing the song they sang as they went to war earlier, but the lyrics become darker as the verses progress (Owen 82).


At length they are called upon to go over the top again, yet there is no war cry this time around. We follow Jimmy as he fights not with fury but with resignation. As the day draws on, he finds himself by the river (Owen 84), where he thinks himself alone. When the bugle sounds a retreat, he turns only to be shot by enemy soldiers hiding in the reeds. Guillaume crosses the ridge just in time to see Jimmy drop, and yells in distress, firing madly at the opposite bank. He is shot in his legs, collapsing backwards.


We fade to a barge arriving at a war hospital (Owen 93), where Guillaume is carried inside. In his sleep he sees the faces of the friends he has lost (Owen 74). Another man sings mournfully (Owen 92). We cut back to the potter in his workshop, hearing the church bells ring as injured soldiers rock back and forth in the streets (Owen 72). The door opens and Guillaume’s wife wheels him in. The potter greets Guillaume as his son, weeping tears of joy that he has survived. Guillaume remains emotionless (Owen 63).


Just as Horace prophesied, the work of a great poet such as Wilfred Owen paints a vivid picture that is unmistakably his. With lines such as “shivering ranks of gray” “in the merciless iced east winds,” soldiers asking, “What are we doing here?” (Owen 53), Owen is at once directing the costume department, the set and prop designers, the practical effects team and the actors. For anybody who has read the poem but once, this image is synonymous with Exposure to the same extent that Hogwarts is an icon of Harry Potter.


This power has gone far from unnoticed among amateur filmmakers and experimental poets alike. The poetry short film is a tool that has been used by many to elevate poems through a new medium, be they celebrated works such as Ian Duhig’s The Lammas Hireling (Casey) or that of largely undiscovered poets such as Yvette Chan (Chan). Some creatives have dedicated their livelihoods to such pursuits; perusing the PoetryFilm archive established by Zata Banks is a testament to this (Banks). While there is much to be loved in these shorter pieces, we have now proven that poetry is more than capable of sustaining much lengthier pieces of art. Aside from the screen potential already discussed, consider the potential of adapting a poetry collection into a playscript. Replace the monologues of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with any number of love poems, contemporary or otherwise, and you’re well on the way to synthesising a new work of art. The untapped potential of poetry in adaptation is, simply put, enormous.


While there is certainly value to be found in such adaptations, perhaps one of the greatest struggles of poetry in the 21st century is staying relevant to contemporary culture. While poetry may have been at the centre of ancient Greek and Roman society, and still one of the most prominent forms as art by the 14th century, its centrality to Western culture has been significantly diminished with time. For certain further east poetry still holds a lot of cultural power – look no further than a mushaira performance – but in the west, events such as Amanda Gorman’s poetry reading at President Biden’s inauguration are the exception, not the rule. Poetry, quite simply, isn’t valued as it once was, yet although the dedicated readership of poetry is significantly smaller in the Western world than that of other literary traditions, the integration of poetry into the multimedia landscape promises to breathe new life into the art form.


Whereas five hundred years ago theatre was at the centre of the entertainment industry, it has been usurped in the digital age with film, television and videogames. Thus, it is essential that we understand how poetry can be integrated into such mediums, and even that it can be. Returning to the example of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, while it is far more of a separate work inspired by poetry than a direct adaptation, critics have stated that “Homer’s poem is written into the very fabric” of the game right from the beginning, whereupon the player’s “journey begins where Odysseus’ journey ends, as if the torch is being passed from one legend to another” (Clark), emphasising the power of poetry to empower new forms of literature.


A perfect example of this, and one of the most well-known integrations of contemporary poetry into modern multimedia art, is the visual novel-videogame hybrid Doki Doki Literature Club, which encourages players to read and write poetry throughout the game, using different styles of poetry to represent each character: Sayori’s poems are initially floral and Romantic as she tries to fit into traditional roles, but slip as her health declines; Yuri’s free verse is verbose and expressive; Natsuki’s abrupt, often formulaic poetry reflects her personality and efforts to conform to societal expectations by hiding what makes her different. The player chooses individual words for their own poems, targeting one of these three styles, but never sees the resulting works, which does little to detract from the narrative but impedes the creative aspect of the experience.


Expanding on the precedent set by Doki Doki Literature Club and developing this perceived shortcoming, I reinterpreted Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself as a choose-your-own adventure type videogame narrative. Rather than restricting the creative element to the selection of random words, the game encourages players to write individual lines of poetry which are then combined to produce a full poem by the end of the game. The game’s cyclical narrative draws attention to the perpetual cycle of influence and adaptation – artistic interpretation is inexhaustible, just as the game can be played again and again, producing an entirely different poem each time.


As a final note, let us consider the adaptation of non-fiction works into poetry. Given the smaller readership of non-fiction among the general populace as compared to fiction, it is no surprise that the already slim field of media-based poetry itself somewhat neglects this area. Yet there is certainly value to be found here. To explore this, I took the memoir Memories of my Brother, which I wrote in winter 2021/22, and adapted it into a collection of poems. In many cases, I found, poetry is not best equipped to delve into details; the original memoir provides a far more precise account of his life and death. But what the poeticised version lacks in breadth of information, it justifies in its depth of feeling; the visual appeal of a calligram allows it to convey ideas of self-harm far more viscerally than plain text ever could. Weaved in rhythm and rhyme are love, pain and loss, at once so simple and so complex.


We can conclude then that there is an unknowable amount to be gained from integrating poetry into the multimedia landscape. What few forays have already been conducted demonstrate incredible promise for grander and more poetry-centred narrative endeavours, and as a new generation of poets emerge who have grown up with the influence of the adapted works which define contemporary culture, we can but imagine the ground-breaking, tear-jerking, and spellbinding literature to be published in years to come.


Works Referenced


Albright, Daniel “Series Editor’s Foreword” Walt Whitman and modern music: war, desire, and the trials of nationhood Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000, pp. ix-xv


Ankeny, Rebecca. “Poem as Sign in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 16, no. 2 (62), 2005, pp. 86–95. Available from JSTOR, (accessed 23rd May 2023)


Atwood, Margaret “The Penelopiad” Canongate Myth Series, 2005


Banks, Zata “PoetryFilm” PoetryFilm, 2017. Available from (accessed 25th May 2023)


Baver, Kristin “A Tremor Ripples Through the Force in The Odyssey of Star Wars – Excerpt” Lucasfilm Ltd, 2021. Available from (accessed 25th May 2023)


Boone, Josh (dir.) “The Fault in Our Stars” Fox 2000 Pictures, 2014


Carvalho, John M. “’Strange Fruit’: Music between Violence and Death” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 71, no. 1, Wiley, 2013, pp. 111-119. Available from (accessed 25th May 2023)


Casey, Paul “The Lammas Hireling” 2010. Available from (accessed 25th May 2023)


Chan, Yvette “Infinite” 2021. Available from (accessed 25th May 2023)


Clark, Stephanie “Why Homer would approve of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” Eurogamer, Gamer Network Limited, 2018. Available from https://www.eurogamer.neyt/why-homer-would-approve-of-assassins-creed-odyssey (accessed 23rd May 2023)


Columbus, Chris (dir.) "Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” Warner Bros, 2001


Cottrell, William (dir.) “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1937


Doshi, Tishani “Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods” Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, Bloodaxe, 2012


Duhig, Ian “The Lammas Hireling” Picador, 2003


Dumont, Jonathan and Scott Phillips “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” Ubisoft, 2018


Dylan, Bob “No Direction Home” American Masters dir. Martin Scorsese, PBS, 2005


Edwards, Gareth (dir.) “Rogue One” Lucasfilm Ltd, 2016


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von “Faust” Penguin Classics, 2008


Gorman, Amanda “The Hill We Climb” 2021. Read at the inauguration of United States President Joe Biden.


Gounod, Charles “Faust” Palazzetto Bru Zane: Centre de Musique Romantique Française, 2019


Green, John “The Fault in Our Stars” Penguin Random House, 2012


Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” 1812.


Hatton, Vance “Memories of My Brother – A Poetic Journey” 2023


Hatton, Vance “Memories of My Brother” 2022


Hatton, Vance “We All Leave Together” 2023


Heaney, Seamus “Strange Fruit” North, Faber and Faber, 1975, pp. 39


Holiday, Billie “Strange Fruit” Commodore, 1939


Homer, “The Iliad” trans. Caroline Alexander, Penguin: Vintage Classics, 2015


Homer, “The Odyssey” trans. Emily Wilson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018

Jackson, Peter (dir.) “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” New Line Cinema, 2001


Jackson, Peter (dir.) "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” New Line Cinema, 2003


Kramer, Lawrence “Introduction” Walt Whitman and modern music: war, desire, and the trials of nationhood Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000, pp. xvii-xxi


Lloyd, Phyllida “Mamma Mia!” Universal Pictures, 2008


Lucas, George “American Voices – George Lucas special” interview with Bill Bradley, SiriusXM Radio, 2015. Available from (accessed 24th May 2023)


Marlowe, Christopher “Dr Faustus” W. W. Norton & Company, 2005


Marshall, Rob (dir.) “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” Walt Disney pictures, 2011


McConnell, Gail “Heaney and the Photograph: 'Strange Fruit' in Manuscript and Published Form” Irish University Review vol. 47, Issue Supplement, Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 432-449


Meeropol, Abel “Bitter Fruit” The New York Teacher, New York City Teacher’s Union, 1937


Mendes, Sam (dir.) “1917” Dreamworks Pictures, 2019


Metzer, David “Reclaiming Walt: Marc Blitzstein’s Whitman Settings” Walt Whitman and modern music: war, desire, and the trials of nationhood Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000, pp. 65-87


Miller, Madeline “The Song of Achilles” Ecco Press Harper Collins, 2011


Mitchell, Jack “The Odyssey of Star Wars” Abrams Image, 2021


Owen, Wilfred “The Poems of Wilfred Owen” ed. Edmund Blunden, Chatto & Windus, 1964


Renshaw, Christopher (dir.) “We Will Rock You” 2002


Rossetti, Christina “A Christmas Carol” Poems Project Gutenberg, 2006, pp. 269-270


Salvato, Dan “Doki Doki Literature Club” Team Salvato, 2017


Simmonds, Grace “My Jolly Sailor Bold” BoundBy: Alternate Realities, BoundBy Editors, 2023, available from (accessed 24th May 2023)


Stone, Chris “Blood at the Root: ‘Strange Fruit’ as Historical Document and Pedagogical Tool” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 18, no. 2, OAH, 2004, pp. 54–56. Available from (accessed 24th May 2023)


Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” Harper Collins, 2012


Tolkien, J.R.R. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Harper Collins, 2012


Whitman, Walt “Song of Myself” Leaves of Grass, Wisehouse Classics, 2016, pp. 21- 64

Back to BoundBy: October '23 (Edition #5)

About Vance

Vance has recently begun her third year as a student of English Literature with Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. She enjoys travel, gaming and, among other creative forms, poetry.

See more of Vance's writing on her website - coming soon!

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