“Bad” Poems in Public Parks
Before Sunrise and the crass, dirty work of getting paid for your art.
You’re reading a guest post on PopPoetry by Laura Eppinger. Laura Eppinger (she/her) knows that the Jersey Devil is real. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well as Best of the Net. Her flash fiction chapbook, Loving Monsters, is available through Alternating Current. Her CNF chapbook, When the Hermit Appears, is forthcoming from AlienBuddha Press. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
The Before… movies are three films filmed over 27 years in the lives of two characters, Celine and Jesse (played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, respectively). Director/writer Richard Linklater took on a similar project with Hawke in Boyhood, a movie filmed in real time between 2002 and 2014, so that an audience could watch actors and characters truly grow and age.
The film trilogy is comprised of:
Before Sunrise (1995)
Before Sunset (2004)
Before Midnight (2013)
Before Sunrise is an arty film about two grungy, pale, 1990s characters in their 20s who meet for the first time on a train through Europe. The romanticism of the narrative and the way the long scenes of meandering conversation are shot may be too mawkish for some viewers. For others, watching two strangers fall in love is a delectable treat. Either way, strap in for some heteronormativity and blazing, unrelenting whiteness! Imperfect as this movie may be, there sure is something about Ethan Hawke makes us want to scream poetry from our school desks.
The plot can be summed up like this: Celine sits in the rail car across from Jesse, who makes conversation about her ultimate destination (home to Paris) and his (Vienna, in order to fly home to the United States). From there a conversation blooms, and Jesse invites Celine to hop off the train with him on a whim and spend an evening together in Vienna. Don’t worry, he assures her, if he’s boring to be around, she can just hop back on a train.
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The two explore Vienna on a June evening and fall instantly and deeply in love. The Austrian city seems to offer amateur, contemporary art on every corner; Celine and Jesse interact with playwrights, street performers, and even one poet, letting the art guide their conversation. Celine and Jesse try to interpret the more classical art displayed on posters outside an art museum. They whisper to one another inside an old church, Why does life contain so much pain? They amble into a nightclub for live acoustic guitar music. The two potential lovers walk and talk late into the night.
As they become more comfortable with one another, Celine and Jesse begin to critique the art and artists they encounter.
While sitting outside a café, an eccentric fortune teller hones in on Celine and tells her how special she is, ending with “Remember you are stardust.” Celine is charmed; Jesse, not so much. “If opportunists like that ever had to tell the real truth, it would put their asses outta business,” Jesse says, dismissing the experience.
Jesse and Celine debate the use of money to pay for art or entertainment, and whether or not paying for a public performance means being “ripped off.”
This conversation lasts through their café visit and into a park, where it is punctuated by a self-proclaimed poet in a suit, who is sitting on a lake with a pen and pad of paper. He stops them to say that if they give him a word, he’ll compose a poem on the spot using that word. If they like the poem, he says—if it adds value to their lives—they can pay him what they wish.
They pick the word “milkshake” and stroll away while the poet puffs a cigarette and writes. The park poet returns with a poem that is a word salad of platitudes: that’s how it could be, don't you know me, I look at you, you miss me. But it does contain the word “milkshake.”
Celine thanks him and pays up. The poet counts his money and finishes his cigarette while Jesse and Celine walk away. “It’s wonderful, no?” asks Celine. Jesse rolls his eyes and gives a sarcastic, “Yeah.” Celine asks what he means. Jesse’s body is cringing but he smiles wide, ready to drop some literary pretension.
Jesse’s Poetry Metrics
While he never stops to clearly outline his philosophy of literary criticism, Jesse’s ideas about what makes poetry “good” can be gleaned from the boundless conversation he has with Celine all night. Jesse’s concerns seem to stem from the following: the poem likely isn’t an original work, the poem doesn’t make sense, and this is the hustle of a street performer who can only be trying to make money. That the creation of art could seem like a financial transaction is crass to Jesse, and counteracts any artistic merit a work or performance may have. Apparently, this is an all-or-nothing, black-or-white category.
A Good Poem is Original
Jesse responds to Celine’s question, “You know he probably didn’t just write that, you know? I mean he wrote it, but he just plugs that word in.”
So, Jesse prizes originality above all. Spontaneity and authenticity seem to be valued too—which makes sense for a person who did just decide to spend 16 straight hours with a stranger after one interesting chat.
A Good Poem Makes Sense
There is a familiar trope explored at PopPoetry: poems should be mysterious. But this can cut in another direction: a belief that most poets write gibberish but claim it is profound. There should be enough “mystery” in a poem to be intriguing and sound intellectual, Jesse seems to say, but it cannot be pure nonsense.
This also suggests that to Jesse, street performers are conning their audience, or getting away with something. Which brings us to:
A Good Poem Cannot Be a Commodity (or Otherwise for Sale)
A while later, Jesse tips a belly dancer in an elaborate costume, all the while groaning, “Everything that’s interesting costs a little bit of money.”1
Is writing a poem to be loved or admired, or published, any more crass than writing a poem at a park for tourists?
But Jesse’s minor complaint prompts Celine to dig into deeper questions about life and love. Shouldn’t what we love cost us something? Perhaps not coin or currency: “Loving someone and being loved means so much to me,” Celine begins. “But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”
Is writing a poem to be loved or admired, or published, any more crass than writing a poem at a park for tourists? Celine concludes, “If there is any kind of god in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something… the answer must be in the attempt.”
And how do we do that? By doing the things this film demonstrates: having long conversations, listening, and making art. All art, even a poem from a busker, is an attempt to communicate with a human, to be understood and to understand. According to Celine, this poem can be an experience with the divine.
This scene occurs exactly halfway through the movie but presents this thesis without worry about plotting or tension. There’s still tension: Will these two sleep together tonight? Will they keep in touch after this unplanned rendezvous?
Bonus Explainer: Auden
As for an example of a poem Jesse reveres and finds worthwhile, consider “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
Who: Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Sunset (1995)
What: Two newly-in-love characters discussing the gravitas of Dylan Thomas reciting “As I Walked Out One Evening” by W. H. Auden.
Where: Vienna on the perfect summer evening
Why: These 23-year-olds have already debated the merits (or lack thereof) of a busker-poet hanging out in a park, asking passersby to pay him to write and recite poems for them. Now they are whiling away their final hour together on a park bench; one will catch a plane, the other a train.
As the sun rises on the day these two must part, Jesse recites one line of poetry. Celine is perplexed, so he explains that he has a recording of Dylan Thomas reading “As I Walked Out One Evening” by W. H. Auden. (This recording can be heard on YouTube).
The poem in question first describes the mania of young love, full of false promises and fantasy:
I'll love you till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry, And the seven stars go squawking Like geese about the sky. The years shall run like rabbits For in my arms I hold The flower of the Ages, And the first love of the world.
Flowers, rabbits, lovers, stars. This is the giddy stuff of young love.
At this point in the film, morning bells are ringing throughout Vienna, signaling to the two characters that their idyll is quickly drawing to an end. Jesse performs for Celine, reciting the exact stanza where the narrator shifts from describing flights of fancy to a cold, dark reality:
But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime: “O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time.”
Jesse uses the affect of a stuffy old poet to deliver this line, and Celine laughs. But the laughter is incongruous with the conversation that follows, where they both admit they’re saddened that their time together is ending and feel reluctant to return to their lives before they met.
As if “The Lovers” in the poem have sprung to life and are aware that their love, and their lives, will end, the poem concludes:
It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone; The clocks had ceased their chiming, And the deep river ran on.
The spell is broken, and Jesse and Celine must separate at the end of the film.
As a 30-something viewer re-watching Before Sunrise after a decade away, I often found myself annoyed with Jesse. He struck me as smug and irritating at times, but still charming at others. While I’d like to point out the stark contrast between how Jesse treats the work of Auden (with reverence), with how dismissive he is to every living street performing he meets in Vienna, I also have to admit that his use of this line from “As I Walked Out One Evening” is apt, and aligned with the existential dread of the poem.
On this one unplanned evening together, Celine and Jesse have questioned the meaning of life, of human relationships, of art and religion and sex and death. It is now time to part ways, who knows for how long, and admit that nothing lasts: even one ecstatic adventure in a European city.
Small spoiler: Over the course of these films, we learn that Jesse has published three popular novels about this night with Celine, so he must have made peace with art generating income at some point over the years.