January Embers, Part II: The Big Lesson of a Little Poem in It: Chapter Two (2019)
The poem that returns to prominence in this horror sequel does more than merely serve the film's plot—it teaches us a powerful lesson about art.
Welcome to the third of four creepy Halloween posts featured at PopPoetry this month! If you missed Part I of this two-part post on the haiku at the heart of the 2017 remake of Stephen King’s It, check out January Embers, Part I here.
If you watched It (2017) and It: Chapter Two (2019) back-to-back, you would be consuming just over five hours of Pennywise. Simply put, there is a lot to this franchise, which isn’t surprising considering that the novel the story is adapted from clocks in at an astonishing 1,138 pages: Stephen King devoted 445,134 words to his tale.
In On Writing, King offers the following wisdom:
Second Draft = First Draft - 20%
I wonder if he took his own advice to create this mammoth. If not, I think he should have. It (the novel) is bloated, confusing, and contains some seriously questionable depictions of childhood sexuality and wholly unnecessary appropriation of Native American culture. And while Andy Muschietti’s films temper some of the worst of King’s impulses, both the book and the subsequent film adaptations could have used some editing. I’m looking at you, Ritual of Chüd.
One plot point that gets some deserved screen time in the sequel, however, is Ben’s “January embers” poem. It’s back, baby, with a renewed meaning for the band of Losers who return to Derry, Maine 27 years after the events of the first film.
Once again and as always, big-time spoilers for the film lie ahead.
A Poet’s Worst Nightmare
Though it has many shortcomings, I admire the way that Stephen King’s story interweaves themes of fear with the intricacies of trauma, memory, and childhood. The film does a lot of time jumping, and we get to see several crucial scenes involving the “January Embers” almost-haiku from the characters’ childhood as well as a few scenes featuring the poem in their adulthood.
Part of It: Chapter Two involves the main characters revisiting key locations from their childhood. These locations tend to be sites of trauma: places where they were scared and tormented by It so many years ago. Though these events took place in the past, we were not privy to them as viewers of the first film. For Ben, this location is one of his middle school classrooms. Once adult Ben enters the room, we’re able to see what happened to child Ben in the past.
Young Ben is sitting at his school desk having been freshly bullied by his classmates who yell, “Wake up, fatass!” and call him a “Fucking loser.” This is a prime time for It to strike.
It, symbolized by Pennywise the clown, is linked to actual fear and pain that the kids have experienced—bullying for Ben, sexual abuse for Beverly, guilt and grief for Bill, homophobia for Richie, fire and parental loss (coupled with a racist accusation that his parents were drug addicts… it’s complicated and not very well done) for Mike, and child abuse (Factitious Disorder) for Eddie.
Having your poem come to life and throw your own now-shitty-seeming words in your face is scary and embarrassing. It knows this: It is your worst fears embodied.
We watch as Ben speaks to Beverly, who turns his own words against him. The girl isn’t Beverly at all, we learn, but a nightmare version of Beverly designed to hurt and torment Ben. She runs after Ben and taunts him with the lines of poetry he wrote.
This dark-mirror version of Beverly literalizes the poem: her hair, or rather, her entire head, is actually on fire. This image—coupled with the fact that Dark Bev is reciting the lines of Ben’s poem back at him in a taunting, menacing voice—is kind of like a poet’s worst nightmare. Having your poem come to life and throw your own now-shitty-seeming words in your face is scary and embarrassing. It knows this: It is your worst fears embodied.
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Making the Connection
But it’s not all bad: At the height of the film’s gory madness, Ben and Bev are able to literally and metaphorically reach out to one another through the shared language of the “January Embers” poem.
During their It-induced hallucinations as they fight the final-boss version of Pennywise the Clown, Ben the architect finds himself trapped inside a collapsing clubhouse—which he himself built—and is being sucked into the earth. Bev is also drowning, not in dirt but in blood. The middle school bathroom stall that Bev is trapped in calls back to the unforgettable bathroom scene in the first film. Both scenes involve the “January embers” poem, too.
While I kind of hate how domestic Bev’s nightmares are, I also can’t refute how critical the bathroom is as a locus of trauma for people with uteruses: while they can be sites of bullying and body image negativity, bathrooms are also locations where we confront menstruation, hence the not-too-subtle tidal wave of blood that comes in under the door as Bev crouches on the toilet. It puts me in mind of Carrie, another Stephen King property (looking forward to tackling the 2013 reboot and the poem that Chloë Grace Moretz recites in it, too).
When Ben and Bev use the shared language of the “January embers” poem to make a connection to one another, they’re tapping into one of poetry’s greatest superpowers: transcendence.
Realizing that they’re both trapped in a nightmare so real it can kill them, Ben starts reciting his poem to Bev, at first as a way to tell her he loves her in case he does die, but eventually as a kind of rope to cling onto in order to survive. The recitation ultimately helps them both make it out alive. When Ben and Bev use the shared language of the “January embers” poem to make a connection to one another, they’re tapping into one of poetry’s greatest superpowers: transcendence.
The Big Lesson
Poetry, and art more broadly, can help us go beyond our current circumstances. This matters even more when those circumstances are traumatic or difficult to change. At a minimum, the poem helps Ben and Bev connect to one another, and connecting with other people makes the journey more bearable, even if it doesn’t alleviate our problems.
Poems are especially good at this because they can be reproduced by saying them aloud, which doesn’t require special training, supplies, or settings (though, of course, good training, extra supplies, and idea settings can help us all to create more powerful art). As I often tell my students, you can write poetry just by attaching your eye to something: look out at something that moves you, then try to tie some words to it. You can do this with a pencil, on your phone, or even just in your head.
Ben Hanscom looked out from his unhappy childhood and saw Beverly, with her beautiful red hair. From there, he thought of the contrast between her hair and her skin, settled on the phrase “January embers,” and tied those words to her. He carried the poem with him in his mind the same way that Bev wished she had carried the actual postcard, which she hid beneath a baseboard after her father forbade her from keeping and cherishing it.
The poem he ended up creating helped to tie the two together forever and helped them survive the darkest moments of their lives. And though the It franchise is plenty of horrors both real and imaginary, the power of poetry to connect people and help them move beyond their circumstances is deeply and fortunately real.
The latest Simpsons, “Treehouse of Horror” episode features Bart Simpson scribbling “I hate rhyming couplets” on his schoolroom blackboard. Why? Because an Edgar Allen Poe type is reciting Bart’s misdeed in the “Poetic Interlude” section of the show. “The Telltale Bart” is a nod to a short story, not a poem, but the couplets do give it a poetic feel.
Check out my retrospective on poetry in the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes from last year if you haven’t already.
CNN has described poetry as experiencing a “new golden age.” Since bringing poetry out of the English classroom and into our lives as we live them is kind of my whole deal, this is music to my ears.