Moonrise Kingdom's Summery Childhood Vibes Illustrate Our Earliest Conceptions About Poetry
To Rhyme or Not to Rhyme? Wes Anderson's Sam Shakusky Has Some Opinions
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To rhyme or not to rhyme? Poets writing today know that there are endless ways to fashion a poem, but do readers know this, too?
Consider the annoying cultural tic of “You’re a poet and you don’t even know it,” a phrase usually uttered after someone makes an unintended rhyme in casual conversation. Or the fact that some readers who are new to poetry will look up in shock from a free verse poem and say, with a vague air of having been cheated, “but it doesn’t rhyme!”
Rhyme informs not only our earliest conceptions of what poetry is, but also our earliest conceptions of what language is and can do. Consider the nursery rhyme, the folk song, and the lullaby: the sounds and signifiers of our childhood. Rhymed songs and verses are an aid to memory, and we become accustomed to the music of rhyme and the wish-fulfillment that it provides. Given a rhyme word, we can anticipate the next sound—it’s comforting.
Then you grow up and some scold comes along and tells you that poetry doesn’t have to rhyme and that Shel Silverstein is for babies and Dr. Seuss too. Rhyme is for suckers, they say. Limericks are for the slow-witted and “roses are red” is the province of novices and know-nothings.
Setting aside the fact that formal poetry—poetry that routinely engages rhyme and meter—is still alive and well in contemporary letters, the idea that rhyme either defines or can’t possibly define poetry is maddeningly reductive. The fact of the matter is that some poetry uses rhyme as one of its many rhetorical and aesthetic tools and some poetry is interested in other things.
In actuality, the nuance of rhyme in poetry is very complex and well, adult, which is why it’s so charming and fascinating to watch children discuss it among themselves when no one else (except the audience) is listening.
The Poetry of Wes Anderson
Of any working filmmaker today, Wes Anderson may well have one of the most easily identifiable, aesthetically pleasing, and thus frequently derided aesthetics out there—if I can identify and taxonomize something, I can make it smaller and more ludicrous.
But I look at Anderson’s films (The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the upcoming film The French Dispatch, among many others) and I see poetry. I see it everywhere: in the deep attention to image and visual rhetoric, the extensive and meticulous use of color (which feels almost the way tone does in poetry), the spareness of the dialogue, and, most importantly, the frequent desire among his characters to create a world more wondrous than the one they’ve been presented with.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) contains, like so many of Anderson’s films, the death of a beloved creature (human or otherwise), a hot pursuit, the keeping of secrets, and lush, dreamy imagery so deep and fully realized one could almost step into the frame. But what makes it most wondrous and unique among his films is its central pair of adolescent protagonists: Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). The young couple absconds from the families and structures that seem to stifle them in order to realize their burgeoning young love for one another.
What interests me most is the way that the two simply decide to create something together, then do, with both a matter-of-factness and a humongous dose of whimsy. Suzy runs away and brings her cat in a small wicker cage-purse hybrid, along with a portable record player, among other necessities. Sam takes a thorough inventory of her possessions as part of his Khaki Scout training and makes meticulous and elaborate campsites for them while they’re on the run. Their quest to remain together against the wishes of the adults in their lives ends up involving a tennis ball can full of nickels, a papier-mâché dummy, a bloody pair of left-handed scissors, and other oddities.
Any conversation between fictional children (though played by real children) in a film made by adults is, of course, the product of an adult imagination. But the child protagonists of the film give us a brief chance to reevaluate our relationship to poetry, to love, and to the magic of childhood itself.
Not all aspects of Moonrise Kingdom are rosy: the film hearkens back, as many of Anderson’s films do, to the 1960s or at least their aesthetic, which makes them overbearingly white and out of touch in self-conscious ways that don’t absolve them of their sins. The summer camp iconography that appropriates Indigenous cultures (Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Liga” gets a lot of air time), the just-for-the-aesthetic smoking (including 12-year-old Sam smoking a pipe)… it’s not great. And there is virtually no representation of people of color in the film, as this video reminds us.
It’s a story about white children and white childhood, and evaluated on those terms, it’s successful. But the film does fail to speak to other audiences and instead replicates the marginalization common to the time it’s set in.
“This is our land!” the kids exclaim, inches in front of a sign proclaiming the area’s status as an important landmark for indigenous peoples. If you can stop slapping your head long enough to keep watching, however, you’ll be treated to a brief and interesting discussion about poetry.
Sam Explains Poetry
As poetic as the film itself is as a whole, the characters briefly discuss poetry outright during one particular scene. Or rather, Sam offers his interpretation of poetry.
Though it verges on mansplaining (boysplaining?), Sam’s description of poetry feels right on, to me. “Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme, you know,” he says, “It just has to be creative.” Of her binoculars, Suzy says, “It helps me see things closer, even if they’re not very far away.” Her description does have a kind of imagistic symmetry to it, and it feels removed from the language of the everyday. Sam is struck by Suzy’s turn of phrase and recognizes it as poetry.
Poetry is elevated language, language imbued with deep feeling, language that shakes us out of the humdrum call of our lives. Wordsworth called it emotion recollected in tranquility, and on the tranquil beach of the tidal inlet, Suzy is able to produce just such a recollection. And Sam recognizes this luminous, elevated quality to what Suzy says, and tells her so. It seems that she’s the poet and he’s the reader or critic. We get the sense that either our Romeo or our Juliet would be lost without the other: Sam’s overweening practicality and Suzy’s theatricality complement each other perfectly.
How I wish we’d permanently replace our recognition of rhyme with our recognition of elevation when we laud someone and say you’re a poet. Anyone can recognize a rhyme by reading or hearing it, but recognizing a poetic quality in someone’s language in terms of its aesthetic is something else entirely.
As the kids get to know each other even better, it becomes clear that Suzy’s dream is to travel and Sam’s is to be rooted. She wishes to be an orphan, he wishes for a family. When Suzy says of orphans like Sam, “your lives are more special,” Sam utters his infamous line: “I love you but you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Perhaps she is too romantic, too much like the stereotype of the restless, unstable poet who longs for precarity. She is, after all, dressed as a raven in a school play and sporting a bandaged hand from punching herself in a mirror when Sam meets her.
How I wish we’d permanently replace our recognition of rhyme with our recognition of elevation when we laud someone and say you’re a poet.
And yet Sam is a romantic himself, imagining he can whisk Suzy away and work as a claw cracker on crabbing ship in order to make a life. Both children also unselfconsciously wear flowers in their hair. It seems that the natural state of childhood, when allowed to occur as spontaneously and naturally as wildflowers, just might be that of the romantic, wide-eyed, observant, hopeful poet.