Poetic injustice: The 5 Most Fascinating Poet Biopics Never Made

Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in 'The Sessions'/Photo © 2012 Fox Searchlight Picture
Helen Hunt and John Hawkes in 'The Sessions'/Photo © 2012 Fox Searchlight Picture

Sex. Death. Love. Beauty. Longing. Loneliness. Not only do these elements form an ingredient list for any great movie, they're also the urgent obsessions and fundamental questions that have long been poetry’s primary turf. If it’s not an idea burning to be expressed, it’s probably not going to find much traction with poets. Like filmmaking, writing poetry is a tough gig. But the day-in, day-out emotional-excavation required of poets can be particularly grueling. And if you’re not a romantic, an eccentric, and an incurable dreamer with a high tolerance for pain and poverty, poetry's probably not your line of work.

Poets tend to inhabit life’s extremes, living hard and loving harder. All of this drama contains the makings for naturally cinematic subject matter. But for whatever reason, Hollywood has been slow to fill the poet biopic section of the Netflix library. That may soon change, however, after this weekend’s release of “The Sessions,” the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning film about the life of San Francisco poet Mark O’Brien, who, while a thirty-eight-year-old virgin confined to an iron lung, began an ongoing relationship with a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), whose, um, hands-on techniques help O’Brien (played by John Hawkes, who turns in another spellbinding performance) transcend the limitations of his handicap.

“The Sessions” arrives in theaters with a stockpile of rave reviews and a swarm of Oscar buzz. And if Hollywood’s past copy-and-paste attempts to duplicate a film's success is any indication of what will happen if this film finds traction with moviegoers, don’t be surprised if poets receive their long-overdue moment in the pop-culture spotlight and film executives are suddenly sent scurrying to snatch up the life rights to the most fascinating among them. But before that happens, we've taken it upon ourselves to guide the process toward the most compelling and camera-ready stories of poets whose lives off the page have been just as transcendent as their verse.

Anne Sexton
A Courtney Love-like polarizing figure in the 1960s poetry world, this Pulitzer-prizewinning confessional poet found her muse in her own mental illness. A contemporary of fellow depressive Sylvia Plath, Sexton’s roiling angst bled into her work and life in equal measure. She courted controversy with her id-fueled explorations of masturbation, menstruation, abortion, and adultery at a time when that kind of primal outpouring was considered obscene. Sexton’s anarchic spirit sent her spiraling in and out of mental institutions and into the center of a creative vanguard that included poetic luminaries like Maxine Kumin and into her own rock-jazz group with the aptly primitive name, “Her Kind.” Sexton's demons ultimately won out, creating a toxic environment for her children and compelling her to commit suicide at age forty-five.

Philip Levine
Levine’s Horatio Alger trajectory has taken him from the assembly line in a car manufacturing plant to a turn as Poet Laureate of the United States. Throughout the course of his career, the Pulitzer Prize-winning son of a Detroit auto-parts peddler has dedicated himself to capturing the plight of the common man and exalting the virtues of hard manual labor. In other words, he’s the Bruce Springsteen (or Joe Biden) of contemporary poetry.

Robert Lowell
The manic-depressive son of Boston Brahmin, Lowell was on the fast track to claim his spot among the gentry until he turned his back on his privileged upbringing. He ditched Harvard for Kenyon College, where he pitched a tent on poet Allen Tate’s front lawn in tribute to his creative mentor. Lowell then famously consciously objected to World War II, assumed a literary alter-ego as a violent Irish beat cop and ultimately took his place alongside his friend and confidant Elizabeth Bishop as one his generation’s greatest poets.

Tess Gallagher
A prolific and respected poet since the mid-1970s, Gallagher may be best known these days for her relationship with Raymond Carver -- one of the great literary love affairs of the late twentieth century. Theirs is a bittersweet tale of redemptive late-life romance. When they met at a literary conference in 1977, Gallagher already had two divorces under her belt while Carver’s first marriage was in its death throes. The two fell madly in love, moved to Syracuse, where they turned their house into a writers' salon for students in their workshops. Gallagher and Carver finally married in 1988, six weeks before Carver died of cancer. In the years since, Gallagher has written extensively and acted as a devoted advocate for integrity of Carver’s work, which has been the source of heavy debate with his editor, Gordon Lish, in shaping his distinctive voice.

Rainer Maria Rilke
The great modernist Austrian poet took it upon himself to become the heart’s de facto translator, turning out hauntingly resonant meditations on love, loneliness, and everything in between. Rilke is perhaps most famous here for his college dorm-room staple, Letters to a Young Poet, an epistolary exchange between Rilke and a nineteen-year-old military cadet in which the poet offers advice and insights into surviving the modern world while afflicted by the poetic sensibility. Rilke crossed paths with many pivotal intellectuals and artists – including Paul Cezanne, August Rodin, and Sigmund Freud – and fell deeply in and out of love during his fifty years on the planet. But the best material for any film will likely be found in the period of time he captured so vividly in Letters to a Young Poet. With its powder-keg emotions and impassioned outpourings about the agony and ecstasy of the creative process, it's got the makings for an English Patient-style Oscar sweep and perhaps even a role for Andrew Garfield.