John Ashbery’s ‘Forties Flick’ is a cinematic piece based on American film noir from the 1940s. The poem reflects on disillusionment, realism, and tradition. Throughout this poem, Ashbery narrates and dictates the plot of most of these films while voicing out his opinions in regards to the “forties” films as well. This poem appears in Ashbery’s collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, published in 1975. The poem first appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1974.
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This poem portrays the claustrophobic interiors, oblique and vertical lines (especially in regards to lights and shadows), and urban environments of the American film noir. Ashbery describes these things by using the images of “Venetian blind on the painted wall,” “Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti, the plaster animals,” etc. Another unique characteristic of the black and white classic crime dramas that he depicts in the poem is the infamous femme fatale in the line “In bra and panties she sidles to the window.”
Ashbery also critiques the movie genre by saying that they have similar endings: “Why must it always end this way?” According to him, several still and silent scenes in the library or of the telephone are lost in the plot and signify little. Whatsoever, Ashbery also appreciates the artistic skills it takes to make those films, i.e., to leave out specific details and to maintain the air of secrecy and mystery, which was crucial for these movies.
The shadow of the Venetian blind on the painted wall,
Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti, the plaster animals,
With wafer-thin pedestrians who know where they are going.
The blind comes down slowly, the slats are slowly tilted up.
In ‘Forties Flick,’ John Ashbery essentially mimics the 1940s film noir, a cinematic term used to describe Hollywood crime dramas. Those flicks primarily emphasize the cynical attitudes and motivations of the characters. In this poem, Ashbery uses the obscure lighting and black-and-white color scheme in the first verse by describing a “shadow of the Venetian blind,” “plaster animals,” “Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti,” etc.
Then, he goes on to describe how a tragic episode in such films is captured through the “bright stare” of the camera lens. The stills from those movies often convey the “tragic melancholy” of the characters.
In the following lines, the speaker depicts an example of a femme fatale. He describes how women were often described in film noir, in the line, “In bra and panties she sidles to the window.” After that, Ashbury shifts his focus back to the scene of the busy streets and still furniture. Overall, Ashbury does a beautiful job at capturing the essence of the classic American crime dramas of the ‘40s.
Why must it always end this way?
A dais with woman reading, with the ruckus of her hair
As you find you had never left off laughing at death,
The background, dark vine at the edge of the porch.
In the second stanza, the speaker critiques and appreciates the classic film noir flicks. He says that most of these films have similar endings and dispositions. Besides, he also expresses how the mysterious silences in the movie are not explicitly explained or understood by the audience. The still scenes in the movies like that of the library or a “telephone with its pad” serve little purpose individually but are all woven intelligently into the movie’s plots.
In the last few lines, the poet appreciates the art and skills that are required to make these films. The directors knew which details to disclose, which details to hide, and how to develop a character. He leaves the readers with a strange and dark picture of a “dark vine at the edge of the porch,” which captures another cinematic closure from the film noir.
Ashbery’s poem ‘Forties Flick’ is written in the free-verse form. It has no set rhyme scheme or meter. The text has two verses with a total of 21 lines. In the first stanza, there are 8 lines, and there are 13 lines in the second stanza. The first verse is narrative in tone, while the second verse has a mysterious and critiquing tone.
The poem is written from the first-person point of view. In the last few lines, Ashbery shifts the point of view and addresses readers directly by using the pronoun “you.” In this way, he tries to connect with his audience and make them ponder over his nostalgia concerning film noir.
Ashbery uses literary devices in ‘Forties Flick’ to help readers visualize a ‘40s film noir scene. The literary devices used in the poem are as follows:
- Apostrophe: The poet addresses someone who is not present in the poem in these lines: “The indoors with the outside becoming part of you/ As you find you had never left off laughing at death.” Here, the speaker directly addresses the readers.
- Consonance: It occurs in the lines, “Shadows of the snake-plant and cacti, the plaster animals,” “with the ruckus of her hair,” etc.
- Enjambment: It occurs in a number of instances. For instance, the following lines are enjambed: “And all that is unsaid about her pulling us back to her, with her/ Into the silence that night alone can’t explain.”
- Rhetorical Question: The poet asks the question “Why must it always end this way?” in a rhetorical sense at the beginning of the second stanza.
- Simile: It occurs in the line, “Into nowhere, a hole like the black holes in space.” Here, the inside of a lens is compared to black holes that have the capacity to devour the light.
- Personification: In this line, “Into the silence that night alone can’t explain,” the poet personifies the “night.”
John Ashbery was an influential American poet and critic. He won nearly every major American award and honor title for his poetry, such as the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his collection, Some Trees in 1956; the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror in 1976; Robert Frost Medal in 1995, etc.
In 2011, his name was inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame, a project established in 2010. The poem ‘Forties Flick’ appears in Ashbery’s best-known collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which was published in 1975. It was first published in The New York Review of Books on November 28, 1974. This piece nostalgically alludes to film noir, classic American crime dramas popular during the mid-19th-century.
John Ashbery’s ‘Forties Flick’ is a nostalgic piece on the cinema genre, film noir of the 1940s. In this poem, Ashbery depicts the trademark scenes from the movies in order to comment mainly on the technical as well as aesthetic aspects.
The poem is written in free-verse, without any regular rhyme scheme or meter. It consists of a total of two stanzas with an odd number of lines. Besides, Ashbery wrote this poem from the third-person point of view.
Film noir is a debated genre of film that became popular during the 1940s and 1950s. It centers around pessimism, fatalism, menace, and mystery with dark, cynical characters, lightning effects, intricate and extensive plots, and frequent flashbacks. Before the adoption of the term “film noir” in the 1970s, critics referred to those movies as “melodramas.”
The tone of the poem is dark, mysterious, cynical, and appreciative. It reflects the speaker’s nostalgia revolving around the classic American crime dramas of the forties.
Readers who enjoyed reading John Ashbery’s ‘Forties Flick’ may also find the following poems interesting. You can explore more John Ashbery poems as well.
- ‘Quivira City Limits’ by Kevin Young — This piece is about Kevin Young’s nostalgia orbiting around his childhood days in Topeka, Kansas.
- ‘A Photograph’ by Shirley Toulson — This powerful poem taps on the themes of loss, memory, and time.
- ‘Blues for Almost Forgotten Music’ by Roxanne Beth Johnson — In this poem, Johnson explores nostalgia for past relationships, thinking about the fragments that passed.
- ‘Men at Forty’ by Donald Justice — This moving poem centers around aging and fatherhood.