The Favorite Poets of Pop Culture Characters


We’re suckers for a great cameo — as our review of last night’s celeb-heavy episode of Saturday Night Live proves — but our favorite surprise appearance belongs to literature. You may have noticed that we’re on a bit of a poetry kick lately, exploring beautiful verses about books, the favorite love poems of great poets, and more. To those who say poetry is dead, we offer ten pop culture characters and the poets they turned to for inspiration — which revealed the internal dialogue running rampant through their minds.

Don Draper reads Frank O’Hara in Mad Men

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.”

The passage everyone’s favorite ad man Don Draper reads from Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency during the season two finale, “Mayakovsky,” encapsulates his eternal struggle. Don is pulled between the mythic figure he desires to be — the one his co-workers revere — and the square suit he usually is. When his vitality and relevancy is subtly challenged by a stranger, Don turns to the book the young man was reading. O’Hara’s words speak to Don’s emotional disconnect, contradictory nature, and identity crisis as much as they define the uncertain transitions of his era. “Perhaps I am myself again,” the poem concludes as Don habitually starts his life over. He mails the book to a mysterious recipient who we later find out is the only person that has any real insight to his true character. We revisit the same book during a later episode when Don’s life is in a shambles again — proof he predicted his own relapse.

Edith Bunker quotes Edgar Guest in All in the Family

The “poet of the people” is quoted by 1970’s housewife Edith Bunker (Jean Stapleton) multiple times in the working class sitcom All in the Family. In the episode “Prisoner in the House,” the shrill Bunker recites Guest’s homespun verse to an ex-convict facing discriminative treatment from his employer and the bigoted Archie. (The scene begins around the five-minute mark.)

Francis Dolarhyde is obsessed with William Blake in Manhunter and Red Dragon

English poet and painter William Blake created a series of watercolors depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation. The surreal, grotesque artworks became the calling card of psychopath Francis Dolarhyde in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and the film adaptations, Manhunter and Red Dragon (portrayed by Tom Noonan and Ralph Fiennes respectively). The terrifying protagonist identifies with Blake’s “Great Red Dragon” so strongly, he tattoos the figure on his body. While we don’t recall Dolarhyde quoting Blake’s writing in the films or books, the madman does have a particular, poetic way of speaking to his victims — making him all the more frightening. We’d bet money that the Dolarhyde bookshelf housed a Blake book or two.

Ponyboy and Johnny ponder Robert Frost in The Outsiders

Of course you want to relive the moment when a bleached C. Thomas Howell and a baby-faced Ralph Macchio discussed Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (in soft focus). The mystery of the verse stays with the down-and-out Ponyboy (Howell) and Johnny (Macchio) throughout the film as they evade gang retaliation and comfort themselves with literature.

Lisa Simpson adores Emily Dickinson in The Simpsons

The literary Lisa Simpson is never without a great book tucked under her stubby, yellow arm. In a season eight episode, in which Lisa seeks an academic challenge by enrolling in a military school with Bart, she expounds on the greatness of the reclusive Emily Dickinson: “Solitude never hurt anyone. Emily Dickinson lived alone, and she wrote some of the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known… then went crazy as a loon.”

John Keating shares Walt Whitman in Dead Poet’s Society

Peter Weir’s extraordinary 1989 film repeatedly references Walt Whitman and his “daring” verses — the moving finale included, which was brilliantly adapted for a recent episode of Bunheads. This inspirational speech from unorthodox English teacher John Keating to his students perfectly summarizes the spirit and heart of the movie:

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

Colonel Walter E. Kurtz soliloquizes T. S. Eliot in Apocalypse Now

One of the most memorable scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War drama, Apocalypse Now, is when Marlon Brando’s rogue colonel reads from T.S. Eliot’s bleak poem “The Hollow Men.” The dramatic epilogue has haunted viewers for decades. Further Eliot references appear in the making of the film itself since the poet found inspiration in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — the book Coppola’s film is loosely adapted from.

Troy Dyer rips off Gregory Corso in Reality Bites

Ethan Hawke’s Troy is a narcissistic a-hole in Ben Stiller’s Gen X opus Reality Bites, but he redeems himself slightly when quoting the Gregory Corso poem “Marriage” — a satirical meditation on the institution. The smug idealism of the poem’s opening lines are more than appropriate for Troy, who is probably dining alone and working a dead-end job in 2013: “Well, should I get married? Should I be good? Should I astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and my faustushood?”

Mary remembers Alexander Pope in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Michel Gondry’s 2004 film about the fleeting nature of memory and love takes its title from Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard.” Kirsten Dunst recites the poem during a pivotal, emotional scene when Jim Carrey’s Joel chases after a vanishing memory about the love of his life (Kate Winslet), bringing the film full circle.

Elliot recommends e.e. cummings in Hannah and Her Sisters

The intertwined tale of sisters and romantic drama takes a turn for the poetic when Michael Caine’s Elliot awkwardly stalks Barbara Hershey’s Lee (his sister-in-law). He buys her an e. e. cummings book containing a verse he begs her to read in an attempt to seduce her.