John Farrell’s Remarkable Journey to a YouTube Stable of Poems

by Jacquelyn Malone

When I interviewed John Farrell, a science and technology writer, one of the last things he said to me was “I want to shoot live poets.”  Now all you poets reading this, there’s no need to run and hide. It’s not the outbreak of a lethal feud between disciplines but a statement of John’s love for both science and the arts, especially poetry. You see, he has shot some 55 poetry videos, which he has posted to YouTube. All are of actors reading classic poems. He wants to expand his range, and one of the ways he like to expand it is to shoot videos of contemporary poems.

John has loved film and video from his youth. When he applied to colleges he wanted a major in film studies, but his father talked him into applying to Harvard, where he was accepted. The problem was that Harvard had no film programs. So he majored in English and learned to make movies on his own. He worked for the local town cable station filming town meetings and other civic activities. In exchange he got to use their expensive equipment. His first venture was to film what he calls a “Mad Max” version of Shakespeare’s Richard II.  

But the first two poems he shot were Browning’s dramatic monologues, “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria's Lover.” “Both,” he says, “have psychotic speakers.”  They were shot in film, not video, and they were recited by a psychiatrist, a feature that pleased John. “I thought if anyone should understand what the diagnosis of Porphyria’s lover would be it would be a psychiatrist.”

The Internet was new then, and there was no easy way to share the performance. In 2006, when YouTube came along, he remastered the Browning poems but has since removed them since he didn’t think, as the technology has improved, they were up to the quality of his later productions. In the early days, he said, “I thought they would work for the iPad or the iPhone, but I was really surprised when they began to get a lot of hits. I found that teachers were using them in the classroom. I decided I had an interesting project.

“In those days I was working at Houghton Mifflin, and I posted an ad for actors on Craig’s list. I’d talk to them over coffee at the nearby Borders.” John found an interesting stable of actors willing to deliver poems he wanted to tape.

You can find many poems on YouTube, but John thinks many of the presentations aren’t effective. “They tend to be people reading in front of an audience or voice overs, with a PowerPoint display of the poem and a musical background. “I wanted actors to perform the poem, not just read them. I wanted them to embody the poem,” he says.

John is also careful about the location of the filming. “I look for abandoned castles or a house near the ocean or seascapes. In March of this year we were able to take advantage of the weather and film in Brookline with a perfect snowstorm as background – not heavy enough to ruin my camera, but just the right atmosphere for a couple of poems.”

When I asked John how he became interested in poetry, he answers by telling me how he became interested in theater. “In high school I joined the drama club, and as a freshman I had a small role in Midsummer Night’s Dream. My sophomore year I had a larger role – as Stephano, the buffoon, in The Tempest.” Through Shakespeare he got accustomed to reciting poetry. “I loved Tolkien so I memorized some of his poems and participated in the area National Forensic League poetry performance contests.” His interest in those contests had a secondary advantage. “I went to an all-boys high school, and I found out I could go to the contests and meet girls from other high schools,” he says with a laugh.

Usually John chooses the poems, but he has begun to ask the actors about their favorite poems. Allison Choate, who has recited several poems in the collection, was a classics major. She has suggested poems by the Roman poet Catullus or sections of Homer’s poetry. This is a project John hopes to pursue. He has already recorded a couple of poems in Old English, both of which he recorded himself. He’s been astounded that they have received thousands of hits. Who knew there were so many people interested in Old English!

Another surprise has been the number of people who have watched the YouTube performances outside the United States. John believes that many English-as-a second-language students are watching, which is another potential area for him to explore.

From 2007 when Doug Griffin recited Longfellow’s “Rainy Day” to the 55 recordings on You Tube today, John’s productions continue to grow as teachers and students and poetry lovers discover this treasure trove. Now he also hopes to make it explode into the contemporary range of poems.

Check out John’s current treasury of poems.

John Farrell is a freelance writer and producer working in Boston. His articles and posts have appeared in Forbes, Aeon, New Scientist and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein and the Birth of Modern Cosmology (Basic Books, 2005).