Poetry in Motion: An Alumnus' Brush with the Big Screen

With the recent debut of James Franco’s film The Broken TowerM magazine received the inside scoop on how Paul Mariani’s (’62) biography was the inspiration for the film.


Photo caption: Actor James Franco and Paul Mariani ’62, Ph.D., University Professor of English at Boston College, discuss The Broken Tower, a film starring and directed by Franco that is based on Mariani’s 1999 biography of American poet Hart Crane.

Photo credit: Lee Pellegrini/Boston College

He’s published 16 books and hundreds of essays, but it was his biography of the poet Hart Crane that Paul Mariani ’62 knew was different.

Mariani, who spent the last 11 years as the University Professor of English at Boston College, had his biography of Crane published in 1999 (W.W. Norton & Company) — the poet’s 100th birthday.

“I thought it would make a terrific film,” says Mariani, who taught English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for 32 years, before heading to Boston College. “But making films means money, and Americans not only don’t seem interested for the most part in poetry, but not even in the lives of poets."

Then he got the call from actor James Franco.

The star of 127 Hours was fascinated by Mariani’s book — The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane — and wanted to make it into a movie.

“When his agent, Miles Levy, called me to say James was interested in turning my biography of Crane into a film, I was at first skeptical that the project would ever get off the ground,” Mariani says. “But it did, and I did everything I could on my part to make it happen.”

Last spring, The Broken Tower premiered on the Boston College campus. Focus Films recently released the film on demand in January.

“For me, the movie took some adjusting to, since one man’s vision, in a biography, is going to differ from another man’s take in film,” Mariani says. “But Franco is nothing if he’s not a genius, and he caught something essential about this lonely, ultimately self-destructive poet.

“I’ve watched the film five times now and — if I listen carefully enough and pay the film the attention it demands and deserves — I keep seeing something new, both hopeful and, yes, tragic,” Mariani says.

Being the author of the biography, Mariani was called upon to answer questions about Hart and the 1920s, while Franco and his producer, Vince Jolivette, created the film. But the Jasper and New York native also got an opportunity to visit the set.

Last December, he received a call to head down to Brooklyn.

“Two young women dressed me in a suit of authentic clothes and heavy shoes from the 1920s, then grayed my hair and tossed it, glued a moustache to my upper lip, and took me down to Brooklyn Heights, where I stood on a New York stoop one freezing Saturday morning,” says Mariani, who ended up playing one of Crane’s friends, Alfred Stieglitz, in the film. “It was a blast. But my wife warned me not to give up my day job, and I haven’t.”

Mariani is still working his day job, a career he started almost immediately after leaving the College.

Following his graduation from Manhattan with a B.A. in English and world literature, Mariani went on to get his master’s at Colgate University, eventually teaching his first college classes there.

He did his doctoral studies in English and comparative literature at Hunter College, teaching there, as well as at Lehman College and John Jay College of

Criminal Justice. His dissertation was on the poetry and poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins with a fellowship from the Newman Center at Columbia College.

After moving to Montague, Mass., in 1968 with his wife, Eileen, and their three children, Mariani began working at Amherst, where he reworked his dissertation into a book, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Life, which was published by Cornell University Press in 1970. Before he left Amherst to move to Boston College, he was made Distinguished University Professor of English.

In the meantime, while his academic career was flourishing, Mariani began writing more and more. It started with an 800-page biography of a poet, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked (McGraw-Hill, 1981), which was reviewed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He went on to publish four more biographies — of John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Hart Crane and Hopkins — and six poems.

Mariani is currently working on another biography of the poet Wallace Stevens.

He also is trying to complete his memoirs, based on his life growing up on East 51st Street in Manhattan in the 1940s.

And while he continues to focus on his books, his time on the big screen isn’t over just yet.

In fact, Franco called again this fall. He wants to turn another one of Mariani’s biographies into a second feature length film. This time it’s DreamSong: The life of John Berryman (William Morrow, 1990).

After all his success, the 16 books and hundreds of essays, reviews and poems he’s published, his awards — a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Humanities and one National Endowment for the Arts fellowships — Mariani can trace his fascination of English and poets back to Riverdale.

“It was Manhattan College, which taught me a love of books, and — considering both my parents, who were smart but Depression-era kids — the school gave me the chance to move on and up,” Mariani says. “What I learned there, I have tried to pass on to several generations of college kids in my turn, as well as to keep alive and young by learning.”