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  • Cross-Media Criticism:Postwar American Poetry-With-Cinema
  • Christophe Wall-Romana (bio)
Review of: Daniel Kane, We Saw The Light: Conversations Between The New American Cinema and Poetry. Iowa City: Iowa UP, 2009.

Kane's book partakes of the renewed interest in contemporary humanities for the study of cross-medium exchanges, particularly involving literature, pioneered in the 1970s and somewhat marginalized by the massive turn to language, semiotics, cultural codes and discourse analysis that occupied much of the literary humanities in the 1980s and 90s. We will return to what Kane makes of this further on. Within this new cross-disciplinary field focusing on exchanges between various mediums, poetry and cinema have been especially probed for two significant and interrelated reasons. First, they both share in today's digital smorgasbord the unenviable distinction of being, or at least seeming obsolescent, in comparison to narrative on the one hand, and post-analog moving image media on the other. At the same time, recent scholarship has shown that poets and filmmakers were at the very core of the vanguard of 20th-century cross-medium practices, which they often theorized as well (as in the work of Susan McCabe, David Trotter, Laura Marcus, and Wall-Romana). Hence, relations between poetry and cinema offer a paradigmatic and relatively bookended span of cross-medium practices that pioneered and, in crucial ways, remain subjacent to and resonant within current interdisciplinary humanities, including new media studies. Such early experiments also explain why studies in the relation of poetry and cinema have tended to concentrate on interwar modernism.

Kane's aim is in part to complicate this archaeological argument by pointedly ending the book on very recent collaborations between poets and filmmakers: John Ashbery and Rudy Burkhardt; Lisa Jarnot and Jennifer Reeves. More broadly, the book provides a careful revision and innovative exploration of the crisscrossing historiography of the new experimental cinema and new poetry movements (particularly those showcased by Donald Allen in his anthology, The New American Poetry) which took place in the US between the 1950s and 70s.

After describing how postwar filmmakers such as Deren, Mekas, and Markopoulos#relied on poetry as a non-narrative model, both as a general framework for their films and by writing poems themselves, Kane sets up in subsequent chapters a series of pairings of one or several poets with one or several filmmakers: Robert Duncan and Kenneth Anger (chapter 2); Robert Creeley and Stan Brakhage (Chapter 3); Frank O'Hara and Alfred Leslie (Chapter 4); Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frank (with Charlie Chaplin, Chapter 5); Andy Warhol, Gerard Malaga, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (Chapter 6); John Ashbery and Rudy Burkhardt (Chapter 7). This original organization allows Kane to provide joint close readings of specific films and poems and/or poetry collections, and provides illuminating new interpretations of works such as Creeley's Pieces, Burkhardt's The Last Clean Shirt, Frank's Me and My Brother (on Peter Orlovsky and his brother Julius, and of course Ginsberg). Kane couches such joint readings as "conversations," to suggest we might recover from them as comparably rich and lively exchanges as those from his live conversation with Jarnot and Reeves transcribed in the concluding chapter.

The starting point of We Saw The Light is Kane's painstakingly documented and convincing sense that, "to a surprising extent, film informed the content and form of much of the postwar American poetic avant-garde" (27). The surprise here is at least threefold, since it concerns first the breadth and depth of cinema's influence on poetry, second its being overlooked by poetry scholars working until recently within more confining disciplinary purviews, and third, the fact that—contrary to other cases in various cultural areas and times—it is experimental rather than mainstream cinema that most deeply imprinted itself on the new poetry. Kane's archival recovery of the social and spatial networks that explain how experimental cinema permeated the new American poetry, and his talent for reenacting them in elegant and critical writing are the most valuable aspects of the book. Not only do we get a sense of how local scenes (mostly in underground New York, San Francisco and Los...

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