We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry

We Saw the Light: Conversations Between the New American Cinema and Poetry

by Daniel Kane

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By the mid-1960s, New American poets and Underground filmmakers had established a vibrant community. Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara joined Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Andy Warhol to hang out, make films, read poems, fight censorship, end racism, and shut down the Vietnam War.

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By the mid-1960s, New American poets and Underground filmmakers had established a vibrant community. Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Frank O’Hara joined Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Robert Frank, Alfred Leslie, and Andy Warhol to hang out, make films, read poems, fight censorship, end racism, and shut down the Vietnam War. Their personal, political, and artistic collaborations led them to rethink the moving picture and the lyric, resulting in an extraordinary profusion of poetry/film hybrids.

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“In the postwar America of the fifties and sixties, poets, artists, and filmmakers forged a powerful new counterculture based in friendships, love affairs, intellectual debates, and artistic collaborations. As the author says, ‘What a scene!’ For the first time a critic of great insight has viewed the total dynamics of this artistic world, focusing especially on the cross-pollination between underground filmmakers and poets. The result is explosive and revelatory, as Kane bobs and weaves through films and poems, politics and sexuality, enmities and passions from Anger to Brakhage, Ginsberg to Ashbery, providing not only a sense of history but breathtaking readings of the ways films and poems interbred and crashed against the repressions of American society, turning the fifties into the sixties and beyond. Few books combine such scholarly detail and insight with such passion and humor.”—Tom Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Cinema and Modernity

“In the 1950s and 1960s, filmmakers often thought of themselves as poets and frequently invoked the other medium as a model for their own projects. Since then, there has been very little acknowledgment of this kinship, but Daniel Kane's beautifully written book rediscovers it with tremendous erudition and generous attention to the history of both poetics and avant-garde film. With its brilliant structuring metaphor of imaginary conversations between poets and filmmakers, We Saw the Light virtually creates an important field for scholarship.”—David E. James, author, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles

“Daniel Kane's We Saw the Light is an original, smart, funny, and profound book. It is in one sense an archaeological dig, uncovering a root work of relations between filmmakers and poets in the post-World War II era; it is also a series of dazzling illuminations exposing fresh historical collaborations. Radical aesthetics combine with social politics, where ‘masculinity,’ ‘sanity,’ ‘sexuality,’ and ‘poetics’ are not monolithic signifiers but become part of Kane’s mobile ‘conversations’ between poetry and cinema, prompting new ways of seeing and knowing the world and self. Anyone interested in tracking the Beat or New York School of poets in their passion for cinema will want to read this book; anyone wanting to understand filmmakers who sought out their poetic doubles, and the ensuing interstitial fireworks, must read this book: it is like seeing the light for the first time.”—Susan McCabe, author, Cinematic Modernism: Modern Poetry and Film

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University of Iowa Press
Publication date:
Contemporary North American Poetry Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Copyright © 2009 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-788-5

Chapter One

Some Early Conversations


Let us travel back to 1953, New York City, and revisit what must surely have been a remarkable event sponsored by Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 film club. Titled "Poetry and Film: A Symposium," this event was one of the most official signs yet that there was a postwar dialogue between two ostensibly different genres. The panel participants were composed of heavyweight poets, dramatists, and filmmakers Maya Deren, Parker Tyler, Willard Maas, Dylan Thomas, and Arthur Miller. Like the heavyweights they surely were, they spent their time engaged in rhetorical battle as they somewhat torturously tried to theorize relationships between lyric text and projected light. When we ask ourselves why talented women filmmakers including Marie Menken, Storm De Hirsch, Shirley Clarke, and Barbara Rubin received relatively short shrift in existing accounts of the avant-garde film cultures of the 50s and 60s, we can turn to the utterly contemptuous comments made, especially by Miller and Thomas (and to a somewhat lesser extent by Tyler and Maas), atthis event to illustrate the prevailing attitudes that male intellectuals and artists had towards their female counterparts.

Deren worked vigorously to link her work with poetry generally, even as she faced resistance not just from mainstream artists and writers but from her avant-garde bedfellows as well. After Deren discussed her conceptions of "vertical" and "horizontal" aesthetics, Miller interpolated, "To hell with that 'vertical' and 'horizontal': it doesn't mean anything.... So that it is simply a question of, here again, an image, which is, in one case, when you speak of 'vertical' and 'horizontal,' rather mechanical. And I'm sure the lady didn't mean it that way, and that's why it was taken so absurdly" (Deren 62). The "lady" in question responded, "I'm a little bit flabbergasted at the fact that people who have handled words with such dexterity as Mr. Thomas and Mr. Miller, and Mr. Tyler, should have difficulty with such a simple idea as the 'vertical' and the 'horizontal.'" To this, Dylan Thomas remarked jocularly, "Here we go up and down again." In her own defense, Deren chose to take Thomas's words seriously and suggested that the rhythms of fucking resonated with her cinematic practice: "These seem to me the most elementary movements in the world and really quite fundamental." Willard Maas - who had so far refused to come to Deren's defense or chastise Thomas for his untoward comments - chose this particular moment to chastise Deren for her sexually suggestive language: "I don't think you ought to get vulgar." That Maas would join the boy's group in Deren-bashing seems especially sad considering Maas's own place in New York's poetry community and his film works, including Geography of the Body (1943), described by Parker Tyler as "a true poem of the nude" ("Willard Maas" 53). Basically a visual meditation (with a voice-over of British poet George Barker providing a kind of poem/ commentary) on the human form composed of extreme close-ups on ears, legs, breasts, a mouth parting suggestively, a tongue, and so forth, Geography of the Body certainly anticipates the kind of candor and Romantic exaltation of erotic sensation we associate with Beat-affiliated poetry.

So, despite what is now commonly acknowledged as Maya Deren's preeminent role in the nascent Underground, it is clear from anecdotes such as these that she was not entirely welcome or understood in her own contemporary moment, even by her supposed colleagues. Nevertheless, certain comments from panel members, including Parker Tyler, are worth revisiting. Tyler helpfully linked Deren's work (along with Kenneth Anger's, Curtis Harrington's, and James Broughton's) to a kind of tradition of non-narrative film:

Now, poetical expression falls rather automatically into two groups: that is, poetry as a visual medium and poetry as a verbal medium, or in a larger sense as auditory, and that would, of course, include music. We might well begin with some of the shorter films which concentrate on poetry as a visual medium, and this, of course, leads right to Cocteau's "Blood of a Poet," and to Buñuel-Dali's "Andalusian Dog," and to Watson's "Lot in Sodom." All these are classics now and they emphasized a surrealist poetry of the image, and gave rise to schools and styles of avant-garde all over the world. Cinema 16 patrons are familiar with some of these outstanding works - those of Maya Deren, of James Broughton, of Kenneth Anger, of Curtis Harrington. All these film makers concentrated on what might be called pure cinema - entirely without words as a rule, although sometimes with music. (ibid. 55)

Deren went on to qualify Tyler's point about film as poetry, emphasizing not her film's use of poetic rhythm as a sequencing model but poetry's freedom from narrative structure. "Now poetry, to my mind, consists not of assonance; or rhythm, or rhyme, or any of these other qualities which we associate as being characteristic of poetry. Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience.... The distinction of poetry is its construction (what I mean by 'a poetic structure'), and the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a 'vertical' investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned in a sense not with what is occurring, but with what it feels like or what it means" (ibid. 56). Deren continued by clarifying what she meant by the term "vertical," setting it up in opposition to the narrativity inherent in what she defined as a "horizontal" approach to composition. "This may be a little bit clearer if you will contrast [the 'vertical'] to what I would call the 'horizontal' attack of a drama, which is concerned with the development, let's say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling.... You know, if it's establishing New York, you get a montage of images, that is, a poetic construct, after which what follows is a dramatic construct which is essentially 'horizontal' in its development.... Now, the short films, to my mind (and they are short because it is difficult to maintain such intensity for a long period of time), are comparable to lyric poems, and they are completely a 'vertical,' or what I would call a poetic construct, and they are complete as such." Poetry as a genre informing Deren's practice was valuable precisely for its ability to create sensations through what Deren tacitly suggests is a kind of textual montage, one in which juxtaposition leads to impressionistically attained insight free from the linear strictures inherent in dramatic form. As Deren suggested later, "film, I believe, lends itself particularly to the poetic statement, because it is essentially a montage and, therefore, seems by its very nature to be a poetic medium" (ibid. 59).

This is not so far away from Ezra Pound's earlier poetics of imagism, a fact that was not lost on the panel's moderator, Willard Maas. Responding to a particularly cranky and uninformed assertion by Arthur Miller that revealed his total lack of understanding not just of the panel's purpose, but of Deren's distinctions between "horizontal" and "vertical" approaches, Maas clarified the subtleties between narrative and the lyric: "Well, surely Mr. Miller, you must see the difference between presenting something by words or dialogue, as you do and Mr. Thomas does, and presenting something by the visual image. Now Ezra Pound said in a definition of the image that it is an emotional and intellectual complex caught in an instant of time. It's a very direct and quick way of saying things, a lyric way of saying things, while the way a dramatist says things is by putting the characters that speak back and forth in conflict" (ibid. 62). That Maas would attack Miller by referring back to an innovative poetic predecessor speaks volumes about the links between experimental cinema and radical poetic practice of the twentieth century generally. Poetry and film were being fused as a counter to prevailing narrative modes, of which Arthur Miller and Dylan Thomas were, at least through the 1950s, the United States' most renowned representatives. Rippling out of Maas's comments lies a whole set of tensions - between narrative and lyric, spiritually-tinged avant-garde practice and normative prose, mainstream and outsider art, male centrality and female marginalization - that would inform and complicate the emerging and interlocking poetry and film communities of the 1960s.


Let us just dip back a little further into the 1940s to expand on the context of the developing film/poetry scenes of the 50s and 60s. In San Francisco following the end of World War II, Sidney Peterson's cinema workshops at the California School of Fine Arts were some of the earliest postwar models of an adamantly experimental "poetic" cinema situating itself outside the Hollywood industry. Peterson was a significant figure in the Bay Area movement whose films, including The Potted Psalm (1946) (made with poet and filmmaker James Broughton), The Cage (1947), and Lead Shoes (1949), influenced succeeding generations of innovative filmmakers. Given Peterson's collaboration with Broughton in The Potted Psalm, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the opening scene of that particular film - a pan over a field of grass that soon reveals itself as a hill in San Francisco - is designed to remind viewers of Whitman's leaves of grass, particularly as that grass resonates with a practically morbid polymorphous eroticism latent in many of the scenes that follow. (Shots of tombstones and figures wandering about the graves feature prominently as they are balanced against scenes of women lying in bed, feet twirling round coquettishly, lacing up of boots, feet stroking against each other, lips pressed directly against the camera, a shot of a young man standing next to a statue of a naked man, and so on).

While Peterson was very much of San Francisco, experimental cinema bubbled in the interstices of the city that Warner Brothers and Paramount called home. Most famously, Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) was dreamed up and produced in Los Angeles, and Deren would go on to inspire filmmakers including Curtis Harrington. (Harrington recalled, "Whenever [Deren would] come to Los Angeles, I'd throw a little party for her and provide bongo drums so that she could dance. Maya loved to dance" [ibid. 43].) "It was there in the City of Angels that Harrington and his friends Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos began to create their own stylised, personal 16mm works that were central to the experimental film renaissance" (ibid. 43). An experimental film community, instigated in great part by Deren, expanded.

So, thanks to Deren, multimedia artist Wallace Berman, and others, Los Angeles by the 1950s could claim to be a satellite of the New American Poetry and Cinema scenes. As Robert Pike described it in 1957, "In Los Angeles, Wallace Berman has begun a series of poetry readings by the rising poets of that city. The first evening was attended by Curtis Harrington, Cameron Parsons, Samson De Brier, and many others both interested and active in art and poetry. Berman is also starting work on his first experimental film" (9). A letter from Willard Maas in New York to James Broughton in San Francisco (May 27, 1956) suggests the relationship between poets and filmmakers was not just fluid between genres but fluid between coasts and cities as well. We learn how Broughton's film, The Pleasure Garden (1953), was shown in New York, though attendance was sparse due to Amos Vogel's decision to show the film in another venue on the same night and, interestingly, because there was a Frank O'Hara reading going on as well. In the same letter Maas wrote, "I don't know how really the showing was a success, for everyone who regularly comes to films of this sort (hardly a person there from OUR crowd because Frank O'Hara was Uptown reading his poems and Amos, the SAME night, was showing PLEASURE GARDEN at the New School." Poetry and film are positioned here as visual coterie events - a "showing," to use Maas's word, of either the poet projecting his voice to the crowd or the projector itself beaming light onto the screen for the benefit of an audience.

Maas and his partner Marie Menken were, early on in the game, instigators of and grande dames of the film/poetry community, holding court at countless parties in their home in Brooklyn Heights. As I mentioned earlier, Maas was friendly with Frank O'Hara. In a letter to James Broughton (January 20, 1957) Maas wrote, "Called Frankie - not home, but spoke to his room-mate who is one of my closest friends, Joe-Joy Le Suerer [sic], who reported F had gotten the most charming letter from you, LIKES your book and you and gathers he is asking for it somewhere. So you see! He is having a book from Grove about the same time." Maas and Menken were also close to Gerard Malanga, and both would become intimate participants in Andy Warhol's Factory and the poetry scene swirling around that particular artist. (Maas is reputed to have played a part offscreen as a fellator in Warhol's film Blow Job [1964]. Marie Menken went on to create the impressionistic film "document" Andy Warhol [1965], showing the artist in the process of producing his Brillo Box series with Malanga's assistance. She also played the part of Malanga's mother in Warhol's Chelsea Girls [1966].)

Mass and Menken's home was, of course, not the only social center in town. Maya Deren herself seemed to draw people toward her wherever she went - by the end of the decade Deren was increasingly celebrated in New York's arts community, one which found her rubbing shoulders with poets, playwrights, musicians, and other assorted artists. In February of 1959, independent cinema filmmaker and champion Jonas Mekas "described the scene at another Deren show: the Living Theater was 'bursting with people, sitting everywhere, on the floor, standing by the walls, on the stairway.' ... The spring's other public manifestations of the film scene included Mekas's column in praise of Village resident Len Lye; Rudy Burckhardt's show at the Provincetown Playhouse; and the 'Gryphon group' screening organized by Willard Maas at the Living Theater" (Hoberman, "The Forest" 104). Stan Brakhage made both Deren's influence and what he called the "convergence" of film with poetry literal in a letter to Jonas Mekas. "I begin to see (as I see thru the works of other, by way of my own films) an inter-related convergence. ... All of the promise (as I foresaw it at the time) in the fact that both Maya Deren and I independently, separated by nearly 2000 miles and 2 years of non-communication, formulated specific filmic ideology directly related to Haiku poetry" ("Letters" 76).

By the late 1950s, then, the connections between film and poetry were becoming increasingly clear to a bicoastal avant-garde. Alfred Leslie's and Robert Frank's seminal Pull My Daisy (1959), set in New York and starring Beat and New York School icons Larry Rivers, Alice Neel, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac (providing voiceover), and others, and Ron Rice's important film The Flower Thief (1960), set in San Francisco and featuring the irrepressible poet and underground film star Taylor Mead, went far in establishing an interdisciplinary relationship between screen and page. Both films suggested that poets were as engaged with film (on aesthetic, social, and collaborative grounds) as filmmakers were with poetry.


Excerpted from WE SAW THE LIGHT by DANIEL KANE Copyright © 2009 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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