If poems could be created in a trance without the conscious participation of the poet, the writing of poetry would be so boring or even unpleasant an operation that only a substantial reward in money or social prestige could induce a man to be a poet. – WH Auden
Sur - re - al – ism (n.) -(often l.c.) a style of art and literature developed principally in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery arrived at by automatism or the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, etc.
I like surrealist art. I say I like surrealist art. I know what I mean by that, at least I know what I like. But I'm not sure what that is. I know when I see it. I've stared at that definition for a while now. It's seems straightforward enough. But it's a bit one-sided. It says where the work comes from but not a) what the intention of the author might be or b) what we're expected to do with it.
I like the painting in the corner. It's a Magritte. I like it a lot. It's called 'The Empire of Light'. He actually painted a few pictures called 'The Empire of Light' but this is the one I like best, the one he did in 1954. I have a print of it which I bought in Edinburgh in a little arts and craft shop near where that wee dog is commemorated, Grayfriars Bobby. That was probably thirty years ago. And I kept it with me through nearly a dozen house moves, so it must mean something to me especially considering that all my own art, bar two oils, ended up in a skip. I remember the tinkers raking through the skip as I drove away. I wonder if they appreciated any of it?
So what does this painting mean to me? Nothing. Not a soddin' thing. I look at it. I enjoy it in exactly the same was as I might enjoy a sunset. It pleases me. But it doesn't mean anything. When I look at it I remember buying the print. It wasn't a spur of the moment thing. No. I scoured the shops with the express intention of locating a copy of that print. But I can't remember why. What was it about that painting that moved me enough to go out of my way to own a replica of it? It elicited an emotional response. It made me feel good. That was it. And I can live with that.
So, why do I have such a problem with surrealist poetry?
How does a surrealist write? Here is what André Breton had to say:
Written Surrealist Composition or First and Last Draft.
Having settled down in some spot most conducive to the mind's concentration upon itself, order writing material to be brought to you. Let your state of mind be as passive and receptive as possible. Forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Repeat to yourself that literature is pretty well the sorriest road that leads to everywhere. Write quickly without any previously chosen subject, quickly enough not to dwell on, and not to be tempted to read over, what you have written.
The first sentence will come of itself; and this is self-evidently true, because there is never a moment but some sentence alien to our conscious thought clamours for outward expression. It is rather difficult to speak of the sentence to follow, since it doubtless comes in for a share of our conscious activity and so the other sentences, if it is conceded that the writing of the first sentence must have involved even a minimum of consciousness. But that should in the long run matter little, because therein precisely lies the greatest interest in the surrealist exercise.
Punctuation of course necessarily hinders the stream of absolute continuity which preoccupies us. But you should particularly distrust the prompting whisper. If through a fault ever so trifling there is a forewarning of silence to come, a fault let us say, of inattention, break off unhesitatingly the line that has become too lucid. After the word whose origin seems suspect you should place a letter, any letter, l for example, always the letter l, and restore the arbitrary flux by making that letter the initial of the word to follow. – André Breton, What is Surrealism? (paragraph breaks mine)
This is how it all began. He's talking about automatic writing as we would know it, writing without letting all that nasty thinking getting in the way.
I'm not so sure that what we see presented as surrealism nowadays is faithful to the spirit of surrealism. I suspect it imitates it. Is this Jackson Browne album cover surrealist? It looks as if it might be and, if no one had seen the original, it could probably pass as surrealist, not that that was the intention of the cover artist; they simply wanted to flog an LP.
"Centuries from now, any art that takes new paths toward a greater emancipation of the mind will be Surrealist." So wrote André Breton. Okay, it's not quite a century since Surrealism with a capital S was defined and then redefined a few years later – the Surrealists did love their manifestoes – but I think his point is well taken.
By 1945, the artists and writers that had given this new art form its impetus had become separated and retrospectives were even being promoted, beginning with Max Ernst. And yet the term (albeit more often these days with a lower-case s) persists. It is not the same as it was before and I would suggest that much of this is to do with one man, Salvador Dalí, who, although he moved away from the original Surrealists in method he did an enormous amount to spread their spirit. I would suggest that if everyone was asked to name one Surrealist artist then Dalí would make everyone's top three and probably be most people's first choice. And yet, ironically, the Surrealists purportedly sacked him in 1930s. Not that this stopped Dalí. As far as he was concerned though, and he said so in so many words, he was surrealism and I doubt the man in the street would argue with him. I certainly wouldn't, certainly not in a dark alley.
So much art that I see calling itself surrealist I find derivative, it looks like a poor man's Dalí or a Magritte but I wonder how many writers there are today using the kind of methods that the Surrealists started out with? One of the techniques which I would have assumed the Surrealists would have given their blessing to was that of cut-ups. A precedent of the technique occurred during a Surrealist rally in the 1920s: Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. A riot ensued and André Breton expelled Tzara from the movement.
So, no cut-ups then.
Dalí was quite clear when he spoke about his art. He admitted that he didn't know what it meant but refuted any assertions that that made it meaningless. Since I've long argued that meaning lies under the control of the reader/viewer this doesn't trouble me, not in principle at least.
Let's have a look at a surrealist poem by Paul Éluard:
The Nakedness of Truth (I know it well)
Despair has no wings,
Nor has love,
They do not speak.
I do not stir,
I do not behold them,
I do not speak to them,
But I am as real as my love and my despair.
It's not very surreal is it? I could have written that. Maybe it's not a surrealist poem just because a surrealist wrote it. How do I know if he's being surreal or not? I'm being facetious. But I'm also being serious. A book of poems doesn't come with a set of instructions. Well, perhaps the occasional one does but I've never come across one. No, all I have are a few words on a page like this. Do I need to know what the author's intentions were before he sat down? Well, if I knew it was a surrealist poem then I could comfort myself with the fact that the poet didn't know either before he set out. He's not being clever. This is not a 'decoder ring' poem; this is not an 'emperor's new clothes' poem; this is merely a random convergence of words on a page and the meaning is entirely at my discretion. I don't feel I can do that with the poem above. It looks thought out. Perhaps Éluard gave up Surrealism in his old age and got a proper job because I have no idea when this was written. It may even have been written before he took his vow of surreality. I could do some research but I'm not going to. I'm going to find another poem.
I didn't find a poem that looked surreal enough for me. I found this. Well, it might be a prose poem. I don't know. I've yet to investigate that twilight zone. Anyway, Benjamin Péret wrote it and Guy Bennett translated it.
Air, in its normal state secretes a steady cloud of pepper that makes the earth sneeze. On the ground, the pepper condenses until it gives the knick-knack in summer and the newspaper in winter. By simply placing the latter in a cool place it turns into a railway station or a sponge, depending on the number of pages. The pepper also condenses at a height of two thousand meters, then falls back to earth in a powder so fine that no one notices it, but the testament to such flagrant uselessness eventually appears as, unbeknownst to them, passers-by inevitably trample it. At greater heights, the pepper nourishes the stars, giving them their lustre.
Painted blue, air makes undergrowth in dry weather; in rainy weather it makes bleach, but is then harmful to man who absorbs large doses of it for it causes ulcers, boils, and damages tooth enamel. Painted yellow, air is used to dress furs and, mixed with powder of cockchafer, cures lockjaw. When sucked on, air is used to repair inner tubes, when salted, it becomes a bed. Warmed between the hands, it dilates to the point of changing into a whip. Torn to shreds and sprinkled with red wine, it gives the maestro, so useful to peasants at harvest time. Dried in the sun and preserved all winter in a dry place, in spring air will give the engagement ring which, due to its extreme sensitivity to variations in temperature, is very fragile and rarely reaches maturity.
Shut up in a closet, air tends to escape so as to blow out the door at the first possibility, taking the shape of a mushroom generally used today to fight wrinkles.
Pickled in vinegar, air gives the porter which, in windy weather, is as runny as overripe cheese. The runny porter is then collected, dried, carefully ground and then sown in a shady spot. Within a month the moon sprouts, emerges from the earth and blooms, for the moon is not a heavenly body as is generally believed, but the pollen of innumerable female runny porter-flowers that rises every evening, whereas the male flowers fall to the ground leaving their seed to sprout again. Every morning the moon plunges into the sea and, as it hits the waves, produces the tides. As it dissolves, the moon gives the sea its salty taste. – extract from 'The Four Elements'
Now that is what I think of when I think of surrealist writing. It's fun enough to read and I quite enjoyed its silliness and some of its imagery especially the idea of painting the air. Now that is surreal. But is it any good? What criteria do I use to judge it?
Anyone can string together disparate images, stream-of-consciousness narratives, idiosyncrasies, or non-sequiturs, but not anyone can do this in a truly evocative way. Or can they? There is method behind the Surrealist's madness, techniques first of all but probably more importantly a state of mind. One would imagine that not everyone is capable of relaxing themselves enough to … let's be poetic about it … free the spirit. I doubt I could. I'm not very good at letting go or going with the flow. Writing is something that I take control of and structure.
But, how to read? Surrealism, as César Aira noted, promoted a new kind of reading, based on a succession of novel images that force the reader into the present, denying the usual mental recompositions that logical sequences allow. Each line or image abolishes the previous one in its straining for the now, the ‘ahora’. (Ahora is Mexican for 'now'.) You, reader, do the work, the free-associating.
Doesn't this all feel like a word-association test? Or trying to make sense out of a dream? Of course the Surrealists were big on dreams and placed a great deal of emphasis on their interpretation. Freud came along and gave what they were doing the rubber stamp of scientific respectability and yet there are those who still maintain that dreams are just random collections of thoughts and that attributing meaning to them is going that one step too far.
The fact is that we humans try and extract meaning from everything and anything. It's a bit of an obsession. And so, when faced with a collection of words like Péret's 'Air' it's impossible for us to admit that it is meaningless. Even if I jumbled up the words our eyes would still flick about them looking for connections. Ultimately the answers we come up with say more about us than the author. Isn't that the end result of reading normal, i.e. not surrealist, writing? Well, yes, up to a point but there is still a significant contribution by the writer, thoughts, opinions etc which we have to gauge against our own thoughts and opinions to see if they remain unchanged after the reading exercise. I don't see that with a surrealist text. The writer has simply saved me the chore of having to collect a pile of words myself to free associate over. Or am I being too harsh? I don't know. I haven't done enough research.
Like most of the stuff I write this has simply been me having a think out loud. I have next to no experience of this kind of poetry although I did used to own a collection of Surrealist Poetry – I think it was a Penguin edition. I'm really just emphasising the fact that I really am shackled to meaning as the end result of the process of reading. Why I look at art differently is a subject for another day perhaps.
I thought I'd finished this article when, by chance, I ran across an interview with Marjorie Perloff, a poetry critic and professor emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, in The Argotist Online in which she is asked why abstract art is more accepted that abstract poetry. Considering where I began this investigation I think her response provides a nice coda.
MP: I think there are two answers to this question. (1) visual art, abstract or otherwise, is much more accepted by the public than is poetry. Ours is increasingly a visual culture: a few years ago, I went to a Magritte exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. It was packed; one couldn't get near the paintings. But if one asked the same people to read surrealist poetry, comparable to Magritte's painting, they would be at a total loss and say the poetry was much too difficult, too obscure. Thus Max Ernst's paintings and frottages are Big Business whereas André Breton's poems are barely known in the U.S. And the same would be true of Dada or Italian Futurism. Kurt Schwitters, for that matter, is well known as a painter, but his poems remain almost unknown!
But (2) "abstraction" in language is a very different thing from abstract painting. I take it by abstract poetry you mean nonsensical? Like Clark Coolidge or Bruce Andrews? I think the hostility to such poetry has to do with the simple fact that words (unlike paint strokes or dabs of colour) inevitably have meanings, and so the reader inevitably wants to "make sense" of a poem and is frustrated when he/she can't. I don't think it's the aura of the museum versus the university classroom. Then, too, poetry is taught especially badly: in even the best high schools the only modern poets read are Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or maybe Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. There is no training in HOW TO READ whereas art history classrooms do better by paintings and sculpture