Surrealism Is a Romantic Critique of the Avant-Garde from Within
I begin with the penultimate sentence of “Theory of Retrieval,” the capstone to my recent book of essays, Retrievals: “I admire from a distance other, perhaps grander aspects of [André] Breton—the movement leader, the concept synthesizer—but what I’ve sought to emulate as a poet-critic is his spirit of generosity to the living and the dead.” This is as much to say that I’ve never aspired to be a leader of others or an inaugurator of discourse. Indeed, “Theory of Retrieval” is something of an inside joke, for it’s simply a description of, and an account of various experiences that went into the making of, the book in which it appears. I mean, I don’t have theories. I just do things. Whatever I can get away with, according to the vagaries of my ethical compass. And whatever the drawbacks of such an approach, I’m pleased to report that, by this age, as a writer, editor, even poet, I’ve done a lot of things, things I thought needed to be done.
Notwithstanding all that, I was incautious enough to dub my latest chapbook of poems What Surrealism Means to Me, which led directly to the invitation to deliver this lecture on surrealism and contemporary poetry. The “-critic” is thus called to account for the effusions of the “poet-,” for I have hitherto never self-identified as a surrealist; rather, in the late ’90s, along with my friends Jeff Clark and Brian Lucas, I was accused by a largely forgotten academic of being a surrealist. (I think we were called, derisively, the San Francisco Surrealists.) I can’t speak for my confreres, but for my part, I wouldn’t have presumed to call myself a surrealist, because I took surrealism seriously. While I never held it against those who identified as surrealists, nor did I ever disavow surrealism, at the same time, I felt that calling yourself a surrealist had little bearing on whether or not you could achieve surrealism. Such discretion aside, however, the accusation has more or less stuck and my poetry, insofar as it’s thought about at all, tends to be considered surrealist.
Nonetheless, publishing my latest chapbook under the rubric of surrealism wasn’t a question of “giving in” to the label, but was rather a deliberate decision, as indicated by “Selfie at Delphi,” the poem-manifesto that opens What Surrealism Means to Me:
when i was a young poet, there was all this postmodern distance & irony i couldn’t abide. everyone was great at deriding what they disliked & everyone sucked at deciding what they liked. now that i’m a middle-aged poet, everyone’s vampiric, parasitic, cannibal, in the name of a look-at-me-ism that mistakes the clever for the conceptual: poetry as selfie.
what surrealism has done for me is provide dissident perspective on what otherwise nice, even reasonable employees of museums & universities tell me is cutting-edge, avant-garde, true. a spine to speak get the fuck outta here & an intelligence to back it up. surrealism’s been the light leading me through continuous yet temporary labyrinths & if you think i lit this rush from Lamantia who lit his from Breton, you’re fucking right.
On the one hand, I suppose, this looks for all the world like a midlife crisis; certainly I would never have carried on in this fashion in my youth. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have permitted myself in a poetic text to write so prosaically, nor would I have spoken of my own poetry so directly or invoked surrealism so explicitly. And I definitely wouldn’t have had the grandiosity to propose this lineage from Breton to Lamantia to myself. Yet here is where I find myself. What’s shifted is the context of the discussion in the poetic avant-garde. When I came of age as a poet, the avant-garde in the Bay Area was dominated by language poetry; there was a stifling orthodoxy to the conversation and it was theory-driven at the expense of poetic results. The way to change this conversation was not by writing manifestoes, for language poetry was only too ready to argue, but rather by writing more compelling poetry. If my friends and I had any impact on poetry in terms of younger writers, it was through example, by suggesting other avenues in experimental poetry than those sanctioned by language poetry.
The situation today could be no more different, to the point where I feel a mild nostalgia for language poetry; however wrongheaded I found them, the language poets were worthy opponents, and they were nothing if not sincere. Rightly or, as I maintain, wrongly, they were committed to their ideas and the poetry that flowed therefrom. With the contemporary poetry of conceptualism, however, we are confronted with a whole new animal, one that doesn’t even pretend to believe what it says. As near as I can tell, it began as a cynical land-grab by failed visual artists, using a warmed over version of turn of ’70s minimalism as a way to take out their frustrations about their creative impotence, hence the valorization of “uncreative writing.” It is, on the one hand, all about product, ways of generating product with minimal effort, and in this we can see its academic origins, for this is surely the cut-and-paste solution to the professor’s publish-or-perish problem. On the other hand, it disavows its product, insofar as the texts of conceptualism are self-declaredly meant to be discussed, not read. Conceptualism will do anything for attention, because attention is its only goal. It will not hesitate to engage in the worst forms of ambulance chasing and grave robbing, whether attaching its projects to the suicide of open access activist Aaron Swartz or publishing a remix of the manifesto of mass murderer Elliot Rodger a mere two days after his killing spree. In this, it’s the ultimate symptom of the social media age, and social media has had a pernicious effect on the poetry world. A bubbling cauldron of clickbait and petty resentments, social media has created a permanent MFA class of poet, one concerned chiefly with parsing the activities of his or her peers as opposed to pursuing the ancient art we profess to practice. Poetry is elsewhere.
But why invoke something as unfashionable as surrealism to oppose conceptualism? As a poet, I always feel the need to do the unfashionable thing, because poetry is the antithesis of fashion. Where conceptualism avidly cultivates the rewards of fashionability—poet laureateships, invitations to the White House, and other symbols of acceptance by the status quo—surrealism seeks nothing less than permanent revolution. And though it has had its periods of vogue, surrealism is beyond fashion, because surrealism is real, even as it aspires to integrate the real and the dream. The genius of Breton as the leader of an avant-garde movement was that he posited surrealism as something objective, beyond the movement itself, something the movement investigated and attuned itself to. Surrealism is nothing less than a tendency within (and even sometimes beyond) human consciousness, stretching back to prehistory, as is evident from the surviving art of the Upper Paleolithic period, the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux, say, or the Venus of Hohle Fels, or the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel, even as it extends to the present, which in Breton’s case might include, say, the paintings of Leonora Carrington, the photographs of Pierre Molinier, the boxes of Joseph Cornell, or the poems of Clément Magloire-Saint-Aude. Surrealism, moreover, isn’t confined to art but rather has made itself felt in anthropology, history, philosophy, and politics. Proof of surrealism’s substance may be seen in how quickly and successfully it was adapted to the degraded, everyday use of the word surreal to signify something impossible, uncanny, or absurd. Breton’s elaboration of surrealism, in other words, responded to a deeply felt human necessity, one positing a thread (the marvelous) connecting objective phenomena like the Northern Lights to the most subjective constructions like Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism, the pop cultural domain of Louis Feuillade’s films to the high art occultation of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés. As such diverse manifestations show, surrealism is neither a method nor a style and its practice thus can’t be taught. It proceeds fundamentally by analogy and eludes a logical explication of the relationship among its various forms and concerns, even as it posits their unity through its very name.
The reality of surrealism is what makes it possible today, even in the absence of a coherent movement and in contradistinction to all of the competing contemporaneous avant-gardes from the modernist era. It’s this reality I invoke in opposition to conceptualism, by way of explaining what What Surrealism Means to Me means to me. But what does surrealism mean to me, or rather, what do I mean by surrealism? In a way, this is a question for another day, inasmuch as this lecture presupposes surrealism. Nonetheless, it would do to sketch some of surrealism’s core tenets, beginning with the definition first put forward by Breton in the “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924):
SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express—verbally, by means of the written, or in any other manner—the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.
ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.
As we can see here, in its emphasis on the dream and the functioning of thought, surrealism is Freudian, but only in the broadest sense of that term. Freudian psychology and surrealism quickly diverge in that the former is self-declaredly in the service of law and order, eliminating or at least reining in the individual’s anti-social desires and reintegrating him or her into society, while the latter sees in such desires the key to both individual liberation and societal transformation. Not to be conflated with automatic writing, which is merely one tool in its service, pure psychic automatism consists in giving voice to desire by recording the irrational manifestations of the unconscious. Emerging from the absolute negativity of Dada—itself a complete rejection of the rational motivated by the inhuman horror of the First World War—surrealism sought to build something new and positive based on the liberation of human desire through the objects and tools of Freudian analysis.
To his credit, Breton quickly realized that the “revolution of the mind” he proposed was ultimately impossible to attain if it were divorced from social revolution, and thus he weds to “pure psychic automatism” the Marxist concept of “permanent revolution.” Indeed, Breton’s version of this concept is ultimately more radical than that of its chief elaborator, Leon Trotsky, for where Trotsky insisted permanent revolution culminated (and therefore ended) in the creation of a worldwide classless society, Breton insisted that such an achievement was only the beginning; his permanent revolution was necessarily permanent. For Breton, “permanent revolution” means “the complete freedom of art,” “an anarchist regime of individual liberty” for “intellectual creation,” as well as an “unlimited capacity to say no” to any orthodoxy, “the free statement of all points of view and the permanent confrontation of all tendencies.” Always relative to the society in which it finds itself, surrealism is not a static philosophy but rather simultaneously a perspective, a position, a critique, a dialectic, a contradiction, and a rejection.
The real question here, however, is not what does surrealism mean, but rather, what could it mean in relation to contemporary poetry? And I imagine there is some desire on the part of my hosts that I name names, in the sense of identifying a body of contemporary work that I consider definitively surrealist. But I find myself reluctant to do this. Part of this reluctance stems from the difficulty of fully parsing the relationship between surrealism and poetry, because surrealism identifies so much of itself with poetry. This is perhaps no shock, given that its elaboration begins at the hands of a group of poets. As it is an attempt to integrate the real with the dream, so too is surrealism an attempt to infuse reality with poetry, by attending to those phenomena deemed irrational, like chance, coincidence, love. This impulse reaches an apotheosis in Breton’s work in Mad Love (1937), during the “Night of the Sunflower” episode, where the details from a poem he had written years before and later discarded begin to enact themselves before his eyes on the night he meets the woman who would become his second wife, the painter Jacqueline Lamba. From this episode and similar ones, Breton elaborates the concept of objective chance, as the manifestation of subjective desire in the events of the objective world.
The relationship between surrealism and poetry, moreover, is so tight that it affects all other forms of surrealist art. Take, for example, painting. Where most accounts of modernism locate the central conflict of avant-garde painting in the opposition between abstraction and representation, surrealism refuses this opposition altogether. Throughout 20th Century art history, surrealist painting is continually accused of narrative, but this is wrong. Surrealist painting is primarily concerned with the poetic, and the struggle of avant-garde painting for surrealism is between the poetic and what Duchamp termed the retinal. Abstraction and representation are just two modes, either or both of which may be used in the service of a poetic way of seeing, while retinal art is chiefly an appeal to the eye, whether abstract, like a purely decorative pattern, or representational, like a merely photographically accurate portrait. This is not to say surrealist painting necessarily doesn’t make an appeal to the eye—some of it does, some of it doesn’t—but rather to say that its primary appeal is to the imagination.
The introduction of so unfashionable a term as “imagination” into our lecture at this point is highly convenient, insofar as that term serves to differentiate surrealism and poetry. That is to say, the fact that poetry is so fundamental to surrealism doesn’t mean that poetry and surrealism are identical or that one is reducible to the other. Indeed, much of the poetry I read and love can’t be said to be surrealist and comparatively few of the poets I roll with personally identify as such. Yet the poets I read and/or associate with tend to be highly imaginative ones as opposed to, say, autobiographical poets or theory poets or process poets or, god forbid, conceptual poets. And the higher you crank the imagination dial in poetry, the greater the likelihood the resulting poem is going to cross the line into surrealism.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean here. At the moment I’m editing a book of poems for City Lights, Women in Public, by Elaine Kahn. As far as I know, Kahn primarily identifies as an artist, given that she works in multiple media, most notably music and poetry. I feel like surrealism as such is remote from her concerns. And yet, the moments of her poetry that have truly blown me away have been those explosions of surrealism within it. I’m thinking of a sequence like the following three lines of “Like the Shadow of a Boat,” “In Marseille / I am cutting myself / out of a piece of paper,” where Kahn gestures to Women in Public’s overarching themes of the body and femininity in the second line’s suggestion of self-mutilation, only to spin it on its head with its reinterpretation by the third line, in which she asserts her agency in a surrealistic shaping of herself. Or too, witness the mental gymnastics required to negotiate a couplet like “I’d like to fuck myself so hard / I get pregnant and give birth to me” from “Self-Love/The Empress.” It’s one thing to either fuck oneself or give birth to oneself, but quite another thing to connect these two idioms by the idea of knocking oneself up. This impossible splitting of the “I” into three—the one fucking, the one getting fucked, and the one conceived by the fucking—displays sufficient force of imagination to be labeled surrealist.
Another example: recently I’ve been reading an unpublished manuscript of poems by Frank Lima, who passed away last March. As a student of Kenneth Koch, a protégé of Frank O’Hara, and a close associate of such poets as David Shapiro and Joseph Ceravolo, Lima is generally and correctly identified as a New York School poet, though I was gratified to reread Shapiro’s introduction to Inventory: New & Selected Poems and find him calling his friend a “New York Surrealist.” As Shapiro notes, the painter Sherman Drexler first gave a teenaged Lima the advice “to write the way he spoke,” which would seem quite in line with the quotidian poetics of his future mentor O’Hara. Yet too, alongside this quotidian impulse, there has always been a strong surrealist proclivity among the poets of the New York School, and Shapiro in his introduction charts the development of his friend’s poetry from the “snapshot aesthetic of Robert Frank” to a “colli[sion] with the possibilities of a kind of historical or historicized surrealism.” By “historical or historicized,” I take Shapiro to mean that Lima wasn’t running around claiming surrealism but rather was influenced by it. Yet Lima’s later work is almost completely saturated with surrealism, such as the following extract from 2001, selected more or less at random from a manuscript filled with such poetry:
I own them, Basilicas, white bearded dictionaries that hoard words
Of gold and silver letters, great paintings of bucolic countryside that
Reflect a past epoch of peace. We are tethered to this ancient vision for
The rest of our squalid days of imitations and inbreeding consonants
Commas. We stand when the undrinkable hearts are mentioned:
There is only one way of breathing into someone’s heart that few
Accept because flesh is the exoskeleton of intimacy. We were never
Prepared for the silence so suddenly. We are lost as public students;
We are monsters with one eye, shaped like illuminated Chaucerian
Dictionaries. We shall always be our own crisscrossing words on
Musical pages at the endless antipasto party in our honor.
This is quite a different variety of surrealism than the more concentrated bursts we find in Elaine Kahn’s work, necessitating a far lengthier quotation. At this point in his poetic life, Lima is peeling off surrealism by the yard, in a manner both fluid and effortless. There is no striving after exoticism and the rush of startling, irrational assertions is buoyed by the commonplace, conversational register in which he delivers them, one after another, without fanfare or commentary. Part of the effectiveness of Lima’s poetry stems from the displacement of the surrealist image from the center of the action to the side; it’s not that “Basilicas” are “white bearded dictionaries” so much as he “own[s]” them, not that “hearts” are “undrinkable” so much as “we stand” when said hearts “are mentioned.” It’s impossible to make sense of this passage, even as Lima shifts from the paradoxical (“flesh is the exoskeleton of intimacy”) to the seemingly straightforward (“We were never / Prepared for the silence so suddenly”). Yet despite its resistance to any sensible paraphrase, Lima’s poetry seems like the very opposite of random, empty phrase-making. Nothing feels unmotivated, and the emotion animating these lines—a sort of anguish tempered by resignation—is palpable and compelling. The authenticity and even necessity of this way of writing poetry is attested to by Shapiro when he concludes that “Lima’s New York School use of symbolism and surrealism never led him away from his solid sense of thing and fact, boundless body and private street. If anything, he reminds us that the Surrealists at their best . . . were a final if seemingly superstitious stroke of realism in its extremity.” While I might quibble with Shapiro’s terminology—I confess I’m uncertain what he means by “superstitious”—I find this characterization of surrealism as the most extreme form of realism to be splendidly apt in light of my earlier discussion of surrealism’s reality. Surreality, in other words, isn’t the opposite of reality, but rather, as Breton writes, “superior reality,” reality heightened by poetry.
For a third example, let me mention another book I worked on for City Lights, The Tranquilized Tongue by Eric Baus. Having begun his education as a poet under the redoubtable eye of George Kalamaras, Baus emerges from an explicitly surrealist lineage, and while he’s conducted himself with a discretion similar to or even greater than my own in that he has not used the label to legitimize or promote his work, his connection to surrealism is perhaps the most pronounced among the three poets under discussion. Taking its epigraphs from Pierre Reverdy and Francis Ponge, The Tranquilized Tongue is a series of short, almost aphoristic poems, chiefly though not exclusively written in short paragraphs of declarative sentences. Allow me to quote two poems here in full:
The Injured Window
The wires inside sleep blurred between the feigned body that evades one during sleep and the precise moment sleep awakens.
The Feral Film
The tidal nerves were moon-burnt at birth. The grass the doves grew inverted the canopy. The stunned deer fished for glass oxen. The ur-creature’s escape elongated the animals. The statue stirred its ghost in a jar.
These examples are reasonably typical of the poetry of The Tranquilized Tongue; sometimes, like “The Injured Window,” a poem might run only a sentence long (or even less, in the case of fragmentary pieces like “The Flicker’s Skin” or “The Ambushed Book”). More often, like “The Feral Film,” a poem will deliver a series of sentences of uncertain relation to one another. Baus’s poetry here is less conversational than Lima’s, but there’s a similar displacement of action from the surrealist image to the relations among the words themselves, giving rise to a series of what we might call anti-images. That is, there’s virtually nothing visualizable in “The Feral Film.” In the first sentence, even if we knew what “tidal nerves” meant, “tidal” is unseeable by definition, by virtue of being an ongoing, cyclical process. “Moon-burnt” we can only analogize to sunburnt, but we have no logical grounds on which to picture a moonburn—is it red like a sunburn or luminous and pearlescent like the moon itself—even, again, if we did have an idea of what “tidal nerves” meant, or what their “birth” might entail. The second sentence doesn’t elaborate on the first but rather begins anew, not with doves growing grass, but with that already dove-grown grass “invert[ing] the canopy.” Baus is always one step ahead of the image, for the poem has already moved on through sheer force of syntax before an image can even coalesce.
This tendency toward what I’ve called the anti-image links Baus’s work to a lineage descending from the poetry of the great American master of surrealism, Philip Lamantia, and cross-pollinated, to a lesser or greater extent, with the New York School strain of surrealism typified by Barbara Guest and John Ashbery. Emerging during the period of language poetry’s avant-garde hegemony, this tendency moves away from the image toward an investigation of the radical opacity of the signifying system—the materiality of language that so fascinated and flummoxed language poetry—and insists such investigation is fully congruent with imagination, inspiration, originality, dream, trance, affect, and any of a number of then-despised notions from the cabinet of romanticism. Perhaps the two supreme exemplars of this tendency—which I once referred to in a book review as surrealism of the word—are Will Alexander and Andrew Joron. Yet their work could be no more distinct from each other’s. Much of Alexander’s poetry is automatic, dictated, in true surrealist fashion, but the form this dictation takes is utterly different from all prior surrealist poetry. For at the same time his writing is automatic, it is also the consummate bricolage, furiously composed of words that hardly resemble the diction of everyday speech, scientific terms and obscure vocabularies that reflect his reading in ecological, astronomical, and esoteric subjects. The alien words of Alexander’s researches enter his unconscious only to reemerge in strange, fantastic combinations that fundamentally resist imagery, even when they are occasionally defined in glossaries at the end of his books. They resonate more on the level of feeling than sense—“the grey corruptive prisms of ‘Bolometric Luminosity’” —although often the senses of less remote individual words resonate against each other: “optimum cobalt spectrum.” The meanings of these phrases are impenetrable, yet the first is clearly negative, the second positive, and only through such seemingly trivial clues can you navigate his poetry. Often his poems are long, and their effect is cumulative even though the poems themselves are not. There is no linear narrative, no information that can be retained after a line or a stanza passes except in terms of a frequent invocation of the subject or subject matter the poem addresses.
If Alexander is the bricoleur, assembling vast structures out of materials drawn from his researches, Andrew Joron is the forensic scientist, dissecting with the scalpel and examining through the microscope. Joron probes deep into words; he is at once the chess master, rearranging their constituent letters, and the sound mirror, uniting conflicting senses in the same phonemes. We might illustrate this with one of the more celebrated and paradigmatic passages from his poetry: “The pilot alone knows / That the plot is missing its / Eye.” Here the letters and phonemes drive the poem along, the one word (“pilot”) splitting into two (“plot,” “Eye”) and positing a relationship between them. The word and its double are two poles he sets up to spark electricity between them, and his truly speculative provocation of chance places his work at the intersection of science and magic. Witness his ability to conjure words that aren’t even on the page in these excerpts from his abecedarium, “Absolute Black Continuum”:
face final line.
ode, crystal-encrusted, stressed structure to chime.
a mental metal. Untooled, untold.
bed, the bound of sound, sole solid of air.
isle of beauty. A soiled boot. A boat that sails into the sun.
As one might glean from such highly wrought lines, Joron’s poetry can’t be equated with automatic writing. Yet I would argue that automatism is still at work here, as the poetry is generated by material connections among words that are beyond his control. Where the words lead, Joron follows, excavating his lines from the possibilities buried within their material aspects. That is, the word itself generates the next word through Joron’s painstaking investigation of its orthography and phonemes.
If this focus on the materiality of language seems somehow at odds with, or even a diminishment of, the social and psychological aspirations of Breton’s surrealist movement, I beg to differ, as would Breton himself. In 1929, for example, at the height of surrealism’s ultimately unsuccessful struggle to integrate itself with the French communist party, Breton insists in the “Second Manifesto of Surrealism” that:
The problem of social action, I would like to repeat and to stress at this point, is only one of the forms of a more general problem which Surrealism set out to deal with, and that is the problem of human expression in all its forms. Whoever speaks of expression speaks of language first and foremost. It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone to see Surrealism almost exclusively concerned with the question of language at first, nor should it surprise anyone to see it return to language, after some foray into another area, as though for the pleasure of traveling in conquered territory.
If anything, as Breton suggests here, surrealism of the word is a return to fundamentals, as well as a response to the changing conception of language in the 45 years since the original group disbanded. And too, Joron’s poetics hardly preclude more direct forms of political engagement and expression. Never was this more apparent than in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which sent the entire poststructuralist/postmodernist theoretical apparatus crashing to the ground. The attempts among avant-garde poets to respond to 9/11 were hamstrung by the proposition propounded by language poetry that writing itself was a form of political action. Into this void strode Joron with his pamphlet The Emergency of Poetry (2002), later reprinted as “The Emergency” in both Fathom, a book of poems, and The Cry at Zero, a volume of selected prose. Joron’s essay was the most considered response within the innovative poetry community to the combined impact of 9/11, the bombing of Afghanistan, and, by implication, the Occupation of Iraq. Amid the shock and demoralization of poetic responses to circumstances that resist all poetry, “The Emergency” expressed exactly what no poet wanted, and every poet needed, to hear: “—only an inert and mechanical prose can accommodate these events. It would be barbaric to write a poem about them, to use them for poetic purposes—[.]” This insistence on lucidity—an insistence Breton also shares as early as the first “Manifesto” —dispersed in one stroke the fog generated by language poetry’s claims to political action through avant-garde writing. It would be dishonest to deny that “The Emergency” has a certain poetic value, even if that’s avowedly not Joron’s purpose. This poetic value rather stems from Joron’s genuine solemnity, his lack of deliberate cleverness, which lends the text an austere dignity. Contrast this with, say, Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptualist reproduction of CNN transcripts from 9/11 a dozen years after the fact in Seven American Deaths and Disasters, which he claimed on The Colbert Report captured “the poetic quality of what was unfurling linguistically at that moment.” Stephen Colbert, in his televised smackdown of Goldsmith, perhaps put it best: “When I read this I feel like I’m like some sort of time traveling aesthete who’s coming in to sample other people’s shock at tragedy.... I am tasting it while I read it and it feels vampiric.” Put Goldsmith’s text next to Joron’s, written during the moment of crisis, and tell me which is an act of courage and which an act of barbarism.
Joron and Alexander are only the two most prominent examples of the lineage I invoked in “Selfie at Delphi” and called here surrealism of the word, a lineage that I’d say also includes Eric Baus as well as myself, Brian Lucas, and Jeff Clark. I feel like there are many and many different types of poets one could consider in terms of such a lineage, like John Olson, Nate Mackey, Kristen Prevallet, or Noah Eli Gordon, or even poets more usually associated with language poetry, like Norma Cole or Clark Coolidge. Certainly CA Conrad’s books of (soma)tic poetry rituals are pure surrealism. I could name others, but I refuse to be in the position of including or excluding poets from the label surrealism. For one thing, as I’ve tried to indicate here in relation to Elaine Kahn and Frank Lima, surrealism is a thing that exists above and beyond any self-conscious or deliberate espousal of it. And too, the emphasis on inclusion and exclusion in the history of surrealism in the United States has been altogether unproductive; one need only look at the exclusion of Will Alexander from the anthology Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the African Diaspora to realize the frauds perpetuated in surrealism’s name.
Far better in this respect is the recent anthology What Will Be: Almanac of the International Surrealist Movement published by the 50-year-old Dutch surrealist group Brumes Blondes. For even as it purports to represent an international movement—and there continue to be groups putting themselves forward as local chapters of this movement—What Will Be begins with its own critique in the form of “An Address to the Surrealists” by Alain Joubert. A postwar member of Breton’s original Paris group, Joubert has an authority on the matter of surrealist groups shared by only a handful of living persons. Yet Joubert’s address is hardly calculated to appeal to the book’s primary audience, those who would avow themselves surrealists in accordance with the group model:
The philosopher Karl Popper wrote: “I call closed the magic or tribal society, and open the society in which individuals are faced with personal decisions.” Throughout its existence, until 1969, the original Surrealist group behaved, analogously, as a closed society. The Surrealist group needed to assert its presence first, then build a fortress from which it could launch pointed attacks against the outside world and the form of society that dominated, both politically and spiritually. In the measure in which, according to Breton in 1964, “we are beyond disapproval and approval,” Surrealism has a duty to act now as an open society where those who serve it will be faced with personal decisions.
Here, elsewhere, and now, it’s no longer the time to prioritize the formation of groups. Let’s be clear: already constituted groups (in Prague, for example), or particular strategic regroupings, in any country, obviously shouldn’t be banned, but it is no longer a prerequisite for all activity. However, with the surrealist diaspora based on a complicity discontinuous in time and space, thanks to the rapprochement of individuals responsible for themselves, free in their options as in their signature, one surely possesses the key that opens the future: a potential new adventure, the International Surrealist Movement.
On the one hand, Joubert’s insistence on surrealism as a matter of individuals over groups merely makes explicit what What Will Be tacitly acknowledges in its inclusion of the work of such writers as Alexander or Sotère Torregian, who have never belonged to any surrealist group. With the notable exception of the work of Penelope Rosemont, co-founder and leader of the Chicago Surrealists, virtually all of the great surrealist poetry produced in English since the demise of the original Paris group in 1969 has been the work of individual practitioners. The biggest problem with the surrealist groups of today is that the poetry can’t even be called second-rate; it just plain sucks. This is at least partly due to the determined insularity of this so-called surrealist poetry. There’s an attitude that a surrealist poet needs to isolate his or her work from other poetry and restrict itself purely to surrealist milieus. This was all well and good when surrealism was an international movement with a centralized authority in Breton and the Paris group, because Breton attracted many of the best poets of a generation. They could afford and perhaps benefitted from this isolation. In today’s world, however, in the absence of any prominent surrealist periodical and with poetry itself occupying an ever-diminishing slice of cultural attention, such insularity is counterproductive.
This determined insularity is only exacerbated by a willful ignorance about poetry. That is, Breton’s determinedly anti-literary stance has been taken to mean that surrealist poetry should be created in a vacuum, in complete disregard of any knowledge of and experience in poetry itself. Michel Remy offers a convenient summary of this position in the introductory matter to his superb recent anthology of historical British surrealism, On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight:
It has to be said, first and foremost, that any attempt to assess the “quality” or “value” of surrealist writing in comparison to other writing—such as that by T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, or James Joyce—is in total contradiction with the nature and goal of the surrealist proposition and with its most fundamental principles. By definition, surrealist writing eschews the traditional criteria (taste, beauty, structure, depth, symbolism...) by which one judges a piece of writing, for the good reason that movement in itself does not propound a style or a set of writing techniques, but is rather a body of commitments, a state of mind, a unilateral declaration of independence.
The assertion that surrealism “eschews the traditional criteria...by which one judges a piece of writing” is certainly a strawman argument in 2014, inasmuch as the proposed criteria (“taste, beauty, structure, depth, symbolism”) haven’t been live considerations in any poetry worth taking seriously since modernism. That battle has been fought and won and no serious reader judges any contemporary poetry on these bases. The fact of the matter is that you must “assess the quality and value of surrealist writing in comparison to other writing,” for the simple reason that surrealism must exceed the quality and value of other writing. Despite one of surrealism’s earliest assertions, drawn from one of the movement’s key progenitors Lautréamont, that “Poetry should be made by all,” no “body of commitments” by itself is going to make you into a poet. If you would be a poet of any sort, it behooves you to know as much about poetry as you can. Obviously the poets who founded the surrealist movement, poets like Breton, Desnos, and Éluard, had a profound knowledge of poetry. Even a Rimbaldian prodigy like Lamantia spent a subsequent lifetime educating himself in the art to which he dedicated his life. Indeed, in a short statement called “Between the Gulfs,” Lamantia put his finger on the problem of surrealist groups when he wrote “we can all the more happily trace our inspirations from Lautréamont and Rimbaud to Breton and Péret and Roussel to Magloire-Saint-Aude, exemplary signposts for further transgressions, without literally re-tracing in one’s own poetic praxis their inimitable movements.” Unfortunately, the poetry represented in the English-language portions of What Will Be is almost uniformly derivative and clichéd, filled with antique crap like “a monocled wolf” or “her sun-splashed sex”—enough! Surrealism is elsewhere, and if you would call yourself a surrealist poet, your work needs to be at least as interesting and original as the work of those poets I’ve mentioned here.
Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...