Why has surrealism been such a success in painting and such a failure in poetry? Why do some of the most striking lines in twentieth-century poetry—Antonin Artaud’s “the sky flows into the nostrils/ like a nutritious blue milk”—go forgotten and unread, if they were ever remembered in the first place? One of the twentieth century’s most recognizable images is Salvador Dalí ’s The Persistence of Memory. But if asked to name a single surrealist poem or line of surrealist poetry, most people, critics included, would be stumped.
These were some of the questions that came to mind as I was reading Willard Bohn’s recent anthology, Surrealist Poetry. The volume is a bilingual collection of mostly French and Spanish surrealist poetry translated into English. All the big names are here—Louis Aragon, André Breton, René Char, Paul Eluard, Federico García Lorca, and Octavio Paz—as well as a good selection of minor figures like José María Hinojosa and Braulio Arenas.
If asked to name a single surrealist poem, most people would be stumped.
Surrealism has had an “unprecedented global impact,” Bohn writes in the introduction, and he’s right about that impact being global, even if it hasn’t exactly been unprecedented. It is, without a doubt, the twentieth century’s most popular art movement. Unlike cubism or abstract expressionism, it spans many media—paint, stone, poetry, and film—and, as a technique for creating images, it has persisted for nearly a hundred years in the work of artists from all continents. The term has even entered everyday discourse. Any situation that is strange or violent, has dreamlike qualities, or evokes a sense of déjà vu is potentially “surreal”—from a Simpsons episode to a terrorist attack.
Yet, surrealist poetry has, according to Bohn, “languished.” Why? Bohn says one reason is the lack of translations in English, world culture’s lingua franca. Hence the present volume. But the problem arises even earlier in the chain. There are plenty of translations of Baudelaire and Proust, for example, because so many people think these writers are worth reading and, therefore, worth translating. So why do so few—comparatively, at least—think the same of surrealist poetry?
Bohn’s second reason for surrealist poetry’s obscurity is more convincing, though he fails to register the significance of what he is saying. The problem is the medium. The problem is poetry itself. Bohn writes:
Unlike printed texts, paintings and films offer the illusion of being immediately accessible. Although viewers may have no idea what they really mean, the visual images impinge upon their retinas without need of mediation. The fact that many of the images appear to be realistic, that many objects can actually be identified, reinforces the viewer’s impression.
In short, while the images of a surrealist painting are relatively clear (and often enchanting), even if their significance isn’t, the same is not true of poetry. Poetic images are constructed with words and syntax within an overarching narrative, if I can use the term loosely, be it discursive, descriptive, or dramatic. Paintings have narratives, too, of course, but they are always created by the images themselves—a gesture suggests a feeling, the light on the eye is a life story. It’s nearly the opposite with poetry, whose images work symbiotically within narratives.
Unlike painting’s images, the poetic image is revealed linearly. One word is encountered after another. Objects take shape by addition. Characters appear. They do things with objects. Speakers speak. These elements must work together in a specific sequence to create, if everything goes right, a complex whole.
The painterly image, however, is revealed in an instant. We might roam the surface, focusing on a detail here, a texture or color there, and relate them back to the whole, but the sequence of that roaming and relating doesn’t change the image one bit. Change the sequence of words in a poem, and you have a new poem.
But surrealism doesn’t care about narratives. It cares about images. It is an image-making, metaphor-making technique—a way of bringing disparate things together to create a new, strange one. In fact, its disregard for narrative is one of its defining characteristics. It is a form of play, of imagistic exploration.
Surrealism doesn’t care about narratives. It cares about images.
Guillaume Apollinaire certainly had the free play of images in mind when he used the term on May 18, 1917 to describe the ballet Parade, for which Picasso had designed the set and costumes (Jean Cocteau wrote the scenario and Erik Satie composed the music). Unlike the “artificial” (“factice”) costumes and choreography in most ballets, Parade possessed “a sort of sur-realism,” Apollinaire wrote. What did he mean?
I don’t think it’s insignificant that one of Apollinaire’s favorite words in Cubist Painters (1913) is “reality.” Painters like Picasso, he writes, “are moving further and further away from the old art of optical illusion and local proportions . . . . Scientific Cubism is one of the pure tendencies. It is the art of painting new compositions with elements taken not from reality as it is seen, but from reality as it is known.”
Cubism, in other words, is a two-dimensional representation of the mind (“reality as it is known”) and, in this sense, it is more realistic than paintings that use illusion to represent how things look. If cubism is a two-dimensional representation of the workings of the mind, Parade, with its cubist horses and jesters, may have seemed to Apollinaire a three-dimensional one—a cubist painting in action—and so a “sort of sur-realism.”
The other aspect of Parade is its childlike play. It brings all the arts together in an expression of “universal jubilation” (“allégresse universelle”). It is both a hard-nosed “translation” of reality and a “free fantasy.” The ballet, Apollinaire remarks, “has done something entirely new, marvelously seducing, with a truth so lyrical, humane, and joyful that it will be able to illuminate, if it’s worth it, Dürer’s terrible black sun in Adrianeholia.” This last remark suggests, of course, that Parade does tell us something (all art does), but Apollinaire is less concerned with this than with the imagistic mingling of reality and fantasy.
André Breton, too, defined surrealism as a play of psychic images. For Breton, however, in the process of this play, a narrative would emerge from the images themselves, though, significantly, it would always be the same narrative: a critique of Hegel’s idealism, which favored reason over irrationality, “presence” over “absence.” Breton writes in his Second Manifesto that
Surrealism, although a special part of its function is to examine with a critical eye the notions of reality and unreality, reason and irrationality, reflection and impulse, knowledge and “fatal” ignorance . . . tends to take as its point of departure the “colossal abortion” of the Hegelian system.
While still sharing Hegel’s method (and so not exactly a critique of Hegel’s system), surrealism shows, Breton claims, that Hegel’s hierarchical distinctions between beauty and ugliness, order and chaos, spirit and matter, are hobgoblins. Everything is one—ugliness is beauty, beauty is ugliness, spirit is matter. So, in place of Hegel’s idealism, it proposes a new and supposedly improved dialectic that takes into consideration the material ground of being. It is no surprise that Breton would go on to claim that surrealism would prove that “historical materialism” is true.
More could be said about the nuances and contradictions of Breton’s definition of surrealism. The point here is that, for both Apollinaire and Breton, narrative is in no need of the artist’s attention. The poet ignores it because it supposedly takes care of itself, emerging ready-made from a poem’s imagery, which is produced, in Breton’s view, by some “collective mind.” The problem, of course, is that attention to narrative is one of the primary tasks of the poet.
This is why the best poems in Surrealist Poetry aren’t actually surreal. They ignore Breton’s mumbo jumbo about automatic writing (an impossibility, in any case, as Frank O’Hara noted—no writing is ever free of conscious control) while learning from surrealism’s technique of combining seemingly unrelated things to create striking images.
The selections from the Nobel Prize winner Vicente Aleixandre are particularly instructive. The early surrealist prose poems show the poet’s originality and gift for metaphor with lines like “You are the virgin wave of yourself” and “I’ll finally hold . . . your demolished torso, twinkling between my teeth,” and even these poems have a narrative flow established by mood and voice. But they are inferior to the dialogue poems included in the volume, which are hardly surreal, and which show both Aleixandre’s startling vision and his narrative craftsmanship.
Take “Hands,” for example, which begins:
See your hand, how slowly it moves,
transparent, tangible, pierced by light,
lovely, alive, nearly human in the night.
With the moon’s reflection, with a painful cheek, with the
vagueness of dream. See how it grows when you lift your arm,
fruitless search for a vanished night,
wing of light gliding silently
and brushing against the dark vault.
Aleixandre goes on to imagine another hand—figured as a wing—pursuing the first. They “encounter each other” in the sky. They are “signs/ calling to each other silently in the dark . . . devoid of stars.” In the final stanza, Aleixandre writes, they “collide and cling together igniting/ a sudden moon above the world of men.”
It’s a stunning poem but hardly a surrealist one. Bohn may have included it, and other dialogue poems by Aleixandre, because of its otherworldly final image—the hands joining together to form a moon—or because of the specter of death that haunts the poem. (The hands are described at one point to be those of “lovers recently deceased.”) But those elements are hardly exclusive to surrealism. The “fantastic” has a long history in poetry.
Neither does the poem disregard narrative or randomly join disparate images. In fact, like the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, who also toyed with surrealism in his early work, Aleixandre returns again and again to the image of hands (as well as stones and light) in his work. This is a conscious preoccupation, not an unconscious one.
Compare Aleixandre’s poem to another that has hands: Louis Aragon’s “Drinking Song.” The poem begins beautifully and surprisingly with a comparison of water glasses to zeppelins and hands to birds:
If water glasses were really water glasses
And not airships
Sailing at night toward painted lips
Hands would still be birds
But after this, it’s as if Aragon gives up:
Hands that close on alcohol
Hands that hug the fire-damp
The sheep grazing on the tablecloth
Do not fear the doves because
Of their whiteness
Let me laugh
Doves you not only threaten
The observation balloon that resembles me
Like a brother but
Also the leaden plain
Look look how the hands I love
In the morning when the illuminated signs
Still rival the dawn how
They bend the sheep’s spines
Ah ah the silver-plate was false
The spoons are made of lead like bullets
The sudden shift of vision (from hands to sheep) and voice (“Let me laugh”), aborting the initial metaphors, empties the comparisons of potential significance. While Aragon maintains some continuity—the hands becomes doves that “bend the sheep’s spines”—the metaphor ultimately tells us very little about human love or violence. It is made flat by the poem’s disregard for narrative.
Surrealism is an intriguing theory of image-making, but a limited theory of art.
Breton held that the practice of automatic writing would produce images of great beauty and reality. They would “enrapture” the mind, he wrote, revealing the foundational truths of the human psyche and the world:
[T]he Surrealist atmosphere created by automatic writing, which I have wanted to put within reach of everyone, is especially conducive to the production of beautiful images. One can even go so far as to say that in this dizzying race the images appear like the only guideposts of the mind. By slow degrees the mind becomes convinced of the supreme reality of these images.
But if there’s one thing that surrealist poetry doesn’t do, it is convince us of the “supreme reality” of its images. In fact, as Surrealist Poetry shows, while surrealism’s metaphors can dazzle, they are most forgettable precisely because they tell us so little. An “elevator cage” is “bursting with tufts of/ women’s lingerie,” a “wolf with glass teeth . . . eats up time in little round cans,” space yields “its full mental cotton,” ladies bolt “their metaphysical doors,” a woman is “the present that accumulates second by second,” and on, and on. The volume is full of such images, but it is often unclear what they might mean without the context of narrative, which makes them mere confections—hardly the hard-nosed philosophical aesthetic Breton championed.
The result is boredom. I could look at Max Ernst’s drawings in Histoire Naturelle (1926) for hours, but reading even the best “absolute” surrealist poem is something like 10 percent exhilaration and 90 percent standing in line at the dmv.
Does this mean surrealist poetry isn’t worth reading? No, there is a real benefit to poets and writers in studying surrealism’s experiments in metaphor while moving on, as most of the poets in this volume did, once the lessons have been learned. But there are fewer benefits for the general reader. It is an intriguing theory of image-making, but a limited theory of art, and because of this, it regularly fails to please—the first, and perhaps only, criterion of great art—when applied mindlessly.
1Surrealist Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Willard Bohn; Bloomsbury, 384 pages, $80.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 33
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