Surrealism and Contemporary Poetry

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“One cannot speak of what was neither a system or a school,
nor a movement of art or literature, but rather
a pure practice of existence”
– Maurice Blanchot

To approach Surrealism in poetry is to be simultaneously overwhelmed by all poetry as Surrealism and frustrated by surrealist poetry as only ever encountering the disappointment of its possibility. George Bataille, a writer and thinker who is often (though erroneously) positioned in opposition to André Breton, was in fact closer to offering Surrealism its own shadow; a writer and thinker whose antagonism may have appeared outside of Breton’s orthodox ‘coterie’ but that, through speaking its contradictions and hypocrisies, sat at the doubled centre of its thinking. Bataille suggested that Surrealism ‘is mutism: if it spoke it would cease to be what it wanted to be, but if it failed to speak it could only lend itself to be misunderstood.’ Meanwhile, despite two manifestoes (1924 and 1930) and upholding an evangelical compulsion to judge and define, it was Breton who similarly realised ‘Existence is elsewhere’.

It is at this point that distinguishing between ‘Surrealism’ and ‘surrealist’ becomes important, in order to question absolutist notions of ownership or control. Most frequently, the self-proclaimed ‘surrealist’ perspective that declares itself to be speaking on behalf of what cannot be spoken for, though necessary for understanding and contextualising elements of Surrealism, remains most frequently an exercise in frustrating or betraying its purported impulse. Surrealism is conversely not a mystically vague state, nor an aesthetics or politics claimed and possessed by the surrealist, but exceeding definition, a restless condition of experience and articulation. An experiment in and of experience, encompassing nothing less than the whole of life (whatever infinity that might entail) as its field of research. It is in the experience of articulation and in the articulation of experience that Surrealism exists: an in-between ‘capillary tissue’ opening through and as relation to be encountered as always ‘elsewhere’. Although Surrealism necessarily incorporates its narrative of European history, writing, art and philosophy, it should never be reductively or definitively settled in those terms, rather, as Maurice Blanchot (another writer, like Bataille, considered ‘in relation’ to Surrealism but not surrealist) reasons: ‘The surrealist experiment [experience] is the experience of experience, whether it seeks itself in a theoretical or practical form: an experience that deranges and deranges itself, disarranges as it unfolds and, in unfolding, interrupts itself. It is in this that surrealism – poetry itself – is the experience of thought itself.’

Without descending to the vapid fluff of the colloquial ‘surreal’ as the merely ‘vaguely strange’, without enforcing a Bretonian jurisdiction that reifies the tenets of a mission statement, and without demeaning the wealth of its own thought as a case-study for overwriting with whatever constitutes theory du jour, a (necessarily precarious) path of enquiry can be (nearly) found. A way to perceive its presence as contemporary and continuing without betraying the spirit and detail of its past. This would not be to address or validate the ‘surrealist’ or the ‘dissident surrealist’ but to think through the implications of Surrealism as always in relation: not as a Movement but in the movement of relation.

The American poet John Ashbery observed, when discussing Language poetry that, ‘[L]ike surrealism it will become more fascinating as it disintegrates… it’s like there’s a certain hard kernel that can stand the pressure only for so long, and then it starts to decay, giving off beneficial fumes.’ Therefore, not only is there often an artistic compulsion to seek those who have worked in the ‘beneficial fumes’ of Surrealism – in its precursors, offshoots and mutating legacies – but there is also a sense in which that which evades surrealist definition or fidelity can, in fact, be paradoxically closer to its emancipatory spirit. Such figures in orbit of the so-called “heroic” period of Surrealism might include: Raymond Roussel, René Crevel, Antonin Artaud, Claude Cahun, Germaine Dulac, Roger Callois, Giorgio de Chirico, Pierre Reverdy, Joseph Cornell…a list that could both extend and vary, in relation to how and where Surrealism might be encountered.

Surrealism is most potently encountered in reference to, but outside of, the ‘surrealist’: in and as the play of relation. As Louis Aragon states in his essay Une vague de rêves (‘A Wave of Dreams’, 1924): ‘[T]he true nature of the real: that it is a relation like any other, that the essence of things is in no way tied to their reality, that there are relations other than the real that the mind is capable of grasping’. Through phenomenological attention, a poetics of immediacy or, as Mary Ann Caws (a prolific and important authority in the study and translation of Surrealism and poetry) entitled her 1982 book, A Metapoetics of the Passage. The in-between of perception that experiences experience and prevents contact with anything in and of itself as immediate and stable; it is this traversal, in language and experience, that can render (or renew) the everyday. Furthering Rimbaud’s ‘Je est un autre’, Surrealism is our capacity to interpret and interact with the world as it undergoes transformation, convulsed in ways that inescapably estrange. Language and experience/wor(l)d and self/self and other/subject and object: all become ‘communicating vessels’ of a ‘one in the other’ fluidity, allowing the familiarity or transparency of perception to be reinvigorated as dreamlike articulations of constant motion.

The discussion of Surrealism in American poetry has found itself gradually building in momentum from the early 2000s, most explicitly advanced in the poetry and critical attention of Andrew Joron, Charles Borkhuis, Garrett Caples, Michael Skau, David Arnold and, most recently, in his 2014 doctoral thesis, Brooks B. Lampe. This attention can be partly understood as the maturation of criticism surrounding Language Poetry. Borkhuis’ essay, ‘Writing from Inside Language’, proposed the emerging development of a ‘recent strain of parasurrealist writing’. Through the textual emphasis of Language poetry, and drawing heavily on Poststructuralism, Borkhuis discerns a more language-conscious Surrealism in what he identifies as the ‘critical lyric’. Demonstrated in the poetry of Clark Coolidge, Michael Palmer, Bob Perelman and later, John Yau and Andrew Joron, the ‘critical lyric’ supposedly innovates lyricism through a deconstructive critique of lyricism. In a decentred poetry for which language is process, the lyric subject consequently survives (or finds a viable way to develop) through negotiating the conditions of its own impossibility.

For a prickling riposte to theoretical appeal of Poststructuralism and Surrealism, and departing from the influence of critics associated with the October art journal (among them, most notably Hal Forster, Rosalind Krauss, and Denis Hollier), Raihan Kadri has written an inspired and convincing exploration that returns Surrealism to Nietzsche and the notion of Philosophical Pessimism (Reimagining Life, 2011).

Andrew Joron’s Neo-Surrealism or the Sun at Night (1st ed. Black Square Editions, 2004) provides a comprehensive survey of Surrealism in American poetry, from the 1960s through to the early millennium. I would suggest Joron’s book is less an exploration of Surrealism and more of a narrative that works to rescue elements of American poetry that are too easily marginalized from its canonized history: the persistence of a surrealist commitment. As such, it is an indispensable document.

Joron presents a comprehensive trajectory that helps give a sense of varying influences, pockets of activity and when and where the ‘surrealist’ in American poetry emerges. In broad terms, to approximate a recounting of this survey would include: the significance of Philip Lamantia; the Chicago Surrealist Group (founded by Franklin and Penelope Rosemont); Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler (and the magazines, View and VVV); a confluence of Beat and Surrealism in Bob Kaufman and Pete Winslow; the influence of Jazz in Ted Joans and Jayne Cortez; Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor and négritude; Charles Simic and the perspectives imparted from his Eastern European heritage ; the Greek Nanos Valuoritis (who lived variously in Greece, the United Kingdom, France and the United States) Edouard Roditi (studied in France, United Kingdom, Germany and the United States), whose father was both a Sephardic Jewish native of Istanbul and an American citizen, and the Mexican American Ivan Argüelles; the ‘deep image’ poetry of Robert Kelly, Jerome Rothenberg and Robert Bly; the work of Will Alexander and its surrealist inspiration in Octavio Paz and Kaufman (among many others); the legacies of the New York School, John Yau, and the under-studied relevance of Barbara Guest; movements between Speculative poetry and Science fiction; the appearance and influences of Language poetry; those working in the ‘magnetically charged gap between surrealism and textual poetry’ including Borkhuis, Joron, Phillip Foss, John Olson, W.B. Keckler, Kristin Prevallet, Jeff Clark, Brian Lucas, and Garret Caples. David Arnold added to this trajectory by integrating Williams and Zukofsky into the discussion, arguing for the relevance of Objectivist poetry in the culmination of a surrealist inflected Language poetry.


Poetry in Britain has recently lost two of its most compelling and significant figures: Lee Harwood (1939-2015) and Tom Raworth (1938 – 2017). Arguably their work presents vastly different approaches to poetry: much of Harwood meanders through gentle and dreamlike tenderness, full of quiet humour and a delicate sadness, while conversely Raworth’s work explodes with mischief in bursts of calculated parataxis and break-neck turns. However, both bridged a transatlantic connection with American poetry, through Raworth’s publishing (Olson, Dorn, Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka – or then, LeRoi Jones) and in Harwood’s relationship with Ashbery and his interaction with, what could be termed, New York School influences. Both also represented a passionate and consistent engagement with their own (often defiantly singular) forms of poetic experimentation. It is then unsurprising to suggest that there is much in both poets’ work – work that is hugely important to contemporary poets writing today – that relates to, and encounters, Surrealism.

In a more ‘surrealist’ context, there has also been a recent renewed interest in the foremost British surrealist poet, David Gascoyne. In 2014, Enitharmon Press published a ‘New Collected’ that spans Gascoyne’s incredible and diverse career: from the earlier orthodoxy of his surrealist affiliations and the social/artistic impressions prompted through time with many of Breton’s luminaries, up to his more contemplative and theological later work. This renewed interest in Gascoyne is also being spearheaded in France by the republishing of his work by Black Herald Press (run by English poet Paul Stubbs and the French writer and translator Blandine Longre). Another English poet who has enjoyed a revival in attention is the neo-modernist Nicholas Moore who, like Gascoyne, was also commemorated in 2014 with a new edition of his work in ‘Selected’ form with Shoestring Press. A poet that, outside of a vignette in Iain Sinclair’s Downriver (1995), and among selected poets, remains largely unread, and yet now could certainly be read and re-read in light of Surrealism. There has also been an anthology of British surrealist poetry, On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight (Carcanet, 2013) that expands upon the Penguin Surrealist Poetry in English (1993): including work by Humphrey Jennings, Roland Penrose, Hugh Sykes Davies, Desmond Morris, George Melley, and many others. It is a collection that would really benefit from a companion book follow-up: a collection that could more adventurously expand upon less orthodox ‘surrealist’ work, and draw upon the heterogeneous ways in which Surrealism lingers in glances, moving, and tangential to the frame of so much modern poetry.

Joron states, ‘[a]s orthodox surrealism receded, however, it began to glow: it now became part of the “background radiation”’, a comment that he relates to Ashbery, O’Hara, Spicer and the Beats, but that could equally apply, as I’ve suggested, to Lee Harwood and Tom Raworth, and in the dispersal of their influence – turning within much of contemporary poetry in Britain. It is this “background radiation”, too often dismissed in a roll-call of influence, that will provide the most vibrant understanding and advances in a poetics of Surrealism. Groups that still cling to a surrealist branding (and there are such groups either side of the Atlantic) feel heavily anachronistic, anchored to their own repetition, and reluctant to address the problematic nature of so much of what was produced in, and constituted, the “heroic” period.


The most flagrantly regressive and hypocritical elements of surrealist thinking, deriving from Breton and his disciples, coagulated around ‘othering’ frameworks of sexism and racism (fostered through a rhetoric of the exotic and primitivism). There is not space to go into all of the examples and manifestations of this here (plus such matters are already well known, a good place to start would be Susan Suleiman’s Subversive Intent: Gender, Politics and the Avant-Garde, and Louise Thyacott’s Surrealism and the Exotic). Within certain types/times of surrealist thinking, these blind spots, or aggressively damaging visions, clearly stunt the revolutionary and protean objectives of any Surrealism claimed in such contexts.

Although Breton’s Surrealism was embracing an international model of inclusion and change, questioning traditions of Western art, it was also fetishizing a patronising and decontextualized notion of primitivism which – at its worse – was spreading a form of cultural imperialism in the pretence of claiming aesthetic affinities between artistic modernity and tribal art. Whilst there are efforts in many surrealist groups (across Paris and Chicago – see ‘Surrealism: Revolution against Whiteness’, Race Traitor, number 9, Summer 1998) to tackle the inequalities that can be found at its roots, understandings of Surrealism are still (mis)represented through an oppressively white and Eurocentric narrative perpetuated in academia and publication. Whilst revolutionary activism led surrealists in the 1920s to side with the colonized (the Riff insurrection in Morocco, 1925, the Algerian war of independence, 1960) and to contribute ‘Murderous Humanitarianism’ to Nancy Cunard’s Negro Anthology, their writing often remains unmistakably interpolated within leaden racist ideologies. A similar case could be made for the role and representation of women, many of whom though contributing and integral, have remained marginalised and neglected. Or, through clunky Freudian tropes women are objectified in unremitting variations of a male gaze into ‘found objects’, hysteric muses or muted sites of abjection; eroticised or mythologized, femininity in Surrealism has been written over, masked by feverish masculine expressions and, despite exhibitions and scholarship, often seems all but written out.

In light of this, one of the books I have read recently that most impressed me, in re-thinking Surrealism, was Lisa Samuels’ astounding Tender Girl (Dusie, 2015). Using a vocabulary and syntax that constantly surprises, confuses and pliantly invents, she builds a prose-poem novel with a re-directed echo of Surrealism at its centre. In Lautréamont’s infamous Les Chants des Maldoror – the book surrealists consecrated as their key proto-surrealist text – the vampiric/shape-shifting/infinitely perverse and cruel protagonist (Maldoror), at one point, has sex with a shark. Samuels imagines the spawn of this dramatic coupling, the amorphous result of which is an inquisitive shark-girl, washed ashore in a world run by men. This feminist re-telling of a kind of Surrealism, positions somatic and linguistic metamorphosis as a way to combat the patriarchal encounters. As the world seen anew through its language and its body, one in the other, Tender Girl is a vital breath of, and for, Surrealism.

Another poet that allows for the possibility of Surrealism in a context that, like Samuels, similarly combats the ideological prejudice of its historical hangover, is Nathaniel Mackey. Drawing upon Jazz, Jean Toomer, Aimé Césaire, Amiri Baraka, and African Mythologies, Mackey pushes the possibilities of the avant-garde for American poetry and for African and Afro-American poetry, furthering the cut space Fred Moten theorises within a black radical tradition. Through his long work serial poems Mu and Song of the Andoumboulou, most recently continued in the stunning Blue Fasa (2015), Mackey rhythmically invokes myth through music and mythologizes music through a perambulating cast of abstract figures. Blue Fasa proceeds with the dream logic of language slipping into its own impossibility and then – through cracks and clearings – brought back and rescued, conducting what become syntactic melodies from experiences of dissonance and absence. From Splay Anthem (2006) and Nod House (2011) through to Blue Fasa, Mackey’s braiding of Mu and Song of the Andoumboulou s(tr)ings the history of slavery, African Myth and American Jazz, into a trance of movement and displacement.

Rather than defining either Mackey’s or Samuels’ poetry as surrealist, a gesture that (as explained) is not only problematic but would also carry the overriding gesture of colonial appropriation, I think that both poets can be considered in dialogue with Surrealism as a relational presence. A presence that, not in and of itself but only as relational, is best addressed in tangents and mobile possibility. For Surrealism to be realised closest to its asserted objectives and in its spirit, in reference to surrealist documents, poetry that does not identify as ‘surrealist’ must be seriously addressed in relation to Surrealism. Clearly this appears to open up all poetry to conversing with Surrealism and, while this is partly true, there are poets like Lisa Samuels and Nathaniel Mackey who, in entirely different ways, receptively encourage discursive and experiential possibilities of Surrealism to advance. Beyond its historicised narrative of a white, Eurocentric heterosexuality, the dispersal, antecedents and parallels to Surrealism need to be more sensitively considered – beyond a shrugged concession of influence or “background radiation” – and into a continuing discussion of what Surrealism in its different contexts might mean, or how it might reconfigure and compel meaning to mean anew. Such connections would always be with, and from, a necessarily open and changing context: a shifting inter-text in poetries realised alongside a phenomenology that spans and inhabits race, gender and sexuality, and the disruption, play and exploration of those terms. It does not need to be surrealist to invite Surrealism. In his essay on Surrealism, ‘Tomorrow at Stake’, Blanchot asserts one of the many paradoxes of Surrealism, an observation appropriately noted in parenthesis: ‘(André Breton: “Surrealism could only die out if another more emancipatory movement were to be born” – in other words, surrealism itself)’. Consequently, wherever the desire to articulate and experience the movement of perception and language, and any reversal or combination therein, is encountered, Surrealism will be alive in that encounter. Surrealism, unlike the surrealist, does not (and perhaps cannot) speak its name, though its absence is, and will continue to be, a condition of its presence

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