Guest Editor’s Introduction: STILL NEW IN THE STRANGE RIFT
Always for the first time
I scarcely know you when I see you
My introduction to Surrealism has been – much like many other people, I’m sure – a growing and various stimulation of encounters and re-encounters. In having the honour to guest edit this special issue marking the centenary of André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism, I became cumulatively aware of how the presence and influence of Surrealism had shifted in my life.
In 2016 I completed a thesis on Surrealism and the poetry of John Ashbery and, in 2017, Shuddhashar commissioned me to write an essay on Surrealism and Poetry (Surrealism and Poetry, 2017). In that essay, my mind was more attuned to the logic of academic priorities, what felt like the sharpened proximity to my own research, and the need to articulate (with just a hint of that pre-emptively defensive ‘rigor’) the coherence of whatever it was I thought characterised my own small intervention in the subject.
I was excited by the notion that Surrealism, as enacted in the mischievous guidance of Ashbery’s poetic drift, could be understood as the playful and chiasmic movement of and between language and perception. This notion, for me, characterised a phenomenological poetics for which Surrealism had become an intense and imaginative awareness of awareness; a poetry of active happening whereby the rhythm of meaning-in-its-making becomes the experiential currentof reading (itself open to analogous parallels in other mediums or faculties of meaning-making) as opposed to arriving at a fixed currency of what- was-meant. Emphasis is on a motion of comprehension, in the irreducible and non-transferrable present of the encounter (a renewable traversal within and as the poem in the moment of its being read) and not to be comprehended with finality as an isolated or extracted unit of explanation beyond the poem.
There in the complete darkness
I wait for the strange rift to recur
Having established that Surrealism can be thought of as the condition in which we make, lose and disrupt meaning, that it exists in the texture of mediacy through which we interact with the world – a relational and connective passage that reveals in the act of concealing (we can see but only indirectly, as what is seen is seen-through the act of seeing) – how do we then not collapse into reflexive fractals of a dithering neurosis? How do we step away from the post-structuralist impulse to fetishize that mediacy as our only true immediacy? What prevents this dimension of Surrealism giving way to an academicized meta-language of infinitely receding commentaries on commentaries in which intellectual reflexivity replaces or monopolises the viscera of experience? And then how, in avoiding the hyper-theorised or exhaustively cognitive response to this paradoxical engine of Surrealism (understood a part of a phenomenological poetics), how do we also avoid poetry that turns, in reactionary fervour, to the unquestioned lyric voice of poetry? Between the voice and its impossibility, what emerges and how can it sustainably evolve the possibility of Surrealism?
Poetry of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, and on into whatever constitutes our now, has, in all sorts of diverse and imaginative traditions and counter-traditions, explored this question – finding, more often than not, a co-mingling that refutes any partisan binaries in favour of merging: a voice moving in and out of signal and the Surrealism of neither this nor that, but one in the other: a flux of circularity and blur. However, there is something that, specific to Surrealism, prevents this from being just part of any one of a number of interchangeably familiar aesthetic arguments around ‘process as content’ and that instead brings it, intuitively, in step with a more primal energy.
Whole books have been written, and could and should still be written, about what might constitute this ‘Marvelous’ risk and experience at the heart of Surrealism. It is not the place of this introduction to wrangle in excess with that knotted gut of conjecture but to suggest, briefly, what it is I would like to celebrate in the ambiguous vitality that Surrealism cultivates and explores …and, by extension, what guided my choices in editing this issue.
Drawing liberally from the writings of Breton, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and those many, many poets whose work in some way answers to the condition(s) of Surrealism, I believe its potency as a poetic phenomenology (and as a model for literature and living) lies in its relation to the Unknown, the Impossible, the workings of the Unconscious (brought into union with the Conscious), Myth, and Mystery. These infinitely mercurial and necessarily vague coordinates impart the sensations and concepts that, I believe, keep Surrealism from floundering in the over-intellectualised or succumbing to familiar modes of clarity. They are what keep Surrealism as a force of potential and futurity as much as they confirm its presence in human civilization long before any manifesto came into being.
The nearer I come to you
The louder the key sings in the door of the unknown
All of these experience-ideas (a crossing of one in the other) emerge through the centrality of PLAY. In the open and non-instrumentalised nature of play, Surrealism encounters (if only as a generative lack) the presence of the Unknown, the Impossible, the Unconscious, Myth and Mystery. Through play we are brought to the limits of our understanding, enabling the familiarity of experience to reveal the unfamiliarity of its dream. Consequently, through apprehending the play of apprehension and pushed to the limits of understanding (in and as the play of poetry) Surrealism reveals everyday waking life as if previously overlooked (seen with such familiarity it is no longer seen) to be NOW (again) reencountered: what was already there is now a surprise, and what and how we experience proceeds with the logic of a dream.
That leaning over the precipice
Of the hopeless fusion of your presence and absence
The previously KNOWN semblance of reality, given this ludic folding of attention, opens up to become a reinvigorated UNKNOWN in which to encounter everything anew.
[Lines from André Breton’s, ‘Toujours pour la premiere fois’, trans. Mary Ann Caws.]
What about any of that had shifted?
Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable.
After completing my PhD in 2016, I continued teaching an annual module or two at the university, not enough to live off but enough to keep me in the tentacular orbit of academia. I found jobs alongside this, mainly working at a cinema. I worked at the cinema for six years (for most of my time as an usher and then as a marketing assistant) and saw the insane financial struggle of keeping a cinema afloat (especially in the wake of streaming platforms and pandemic habits). A struggle that, somewhat inevitably, ended for me in redundancy.
The years between finishing my work researching Surrealism and the non-specific quandary of unemployment and general existential confusion I am in now, could not help but change my relationship to Surrealism.
The majority of the poets that appear in this issue (with the exception of Will Alexander, Aase Berg, Lisa Samuels, and Julia Rose Lewis) are living and writing in Britain and, consequently, I wanted to give a sense of the escalatory turbulence that has partially defined this unsettling period.
What I most enjoy contemplating about a dream is everything that sinks back below the surface in a waking state, everything I have forgotten about my activities in the course of the preceding day, dark foliage, stupid branches.
Through a politics of callous idiocy and calculating greed, between 2016 and 2024 the deepening effects of a recession that never really left was tirelessly exploited through a moronic smokescreen of ‘culture wars’, xenophobia, and a form of politics whose only remaining ideology was its own empty perpetuation – standing for nothing but the entitled desire to keep standing. On June 16th 2016, MP Jo Cox was murdered by Far Right terrorist and white supremacist Thomas Maire; it was only a week later that the UK voted to leave the EU in a national referendum whose very existence was arguably predicated on David Cameron’s cowardly appeal to UKIP – a party whose right wing nationalist agenda knowingly stokes fear and hatred in order to empower the kind of ideologies that helped motivate Maire.
In 2017, The Royal College of Nursing speaks out about the worsening conditions of the NHS while fifty leading doctors write to the prime minister, highlighting mounting pressures that are risking people’s lives. On March 22nd, Khalid Masood killed five people and injured 45 on Westminster Bridge before fatally stabbing a police officer, an event treated as an Islamist terrorist attack (fatalities rise to six after a woman involved in the attack dies in hospital). May 22nd, a homemade bomb is set off by Islamist extremists during a concert in Manchester arena killing 23 people and injuring more than 500, marking the first suicide bombing in the UK since the 7/7 London attacks in 2005. 14th June, the gross negligence of safety regulations in building material leaves a high rise block of flats in London engulfed in flame. The fire of Grenfell Tower led to the death of 71 people.
In 2018, the Windrush scandal caused the wrongful detainment, denial of rights and deportation of over 160 people of mostly Caribbean heritage living in the UK. The NHS starts cancelling ‘non-urgent’ treatments as ambulances are left queuing outside A&E and patients wait on trolleys, lining the corridors. Donald Trump meets the Queen and dines in Blenheim House. The number of rough-sleepers reaches its highest point since records began. The political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica (whose founders had close ties to the Conservative party, the British military and royalty) was revealed to be storing and manipulating personal data on a huge scale which was subsequently used to influence the success of Trump’s presidential campaign and the Brexit Leave campaign.
2019 sees National Statistics report knife crime at its highest in England and Wales since records begin in 1946. Extinction Rebellion leads climate crisis demonstrations across London (leading to over 1000 arrests). The momentum of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour campaign falls apart in a sad frenzy of media-sabotage and its own imploding failure to communicate a position on Brexit and, as the spectre of 2020 looms, England has Boris Johnson as prime minister. Johnson, a notoriously self-serving blond tumour grown from the Etonian petri dish of entitlement, was the man in control when England faced one of the biggest challenges to public health and safety in recent history: the pandemic.
Do not forget to make proper arrangements for your last will and testament: speaking personally, I ask that I be taken to the cemetery in a moving van.
That was four years ago. Without needing to go into the madness and devastation of 2020 and the last three years staggering in its unfolding aftermath, I wanted to evoke the often overwhelming sense of crisis that has increasingly characterised this period. A crisis with many parallels, connections and far harder realities that continue (and continue to escalate) across the world. And this is without confronting the planetary existentialism of a climate crisis that has now been fatally neglected in the years that concerted global change was needed most of all.
As I say this I am aware that I also don’t want to misrepresent my own, or any of the poets in this issue, by implying the above synopsis of major news events in any way constitutes or stands in for a lived reality, or that it forwards an advocacy of simple or universalising correlation between personal experience and socio-political turbulence…instead, it feels necessary to state that in considering Surrealism (as a body of thought and practice that aims to incorporate nothing less than life itself) the changing socio-political environments of life must be part of its fabric. Just as Surrealism expressed and responded to the traumas of World War I, new developments in science and technology and the political currents of its time, so too must our own context come to inform its contemporary incarnation.
Perhaps the surrealist voice will be stilled, I have given up trying to keep track of those who have disappeared.
As this issue is specifically devoted to Surrealism and Poetry, this would also lead to considering the changing environment(s) of poetry. Not as a facile, ‘state of poetry’ or ‘why we need poetry’ discussion of platitudes but as an observation on how certain fashions, forms, conversations and expectations have dominated or disappeared. What I feel strongly is that, whatever the changing environment of poetry, Surrealism takes up an underground current much like perennial philosophy. It may sputter in and out of trends, like a collection of amphibious oddballs found clustered under a stone and now pushed, blinking awkwardly into the sun of more mainstream plaudits; or it may dive further into the mire of more underground climates.
In the shadow we see again precious terror. Thank God, it’s still only purgatory. With a shudder we cross what the occultists call dangerous territory. In my wake I raise up monsters that are lying in wait […].
The imagery and arguably superficial influences of Surrealism have long been integrated into populist capitalist culture (from the work of Salvador Dalí, referred to by Breton in the anagram, Avida Dollars, reflecting a distaste for such growing commercial fame), often as ubiquitous and vapidly reproduced as it is misunderstood. Yet to pretend that this is some great betrayal is to also overlook the fact that Surrealism shared one of its main influences in Sigmund Freud with industrial-scale advertising: Freud’s methodologies were cynically put to work by his nephew Edward Bernays in service of a consumerism that commodifies the buyer and not the product (selling the person you will become through buying).
(I went so far as to claim that the world would end, not with a good book but with a beautiful advertisement for heaven or for hell).
Additionally, there was also a cross-pollination of avant-garde techniques with developments in commerce and technology that meant (from the innate Surrealism of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, written between 1927 and 1940, or the more overtly surrealist Paris Peasant by Louis Aragon, 1926, the architectures of bourgeois experience, even if ridiculed or unmasked as such, were always entangled in surrealist exploration). To paraphrase Frederic Jameson’s analysis of Postmodernism, Surrealism, much like many other 20th Century movements, can seem to flicker between revolutionary critique and unwitting symptom.
Radios? Fine. Syphilis? If you like. Photography? I don’t see any reason why not. The cinema? Three cheers for darkened rooms. War? Gave us a good laugh. The telephone? Hello. Youth? Charming white hair.
In its relation to populism, in its relation to counter-culture and the underground, in its relation to contemporary environments of political turbulence, precarity and crisis, in its relation to poetry, what had shifted in the presence and influence of Surrealism in my life? ‘Surrealism in relation’ being a significant concept when we consider that Surrealism is itself a celebratory and anarchic exploration of ‘relation’: a force of encountering that exists in the movement and play of relation.
Everything is valid when it comes to obtaining the desired suddenness from certain associations. […]
This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth draped in a verdant cloak, makes as little impression upon me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere
[Lines from André Breton’s, ‘Manifesto of Surrealism’, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane.]
A Manifestation of the Non-manifest
a collective affirmation: a strange plurality
– Maurice Blanchot
The poets in this issue are all engaged with, or part of, the relational experience and influence of Surrealism. I would say this above and beyond defining them as ‘Surrealist’, as that declarative affirmation (despite in the early years being a large part of Breton’s approach, embodying and providing many of the formative contradictions that define and preclude the paradoxical possibility of Surrealism) not only seems unimportant but also too easily misleading. What I am more interested in is the poetic ambition, philosophy and embodied practice of accepting Surrealism as an evolving facet of understanding that, as a result, can change how we explore and respond to that understanding in the experiences of living and its articulation.
I have been deeply moved by the generosity of the poets involved and in the range and intensity of their responses. I wanted to finish this introduction by outlining some of the common characteristics that can be found, however variably they might manifest, in the contents of this issue. They are also the shared aspirations or resonant themes that were at the forefront of my mind in choosing such inspiring poets, as well as being inseparable from the inarticulate shift in my relation to Surrealism. These, I hope, are the elements at play.
inscrutable neurons of is
– Lisa Samuels
In times that seem consumed with the over-saturated documentation – reporting and rabid but shallow discussion of almost everything – the language of the ‘crisis’ comes to infect every event or communication. This is not to deny the actuality of these crises but to acknowledge how our reactionary engagements are being, as is known all too well, mined and encouraged for the continued consumption and production of more continued reactionary engagement. In this dynamic, much like a flight or fight response, we are constantly being contorted into the expectations of absolutist binaries. We must be outraged or in favour, we must launch a critique or hide, we must wag our tails with excitement or lurch forward biting…in a brutally fatigued socio-political culture of panicked urgency, art should be an escape from such cattle-prod politics not conforming in parallel with adverts for such thinking. Consequently, the grounding ambiguity and paradox of Surrealism provides a rejuvenating antidote. It is also a perspective, less fixed in its convictions, that can accommodate the growth and development of ideas – as opposed to their stubborn paralysis. Therefore, in resistance to ever being this or that, Surrealism offers the utopian fluidity with which to refuse and transcend such oppressive stupidity.
In times of great political upheaval, suffering, and injustice, the loudness of a message is often justifiably imperative for many forms of artistic dissent. However, it seems that many artists and writers have wilfully elected to adopt (or co-opt) this loudness in absence of any substantial conviction or depth in preference to harder, and perhaps just as necessary, paths of creation. Sometimes, and in some circumstances, it is more powerful and lastingly important to create a new world of meaning within a world you oppose than to succumb to the compromised ways of meaning in order to advertise your own opposition.
This is shaped in the new merging, like ancestral smiles, common memories, remembering just how the light stood on the water that time. But it is also something new.
– John Ashbery
In recognising the fundamentally phenomenological properties of Surrealism, as an imaginative exploration of the experience of experience, there is a transformative awareness that can be found. Whilst this may sound repackaging mindfulness with a seasoning of more maximalist and hallucinatory literacy, it is significant to realise how the syncretic roots of Surrealism share much in common with Taoism, Buddhism, Esoteric traditions, the Occult, a fascination with Psychology, and broader developments in science …all of which can become porously entwined in their investigations of embodied living. It is no coincidence that one of Surrealism’s central pursuits is the resolution of states of being that have been wrongfully separated.
Transgression and Humour
I use my genius to depict the delights of cruelty: delights which are not transitory or artificial; but began with man and will end with him.
– Comte de Lautréamont
He said, now I’m going to shit
In your hand. Another voice appeared. You don’t
Know me but I know you.
The emergency takes place.
It’s a hole. Nobody knows how they got there.
– Ariana Reines
Lautréamont, pseudonym of Isidore Ducasse, penned the feverishly disturbed Les Chants des Maldoror (published between 1868 and 1869 and gifting Surrealism one of its very first handbooks), a phantasmagorical dream of horror and desire flamboyantly intoned by a shape-shifting and vampiric mutant of self-declared EVIL. It is ugly and beautiful, disturbing and inspiring – one in the other, tumbling in violent spasms of amphibious coupling. It is also the source of the famous mantra of surrealist parataxis and the found object: ‘Beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.’…it is a well-worn question, but what happens to the once radical potential of unexpected juxtaposition when it becomes the default presentation for the majority of information we consume? When the insidious ‘chance’ of algorithmic encounter becomes a scrolling language of control, what is left for the spark of the unexpected? In the digital rash of infinitely collaged and recycled montage, what still has the power to shock and explode in new implications of and for meaning? It is in this space of possibility that I feel poetry should awaken its vocabulary of risk and transgression. In the ‘strange rift’ of the encounter and the dark laughter of the absurd, poetry should not forget the potency of mess and shock, of having the new at stake.
Embodied and Philosophical Ambition
Sharing bread and sun and death,
The forgotten astonishment of being alive
– Octavio Paz
To be serious in the work but not in the ego, to not shy away from a scale of questioning and thought that is so often domesticated (at least in much of the most visible UK poetry) and kept from reaching the metaphysical viscera, tumble, and mess of its true potential. To explore what is truly lacking in our modes of understanding and living, in our forms of attention and expression, and make that lack a terrifying and renewable source of generative play. Play that brings the Unknown, the Impossible, the Unconscious, Myth, and Mystery, into relation with what might be embodied – not as a ‘movement’ but in the movement of relation; the movement of meaning and perception, and the movement of a body living. That which is again and again still new, constantly reborn through an active and unresolvable correspondence with whatever might define its limits.
Not the marvellous presented
but the present sensed
the presence with nothing more
nothing more full and abundant
– Octavio Paz