Final Exam on Surrealism in American Poetry
Is "surrealism" a style? A method? A movement? A tone? "Surrealism" was a moment. --Later, nostalgia for that moment.
"We sailed the Indian Ocean for a dime." Was this once a subway fare? I don't understand.
Is that surrealism? Why do people call things surrealist that ain't? I think explicable metaphors don't need to be called "surrealist" on top of that; some are just more far-fetched than others. But in English, we really only have an intermittent vocabulary of poetry criticism, & much forgetfulness even in those who study the tradition. Consider Abraham Cowley.
"Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?" I sometimes imagine all the truly great contemporary poets are skulking in alleyways, reaching for a soft drink can in a favela, or imprisoned & not ever receiving the honor of a poet-in-residentiary visit (--or making a blog entirely in animated gifs). Certainly the names that get repeated nowadays--are nothing but footnotes. People, don't you ever read fucking Milton?
When did having a book cover with a Magritte painting become the cliché that it now is? A Joseph Cornell box? Textbooks (& the thinking that wants to have textbooks) will devour even the most unlikely food. Not that it can actually digest it. But that doesn't take anything from Cornell or Magritte.
Is Russell Edson a surrealist? Why or why not? Why is Max Jacob a more influential model than André Breton? Dreaminess is a way of avoiding one's dreams. But deeper dreaming is to dream through the sound of the words.
What was surrealism? What wasn't it? When did it stop being what it was or wasn't? A lot of things went drifting loose after the Great War. A few artists' noticing took the form that became known as S. Perhaps the next solidification of reality--the Postwar World--itself came in for a rattling, which never fully congealed up to the present day. (In my more Phildickian moods i think the proper outcome of the Sixties got stolen from us and we are buried in the Black Iron Prison of its denial.) Yet we became complacent (thinking a cultural revolution had already come & saved us) with pastiche instead of attentiveness. I think the only similar moment had to have been "Langpo"--now itself subject to imitation, of course. But what is going to rip us forevermore out of our easy life, & soon, probably won't leave us with the leisure to give it a style or a name.
Is Merwin a surrealist? Spicer? Wright? Ashbery? Lorca? Why is "surrealism" so boring? Why didn't Roland Barthes like it? I once said that surrealism was the best thing that ever happened to Painting, & the worst thing that ever happened to Poetry. All of those poets have flashes of arbitrary connectivity, & stretches of self-parody as well. Barthes, alas, wrote in obliviousness of ecstasy. (As do most of us.) Surrealism was born of ecstasy. Ecstasy can never be a program.
Just the other day I was watching again that long sequence near the end of the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, with its clever appropriation of the imagery of one of Magritte's most canonical paintings. Cute, but that's not S. Neither was Oscar-nominated Pan's Labyrinth, with every image traceable & meticulously thought-out in advance. These things have become part of our cultural vocabulary. What is unspeakable now? Certainly no self-consciously "transgressive" artwork. What are my own nightmares about? By the end of the 21c., one-third of the earth will have become desert. Sitting at a borrowed computer terminal, all that is solid melts into air, & i don't even have words for this loss. It's been raining all summer long. What if it doesn't stop?