New Surrealism:  The new revolution?

We must not hesitate to bewilder sensation’.

Andre Breton

If we say, ‘how does one write surrealist poetry,’ we are asking the wrong question?   Insofar as it’s possible – if we exclude the necessary resort to aids from the practical world, pens, paper and computers – Surrealist poetry, in the words of Andre Breton, is written by ‘that part of the mind which aspires to leave the earth’ [ Breton The Manifesto of Surrealism], to resort to the cliché, Surrealist poetry writes itself. It ‘refuses any image that could have a rational meaning or any memory or culture’ [Luis Bunuel]. In short it ‘asserts our complete nonconformism’ [Breton].

Andre Breton is the Messiah of Surrealism and his 1924 Manifesto should be studied by all who are   interested in the movement. It is written with the zeal of the believer, though, for one so dismissive of the conventions of the real world, he is arguably too willing to accept Freud’s theory of the unconscious. Breton’s assertion that Surrealism can be accessed through the unconscious places too much credence on a theory that is unprovable, especially in this age of quantum physics, string theory and   parallel universes, areas of speculative science which we can substitute for the unconscious that may enhance, rather than distort Breton’s thinking. It is especially   important in the writing of  Surrealist poetry  to locate one’s mind in a state where it has left behind  the prison of  the trappings of the earth; reason, belief, ego, culture, and specific to poetry, the slavish addiction to form, the anguished quest for the ‘right’ word, and overthinking, for Surrealism, is built on images…’that man [sic] does not evoke, rather they  come to [ the poet] spontaneously, despotically’ [Breton ]. Breton’s seemingly meaningless images are evoked, he claims, without ‘the slightest degree of premeditation’. For example, in

‘the bed hurtles along on its rails of blue honey’ [‘Fata Morgana’]

and

‘A seated man
Whose eye is like a cat prowling around a pot of
couch grass’ [‘Run Them All ‘]

two distant realities are juxtaposed that seem to owe nothing to thought.   It is from, or in this juxtaposition, where the mind has seized nothing consciously, that ‘the light of the image has sprung’ and the principle of the association of ideas is discredited.

So, the key to writing Surrealist poetry is to access, bearing in mind the reservations already noted, what Breton calls ‘the unconscious’.  But the point here is to open one’s self to the ‘unconscious’ rather than to see Breton’s Manifesto as a formula. In this writer’s case the Manifesto is absorbed as a vital tool that will guard my work against lapsing towards the futility of making sense of the ‘real’ world, against writing what could be called ‘Old School’ poetry.  So how does the Surrealist poet reach this ineffable ‘state’ where the mind  – that is beyond thinking and feeling – can be visited by juxtaposing images – images from what Reverdy defines as ‘ two distant realities ’ –  that will open a portal into the beyond, that in the occasional sublime moment, reveal a beauty that dislocates us from tired explanations of reality ? Breton has proposed some extreme measures such as sleep deprivation and fasting for forty-eight hours as a method of accessing the unconscious, not at all to be sneered at. I have first-hand knowledge from a pilgrim to Lough Derg who endured thirty-six hours of this type of experience and who can vouch for its effectiveness. Any plans I may have to undergo such an ordeal are, at the time of writing, Augustinian.   Of course, one needs some help before ‘sitting down’ to let the images come. One needs to be in a stress-free zone to start. From this, not always obtainable state, I usually begin the process by completing about ten minutes of automatic writing that might   be sparked by a hook or entry point from which I would go on to write, free from thinking or feeling, the words that present themselves as they present themselves.    I would then listen to music, preferably jazz – John Coltrane or Miles Davis – for   up to fifteen minutes. I find meditation an important part of the process as it trains the mind to let go, so I would usually meditate for up to ten minutes.  After a period of pottering, maybe doing a few chores or going for a walk, I finally sit down and write the Surrealist images that come to me. An example like

Hailstones and gas light
and the Eucharist of the mark of the beast
swam in unison
with bats in oily wells

may present itself during a series of images that will become a poem. For Surrealist poetry is primarily the replication of images in words; images, however, that are distorted and challenged through the juxtaposition of the language normally used to describe them. It could be argued philosophically that Surrealism is driven by an intense will to refute the accepted version of ‘reality’ that can’t be refuted through logic or discourse but must resort to extra-world visions or revelations that can only be accessed through other methods. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt in your philosophy. Such a hook sparked my poem, ‘The Giant on the Rock of Dunamaise’. The ‘Rock’, which is located near Portlaoise, is notable for a number of historical reasons, and for   footstep type imprints near its  top that are known locally as ‘the giant’s footsteps’ ,which I had in mind when I sat down to write the following images, that I speculate, came to me from  other dimensions, through quantum physics or from  ‘the Gods’. In any case, other than taking the bother to write them down I can take no credit for their creation, nor did I intend to imply any meaning to them or the poem at the time of writing. It may be that through the freeing of the perceptive process, visions of other realities, that seem not to make sense in this one, are allowed through. This poem is comprised of a succession of these type of images.

You bebopped on the Rock,
iced cakes with the smashed cubes
and the waltzing bogs.
Your shoulders chafed
above the weight of the
rising frogspawn
[sanctified in the blessed dawn
of rags and bluestone],
your colic buckled as you moaned
the first Te Deum to the fourth fairy
of the black mass.
Others prayed in purple
and see-through confirmation habits.
Your songs were sandpaper,
your nose was the key to Yellowstone Park,
your boots were putty
to the cream-topped cappuccino.
Our false eye lashes
were prison bars
that galloped across the range
to the holiest moonbeam
beneath your footsteps
as they whipped the harnessed woodlice
towards the final round
of the knitting contest.

You may ask how much time do I spend writing a poem, do I revise, or intervene in the text given to me, and if the answer is yes, under what circumstances? Normally I would spend 10 to 30 minutes writing the first draft, which would be close to the finished poem, unlike the first draft in Old School poetry [in my case], which, normally, would need serious revision. In revising I would look for grammatical or syntactical errors, and lapses that would indicate descent into Old School type ‘well made’ poetry e.g. form, meter, insistence on the ‘correct’ word – rather than the juxtaposed image – respect for norms etc etc. Revision could be done on the day of writing but if not soon after the first draft has been written, for the mind is then still open to the process.

People may take exception to my use of the term ‘Old School’ to describe the poetry being written and published at this time, and I can understand why. But poetry has gone through many revolutions since Homer’s time. Each revolution has given us fresh insights, but each has been superseded when its vison was seen to be fatigued and inadequate. New Surrealism may be the revolution of this era because its approach resists all attempts to confine its poetics to the vision of the outdated which, though once the beacon of liberty, is now essentially repressive. It too may assert our complete nonconformism, but from a vision that has been enhanced by new insights from speculative science.  Surrealism is not new, you will argue, didn’t Breton write the Manifesto in 1924? New Surrealism will differ from Surrealism in two vital areas

[1] Surrealism was aborted by WW2 and, for example, the post-war realistic and naturalistic display of life in Philip Larkin’s poetry and the rural realism in Seamus Heaney’s, that responded to its aftermath.

[2] Breton was too convinced of the truth in Freud’s notion of the unconscious, that, possibly understandable for the time, would have been challenged by a later, vibrant discourse, had not the war intervened. New Surrealism has the capacity to assert our complete nonconformism, but from a vision that has been enhanced by these new insights, and to go on, not merely to question our terrestrial, but our extra-terrestrial existence as well.  In its full flowering New Surrealism will be inspired by the closing lines to Breton’s Manifesto:

This summer the roses are blue; the wood is of glass. The earth, draped in its verdant cloak, makes as little impression on me as a ghost. It is living and ceasing to live that are imaginary solutions. Existence is elsewhere.

About the contributor

Arthur Bloomfield on surrealism.

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