Neo-Surrealism Or The Sun At Night: Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, prose by Andrew Joron.
Kolourmeim Press, 2010
Has surrealism vanished? So asked Maurice Blanchot in 1949, in his essay “Reflections On Surrealism.” “It is no longer here or there: it is everywhere,” he remarked further. “It is a ghost, a brilliant obsession. In its turn, as an earned metamorphosis, it has become surreal.”
The brilliant obsession that is surrealism burned brightly in the mid to late sixties, both in Europe, and the United States. It was there in the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, not to mention the Beatle's Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its entry into pop culture, and it was there in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Jack Spicer and Jack Kerouac. And it was most assuredly there in the work of its greatest practitioner on the North American continent, Philip Lamantia.
It was there in the riots, the revolutionary fervor and anti-war movements, the psychedelic music of groups such as The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Beatles, and Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and most certainly evident in the utopian attitude toward experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. The conviction that society could made better, more compassionate, more balanced and enlightened through the use of hallucinogenic substances, was very real, and very sincere. Then, by 968, it had begun to unravel. The sixties ended for me on a fall afternoon in 1968 when the friend of one of my roommates in San Jose, California, dropped off a large box of books on Buddhism and eastern philosophy. He had taken a job in a sheet metal factory and decided to settle down, as they say, and raise a family. Buddhism, apparently, was not compatible with the kind of normalcy and consumption he saw ahead of him. By 1980, Ronald Reagan was president, cocaine was everybody’s favorite drug, and John Lennon lie bleeding to death in the lobby of the Dakota apartments in Manhattan.
So what has happened since? Is the spirit of surrealism dead?
Not at all. Andrew Joron’s lucid and eloquent prose chronicles the evolution of surrealism through the mid-twentieth century to the current millennium in his monograph on the subject, Neo-Surrealism, Or The Sun At Night. It is subtitled Transformations Of Surrealism In American Poetry 1966-1999, but he includes an Afterword that brings his subject matter into the current era. And while it is a given that literature has long lost any viable connection with mainstream culture, and the idea of a writer or literary movement having even the slightest influence on the culture at large is laughable, not to mention surreal, Joron presents his subject with a level of seriousness that makes one wonder why literature has ceased to be of any influence. What could be of greater consequence to a culture that prides itself on freedom than a means to obtain that freedom? Real freedom. Not its shabby counterparts in the marketplace. The impotent defiance of tattoos, flexible work hours, and cyberlibertarianism. The fact that only a tiny minority of the American public continue to read anything at all of merit is certainly a contributing factor.
But that is a separate topic. Joron’s focus is on the lingering effects of surrealism in the fractious domain of contemporary poetry.
The story of surrealism is the story of desire. “Surrealism is the practice,” observes Joron, “of conjuring otherness, of realizing the infinite negativity of desire in order to address, and to redress, the poverty of the positive fact. In Marxian terms, it demands a sensorium, a social body, capable of making the leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.” The reference to Marx underscores the political dimension of surrealism. It was more than a literary movement. It was utopian. It moved to shake up society. Liberate it from its deceits and repressions. That core impetus to remake a society in which one’s truest inclinations and impulses could be expressed remains; but literature, as I mentioned earlier, is so far marginalized at this point that its capacity for cultural or political influence is as about as lethal as a snowcone.
“The poverty of the positive fact” is the toxic residue of scientific rationalism. Ironic, considering Joron’s strong affiliation with science fiction. But then science fiction is a creative reordering of scientific rationalism. Enlightenment epistemology spun around like a top.
The search for otherness, for the marvelous, for bizarre, exotic luxuries, for the revelations entwined in convulsive and irresolvable paradox, for the intensities of a sacred fever embedded in the flesh of a living medium called language, are core surrealist values. They are not static. They do not exist outside of history. “They shift,” says Joron, “according to the contours of the surrounding landscape.” “Both the darkness of the ‘uncanny’ and the brightness of the ‘marvelous’ are not absolute but relative qualities. Only at midnight does the apparition of the Sun become strange.”
Joron traces the origins of surrealism to Romanticism, “and even earlier, alchemical and Hermetic, doctrines.” This would be an interesting point of departure for another work, but Joron leaps to the present: “In the dominant culture of the United States, otherness has been systematically denied a presence, so that the surreal must be perceived only as a representation of the unreal.” Advertising and MTV rock videos come to mind, or the puerile and trivializing fantasies surrounding hippie culture that occasionally bubble up in the mainstream media with all the profundity of a diet soda. “Here in the society of the spectacle,” observes Joron, “the empowering twist of estrangement tends to reverse direction and spiral toward the passive doom of alienation.”
“As Philip Lamantia, the most prominent North American surrealist, has asked: ‘What is not strange?’” The extraordinary is most apt to be found in the ordinary.
The United States was most directly impacted by the surrealist endeavor when André Breton sought refuge here during World War II. It is after “orthodox surrealism receded,” says Joron, that “it began to glow” on our shores. We see it emerge in the work of Ashbery, O’Hara, and Spicer, “whose After Lorca stands as one of the finest exemplars of American neo-surrealism,” and the Beats. Joron meticulously identifies all the instances in which surrealism evolved and left traces of its strange geology in the moraine of American culture, including, even, ephemera from the 70s such as Radical America, “the organ of the revolutionary Students for a Democratic Society,” who devoted an issue to surrealism, under the guest editorship of Franklin Rosemont.
Other journals which were prominent in the 60s but have since fallen into obscurity include George Hitchcock’s Kayak, “staple-bound, with ‘distressed’ typography, colored inks and paper, and Ernst-like collages,” which published poets such as Robert Bly and Charles Simic, whose deep-imagist aesthetic was influenced by surrealism, and Hitchcock’s own poetry, which possesses “the charm and perhaps quaintness of a handworked artifact” and whose images “seem deliberately drawn from a sepia-toned inventory of obsolescent objects.”
Joron devotes a great deal of attention to the poet Ivan Argüelles, “an important surrealist innovator with a Mexican-American background.” “From Lamantia, he inherited such stylistic trademarks as the frequent use of exclamation points and capitalization,” and whose “multilingual talent” encompassed everything from Sanskrit to Old Icelandic. “Citations of world-historical places, texts, and personages proliferate throughout Argüelles’s poems -- their kaleidoscopic facets always reflecting the central fact of the poet’s anguish.”
Adam Cornford, “another poet who rose to prominence in the pages of Kayak and has since become an important representative of West Coast neo-surrealism,” is a British expatriate who arrived in the U.S. in 1969 and enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz. His language “produces the marvelous by means of a highly structured machinery of visual metaphor.”
Other poets which Joron identifies as being in the North American surrealist mold include Edouard Roditi, Nanos Valaoritis, John Nòto, Garrett Caples, Charles Borkhuis, John Yau, Philip Foss, Michael Palmer, Jayne Cortez, Clayton Eshleman, Barbara Guest, George Kalamaras, Noah Eli Gordon, Eric Baus, Christine Hume, Karen Volkman, Brian Lucas, Kristin Prevallet, Andrew Zawacki, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Brian Strang, Roberto Harrison, James Heller Levinson, André Spears, W.B. Keckler, Ted Joans, and myself.
Joans, who for a time stayed in a house not a quarter mile distant from where I live, also had powerful affinities with jazz. I would often encounter Ted and his partner Laura on walks. Our last conversation, which occurred in our little Subaru on the way to the local post office, was about how much we loved the titles to Thelonius Monk’s compositions: “Epistrophy,” “Crepuscule With Nellie,” “Rhythm-n-ing,” “Ruby, My Dear.”
Lamantia is a key figure. He is the grand patriarch of the North American surrealist pantheon. “In Lamantia’s mature work, language often functions in the manner of esoteric texts, by using words as hermetic seals to simultaneously conceal and mark the location of power sources. Such allusive, elusive strategies were developed by medieval and Renaissance mages to insure that the fruits of the Great Work would not fall into hands of the uninitiated.” “In this language of correspondences (which provides the infrastructure for magical efficacy), nothing occupies the place of the referent but another sign. The meaning of the mystery always recedes and ‘vanishes into the night hot with luminations.’ This revelation has no content but conjuration: it is the mage’s own movement within an infinity of facing mirrors that makes the poem.”
Another key figure is Bob Kaufman, “a black surrealist and Beat-associated poet who for many years lived in San Francisco,” but was “never acknowledged by Breton or the members of the Chicago Surrealist Group.” Kaufman comes closest to the surrealist as outlaw. “Kaufman was in fact a virtuoso practitioner of the Rimbaldian precept of ‘disordering the senses’; he was jailed more than once for his subversive disorderliness.” Which is not to suggest he was an indulgent, out-of-control anarchist. He was passionate. He felt things deeply. In response to Kennedy’s assassination, “Kaufman fell into a state of quasi-silence (speaking rarely, and then only in monosyllables) that last for ten years -- an indication not only of Kaufman’s sensitivity, but also of the overwhelming significance with which he endowed the act of speech.”
The mysterious Pete Winslow emerges. “Winslow died suddenly in 1972, aged 37.” Winslow’s style “had been moving toward a space of grace and clarity comparable to that of Eluard’s Capital of Pain.” “Winslow’s only widely distributed book, A Daisy in the Memory of a Shark (City Lights, 1973), was posthumously published.”
Will Alexander, observes Joron, has produced some of the “most unprecedented and fiery” surrealist work. Alexander has “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from the restricted economy of the image.”
Besides poetry, Alexander has written novels, short stories, and plays. In all of these forms, Alexander allows the autonomous Word to come into being in its own way: either to drop vertiginously into a semiotic space of unexpected correspondences or to become a merely localized fillip of sonic or graphic texture. Under the terms of this allowance, the Word, prior to its emergence, is recognized to exist in a state akin to nothingness, yet charged with potential. Thus, there are frequent invocations to the awaited Word’s vertical, vortical, tornado-like suspension.
As I write this, millions of gallons of oil continue to be spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico emanating from a hole drilled some 30,000 feet deep into the earth’s mantle by British Petroleum. Mike Malloy, a progressive radio host, has used the term ELE (Extinction Level Event) in relation to this environmental catastrophe, and not, I believe, at all irresponsibly. The Obama administration has done nothing. They have reacted to this catastrophe with the same perplexing negligence as the Bush administration’s disturbing non-response to the Katrina disaster, other then to disarm the local population and protect private property with Blackwater’s mercenary thugs. A few well-rehearsed, critical words is all to have emerged from Obama’s mouth. A free market, predatory capitalism has run unchecked the last thirty years, at least, and now humanity is facing the actuality of extinction. In view of this, it seems silly to discuss the future of surrealism. Of anything literary. Of any art.
Joron seems to have anticipated this, yet remains cautiously optimistic.
Amid signs -- which have increased exponentially in the past ten years --- that capitalist civilization is arriving at its endgame, there is no need to argue for the ongoing relevance of the surrealist project. Postmodernism’s ironic deconstruction of the commodity is at best a critical moment (one that was already anticipated and sublated by surrealism at its inception), which, if another world is possible, must be augmented by a creative moment driven not by commodity-logic but by the free association of the producers.
Of course, a surrealist poem can’t change the world. But a cry of protest, in such confluence that revolutionary action becomes inevitable, will change the world. The genius of surrealism has been to discover that the cry of protest is also an act of imagination, and to insist that precisely that imagination is more powerful than reality. The cry is a crack in the world, revealing what lies beyond.