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Thinking about What Surrealism Holds for Me

These days when I confront the wild blank page or the keyboard and the void of the white screen as I set off in search of the poem, I often find that I am trying to imitate myself, and failing. What makes its way to the page is prosaic, pedestrian, at best the glimmer of image or lyrical phrase that might lead to something more. My thoughts turn to the handful of poems I believe are almost pretty good. When I look back at those pages from half a century chasing after the muse, it is my voice I hear, its timbre, rhythms, silences, some inexpressible self, mutable yet enduring.

Some poems convey a sense of hope and possibility or suggest some shape of beauty. Others are darker. Lyricism runs through the best of them and a kind of narrative thrust that carries the poem along in the absence of narrative in any conventional sense. When I speak of imitating myself, I am thinking not of mining some same tired old vein again but rather recovering a certain spirit that gave birth to those poems that once born bring with them elements of grace into the world. What made them alive and able perhaps on occasion to touch some readers was always elusive, and is more so than ever today.

Some poets and their poems trigger a compulsion to write poems of my own. This is what I have in mind when I say that poems come from other poems. Countless other things also play into it, which makes the whole business fodder for trendy armchair self-psychoanalysis that I do not find convincing and prefer to steer clear of.

It is not uncommon to recognize in a poem a poet I was reading at the time my poem was written. Rimbaud and Gregory Corso color more a few. Behind them Keats and Wordsworth lurk in the shadows. The debt extends, in a listing that is far from exhaustive, to other High Romantics, Blake and Shelley, and on to Apollinaire, the surrealists, especially Paul Éluard and Robert Desnos, Kerouac for certain passages in On the Road and other prose, though perhaps oddly not so much for his poems, and to others falling loosely under Beat and bohemian umbrellas, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, and Bob Dylan.

Lamantia (1927–2005) is a thread running through surrealism, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, and the counterculture of the sixties. He was fourteen when he first encountered surrealism in the spring of 1942 through retrospective exhibitions of the works of Salvador Dalí at the San Francisco Palace of the Legion of Honor and of Joan Miró at the San Francisco Museum of Art. In the library of the Museum of Art he discovered two issues of VVV, a magazine associated with European surrealists in exile in New York during World War II. "Thus inspired, Lamantia, by his own account, 'in no time had a dozen poems ready,' which he ventured to submit to the editors of View," a literary and arts magazine edited and published by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler that covered the avant-garde and surrealist scene. Five of Lamantia's poems were accepted for publication in the June 1943 issue, a sixth for the subsequent October issue. "The power and originality of these works—written by a fifteen-year-old—caused Lamantia to be hailed by the New York avant-garde as a kind of American Rimbaud" (intro., Collected Poems).

Next Lamantia wrote directly to André Breton with a submission to VVV. Breton accepted three poems for publication and declared Lamantia "a voice that rises once in a hundred years." Early in 1944 the young poet dropped out of high school in San Francisco and split for New York with the offer of an editorial assistant position at View. The sojourn in New York did not last long. A falling out with Charles Henri Ford led to his resignation from View and return to San Francisco, where he became a member of Kenneth Rexroth's circle and a figure in the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation, but never widely known to the general public or much recognized within the poetry establishment. Rexroth wrote glowingly of Lamantia in his survey of American poetry in the twentieth century:

In an age when visions can be bought ready cooked in the Monoprix and Prisunic, Lamantia stands out from all the others.There is nothing induced about his visionary poetry. The language of vision is his most natural speech. A great deal of what has happened since in poetry was anticipated in the poetry Lamantia wrote before he was twenty-one. Of all the people in the San Francisco group his is that work which should have the widest appeal to the counter culture, the youth revolt that took form in the Sixties. Unfortunately, for a long period it was inaccessible, published in small editions or in foreign magazines and anthologies. (American Poetry in the Twentieth Century)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti said that Lamantia's voice was the most distinctive poetic voice he had ever heard.

In New York after the war at the Tate Gallery I had heard T.S. Eliot's dry St. Louis accent with a placage of Bloomsbury over it…But Lamantia's voice was something else. It was a sensual voice…ecstatic and visionary. Reading his poetry on the silent printed page, I can still hear the emotive sound of it. Lamantia, both in his person and in his poetry, bridged the gap between European Surrealism and the radical American cultural revolution begun by the Beats. (foreword to Lamantia's Collected Poems)

I came to Lamantia and the European surrealists by way of those inveterate name droppers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and Gregory Corso. They were the heart of the tradition that nourished my sense of poetry and of myself as a poet during my twenties, thirties, and on into my forties (a tradition I know, alas, only in translation for those who wrote in languages other than English, my loss). Sometime in my forties I decided that closer study poetry in English was in order, since it is after all the language I have to work with. This led to a deep love of Keats and some of Wordsworth and other poets here and yon, but I wonder if something was lost to the extent that it drew me away from that other tradition.

Over the years I have found that a return to surrealism's glorious myths of freedom and the marvelous can put a blowtorch to the mundane and waken the slumbering muse. In that spirit I picked up Lamantia again and Ruth Brandon's book Surreal Livers: The Surrealists 1917–1945. When I think of surrealism and on those occasions when I have written about it, my focus tends to be on features that inform my poetry and sense of intellectual and artistic adventure. While reading Brandon I was struck by how much I found suspect in surrealist art and practice and in the lives and conduct of surrealists that I previously passed over without much thought. Not that I ever took it to heart. It was simply put aside. The idea that one might take what one fancied from the surrealist agenda and leave the rest, as if selecting from an á la carte menu, would have provoked Breton to fury and gotten me drummed out of the movement, purged, excommunicated, had I been part of the scene in Paris or New York. That sort of thing happened a lot.

What I take from surrealism begins with romanticism and cultivation of a sense of wonder. "The surrealist aesthetic can be reduced to one theme: the attempt to actualize le merveilleux, the wonderland of revelation and dream, and by so doing to permit chance to run rampant in a wasteland of bleak reality" (Gershman, Surrealist Revolution). "The marvelous is always beautiful, anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful," declared André Breton (Manifesto of Surrealism). "What is eye-opening about the fantastic is that there is no fantastic, there is only reality" (Breton, quoted by Gershman). The marvelous is found not in escape from reality but rather in openness to the wonder and utter strangeness of ordinary life, captured by the 19th-century poet Lautréamont in the classic surrealist image "beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table."

The surrealists employed an array of tools and methods in pursuit of the marvelous. Automatic writing, pure psychic automatism, the endeavor to write without the intervention of conscious intent and thought, was one. Another was the practice of walking into a cinema in the middle of a film, watching for a while but not to the end, then leaving and walking into the next cinema with a different film in progress, picking it up as if it were a continuation of the first. They were fascinated with the occult, astrology, tarot, séances, Freud, and the like, which I find tedious and leave to others who do not share my profound skepticism with regard to these enterprises.

A spirit of revolt animated the movement from the beginning. Surrealism shared with its slightly elder cousin Dada defiant rejection of established norms, aesthetics, morality, and politics, subsumed under the all-purpose slur bourgeois, the culture that was responsible for the horrific slaughter in the trenches of World War I, experienced firsthand by some who would become Dada and surrealist and witnessed by others.

A penchant for black humor and willed outrageousness fit comfortably with the imperative to scandalize the bourgeoisie. Some of it may be dismissed as fairly juvenile. The same cannot be said of Breton's formulation of the simplest surrealist act, which consists of

dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level. (Second Manifesto of Surrealism)

No, he did not dash into the street with a revolver, but he did glorify the death of his youthful friend Jacques Vaché (1895–1919), who with another young man died of an opium overdose in what Breton suggested was no accident but rather a murder-suicide. Vaché is reported to have said a few hours before he died, "I'll die when I want to…But, I'll die with someone else. To die alone is boring."

Breton and Vaché were twenty years old when they met in Nantes in 1916, Breton an intern in a military neurological center, Vaché wearing an aviator's uniform and being treated for a slight wound in his calf. Not long after Vaché's death Breton wrote, "In literature, I fell successively under the spell of Rimbaud, Jarry, Apollinaire, Nouveau, Lautréamont, but it is to Jacques Vaché that I owe the most." (Brandon, Surreal Lives).

The familiar names in the surrealist pantheon belong to men, for instance, Breton, Éluard, Louis Aragon, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, the flimmaker Luis Buñuel (Un Chien andalou, L'Age d'or, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. Woman's role was muse, object of desire and total adoration. Brandon writes that women attended surrealist gatherings for the most part as companion, helper, amaneunsis,

there to facilitate the lives of (male) artists. This help might take a material form, as with Nancy Cunard and Louis Aragon, Caresse Crosby and Dalí, Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst. Living with a rich woman was one way around the problem of work, or rather, of no work. But, more importantly, woman was an icon, the incarnation of amour fou, mad love, the nearest man could approach to the wonderful—that ultimate goal…

There were surrealist women painters and sculptors of distinction, among them Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Dorothea Tanning, and Jacqueline Lamba, Breton's second wife. Breton responded to Lamba's pursuits as a painter with sarcasm and fury and mocked her study of English when the two lived in exile in New York during World War II. Breton spoke only French. In the end Lamba chose painting and life with painter and sculptor David Hare.

Elena Dmitievna Diakanova, a Russian girl nicknamed Gala, was perhaps the most notorious of the women associated with surrealism. Gala met Paul Éluard in a Swiss tuberculosis sanitorium in 1912 when she was eighteen, he seventeen. They married in February 1917. "By 1921," writes Brandon, "it seems both Paul and Gala recognized that they required more variety than any conventional marriage could offer." Each engaged openly in numerous affairs. For a time they lived with the painter Max Ernst in a menage à trois. For Éluard there were many lovers but only one love, Gala.

Ernst's former wife Lou offered a brutal description of Gala and her two lovers:

That Russian female…that slithering, glittering creature with dark, falling hair, vaguely oriental and luminous black eyes and small delicate bones, who had to remind one of a panther. This almost silent, avaricious woman, who, having failed to entice her husband into an affair with me in order to get Max, finally decided to keep both men, with Éluard's loving consent. (quoted by Brandon)

The art dealer John Richardson referred to Gala as an "ancient harridan," "an authentically Sadean monster," "a demonic dominatrix," a "scarlet woman," and as having "an appetizing little body and the libido of an electric eel" (Miralles, When Your Muse).

In 1929 Gala met Salvador Dalí. She was ten years his senior. They lived together until her death in 1982. Dalí said he loved her, "more than my mother, more than my father, more than Picasso, and even more than money."

It is easy to imagine the woman who inspired such adoration and devotion from her husband as a gentle, supportive, nurturing type. A figure who posed for him and looked after him and gave him the space to cultivate his talent. The ministering angel to Dalí’s cacophonous madness. But a world in which Gala can be cast as a passive motherly companion is a world driven crazy by patriarchy and its assumptions. At her best, Gala was difficult and intense. At her worst, she was nothing short of monstrous.

She is blamed with corrupting and commercializing his art. She’s judged for being promiscuous, aggressive, single-minded, and ambitious (qualities for which men are more often celebrated). More often still, she is not remembered at all. Yet without Gala, the great artist might never have been. (Miralles, When Your Muse)

It all but goes without saying that gainful employment was anathema for our heroes. Literary and artistic success were suspect. Popularity and critical acclaim in any but surrealist circles were scorned. When Luis Buñuel's film Un Chien andalou attracted large audiences to the cinema where it was showing, Breton summoned the director before a sort of tribunal where he was told that the film's success was a scandal. "The bourgeois all admire you. And you accept it. It's very simple, you've got to decide now, whose side are you on?" For the next few days Buñuel seriously thought of suicide.

"In extremis," writes Ruth Brandon, "society was more acceptable than success."

The market demanded more compromises than a sympathetic patron. Thus, Breton and Aragon had been supported by Doucet; Pierre Reverdy, Breton's early ascetic father figure, became the lover of Coco Chanel, sharing her Riviera villa, La Paus; Nancy Cunard…supported Louis Aragon; while rich and artistic Americans such as Petty Guggenheim and Caresse Crosby were permitted to open their purses and houses to artistic talent. So the great stock market crash, which occurred in October 1929, put Breton in a highly embarrassing situation. On the one hand, he welcomed it: it furthered the cause of the revolution and hastened the end of bourgeois society. On the other hand, it wiped out many of those who kept artists—including Surrealist artists—afloat.

Whatever might said against him, and much can, Breton was rigidly faithful to his convictions. As a consequence there were times when he was terribly poor, as were other surrealists. In 1928 Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet were so broke that

she was reduced to making necklaces for the Paris couture houses. She showed a considerable flair…After the shows Aragon fitted up a commercial traveller's case and hawked the necklaces around the jewelry stores of the Rue de Rivoli with considerable aplomb and success—which his friends found slightly shocking. (Brandon, Surreal Lives)

Triolet is another intriguing character, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant in Moscow, whose sister Lily Brik was the mistress of the poet Mayakovsky. Breton blamed Triolet when his former friend Aragon became a Stalinist hack and apostle of socialist realism in art in the 1930s. Ah, but I digress. More about Triolet and other surrealist women at another time, perhaps.

Peggy Guggenheim was a friend of the surrealists and lover of several of them. Brandon writes that during the dangerous days just before and after the fall of France she made it a point of honor to buy a painting a day from working artists. This was good for the Guggenheim collection, but it also "saved the bacon of a great many painters." She also paid for Breton's transatlantic fare when he and his wife fled to New York and let him have $200 a month until he could find work there.

Ruth Brandon relates a good story about Max Ernst's flight from France. At the end of1940 a great many surrealists found themselves in Marseille trying to obtain exit visas. Most made it out of France just ahead of the Vichy militia. One who did not was Tristan Tzara, who went on to help run the Resistance in Toulouse.

Ernst became even more desperate to leave after he and Breton were briefly imprisoned during an official visit by Marshal Pétain. He secured a forged passport that was rejected at the Spanish border. Then a custom-official demanded to know what he had rolled up under his arm. Ernst unrolled the canvases he was carrying and displayed his paintings. "So took place the exhibition of his life, with the unrolling of these wild and sumptuous canvases that…got tacked to the peeling walls of the dreary little station. Travellers looked and marvelled." The officer said to Ernst: "Monsieur, I adore talent. You have a great talent. But I must send you back to Pau. There is the train to Pau. Here on the left is the train for Madrid. Here is your passport. Don't take the wrong train." Ernst made it to New York.

Ernst and Guggenheim were married from 1941 to 1946. She was constantly jealous because he was always in love with someone other than her, first Leonora Carrington, with whom he had lived before the war, later Dorothea Tanning, a young, talented painter he subsequently married. Guggenheim got around a bit herself. When asked how many husbands she had had, she replied, "You mean my own, or other people's?" In 1958 in Venice she would befriend a young poet from New York named Gregory Corso.

After the war the refugees made their way back to France, where existentialism was in vogue, the campaign of vengeance against collaborators carried out in a climate of blame and recrimination was in full swing, and the Cold War would soon be heating up. There they found themselves dismissed by some who had remained in France. One of those was Sartre: "Some killed themselves, others are in exile; those who have returned are exiled among us. They were the proclaimers of catastrophe in the time of the fat cows; in the time of the lean cows they have nothing more to say."

Few of those who stayed had been active in the Resistance. Most had neither collaborated nor actively resisted but simply kept their heads down and tried to make it through to the next day, as people do. Albert Camus was a résistant. So was Samuel Beckett. Sartre wrote articles for Combat, but he did not share the risks Camus and others took and he was never given a false identity, which he likely would have gotten had he been an active résistant. He was not inclined to disabuse those who assumed that his role was more substantial than it in fact was. While in New York Breton found a job broadcasting for the French language service of the Voice of America, a role he said was a great burden, but he shouldered it in the spirit of the Resistance.

Existentialism and surrealism were both drawn to Marxism as the alternative to the evils of capitalism. Their relationship with the French Communist Party ranged from uneasy to stormy. With a few notable exceptions, for example, Maurice Merleau-Ponty among the existentialists, the surrealist Louis Aragon, they were not much for following any party line. Those who became party members were destined to be purged from the ranks sooner or later when they did not renounce the party first.

Brandon identifies three distinct legacies of surrealism in the postwar years:

After Breton, the New York school; after Dalí, a thousand commercials. But Surrealism had one last, great joke to play. For its largest artistic legacy turned out to lie in the most unexpected quarter. In the hall of infinitely self-referential mirrors that is late twentieth-century art, no one is more constantly reflected that Marcel Duchamp, scourge of the retinal, the man of no ambition at all who proclaimed the end of paintings, declined every fight and turned his back on influence. Hoping to draw a line under art, he turned out merely to have started it on another tack. The bicycle-wheel, the bottle-rack and R. Mutt's Fountain take their place as the Great ancestors, constantly rediscovered. In Dorothea Tanning's words, "After the war they went back to where they came from, leaving the key in the door. Many others have used it since, but no one has brought in any new furniture."

Whether it is more accurate to say that Duchamp started art on another track or that he sent it careening wildly off track could be debated. In either case, his legacy remains with us. The statement made by his exhibits is interesting the first time it is made, tedious the second time around, and inane after that. We are still waiting for someone to bring new furniture into that room.

So what to make of these zany, wacky characters, their passion, foolishness, commitment to art, mad love, and revolt against any and every established order, and where does that leave me? Corso said somewhere that if he found the poet interesting, the poetry would be interesting. That is not how it always works, but the two are not necessarily unrelated either. The surrealists are an interesting and intriguing bunch. That is part of their attraction. If nothing else it induces one to take a closer look at poems and art that may at first seem opaque or baffling.

Recapturing intellectual and aesthetic responses from fifty years ago involves more than just memory. Speculation and imagination join memory in the act of reimagining the effect the Manifestoes of Surrealism, Surrealism and Painting, and other works had on a reasonably intelligent, intellectually curious, but not terribly sophisticated nineteen-year-old just hitting on the ancient Greeks, existentialism, Camus, Dostoevsky, Bergman, Fellini, and Kurosawa. I think, as a sort of hypothesis, while the impact of the surrealists did not run nearly as deep as that of the Greeks and the rest, the quest for the marvelous, spirit of revolt, disdain for commercial success, and resolute belief in the antinomy of art and the world of work struck a chord. These guys provided examples, role models, sometimes dubious role models but I was too young and foolish to pick up on that yet, for a young fellow just beginning to dream that he might be a poet. Beyond that, surrealist ideas about poetry and art, and the poems and works of art that went with them, were among the ingredients in a stew from which through years of writing and writing and writing burbled up the poetic idiom that marks my poems.

Examples of the works by surrealist poets and artists. Some I find in some sense enchanting:

others not so much, though perhaps of interest from an intellectual angle:

Serendipity Department. I am presently reading letters of Samuel Beckett 1929–1940. In a letter to his friend Thomas McGreevy dated October 18, 1932, he relates that Nancy from the Cunégonde, referring to Nancy Cunard, has some Breton and Éluard manuscripts and that he wrote saying that it was always a pleasure to translate Éluard and Breton.


  • Ruth Brandon, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists 1917–1945, Grove Press 1999

  • André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism (First Manifesto,1929; Second,1930), tr. Richard Seaver, and Helen R. Lane, The University of Michigan Press 1969

  • Merve Emre, How Leonora Carrington Feminized Surrealism, The New Yorker, December 21, 2020

  • Milton Esterow, The Bitter Legal Battle over Peggy Guggenheim’s Blockbuster Art Collection, Vanity Fair, February 2017

  • Herbert S. Gershman, The Surrealist Revolution in France, The University of Michigan Press 1969

  • Philip Lamantia, The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia, ed. by Garrett Caples, Andren Joron, Nancy Joyce Peters, foreword by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, University of California Press 2013

  • Nina-Sophia Miralles, When Your Muse Is Also a Demonic Dominatrix, The Paris Review, July 10, 2018

  • Kenneth Rexroth, American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Herder and Herder 1971

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