surrealism in poetry

The early- to mid-century movement in the arts known as Surrealism attempted to express the workings of the unconscious by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtaposition of content. The movement grew out of Dadaism, was orchestrated by the French poet and critic André Breton, and had important precursors in Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont. 

Depending on whom you believe, the movement drew on the troubled politics of the inter-war years, the dream theories of Jung and Freud, studies of the occult and irrational, and the usual opposition to the despised bourgeoisie.


Dadaism aimed to contravene accepted values of society so as to jolt the public into seeing the world with keener eyes — beyond the hypocrisies, class repressions and stultifying conventions. Surrealism was more positive and proselytizing — was indeed an instrument of knowledge. True reality lay in the subconscious, and Surrealism developed concepts and techniques to explore and express those depths.  Painting was the most obvious arena for Surrealism to show its talents, but the movement also included important poets and novelists, initially French but later Spanish and Italian. For Breton and his followers, Surrealism had to be a clearly articulated process, almost a scientific discipline, and the aesthetic and/or political dimensions were secondary. English devotees, ever more cautious, mixed Surrealism with a good deal of pragmatism, so that there are few truly Surrealist poets in English, though many were influenced to some extent — W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, etc.

How did the automatism work? Writers and artists gave up conscious control of their thoughts, and then put down — rapidly, without interrupting the stream of thought or vision — whatever came to mind. Some painters — Dali for example — were self-conscious perfectionists, but even here the canvas should slowly take shape under promptings cleared of preconceptions. French poets might or might not write under the influence of the hexameter, but any conscious filtering by technique was frowned upon. Many writers passed through the movement, or were brought to fame by Surrealism, but only Paul Eluard (1895-1952), Louis Aragon (18977-1982) and Federico García Lorca (1899-1936) created their most enduring work under its influence.

Purely automatic writing — which Yeats practised for a while with his wife — produced reams of material interesting to writer and his psychiatrist, but tedious in the extreme to the reader. Was it permissible to select and shape this material? No, said Breton, but most writers and painters fudged the matter. Surrealist techniques produced vivid raw material, which could then be further developed. Was prior artistic training required, or could anyone practice the techniques with success? Opinion was divided. Many argued that formal training provided the necessary tools of expression, and the better painters and poets did generally possess a formal mastery of their craft. But that was to put the aesthetic above the true aim of Surrealism, thought Breton (generally), and so betray its larger purpose of creating a truer reality from conscious and subconscious elements.


Surrealist approaches have today diffused into art and advertising, but do they offer the practising poet more than useful improvisation, a way of getting the creative juices flowing? The difficulty centres on the subconscious. Many Surrealists, though speaking of the subconscious, actually meant the unconscious, and this entity does not exist. Certainly the brain's actions are largely hidden from us, and may well produce regularities that can be called schemas, archetypes, inter-cultural patterns of perception, but there is nothing corresponding to the id, ego and superego of Freud's or Lacan's formulation. Nonetheless, laboratory work has shown that the brain is marvellously retentive, and stores vastly more than we can easily recall. Moreover, it stores speech and perception as transcriptions of experience — i.e. not as language constructs, mental or otherwise, but as diverse guides for subsequent action. Some of these may be universal, as is suggested by occult and shamanistic practices, but most are surely individual. Dreams and trances are not always illuminating, therefore, and Surrealism is not a royal road to the subconscious.

But the greatest drawback is the most obvious.  Even if the subconscious were more interesting than the conscious world, simply portraying it will not create art. That needs selection, and a shaping for emotive and aesthetic ends. Surrealist poetry can be novel, whimsical or apocalyptic, but it is not apt to be deeply moving.

Nonetheless, the brain's workings can escape the straitjacket of the conventional, and its exploration is at least useful for that purpose. How imagination is accessed must depend on the equipment the writer brings to the task, the technique and larger objectives. Surrealism did tap into something real and important, but was hampered by simplistic views of free association and natural expression. The brain is an organ that grows according to accumulating need and experience, and is not therefore a repository of primeval truths. Stretching imagination against experience is what opens the writer's portals of vision, just as working at something truly difficult develops the painter's intelligence.

Hart Crane

Hart Crane's life was certainly unenviable. His parents fought continually, and the poet spent much of his adolescence in the grandparent's home in Cleveland. The father, a prosperous businessman, wished a similar career for the son, but the unsociable young man found work in a munitions plant, in a shipyard, as a reporter, and then as an assistant in his father's candy store. He read voraciously, submitted to avant-garde magazines, and determined on a career in poetry. In 1921 Crane returned to Cleveland to write advertising copy by day and poetry by night — a rather manic-depressive pattern — and in 1923 he completed his first major poem, For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, where his self-education found expression in a truly modern setting.

Unlike contemporaries tackling similar themes, Crane did not use free verse, but traditional forms with dense reference and unexpected imagery. Poetry was to be a celebration of life that conveyed exaltation, power and transcendence. Whatever the claims — and he used a Modernist terminology in corresponding with many contemporary poets — Hart Crane was applying the soaring poetic expression of seventeenth century writers to his own bohemian, homosexual and chaotic existence on the darker fringes of America's jazz age.  In 1924, Hart Crane went to New York, eventually finding employment in writing advertising copy. He settled into a room overlooking the East River and Brooklyn Bridge. That window, he wrote to a friend, "is where I would be most remembered of all: the ships, the harbor, the skyline of Manhattan, midnight, morning or evening, — rain, snow or sun, it is everything from mountains to the walls of Jerusalem and Nineveh, and all related and in actual contact with the changelessness of the many waters that surround it." These spiritual journeys he worked into Voyages and the other poems he wrote in the 1924-5 period, publishing some of them in contemporary magazines, though not without amendment and lengthy explanation. Crane went to Cuba, back to New York, to Hollywood, Paris and Mexico. His first collection, White Buildings, was published in 1926, and Crane worked on the more ambitious The Bridge, but his social life was disintegrating. He was habitually drunk, abusive, given to violent rages and psychosomatic illness, too often beaten up by casual male lovers, arrested for soliciting. In April 1932, Hart Crane jumped from stern of the ship returning him from Mexico, and his body was never found.

Whatever the life, Hart Crane was remarkably clear-sighted about his literary aims. A poem should be "a single, new word, never before spoken, and impossible to actually enunciate". Terms were to be selected for their connotations and associations, and for their "metaphoric interrelationships". There was no place for abstract formulations of experience; the poems had to evoke the "physical-psychic experience" of the subject through which they are viewed. Crane absorbed Eliot's poetry, and the dithyrambs of Whitman, but the style was distinctively his own: dense, allusive and metallic — not unlike a "plate of vibrant mercury", to quote from his own Recitative.

How much is worth reading today? Voyages (1921-26), At Melville's Tomb (1925), For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen (1921-23) in White Buildings, The Broken Tower (1932) and some sections of The Bridge (1923-30).  Yet even the minor pieces have a strange power that burn themselves into the memory: It was a kind and northern face (Praise for an Urn), a steady, winking beat between (Paraphrase), We make our meek adjustments / Contented with such random consolations (Chaplinesque), I have known myself a nephew to confusions (The Fernery).

It was on The Bridge that Hart Crane's ambitions centred.  Though published after White Buildings, the poem in its final form was composed over the long interval between Crane's best writing period and the tail-end of his powers. The seventy-odd pages contain fine sections — To Brooklyn Bridge, parts of The Harbor Dawn, The River and The Tunnel — but there is also overblown rhetoric and long passages that do not work. The poem is an epic, Crane's answer to Whitman, but the lyric quality could not compensate for the loose integration. The subject matter is arbitrary, and the rhythms too often merely workmanlike. In the best sections, well anthologized, Crane achieved a rare physical immediacy, conveyed with imagery as dense and apposite as that of the later Shakespeare, but these do not unify the whole.

That failure is the greatest pity, for what appears in snatches throughout his work is a portrait of America that perhaps Crane alone had the gifts to draw. The writer most called to mind is the novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938), but, in place of Wolfe's odd gift for phrase, there are innumerable telling and beautiful images. Hart Crane's technique is not modern, but his Romantic nineteenth-century approach created vistas beyond those of what most twentieth century poets could achieve, or perhaps even wanted to. 

Hart Crane's first important poem, For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen, ends :

Anchises' navel, dropping of the sea, --
The hands Erasmus dipped in gleaming tides,
Gathered the voltage of blown blood and vine;
Delve upward for the new and scattered wine
O brother-thief of time, that we recall.

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
Of imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

Such exhortation and density is not easily matched in English. But consider this section from Lycidus.

Return, Alphéus, the dread voice is past
That shrunk they streams; return, Sicilian Muse,
And call the vales, and bid them hither cast
Their bells and flowerets of a thousand hues.
Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks,
Throw hither all your quaint enamelled eyes,
That on the green turf suck the honied flowers,
And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.

Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansie freaked with jet,
The glowing violet,
The musk rose, and the well-attired woodbine,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.
Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed,
And daffadillies fill their cups with tears,
To strew the laureate hearse where Lycid lies.

For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise;

Ay me! Whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er they bones are hurled,
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;

Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great Vision of the guarded mount
Looks towards Namancos, and Bayona's hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

Milton’s has the greater range, but the two poems present similar tones and themes. Both are impersonal, and a poetic tour de force. Censorship restricted what Milton could say, and behind the anguish of Crane no doubt lay a good deal of frustration and self-loathing. But public poems were built of public property, and ask to be judged on how effectively they deploy and refresh the great commonplaces by which a society understands itself.

Eliot’s escape from personal tragedy was via The Waste Land, a bitter collage of fragments that could both refer to standards and mock them. Crane disliked that negativity. Poetry was an affirmation of life, and Crane continually sought a worthy and inspiring theme. Financial worries, alcohol, the degradation forced on him by homosexual affairs were increasing handicaps, but the main culprit was possibly Modernism itself. So privately-based, inward-looking and antisocial a movement too much denies the communality of beliefs on which epic poetry needs to be built.

References and Internet Resources

1. A sampling of French surrealist poetry In English translation. Amy Levin and Johannes Beilharz. Dec. 1981.
. Site includes French surrealist poetry in translation by David Gascoyne.
2. !Surréalisme! Short list of sites.
3. Surrealist Writers. Alan Gullette. Mar. 2001. NNA.. Extended article listing main French contributors and related websites.
4. Exquisite Corpse. NNA. A surrealist method of composition: with good list of sites.
5. Modern & Contemporary American Poetry. Excellent listing of articles and poems.
6. Arthur Rimbaud - Life Stories, Books, and Links.
. Short but with excellent links.
7. Surrealist influence in Latin-American poetry. Arturo Reyes.
. Huiodobro to Neruda.
8. David Gascoyne. Apr. 2004. devoted to the poet and his work.
9. Robert Desnos : A Unique French Surrealist Poet Introductory Notes and Translations. Michael Benedikt. Oct. 2003. Good coverage of poet and his work.
10. Michel Carrouges, Andre Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism, trans. Maura Prendergast, (University: University of Alabama Press, 1974). 235. Q
11. Wallace Fowlie, Age of Surrealism (New York: Swallow Press, 1950). Q
12. Daniel Cottom, Abyss of Reason: Cultural Movements, Revelations, and Betrayals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). Q
13. Scott Simpkins, Sources of Magic Realism/Supplements to Realism in Contemporary Latin American Literature in Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community, ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) Q
14. Hart Crane. Introduction, four poems and selected links.
15. John Milton (1608–1674): Lycidas. Full text of poem.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.