During the last few decades, there’s been renewed interest in Surrealist poetry, and most recently, the genre has become more and more popular as our world is increasingly suspended among political turmoil, racial injustice, gender biases, and the crushing effects of Covid-19. Most of us know the word surreal in a non-poetry lexicon, meaning weird, strange, incredible, or unreal. In the context of art, however, Surrealism began as an artistic movement in 1920s Paris.
Although Guillame Apollinaire first used the word “surreal” in reference to the concept that an independent reality exists beneath conscious reality, poet and philosopher André Breton (1896-1966) is generally credited with being the founder and driving spirit of the Surrealist movement. Surrealism gained momentum with Breton’s 1924 publication of The Manifesto of Surrealism. In this work, he sought to combat the way art was viewed and understood, focusing on the “disinterested play of thought” and the “omnipotence of dreams” rather than on reason and logic.
Along with Breton and Apollinaire, other poets who advanced the Surrealist movement included Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Éluard, and Peruvian poet César Vallejo. Also prominent among the early Surrealists was Spanish poet Federico García Lorca who is still considered by many to be Spain's greatest poet and dramatist. During the 1920s, Lorca joined a group of avant-garde artists that included Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel. Called “The Generation of ’27,” this group introduced Lorca to Surrealism and greatly influenced his writings. Noted woman Surrealist poet Gisèle Prassinos was discovered by Breton in 1934 when she was only fourteen years old. A photograph by Surrealist photographer Man Ray shows the fourteen-year-old schoolgirl reading her poems to members of the Surrealist group, including André Breton and Paul Éluard (National Galleries, Scotland).
Initially, Surrealism grew out of Dadaism, an art movement introduced in Zurich during WWI as a negative response to the horror and senselessness of the war. Deliberate irrationality and contravention of the traditional artistic canon were features of Dada. Surrealism developed as a mechanism of knowledge, and those who embraced the movement believed that the subconscious contained true reality. They believed that the unconscious mind is deeper than the conscious mind. Early Surrealist poets focused on reality created by the “waking consciousness,” which unites the world of imagination with the real world—subjectivity and objectivity, and dream states and wakefulness.
In The Communication Vessels, Breton stated that the real and dream worlds are actually the same and that the mind communes in each state like two connected vessels. This principle is also known as “point sublime” or the realization of surreal harmony—the point at which contrasts (life and death, beauty and ugliness, dark and light) merge. World War I left its generation profoundly traumatized; the comforts and certainties of life as most people knew them were largely obliterated by the war. The world was bitter and broken, and very little seemed to make sense. In addition, during the final months of World War I, what would become a worldwide flu pandemic broke out in 1918. This would become a global pandemic much like the one that is devastating our world today.
Catalyzed by the state of their world, Surrealist painters and writers began to feel that by embracing the world’s disorder, and the disorder in individuals’ lives, they might turn consciousness away from the war’s aftermath and the flu’s devastation. In a very real sense, the Surrealists, by recognizing the confusion and fear of their time, were able to offer a measure of healing from the damage wrought by what the world had seen and suffered. Most importantly, the Surrealist movement looked toward ways in which people might be freed spiritually and psychologically—freedoms that were much needed at the time, just as they are today.
Breton and his colleagues drew heavily on Freudian psychoanalysis and the power of unconscious thought, including such strategies as “automatic writing,” as they strove to open their imaginations to deeper truths. When Surrealist poets used automatism, or automatic writing, they wrote whatever came to mind without controlling their conscious thoughts. Breton stated that poets should not filter, edit or shape automatic writing because the words should be dramatic and unprocessed. This resulted in wild illogical vaults, elaborate imagery, and strong tonal shifts.
Along with automatism, Surrealist poets also experimented with cut-up, collage, and other types of what we might call “found poetry” today. Because Surrealism was first a Parisian movement, it also took hold among young students from Martinique (an insular region of France in the West Indies) who were studying in Paris. In the spirit of poetic revolt and social revolution, Black Surrealists, who shared the racial history of slavery, were touched by Surrealism’s defense of human rights and its suggestions of creating change in the world. The first woman Surrealist of African descent was Simone Yoyotte. Active within the Paris Surrealism group, she was the only woman in the Légitime Défense (self-defense) group formed exclusively by students from Martinique during 1932. She published poems in the Légitime Défense journal. Sadly, only one edition of the journal was produced and virtually nothing is known of her life.
The advent of World War II and the rise of Nazism and Fascism was not an easy time for the Surrealists, and numbers of them came to America where they continued to shape changes in literary philosophy. After World War II, certain “diluted” forms of Surrealist poetry appeared, and a second generation of surrealist writers emerged in various parts of the world, especially in Latin America (where interest in Surrealism began as early as 1928 in Argentina). Poet Pablo Neruda wrote in various styles, including Surrealism, and Octavio Paz was also influenced by the genre. Surrealism has also interested many modern and contemporary poets such as Americans James Tate, John Ashbery, Dean Young, George Kalamaros, and Will Alexander, Englishwoman Helen Ivory, Romanian Tristan Tzara, and Slovenian Tomaž Šalamun.
Although the active movement came to an end after the Second World War, a substantial group of today’s poets turn to Surrealist imagery and ideas in their efforts to stretch the margins of literary art and to make readers think. Given the stresses of contemporary society and international relations, it’s hardly surprising that poets would turn to an aesthetic that looks toward ways of overcoming the inconsistencies of our conscious minds.
Today’s Surrealist poets, like their predecessors, are producing a body of literature with imagery that affirms the supremacy of fantastic and often bizarre juxtapositions. They advocate contrasting images and ideas and embrace Freudian ideas of free association that move readers away from societal influences, thus encouraging readers to open their minds in regard to what reality is. Metaphor and imagery are the main techniques used by Surrealist poets to cause their readers to think more deeply and to seek subconscious meanings in their poems. Readers are thus propelled to examine their unconscious and to analyze what they discover.
Rarely is Surrealist poetry narrative; instead of telling actual stories, it is concept-forward and emphasizes dreamlike “settings,” nonlinear timelines, incongruous content, and unbound associative leaps in thinking. Typically, Surrealist poetry has a certain shock value that characterizes the form. Often, in today’s poetry, we see softly surreal qualities that speak to Surrealist influence. Our place in world history is challenging at best; the current pandemic is taking a huge toll. Is it any wonder that poetry today is ready to contemplate realities other than what we read about in print media and see on Internet and television news?
In this time that cries out for spiritual and psychological freedom, and for relief from harsher realities, Surrealist poetry, with its dark corners and its flashes of light, is a rich source to which poets and poetry lovers can turn to buttress their need for something “other.”
Acknowledgment: By Adele Kenny, Reprinted by Permission from Tiferet Journal,
Autumn/winter 2020 (www.tiferetjournal.com). Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.
1. Understand that it’s not easy to “teach” anyone how to write a Surrealist poem. Begin by reading examples of Surrealist poetry for inspiration. You’ll find many online. Google poets such as Andre Breton, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Éluard, and César Vallejo. It may also be helpful to look at some Surrealist paintings.
2. There’s an excellent resource for writing Surrealist poems at this website: https://www.wikihow.com/Write-Surrealist-Poetry. Try some of the ideas and suggestions.
3. When you begin writing, don’t consciously “think” or plan your poem.
4. Clear your head and realize that nothing currently active in your mind will appear in your poem. Just let your thoughts flow, and jot some of them down even if they seem disjointed and unrelated.
5. Choose one of the things you jotted down and write about it. Don’t be deliberate, just write. The idea is to go in a particular direction and not to just write gibberish that has no meaning. That said, keep in mind that intentional symbols aren’t part of the plan. The unexplainable images that pop into your mind are what we’re after.
6. Continue to write until you feel you’re finished. Shorter is probably best for starters.
7. Now, think about what your poem means—not an overt meaning but subtle, subconscious things that have crept into your writing.
8. If you find yourself looking for “something other” by way of prompts, try writing a “Surreal” ekphrastic poem based on Salvador Dali’s "The Persistence of Memory" at the beginning of this post.
A Couple of my Own Examples: