Surrealist Poetry

For those of us who lived through it, Surrealism is an experience so well and so long assimilated that it is almost forgotten — a lock of hair and a faded rose pressed in the family Bible. But now, it is hard to realize, a generation is growing up which knew not André Breton, which never attended the wedding of an umbrella and an aardvark in a diving bell. We who were the history in the flesh forget that our juniors now need a history in the printed page.

Anna Balakian’s book on Surrealist poetry has much to recommend it as an introduction and succinct historical survey. There are chapters on the breakdown of Symbolism and the revolt against it; on Rimbaud, Lautréamont and “Maldoror,” and on Saint-Paul-Roux, who in various degrees and in different ways transcended Symbolism. There is a brief appreciative chapter on Apollinaire, who more than any other poet created the worldwide “modernist sensibility” of the years just before and after the Great War.

Also, in the first section — devoted to those the Surrealists themselves like to call “Les Phares,” the lighthouses of the movement — there is an excellent chapter on Pierre Reverdy, the writer who, as tastes settle down and reputations are reevaluated, has come to be thought of as the greatest of the poets of the Cubist generation (with the sole exception of Apollinaire himself), a greater writer in every way than Jean Cocteau, Max Jacob or Blaise Cendrars. Reverdy is a very great poet indeed, a singularly pure and French voice of clarity, order, radiance, and with a carefully concealed but terribly poignant abandonment to the immediate poetic experience.

Miss Balakian, author of Literary Origins of Surrealism and Professor of French at New York University, apparently spent considerable time in personal interviews with Reverdy, and her twenty pages on him in this book make the best and certainly the most sympathetic study of him I know of in English. Just now taste is turning away from the metaphysical ambition of the Surrealist period and back again, pendulum-wise, to the Cubist period. This is especially true in America, where Reverdy should be very meaningful to younger poets like Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley, who owe so much to him without probably ever having read him.

There is a comprehensive discussion of the philosophical program of Surrealism. This again reflects Breton’s special attitudes, interpretations and ambitions. I am inclined to think that most Surrealist poets were less well aware of most of these implications, and when they read about them in La Révolution Surréaliste got a kick out of the big words and big ideas, without understanding them very clearly. It is a curious but expected thing that this discussion, although entertaining reading, should have so little meaning today. The storms and struggles and illuminations of the mid-Twenties seem as remote as the Pharaohs as we enter the Sixties.

Miss Balakian speaks in her epilogue of the possibility of the spread of Surrealism to America. She does not seem to be aware that is has spread and gone. From Transition to View, from Eugene Jolas to Charles Henri Ford, Parker Tyler and Philip Lamantia, Surrealism was an active force in American poetry. It is no longer, but perhaps, when the pendulum of taste swings again the other way, it will be again.

Finally, there is a section on the split over Bolshevism, the reorganization of the Surrealist movement under the leadership of Breton and the emergence of the post-Surrealism of Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard — both outright political poets, but of widely differing styles. There are some brief remarks on other post-Surrealists — the nature poet, René Char, and the insane nihilist, Antonin Artaud — the latter a powerful influence on our own Beat poets — but almost nothing on Michel Leiris and the more orthodox successors to Breton.

In my opinion the most conspicuous lack is an adequate discussion of Robert Desnos. He, very like Pierre Reverdy from amongst the Cubist generation, is emerging as in many respects the most durable and moving voice of the whole Surrealist movement. However, let me repeat, for those to whom the whole epoch is today the adventure of another generation, this is an excellent introduction and a sympathetic study of some of the leading personalities.



This review of Anna Balakian’s Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute (Noonday Press, 1960) was originally published under the title “Poets in Revolt” in The Nation (24 April 1960). Copyright 1960. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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