Sunday, 4 December 2011

Simon Turner - A Look Forward to a Surrealist New Year

February looks set so be something of a bumper month, at least as far as my expenditure goes.  Not only are Alcest, my all time favourite shoegaze influenced French post-black metal band, releasing a new album, but there are two - count them, two - new publications on British Surrealism appearing almost simultaneously.  OUP are putting out Night Thoughts, a long-overdue biography of David Gascoyne, whilst Carcanet have an anthology on British Surrealism, On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight, waiting in the wings.  Edited by Michel Remy, a leading expert in the field, On the Thirteenth Stroke (hereby referred to as Stroke) is something of a pioneer, selling itself as the first anthology of British Surrealism in the world, which is true: it's certainly, by the looks of things, the first properly rigorous anthology of its kind, including not only poetry within its remit (never Surrealism's strong suit, either here or on the other side of the Channel), but paintings, manifestos (ah, that's more like it: the avant garde's real innovation in form) and 'declarations', which are always fun.  But Remy's anthology - which looks to be designed as a kind of companion to his academic work on the same movement - is not without precursors.  Specifically, it has one (problematic, though enthusiastic) ancestor, Edward B. Germain's 1978 Penguin anthology English and American Surrealist Poetry (retitled in subsequent editions as Surrealist Poetry in English, which smooths over at least one of the problems with the anthology that I detail below).

Where Remy seems to be restraining himself editorially to the historically specific movement of British Surrealism (taking in the big guns - Gascoyne, Penrose, Sykes Davies - and more subsidiary figures, like Conroy Maddox and the other Birmingham Surrealists), Germain lets himself roam across the entirety of English-language poetry in the twentieth century, and he seems to find Surrealists wherever he goes.  The Penguin anthology's very useful as a compendium of poets who might otherwise have fallen completely off the map - useful, too, in drawing the reader towards points of affiliation with Surrealism in poets we might never have thought capable of such antics (Robert Conquest?  John Crowe Ransom?  Hmmm...) - but its editorial omnivorousness is simultaneously its chief strength and its greatest weakness.  The problems with Germain's approach are spelled out in the conclusion of his introduction, where he states that:

"The spirit of surrealism has become the spirit of modern poetry: the search for the marvellous; the desire to break through the boundaries between subject and object, between desire and reality; the need to create a vision superior to the ugliness of contemporary civilisation.  Surrealism endures in its insistence on a vivification of language, so that pre-learned categories crumble, and desire can reveal the beauty that categories cannot.  Poets believe in this beauty."

Basically, Germain comes dangerously close to saying that surrealism - an historically specific, politically minded, and aesthetically revolutionary movement - is just a modern form of the universal poetic impulse, a formulation that suggests that all poems - and all poets, for that matter, in spite of their feelings on the subject - are potentially surrealist: it just depends on how you choose to read them.  Hence, I suppose, the out of nowhere choices of Ransom and Conquest. 

This ahistoricism explains the jumbled and decontextualised manner in which the poems that follow are arranged.  We are given no biographical details on the poets chosen, aside from what's mentioned in the introduction, so unless the names happen to be familiar (and some, but by no means all, are, relatively speaking, household names: Ashbery's in here, as are O'Hara and Koch; the Deep Image crowd are represented by Merwin and Bly; whilst the British Poetry Revival only manages to field Tom Raworth), we're very much navigating without a compass (or, indeed, a paddle.  Or a canoe, in many instances: Bravig Imbs, anyone?  No, I didn't think so.  Oh, and I've just Googled him, so don't try and palm me off with a half-digested Wikipedia entry dressed up as original scholarship: that won't cut any dice with me, sweetheart).  Germain does group the poets officially connected to the British Surrealist movement together, so there's a degree of concession being made to collective affiliation, but otherwise it's something of a free for all, with Deep Imagists, Black Mountaineers, New Apocalyptics and narrative surrealists like James Tate all placed on an equal footing, as if there were no way of distinguishing between them.  Biographical details would at least give the interested reader a starting point, a means of coming to the conclusion that, say, Tate and Bly were very different poets, rather than assuming - as we're pretty much forced to do - that their inclusion in this anthology implied an equal adherence to an agreed-upon set of aesthetic and political principles that have remained pretty much unchanged since the inception of Surrealism in the early 1920s. 

Considering surrealism's relation to post-war movements would have also helped draw attention to the rather odd editorial omissions: of the Beats, why McClure and not Philip Lamantia or Bob Kaufman, who were actively engaged with the heritages of surrealism to a far greater extent than any of their peers?  Why Bly and Merwin, but not James Wright?  Tate but not Charles Simic?  In addition, let's look at that title again, or at least its first half: English and American Surrealist Poetry.  'American' isn't an issue, but I suspect that the national affiliation implied by 'English' might come as something of a shock to Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Norman MacCaig (Scottish), and J. F. Hendry (also Scottish).  Again, such a seemingly minor oversight speaks of an editorial policy that tends to ride roughshod over complexities of affiliation and difference.

Of course, it's not all bad news, and Germain's anthology did - and does, as it's readily available in the form of second hand copies - proffer a great deal of interesting material that might otherwise have been denied the general reader who's not tied up in academia (where British Surrealism as a subject has languished for some time).  Moreover, Germain's rather cavalier editorial decision to bundle all his poets together under a generalised 'surrealist' label, in spite of the inherent shortcomings of this approach, does throw up some interesting juxtapositions: certainly, I can't think of another anthology that would place Robert Conquest and Tom Raworth in such close proximity, nor one that would rescue Norman MacCaig's Apocalyptic juvenilia from the poet's own aesthetic disavowal.  As I said, the anthology's weakness is also its greatest strength: we just need to be cautious, as readers, to fill out the over-simplifications, and fill in the gaps, of Germain's methodology as we go along.  Hopefully, Remy's new anthology might make that task a little easier.                            


oliver dixon said...

For all its faults you've given me the urge to dig out my moth-eared copy of the Penguin anthology once again - on mine the title is 'Surrealist Poetry in English' (possibly a later amended edition?)which at least elides the English/British issue. If the chief good of hotch-potches like this is to give us tasters of disparate poets then this one did it for me, introducing me to James Tate and Charles Henri Ford and revealing the Gascoyne-lead ants-nest of British Surrealists who according to every '-------- Book of 20Cth English Poetry' don't exist (another one for your book of areas of neglect, Simon, althoughit's clear from your post you've already homed in on this)

The Editors said...

You're absolutely right: it is a really great jumping off point for the weird and neglected - except through chance, there's very little likelihood that I'd ever have heard of Michael Benedikt or Ford, who you've mentioned, two of my favourites from the anthology, without Germain's editorial work. I just wish he'd been a little more rigourous in his selection and framing: basically, so the obsessives, like myself, would have an easier time in following up his leads.

The Editors said...

An interesting point raised by this retitling issue, though. English and American as nationality moving to English language poets implies changing goal posts once again. The British vs. US cohorts compared with English language demonstrates particular blinkers: I take it there are no Canadians or Australians, etc. The bridge for surrealism is very much a cross-Atlantic one, and here, as you point out, defined by praxis rather than historical trending.


The Editors said...

'Praxis'? 'Historical trending'? Good God. You're really aiming on earning that PhD, aren't you Ttoouli? Joking aside, you make some salient points: yes, no Australians, Canadians, or Anglophone writers from former imperial countries are included, so the use of 'English' in the second edition is definitely loaded.


The Editors said...

Shove it, Turner. Not everyone spends their PhD drinking like a wild west saloon. *hic*

Seriously, though my supervisor coined a compound word relating to my research last week that has me frothing.