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This review is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.Vertiginous Perspectives
On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight is the first anthology to focus on surrealist poetry in English since Edward B. Germain’s 1978 Penguin anthology and the first ever to feature surrealist poetry written exclusively in Britain. It’s a handsome book showcasing a generous selection of poetry by members of the English surrealist group together with some of their artwork. It also includes introductory essays, biographies, comprehensive bibliographies and a welcome selection of manifestos and declarations which show, amongst other things, that British surrealists enjoyed a good scrap just as much as their French counterparts. That David Gascoyne’s first English Manifesto of Surrealism is only being translated into English for the first time in this book is, as its French editor Michel Remy notes, ironic but perhaps typical of British surrealism, whose existence, particularly in the form of poetry, has been a pretty ghostly affair until now.
It’s hard to understand why surrealism has been so neglected by publishers and sometimes so actively disliked by critics in this country. The traditional British lukewarm enthusiasm for most things continental, especially revolutionary ideas, might be one explanation, but there was nothing lukewarm about J.B. Priestley’s vitriol poured all over the 1936 International Surrealist exhibition in London in which he saw, apart from ‘too many effeminate or epicene young men, lisping and undulating’, only violence, ‘neurotic unreason’ and glimpses ‘of the deepening twilight of barbarism’ that he thought might ‘soon blot out the sky’.
In the face of that sort of onslaught one of the overwhelming impressions I get from this book is of the refreshing innocence and optimism that was behind the surrealist project: ‘From now on, to change life, to transform the world, to have done with HUMAN MISERY is the task of poetry in action no less than the task of social, even economic, struggle’ (from the 1947 Declaration). Toni del Renzio’s manifesto Incendiary Innocence was not entirely innocent, being part of an ongoing squabble with E.L.T. Mesens, his rival for leadership of the group, but in it he demands that vision be returned ‘to its pristine clarity, the light which the occultists accord to innocence […] incendiary innocence bursting into the flames of the primitive temptations of Bosch’.
The danger with such ambition, of course, is that the work has a lot to live up to. Roland Penrose has several gentle love poems in the anthology which don’t always catch fire but combine a lyricism reminiscent of Paul Eluard and the kind of heavenly absurdity you might come across in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights: ‘My love was hidden behind the branches / the badger took her by the hand leading her / barefoot through the woods / and meadows kissed her feet / with sugared lips’ (‘Half Born’).
Desmond Morris walks a Miró-like tightrope in both his art and poetry between a weird and gleefully unsettling land of biomorphic shapes and images, ‘pulled from the body’s most illustrious folds / by unborn mutants weaned on tube-struck foam’, and a place that risks merely charming us rather than fully meeting André Breton’s requirement that ‘beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all’. Continual convulsions can get tiring, however, and there might be something to be said for pacing oneself a bit and being merely charmed, as I was by many of the delightful runs of non-sequiturs in Morris’s poetry: ‘The grass in the bedroom is damp / and it is probably better to wear / horn-rimmed spectacles / than burn your tongue. / But the heat from the mirror / that was a funeral gift / has brought on the rain. / The drops are very large / and each is falling several feet away / from its neighbours, / so that it’s possible not to get wet’ (‘Shoulder High’).
Ithell Colquhoun’s prose poems, which are quietly mysterious but clear in the way Magritte’s paintings are, sometimes offer the more classic disorientating feeling of the marvellous so sought after by the surrealists and defined by Louis Aragon as ‘the eruption of contradiction within the real’. Vertiginous perspectives open up onto towers, shafts, reservoirs and caves. A window in a peeling stucco Maida Vale house looks out towards ‘a sloping strip of ground overgrown with brambles, then a pebbly shore, and beyond, the crash and smother of Atlantic waves, breaking ceaselessly and without tide’ (‘Experiment III’).
Edith Rimmington’s work here ranges from terse, automatic prose poems, echoing the violence and trauma of the war years they were written in, to simple epiphanies, such as this one, untitled, written in 1945: ‘I sit perfectly still as the leaves stir and stillness becomes movement. / I am the feel of the hanging branch. / I am the birds’ song and as the bird is silent movement becomes stillness revealing happiness.’
Len Lye was a kind of one-man art movement who, under his banner of Individual Happiness Now, created drawings and paintings as well as some of the first ever kinetic sculptures and abstract animated films of the twentieth century, all of which expressed a sense of joy in movement. The syntactical flexibility of his poems makes him unusual amongst the surrealists, who tended to put the revolution on hold when it came to the rules of grammar. The effect is at times like a mixture of Gertrude Stein and Stanley Unwin:
As it was ever was and shall be the material of the first
limbo’s gambol starting from the sprang of some early mould
workings on the was of corrugated age surfaces smooth
for water hencing on to the original blood structure.
Such structure has a slant on the inner structure of all
material things in spite of puzzlebrow: don’t you think.
(from ‘Song Time Stuff’)
Del Renzio called in his manifesto not just for incendiary innocence but also for a renewed capacity for a cleansing anger: ‘authentic anger has been absent from the world’. It feels absent too from much of On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight. Conroy Maddox may take a few potshots at passing landlords, priests and the police and sounds genuinely menacing at times: ‘From the canvas arises a stench of half-decayed meat / Languorously inviting us to roll in it; / The pincers from a fairground machine / Pick over limbs with a disgusting meticulousness, / Steel scissors piercing the side gleam smooth to a caressing touch’. Elsewhere, though, he seems merely resigned: ‘There was a beginning, which I cannot remember / and an end which I have lost sight of, / for I have domesticated the nightmare’.
All too briefly a loud-suited and undomesticated George Melly bursts into the book in ‘Mabel’s dream’ threatening to attack ‘a thousand horse-faced poets’ with his shooting stick. A would-be mugger allegedly made the mistake of taking on this surrealist in a dark alley once and had to beat a hasty retreat in the face of Melly’s authentically furious rendition of Kurt Schwitters’ Ur Sonata. Humour often succeeds in subverting the complacent mind where more earnest revolutionary posturing flops and Anthony Earnshaw is the main representative, in the anthology, of this vein in British surrealism. The anarchistic Earnshaw never really represented anyone, however. The aphorisms that represent him here are like wittier versions of Mischief Night pranks setting out to disturb the peace:
If all screwthreads stripped at the same moment, the world
would fall apart.
A pair of trousers on their last legs.
(from ‘Defeat and Mockery’)
One of Remy’s primary requirements when assessing the quality of a surrealist text is that it should possess an ‘inexhaustible power of creating astonishment’; a tall order after nearly eighty years of surrealist surprise certainly, but Hugh Sykes Davies’ work seems to me to stake a better claim than many to this. In ‘Poem’, we are spun mesmerically through six stanzas that move forwards and backwards, as in a pantoum, linking together and repeating warnings about what may be growing within:
[…] in the stumps of old trees, where the hearts have rotted out,
there are holes the length of a man’s arm, and dank pools at the
bottom where the rain gathers and old leaves turn to lace, and the
beak of a dead bird gapes like a trap. But do not put your
hand down to see, because
in the stumps of old trees with rotten hearts, where the rain
gathers and the laced leaves and the dead bird like a trap, there
are holes the length of a man’s arm, and in every crevice of the
rotten wood grow weasels’ eyes like molluscs, their lids open
and shut with the tide. But do not put your hand down to see, because […]
Davies viewed surrealism as a natural extension of Romanticism (its prehensile tail) and there’s a curious echo of the boat-stealing episode in Wordsworth’s Prelude in one of the engaging excerpts from Davies’ surrealist novel Petron included in this anthology. As the disembodied mouth of an ‘idiot’ pursues the hero down a lane jeering and cursing him, it undergoes fantastical transformations stretching ‘more and more widely, until at last it seems to overspread the whole horizon’. Finally, to Petron’s relief he sees that the mouth is ‘nothing more than the sunset, his throat is the gathering night, and the sounds that issue from it are those of roosting birds, newly-risen nightingales, and owls perched in the tips of his teeth’.
Remy mentions some of the precursors to surrealism in English literature in the introduction – Coleridge, Swift, Carroll and Lear – but there is silence as to how surrealism has developed or what has followed in its wake. John Ashbery once commented on L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry that ‘like surrealism it will become more fascinating as it disintegrates… it’s like there’s a certain hard kernel that can stand the pressure only for so long, and then it starts to decay, giving off beneficial fumes’. It would have been nice to see some of the effects of those fumes on British contemporary poetry included in this book.
Germain’s earlier anthology did attempt to take this wider view by looking beyond the members of English and American surrealist groups and equating surrealism with the essential ongoing spirit in international modernism. That ultra-inclusive approach arguably risked watering down what was essential about surrealism, so that some very unlikely bedfellows could be brought together under its name in the likes of Gavin Ewart, Tom Raworth, Geoffrey Grigson and Michael McClure. But Germain’s book did play an invaluable role in introducing many readers in the UK not only to the ‘surrealist tradition’ but also to some US writers such as the first- and second-generation New York School poets (equally exotic at that time) who were partly inspired by that tradition.
With his narrower selection criteria focusing on the official English surrealist group, Remy avoids any dilution of purity here, but it does unfortunately mean that the book, as so often with surrealism, is a history with a somewhat arbitrary end point – 1979 in this case. Arbitrary because, as well as the two living contributors to the book, Desmond Morris and John Welson, there are groups of people still actively engaged in surrealism today. Remy does acknowledge them briefly in his introduction, claiming that they ‘continue, by way of a kind of occultation, to maintain the flame and permanence of the surrealist spirit’. They are really not that hidden from view, though; the Leeds Group’s work and publications, for example, can be found at http://leedssurrealistgroup.wordpress.com and Neil Coombs’ activities in Wales at http://darkwindowspress.com.
Breton stressed that surrealism is ‘what will be’; the belief being that everything that exists – a book of poetry included – stands at the centre of ever-expanding circles of possibilities. The imaginary is thus defined as ‘that which tends to become real’. Trying to anthologise poetry that ‘will be’ undoubtedly presents a challenge. For the moment, though, we can be grateful to Remy for collecting together so lovingly what has been surrealist poetry in Britain and for providing a glimpse of what it still is.
This review is taken from PN Review 218, Volume 40 Number 6, July - August 2014.