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This review is taken from PN Review 221, Volume 41 Number 3, January - February 2015.

Living Entities On the Thirteenth Stroke of Midnight: Surrealist Poetry in Britain, edited by Michel Remy (Carcanet Press, 2013) £18.95

No other avant-garde movement infiltrated the British popular imagination or the English language like surrealism. Such was the success of the surrealist exhibition in London in 1936 that it soon became a by-word for modern art, and for the non-rational in poetry. Only two years later, Denys Kilham Roberts edited a book with the title Straw in the Hair: An Anthology of Nonsensical and Surrealist Verse. The conflation is significant: very early on, surrealism lost its avant-garde edge and become a form of entertainment, the word and its cognates taking on meanings that the surrealists had not intended. The book included poems from a large variety of pre-twentieth-century sources, mainly ‘nonsense’ and humorous writers, but also included work by David Gascoyne, Francis Scarfe, Philip O’Connor, Auden, and Edith Sitwell.

Only one of these writers, David Gascoyne, is included in both that and the present anthology: a remarkable lack of overlap. Remy concentrates on surrealist poetry by members or affiliates of the surrealist groups from the 1930s to the late 1970s. Unlike the only comparable anthology, Edward Germain’s 1978 English and American Surrealist Poetry, which has work by 75 poets, Remy’s volume contains work by only 21 writers, many of them better known as visual artists. In fact, Remy does not choose to define what is a surrealist poem, leaving it as an unstated principle that it is a poem written by a surrealist.

This is refreshing and necessary. Surrealism was a movement first, and then a mode. By concentrating on work by members of the ...

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