Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue: Reflections on the Dramatic Monologue, Politics, and Community in the Recent Poetry of Will Alexander and John Yau

My article “Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue: Reflections on the Dramatic Monologue, Politics, and Community in the Recent Poetry of Will Alexander and John Yau” just appeared in Contemporary Literature 55.3 (Fall 2014).

Here are three paragraphs from a beginning section:

American writers and critics have long dismissed surrealism and have misunderstood the variegated legacies and ongoing futures of surrealist poetry. According to Susan Sontag, “Surrealism in painting amounted to little more than the contents of a meagerly stocked dream world,” while “[p]oetry, the other art to which the early Surrealists were particularly devoted, has yielded almost equally disappointing results” (51). For the cantankerous poet-critic William Logan, “American Surrealism” is “a style . . . that has always seemed rather mushheaded.” While surrealism is “revolutionary in France or eastern Europe,” he argues, “[i]n America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence.” In “The Luxury of ‘Surrealism’ (pt 1),” Johannes Göransson has further identified the perceived and pejorative linkages between surrealism and an aesthetics of kitsch and counterfeitism. One could surely find a glut of similar examples that needn’t be elaborated here, but I’d like to focus on the fact that a newer generation of American poets—who even claim surrealism as an important influence—is ignoring the manifold mutations and multiple routes of surrealism since its early Parisian phase and thus limiting its potential for alternative poetic communities and allegiances.

For the Summer/Fall 2010 issue of Gulf Coast, editor Hannah Gamble organized a group interview under the premise that “a new generation of surrealist- and absurdist-influenced poetry had emerged in the U.S., written by poets ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-forties” (Christle et al. 249). Gamble approached Heather Christle, Matthew Rohrer, Zachary Schomburg, and Matthew Zapruder and asked them to discuss “what . . . ‘surrealism’ even mean[s], in American poetry today” and to address “the ‘surrealist’ label and their relationship to it.” All of the respondents, save Christle, expressed a simultaneous indebtedness to surrealism as well as a “resistance” to (250) or hesitance about what Rohrer calls “something that is so clearly defined and specific” (252). Rohrer, who professes to be “a huge fan and student of the French Surrealists,” insists that “the word ‘surreal’ really refers to them—to those people actually, and to that time specifically, and to Paris, etc.” (252). According to Schomburg, “if we’re going to label something surreal now, those poems should probably resemble each other in some tangible way, or they should perhaps resemble the French Surrealists’ poems in some tangible way. There should probably be a new word for it, and a new manifesto” (250).  For Zapruder, the misuse of the word surrealism makes him “want to rescue its original definition.” What we have here, in other words, is an effort to entomb surrealism within the annals of art and literary history and to ground any kind of contemporary surrealist community not only in a homogeneity of formal resemblance (“those poems should probably resemble each other”) but also within a common, unidirectional genealogy (“those people . . . [in] Paris”). This view obscures surrealism’s complex diaspora across both stylistic and national borders and relegates surrealism to a procrustean, nationally specific past. For instance, one might think of the considerable influence that the négritude writers Léon Damas and Aimé Césaire had on Jayne Cortez and her electrifying brand of “super-surrealism,” or the influence of Federico García Lorca on Bob Kaufman, or Will Alexander’s early collection The Stratospheric Canticles, whose epigraphs pay homage to surrealist writers as diverse as Octavio Paz, Rafael Alberti, and Shuzo Takiguchi.

Rohrer, Schomburg, and Zapruder understand surrealism as astatic aesthetic, as opposed to an ecstatic one, one that is “beside itself” or “out of place,” one that resists being placed within a national framework. I propose that we should not treat surrealism as a historical school, as if it were a short-lived movement such as Fauvism or Vorticism. Surrealism, on the contrary, is a discursivity, such as Marxism or psychoanalysis. André Breton not so much defined surrealism, pace Zapruder, as he established what Michel Foucault would call “an endless possibility of discourse” (154). A surrealism of endless possibility is at odds with Rohrer’s notion of a “clearly defined and specific” one that is delimited by a single place and temporality. In “What Is an Author?” Foucault observes that Marx and Freud—and Breton, I would add—“have created a possibility for something other than their discourse, yet something belonging to what they founded . . . [they have] made possible a certain number of divergences” (154–55). I intend not so much to diminish Breton’s role in the history of surrealism as to explore a significant divergence, a furious and fulgurant forking, a something other within the marvelous discursivity called surrealism. Alexander’s and Yau’s poems don’t obviously “resemble each other in some tangible way”: we can think of Alexander’s aggressively arcane diction and his etymological eruptions in comparison to Yau’s surgically precise and subversive humor, his shape-shifting versatility and semantic sleights of hand. Both poets, nevertheless, draw on a poetic doubleness, a strategy that has a distinctly neo-surrealist inflection. This doubleness is manifested in both poets’ use of the dramatic monologue (an eminently “double” form), in their investment in projecting complex personae of alterity, and in their fracturing and re-fusing of the English language. Finally, both poets—one from the East Coast and one from the West Coast—imagine surrealism as a communal project that is organized not around a specific time and place but around a transracial, anatopic cosmopolitanism.

While attitudes found in that 2010 Gulf Coast interview I mention above are prevalent, I’m pleased that there have been recent efforts to expand an understanding of surrealist poetry beyond reference to white writers and the so-called “heroic period” of surrealism’s Parisian phase.  For example, Joanna Pawlik’s 2011 article “Ted Joans’ surrealist history lesson” “argues for the importance of Ted Joans within histories of surrealism, which seldom acknowledge the existence of the movement post-World War II or its participants outside of interwar Paris.”

Likewise, Sam Durant’s exhibition Invisible Surrealists, which was on display at Paula Cooper Gallery from September 12 – October 18, intervenes within popular historical accounts of surrealism to bring “invisible” figures to light.  This is an excerpt from the exhibition’s press release:

Inspired by Robin D.G. Kelley’s essay, “Keepin’ it (Sur)real: Dreams of the Marvelous,” Durant’s new body of work revisits the history of Surrealism, casting light on lesser-known members of the movement from the Francophone colonies. Using iconic group photographs of the celebrated Paris-based founders of the movement like André Breton, Man Ray and Leon Trotsky, Durant alters the images, inserting a number of overlooked artists such as Wifredo Lam, René Ménil, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, Jules Monnerot and Joyce Mansour.

By revising the Eurocentric narrative and creating new archival imagery, Durant’s drawings question the photograph’s ability to represent history, exposing it instead as an instrument with which collective amnesia and repression are perpetuated.

So Durant appropriates Man Ray’s 1924 photograph of the surrealist group in an act of canon revision; he places, for example, Wifredo Lam, the Cuban painter of Chinese, African, and Spanish ancestry, into the lower left hand corner so he too can sit at the table of surrealist discourse.

Invisible Surrealists

Sam Durant, “Poetry Must Be Made By All, Not By One,” 2014; Graphite on paper; 26 x 40 in. (66 x 101.6 cm); framed: 28 x 41 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (71.1 x 105.4 x 3.8 cm)


Hrag Vartanian has a good account of Durant’s show, “The Revolutionary Postcolonial Imagination of Surrealism” in Hyperallergic.

I also enjoyed recently reading Joyelle McSweeney’s “The Flame in the Grate: Uche Nduka’s Surrealism,” which appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of the Boston Review (thanks to Stefania Heim for procuring a copy for me). McSweeny argues, “The work of Brooklyn-based writer and artist Uche Nduka confirms the persistence of Surrealism in its classic, convulsive mode.” Indeed, surrealism is alive and well: one just needs to know where to look for it.

~ by Michael Leong on November 9, 2014.

2 Responses to “Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue: Reflections on the Dramatic Monologue, Politics, and Community in the Recent Poetry of Will Alexander and John Yau”

  1. “Always relative to the society in which it finds itself, surrealism is not a static philosophy but rather simultaneously a perspective, a position, a critique, a dialectic, a contradiction, and a rejection.”

    from Garrett Caples’ “Surrealism Is a Romantic Critique of the Avant-Garde from Within”

  2. This is Shuzo Takiguchi’s poem “Yves Tanguy” (translated by Mary Jo Bang and Yuki Tanaka), which was published in this month’s issue of Poetry.

    Is it a weightless pistol —
    your hand.

    The tail of smoke
    like a limitless conversation
    risks blooming and death.
    The head of a desert.
    A blank crawls parallel to lines of combed hair.
    A barometer pursued its dream
    without even blinking.
    A released piglet
    pricked up its rose petal ears
    and vanished like a star.

    waits for everyone
    on an unknown
    but familiar
    infinite chessboard.

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