Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Michel Rémy launched his English-language anthology of English surrealist poetry as On the thirteenth stroke of Midnight, Surrealist poetry in Britain (2013). Just like the bad experiences and failures are usually emphasised by anyone discussing the history of surrealism in Britain, also the historiography and anthologising of British surrealism has a long history of failed projects. Paul Hammond's big anthology never surfaced, Alistair Brotchie's big anthology never surfaced, mine and Jonas Ellerström's big anthology in Swedish never surfaced. Rémy is the one that managed to get a few books out, get his PhD title on it, get a popular overview published (a small, entertaining and not very well edited fragment of the full story), a few coffeetable artbooks, and get recognised as the leading expert. Now the history of the group between 1936 and 1947 has been subjected to numerous overviews with academic, anecdotal or polemical bias, and still not to a detailed critical analysis. While the history of the numerous groups, groupuscules, journals and initiatives from 1967 on, has still not been even decently summarised, much less evaluated. In fact, the single most important published analysis of the latter seems to be a little article by Rémy himself in the obscure surrealist journal The Moment ("The cantankerous sunstroke and prickly wagtail, Surrealist activities in England" The Moment #2 1979), which very few have read. And, judging from the recently surfaced anthology, Rémy himself has not read or remembered what it was about at all.

This poetry anthology is a good poetry anthology in terms of the 30s and 40s. Rémy knows the topic, and the material available is limited, so the selection is rather uncontroversial: there are a bunch of good poems that simply has to be in an anthology like this and very many that hardly could be because few but the overzealous historian finds them readable at all. I could have included a few more poets from these times, but there aren't really any whose omission upsets me. The little section with collective declarations and the other extra material is beside the topic but makes a lot of sense to show another part of the width of the surrealist project and of the activities of the group.

But, lo and behold, after the 40s, what then? Hardly anything! There are very few single later poems by some veterans (Bridgwater, Del Renzio, Maddox, Melly, Morris, Rimmington), and then two (2) younger surrealists added (Anthony Earnshaw, John Welson), one of whom is alive... This is remarkable. An anthology of English surrealist poetry or poets in the 30s and 40s could very well be made, but anyone knowing anything about the existence of surrealism since, would want to make sure to clarify this circumscription in the subtitle of the book, and would not add a couple of token contemporaries, as exceptions to prove a rule or so... Surely, Earnshaw and Welson are important figures in the connection and merit their place in an anthology, but they are out of place in an anthology about 30s and 40s surrealists, and are in fact almost as much out of place as single representatives of later times: both have been working as part of larger networks, and though fine poets they hardly stand out above several others. Does Rémy really think that all the other recent surrealist poets in Britain are mediocre poets who haven't written anything that would defend it's place in an anthology? Not Alan Burns and Ken Smith, not Haifa Zangana, and not even acclaimed John Digby and Salah Faiq for fuck's sake – if poets like Michael Bullock and Roger Cardinal are considered but visiting foreigners, Siegfried de Crescendo and Rattus are considered too obscure, and many others like Stuart Inman, Peter Overton, Kenneth Cox, Anne McGrath, Philip Kane, Merl Fluin, Josie Malinowski and others are just all too contemporary?

In the chronology of this book, detailed up to the closedown of the London Gallery in 1951, a total of three single years are mentioned after that date. The last one is 1979, with a paragraph ending "failure to restructure activities". Earlier in life, Rémy knew that the background to this failure was that through 1977-80 there were indeed a number of ambitious attempts in various guises to restructure activities. And even if you might not want to be too hard on a sympathetic academic and expect him to keep track of the contemporary scene, the groups in London the past ten years etc, you might have expected him to have heard about the launch in 1993 of the Leeds surrealist group. which is usually omitted in academics' accounts of surrealism in Britain, and perhaps simply because they have not conformed to what is perceived as the modus operandi of British surrealism: ravaging internal quarrels and quick failure. Staying together and gathering constructive experience for more than 20 years, isn't that exactly a "success in restructuring activities" in this respect?

So has Michel Rémy been considered the expert of English surrealism for so long that he feels he will get away with anything, and has no need of remembering that which he knew which was chaotic or controversial? Is the thirteenth stroke of midnight intended as when it is already too late?

Mattias Forshage

PS Did someone notice that the two Alans of British surrealism, Alan Burns and Alan Davie, both were reported deceased this very year 2014? Any other Alan waiting to step up and fill their alanine shoes?

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