Monday, September 28, 2015


merdarius's linklist at the Stockholm surrealist group webpage, "Surrealism links", was incepted in 2009 and was sometimes referred to as the "ultimate" or "standard" surrealist linklist. However it was only unsystematically updated. Maintaining such a comprehensive list is a lot of work and not necessarily of the more pleasant kind. A major update of its central parts has been done now, and the whole list moved to a new location for easier access (and now with explicit disclaimer as to responsibility for keeping it up-to-date).
Pages die, surrealists die, surrealists pop up, maybe-surrealists pop up, surrealists change their mind as to whether they want to have a webpage, criteria are refined, evaluations as to who might possibly fulfill criteria change. A 2015 overview remains historically interesting. Who managed to stay in the shade? Who have wholeheartedly embarked on the currently most popular social media rather than blogs and personal webpages and for how long? Who consider themselves public figures or not? And of course the rate of webpresence, especially so webpresence connected with a personal name, is very different in different countries, but also in different personalities...

The new list is called Desmatorium surrealistorum

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reality check

I sometimes dream about colorful pasts that I have supposedly had, and often end up in analytical deliria concerning how to distinguish ”real” memories from memories ”incepted” by dream content. Recently, I revisited a place where I had supposedly been a regular, and I devised the clever method of asking two trusted friends whether the place was real or not. These two fulfil a function of ”certified friends”, people I trust I will keep seeing also without any specific bonds or shared projects, and therefore, the logic went, they were an external point of reference, not involved in ongoing processes, could not have their own agenda, and were absolutely trustworthy. One of them confirmed the reality of this particular dreamt past, and added the argument that I had been having very fanciful plans about the surrealist group taking over the place, and such a poor connection with reality implies that it must have been a reality to be poorly connected to in the first place.

But elsewhere, such a ”reality check” is often more complicated. Sometimes the question is posed as simplicistically as ”what is dream and what is real”. If we approach this question empirically, not borrowing from various physical and psychological theories which we were taught as gospel in school or in textbooks, instead recognising that things do phenomenologically feel sometimes more real and sometimes less real immediately and regardless of our later intellectual interpretation of them; then what? We would first need a definition of the two states, which would need to be empirically based in our available methods of objectively distinguishing between them, thus we’d need to devise methods and reach definitions only in conjunction with each other, and only then empirically evaluate whether they are actually mutually exclusive.

Actually, modern fiction seems to have made this somewhat easier. With fictional ”universes”, there is always a question of which stories are part of continuity and which are not. This is in fact the same question that some of us keep asking ourselves about our lives in general. Stories that are part of continuity (”real”) are the ones that has consequences for character development, relationships, and long-term plot. In stories outside continuity anything could happen, people can act ”out of character”, do things they will never have to answer for, go on uninhibited sex and violence rampages, they could die, over and over again, the whole logic of the story could collapse and the characters or the writer start speaking directly to the reader/viewer, etc.

Something real, phenomenologically speaking so as not to have to get involved in metaphysical questions which will have to be based outside the investigation, is something that is vivid and ”makes sense”, and especially in the sense of coherence and contingence, something that takes part in ongoing chains of causality and ongoing life processes.

A dream, in a similar framework, can perhaps be tentatively defined as any course of event or other vivid experience which seems to have an inner origin and is experienced with the body at rest.

And perhaps only then we can claim without being misunderstood that surrealism has always been about recognising reality in its entirety, thus being somewhat polemical against all the narrow instrumentalist conceptions of the real which are based on nervously invented restrictions and oppositions. The ”realism” that was professed by vociferous advocates is typically characterised by attempts to circumscribe the real as narrowly as possible. No, all such attempts to represent reality with only a small portion of it (rhetorically a synecdoche) usually fails to convey the experience of reality, which is not the least the experience of a type of fullness and inexhaustibility of reality.

And we see that dream and reality very often overlap. There are of course many dreams that we return from with relief or reluctance that not only feel no less real than anything else, but which also connects with several major ongoing processes in our lives, and do get practical consequences. And, even more strikingly, there is a large portion of our waking life which has no consequences whatsoever, which does nothing to forward our desires or respond to our curiosity, so much time spent at work, or with extensive entertainment, or with various uninteresting chores, or alone at home, or with the family… (Other arenas for social interactions might be just as conventional or dull, but it is typical for the family that any showdowns or any resolution are quickly forgotten and then repeated again and again, and outside the family even conventional social relationships do keep changing at least in terms of the relationships.) Clearly, Swedenborg, Blake and Nerval were pioneers in recognising the ontological status of their dreamlife as real, and instructively, they were also good at making things happen based on this more inclusive, more full, sense of reality.

Surrealism, it has been argued, can be translated with the watchword ”more reality!”


Two clarifications

In the discussion about poetry in "Surrealism is and is not something particular" below, there were a few formulations that raised questions/objections from Aase Berg, and forced me to the following clarifications:

”form is secondary”
It is certainly characteristic for poetry that content and form are not separate things, that language details have a spiritual meaning. It’s actually not the least specifically that which I am referring to here: in poetry there does not exist any stylistic choices, it is about different tracks of the spirit that one chooses to explore or not explore. It is not about a given content which one chooses which guise to give. It is the content that creates a form for itself in one’s hands according to its own dynamic. Form is then secondary in the sense that it shows afterwards what form it took – and that various distinctions and classifications based on form (”this is a surrealist poem, but this one is more expressionist”) are of limited interest.

”domestications of poetry”
I mean domestication in the sense of taming a wild animal, learning to exploit something to make it carry out labour in the safe sphere, mastering great powers for small, local, if you will petty, purposes, the typical example being home and family, but just as much career and ego.
A domesticated use of poetry is for example writing casual poems with the purpose of sublimating strong feelings and smooth over conflicts in the events of national disasters or funerals. But this isn’t extremely common these days.
Far more common is when a collection of poetry is regarded as an entry in the cv for stipend applications rather than as something flammable, when poet becomes a profession in the phonebook, when poetry is regarded as a textual genre rather than as an adventure or a desperate research task, etc. And it is also when, to connect it with the question of form, and relating to the latter aspect (”textual genre”), somebody so to speak ”is using the poetic form” to express a certain line of thought, a certain fix idea, a beloved memory, a certain courtship of either an object for seduction or a judge of taste, to demonstrate one’s wide reading, one’s elegant versification skills, one’s consciousness of heritage or of trends or of both, instead of following its own dynamics.
And it is probably foremostly the latter, ”using the form” that I am referring to in the text.

And I keep talking about these things in the post about American poetry below.

The Nightlight Market

–What is Neosurrealism?

”Neosurrealism” has been repeatedly launched as a catchphrase for minor directions within art and literature where people eclectically pick up some alleged lessons from surrealism and put them back in a more or less conformist framework within cultural production. It has been particularly big in the US, perhaps needless to say. Some time ago, it was mainly used for pop-influenced Dalí-ist painting, but today this current is mainly (and more properly) referred to as ”fantastic art”.

Instead, there has been in recent years several efforts to put the headlight on surrealist influences in American poetry, often but far from always referred to as ”neosurrealism”. This includes a number of different efforts, with academic theses (Tursi, Lampe), popular introductions (Joron, Caples) and online discussions. Usually it has been about promoting the legacy of Philip Lamantia, and usually it has been put in stark contrast against the organised surrealist movement on the whole and against Chicago surrealism and Franklin Rosemont specifically. In the last year, there has been attempts to tie such threads together, perhaps the most ambitious one being the upstate New York poet John Thomas Allen launching ”The New Surrealist Institute”, publishing a comprehensive anthology of neosurrealist poetry, and seeming to claim to spearhead a movement.

There are many confused domestications of surrealism and they hardly merit detailed study. For lack of something better to do during a short while this summer, when this particular one turned up a few times clustered I was pulled into checking it up. And then it took several weeks for some books to arrive, which I maybe ought not to attempt any detailed summary without having read. It’s not that I am so very interested in the situation of surrealism in the US, even though I would agree that surrealism’s trajectory in that particular country is a critical case for its entire post-classic history. In fact I should apologise for length, I just wanted to make this overview accessible once I laboriously obtained it, and couldn’t help restating a number of basic points about poetry in the connection.

Why neosurrealism?

Obviously, the word ”neosurrealist” is pointless, implying either an imagined historical rift breaking up surrealist continuity, or an ambiguous volontary departure without the imagination to find something positively given to characterise the new direction.

From the viewpoint of surrealism, a course correction relevant to surrealism typically makes sense to integrate into surrealism, rather than break off as a separate branch. And furthermore, to the extent that such developments have indeed needed to be organisationally separate, and have had something relevant to offer, in the past, they have often (relevantly) preferred to refer to their own direction by its own characteristics rather than its distance to - but still dependence on - surrealism (clear in the cases of Acephale and the Sociological College, of Lettrism and Situationism, somewhat less clear but still positively stated in ”Cobraism”, nuclearism, imaginism etc). Claiming to be a neo- is like not quite living up to the real thing while unable to come up with something original.

Also, in the literary discussion in the US, it seems like ”neosurrealism” has been used interchangeably with ”soft surrealism”: which is even clearer about what it concerns: a vague inspiration without any serious commitment.

Neosurrealism may be used as a descriptive term. Just like we might give the descriptive name ”postsurrealism” to any direction manifested by someone with the intention of leaving surrealism (regardless of whether it succeeds or not), we might call ”neosurrealism” any attempt to reinvent surrealism (volontarily or involontarily) without picking up the trail of historical continuity. Inventing the wheel over again. 

This might be the local enthusiasts who pick up some old book by Breton and wants to start it up again, unaware of the contemporary movement. Such neophytes are often quite happy to join forces and pool resources once they find the movement, and their ”neosurrealism” is just a temporary phase.

Though if they feel intimidated by the presence of peers, and by the distinctions made from historical experience, they might feel a need to defend their own individual version of ”neosurrealism” with its particular compromises, additions, subtractions and emphasises, and with themselves as the foremost theorists, and stubbornly maintain their alleged uniqueness. In some cases this would express mainly a nostalgia over the real dynamism of some youthful heroic years against the wind before finding accomplices. But empirically, it seems like most such cases instead involve a reluctancy to apply surrealism broadly, to see political and philosophical implications, and to grapple with it on the level of everyday life – and instead to reduce it again to either literature or pictorial art.

Not only is this remarkably similar to the common old boring academic approach, and tends to go hand in hand with common old careerist concerns, where the ”autonomy” is mainly an autonomy of pragmatism, where you should be free to make your own choices about all the concessions you are doing for the sake of attention by critics and publishers, and not be criticised for it.

It is a bit weird, isn’t it, that restricting poetry to the literary context, staying alone, and adapting to expectations in the literary market, is considered free, autonomous, mature and advanced –while integrating poetry with other necessities of life, joining up with each other, and working within a demanding tradition and utilising reciprocal questioning and criticism, is considered dogmatic, narrowminded and isolated.

Surrealism and literature

A lot of the discussion about neosurrealism is about categorisation, who is a neosurrealist and who is not. At the same time, some of these categorisers regret that those who talk about surrealism, especially those who defend it, always always tend to talk about dividing and demarcation lines. Well, it’s not like anyone can actually decide who’s a real surrealist and who’s not. Any demarcation line needs to be identified and negotiated based on the purpose with it. That’s why it might occasionally be interesting to discuss delineations, specifically in order to reveal one’s purposes. 

There are crucial and quite simple demarcation lines since surrealism does in fact rest on a break. That is for example (in this connection) the break with considering literature as the major battlefield, considering the poem a valuable goal in itself within the system of personal expression, formal elegance, stylistic innovativity, reflection of influences and current trends, and of the development of the history of literature.

In surrealism, the poem is an integrated part in an investigation and an invocation of poetry with the overall aim to transform life and change the world. Anyone who merely wants to write good surrealist poems is not a surrealist. The surrealist keeps writing such poems (or not!) with something else in mind.

And while there are various tropes and manouevres that are common in texts by surrealists, there is no such thing as defining characteristics of a surrealist text. A text recognisable as utilising the same elements as characteristic earlier surrealist texts does not by power of that become a surrealist text. A text based in a surrealist outlook and a surrealist aim is a surrealist text. Especially if written by a surrealist. While other texts relevant for that outlook and aim, and utilising particular poetic means in that spirit, can very well be surrealist texts (of the ”unconsciuously surrealist” genre if you will…) Any eagerness to define criteria for surrealism on the stylistic level seems to reveal an aim to reduce surrealism to a mere topic for academic study within a particular field and to miss completely what surrealism is about.

The current US advocates of neosurrealism position themselves completely within the field of cultural production (especially literature). Someone described it is as that there is currently a vacuum and an open contest for the position as dominant paradigm of the time (after postmodernism), and then considering that surrealism is a suitable candidate for that competition. Of course, even if this was a correct analysis of the current situation in culture (which I’m sure it’s not), surrealism couldn’t care less about competing over that position…

A poet remains a poet and this is not dependent on designations.

However, the question of who is a great poet and who is not, this must be stressed, DOES NOT MEAN THE SAME THING from a literary and a surrealist perspective. From the literary viewpoint, a great poet is a writing person who writes powerful and impressive poems by mastering the tools of the trade, is aware of canon and utilises it for own purposes, is consistent and designs an oeuvre, a body of work that has a central direction and every now and then offers technical novelties and stylistic brilliance, and exerts a significant influence on other writers.

Most of this is just irrelevant from a surrealist perspective, where a great poet is a researcher without a safety net, if you will fearless psychonaut, with no credentials and no relevant possessions except curiosity and sensibility, mediating the poetic message and furthering it in a dynamic form that forces open some unusual sector of the realm of possibilities and changes the perspective on things, who explores poetry and tries in one way or another to stay true to it, in different areas and significantly including writing poetic texts. The genre of your texts matters little, innovation matters little, your civil position matters little, your ”impact” matters little. Of course, experienced careerists and clumsy beginners alike are capable of writing scattered inflammable poetic outbursts. Certainly, someone can be a great poet from a literary and a surrealist viewpoint alike, but the criteria are very different, and many more are great from only one of the perspectives and ridiculous from the other…

Surrealism is on the other side of a dividing line. Exploring the poetic is an extraliterary challenge. The quest will take very diverse routes, but seeing the point with and gaining some experience of anonymity, collectivity and automatism is probably a crucial corrective against many of the available domestications of poetry. Remember Tzara’s crucial distinction between poetry as a means of expression and poetry as an activity of the spirit. Surrealism’s break involves starting out from the latter side unequivocally. Surrealists are not writers of a particular style or standpoint, surrealists utilise writing as a vehicle, which is among other things a weapon against a given framework of exploitation, boredom, pragmatism, faith, stupidity, noise, productivity demands and miserabilism. For dismissing the dull seductions of the cultural world. For dismissing civilised thematics and self-administrative concerns. For preferring the unknown.

A sun at night?

A Lamantia disciple and recent ”Science Fiction Surrealist” Andrew Joron published the key text of modern American neosurrealism ten years ago, Neo-Surrealism; or, the Sun at Night: Transformations of Surrealism in American Poetry 1966-1999 (2004). His study is a sketchy overview of surrealist inspiration in American poets. As such it is very readable, and contains some interesting observations, suggestions and reading tips. (Apparently there is also a second edition from 2010 with minor updates, which I have not seen; it might make some of the following details irrelevant but hardly the general argument.)

Without actually defining neosurrealism, his pamphlet works hard to make a lot of contradictions and distinctions within poetry, internal and external. It is rhetorically built up around a central opposition between a successful, domestic literary surrealism led by Lamantia and a sterile, isolated organised surrealism represented by the Chicago group. The alleged good pole of the opposition is where the author is sketching a new canon, where inspiration from surrealism, combined with working within a national American poetry scene, publishing in American literary journals, positioning visavis American literary schools are crucial, and acquiring academic positions is a meriting proof of quality…  Indeed, it seems to be a criterion for his neo-surrealism that it is specifically American and not closely relating to its European models. (”It is not a question of nationalism but of opening a space for cultural selfdefinition” says Joron.)

Of course neither aspect works well to provide a neat separation. Obviously Lamantia, the rimbaldian hero and patron saint of the one pole, himself (as Joron admits) was involved with the organised movement too. Any other writers that Joron recognises as relevant are counted in the literary, non-Chicago camp, including Ted Joans, Rikki Ducornet, and especially Jayne Cortez, despite themselves. (While at the same time Joseph Jablonski is explicitly excluded from the discussion for being ”orthodox” even if his poetry is acknowledged. Joron’s disciple Caples extends the same backhanded recognition to Penelope Rosemont herself.) Joans and Ducornet are very well-known within surrealist collaborations and apparently well-known outside them. Lamantia covered both domestic concerns and international ones, as did Nanos Valaoritis. In fact, Valaoritis wrote an enthusiastic introduction to contemporary American poetry in an issue of the French ”orthodox” Surréalisme in 1977, claiming that the American poets, especially the Californian post-Beats, were all internationalist and non-chauvinistic and relevant to surrealism (he might have been wrong). And Pete Winslow was a hardcore surrealist but is for some reason posthumously considered a neosurrealist. While another serious Lamantian disciple, Laurence Weisberg, is much held forth nowadays by some of the surrealists and some of the neos alike. An Allan Graubard never denied his basic surrealist position yet still has been active on the domestic cultural scene. Ronnie Burk was active on the domestic scene while quite hardcore. In recent times, everybody hails Will Alexander, and both he and Sotere Torregian have repeatedly appeared in surrealist connections, and goddamn even Joron himself was in the recent Hydrolith #2. Such sheep and wolves don’t quite congregate in separate corners of the field. It is a kind of a borgesian, non-exclusive, taxonomy.

If I think an internationalist perspective fits better with the dynamics of poetry than the concern for a domestic literary scene does, and if I think academic positions are statistically likely to suffocate poetry rather than intensify it, I would still argue that the power in a poem is not so much dependent on where the author fits in a constructed classification scheme, and I’m not going to defend the merits of particular poets against a literary judge of taste (for example listing particularly good poets in the organised half). This is confused and obviously breeds confusion.

A lamp that throws no light

Lampe’s 2014 thesis about is basically saying the same as Joron’s pamphlet but in ten times more pages, even though the topic is not explicitly ”neosurrealism” but surrealism in American poets (again disregarding active surrealists). There is useful background information and interesting observations here too, but most of the effort is simply wasted because it is all about discussing whether this or that poem is actually a surrealist poem, in purely textual terms, thus expecting there to be trustworthy stylistic criteria for surrealism, and expecting surrealism to be something that has its full meaning in the literary sphere concerning poems – and thus the whole discussion is of course alien to surrealism.

This restrictive circumscription is conscious and explicit; it is after all an academic work which rests on restricting its question and making this explicit. Its just that in this case such a restriction also removes the ground for saying anything interesting about poetry in the light of surrealism, which otherwise might have been considered to be the topic.

I mean, all the way back from classic structuralism and throughout a more poetically-minded sense of close reading, there are certainly interesting observations to be made about surrealist texts as texts too, even in an academic context, if the question is what they bring, convey and invoke, what they open up towards, not if the question is whether they are to be judged as surrealist or not, according to the narrow criteria one has just put up for oneself (and not even explicitly): this becomes simply a juridical question of no consequence.

An invisible trail in the dark: constructing a canon

The autohistoriography of neosurrealism is more or less this: the American poets reacted against a perceived arrogance of the visiting European exile surrealists during the war, with their lack of understanding of something specifically American, so surrealist inspiration got foothold only through the significantly different and local New York School poetry and then Beat poetry. Then came ”Deep Image poetry” as an antithesis drawing some renewed inspiration from surrealism but staying separate from it, and even more so with its successor ”Language poetry”, and then there were various mini-schools of descendants of these four major domestic trends. The most significant surrealist forum has been, according to the Americans, the little poetry magazine Kayak (and its successor Caliban). This since the surrealist movement, which has itself again been present now in an autochthonous guise since the 60s, has been ”orthodox” and ”isolated” in being active in the international movement rather than focusing on the domestic cultural scene, and therefore lacks significance.

That great neon sign

Apparently, the obsession with expressing something particularly ”American” is shared between a Neosurrealist and most of US culture including Hollywood, Hiphop, Walt Disney and George Bush; this is indeed not necessarily nationalistic but only displays an excessive focus on cultural identity: what we call identity politics, ambiguous when it comes to minority identities, hardly priding when it comes to identities with hegemonic qualities.

(And wasn’t, at least for those who aren’t openly reactionary among those who keep obsessing with what is American, one of the crucial things about it that it would be very including and syncretistic concerning all the various elements brought in by immigrants from all directions (the old ”melting pot” metaphor)? One prospective neosurrealist anthology editor, Mark Tursi, raised the question whether certain named immigrants should be discarded for not being American, and couldn’t understand when this ”innocent” question made some of his correspondents upset.)

Poetry to express your nationality? Hey, even if those old universalist fantasies of poets are obviously vain in parts (which doesn’t make them quite irrelevant by the way), then still isn’t a crucial element in poetry, and a very important reason for people to pick it up, the urgent need to refuse and abandon given cultural identifications and explore metamorphosis and alternative identifications, exotic if necessary?

While the obsession with involvement with the domestic literary scene is probably more instrumental. Teleologically this might be explained as ”in order to be able to influence the direction of national culture”, but practically it is probably just good old careerism. To make a career you need to expose your name in the local context, you need to get personally acquainted with your superiors and your more successful peers who might help you attain positions, connect you with other influential people, etc. Coming into the light within a ”small magazine” gives the required dose of collectivity: you need a certain amount of mutual help in everybody’s parallell goal of exposure, and being associated with the network around a magazine is of course a conveniently non-committal way of doing so, without the risks and efforts and naïvity of an actual collective activity of exploring poetry and its consequences together…

A flash of hipness

It might be good to remember that back in the Beat days, both Philip Lamantia and Ted Joans provided links between surrealism and beat. But while Lamantia at this time was only retrospectively referring to his youth surrealist experience, Joans was actively involved in surrealism. Lamantia became pulled back into surrealism later, but being a Beat legend with a legendary surrealist connection became much more of his heritage than being active in surrealism (and famously acknowledged no particular contradiction between surrealism and neither his Beat stardom nor his catholic faith, or at least no contradiction which wasn’t smoothly appropriated as the psychonaut’s love of contradiction itself…). In contrast with Joans, who remained a surrealist militant his entire life. Nanos Valaoritis too has been spanning both over time, but in his work in North America probably far more as a Beat with a surrealist connection, just like Lamantia. But then, in neosurrealist historiography it is suddenly Corso and Kaufman who are the crucial surrealists in Beat more than Joans and Valaoritis.

Since surrealism is not a style, it is not impossible to write surrealist texts in the Beat language. Personally, I have no love for the Beat idiome, and I do tend to associate Beat looseness of form with lack of concentration, and male-chauvinistic selfsufficience, providing an instructive lesson showing the clear dividing line between lazy stream-of-consciousness spontanism and the seriousness of an automatic enquiry. However I will readily admit that Joans and Lamantia (and Winslow and others, especially if you count Jayne Cortez in this track) reach further than this and provide a starting point for an enquiry into the relationship between B & S that may lead to more interesting conclusions than personal statements of taste and suspicion. Who’s there to do such an enquiry without feeling a need to defend the honour of ordinary American poetry, nor to stop at merely stylistic criteria for purely literary distinctions?

A flicker down the well

Already ”deep image poetry” is essentially neosurrealism, in the early 60s: a pure-blooded homegrown American variety of some kind of surrealism stripped of its morals, its spiritual discipline, its historical experience, its sense of movement, its critical thinking, its politics, its collectivity, its weirdness, its humour, and instead merged with pure literary concerns, good-old eclecticist-seductive Jungian psychology, academic english-language modernism and an overall pretentious modernist syncretism. Significant for this strain is that it considers bombastic romantic stalinist Neruda an even better surrealist than the surrealists, and that the most persistent proponent Robert Bly founded the ”men's movement”.

Already many of the direct followers of this deep image school, and even more so current neosurrealists, were repelled by its pretentiousness, and some by its international outlook and europhilia (but few by its eclecticism and regressive politics). So many lapsed back into a certain playfulness, into Beat-style loose compositional form, ”street” elements and popular culture references, a lot of elements from Science Fiction - and/or into a more experimental approach to language.

Do you like to see my solitary vessel

A cornerpost in the neosurrealist historiographies is the poetry magazine Kayak, edited by George Hitchcock in California 1964-1984, where a lot of the surrealist-influenced American poets published. This is a typical semi-underground magazine with a surrealist tendency, what is usually called ”surrealisant” in French (surrealising). A notable amount of contributions and even the overall presentation is influenced by surrealism, but in very different ways (including the leading ”deep image” poets), and alongside material which is clearly not, and most importantly without any explicit defense of surrealism as such - nor any other explicit platform - for the contributors. A bunch of contributors have also been associated with the historical surrealist movement, a fact which is not mentioned by the neosurrealist historiographers: some of these are claimed for neosurrealism: Valaoritis, Pete Winslow, H R Hays, several not (the national criterion?) like Ken Smith, Michael Bullock, Ludwig Zeller, especially remarkable is the silence concerning John Digby, a persistent contributor whose collages had a significant impact on the magazine’s looks, and who might have started the collaboration back in England but then moved over to the US and was actively involved. Anyway, the journal is deemed way too "eurocentric" for the neosurrealist stick.

I have seen only small fragments of Kayak, but personally I do enjoy such little magazines when they are playful and serious - but its very provinciality, modesty and selfimposed restriction of scope, is not necessarily something good in poetic terms compared with the simultaneous hellraising approaches throughout the diversity of its contemporary US surrealist periodicals, like Arsenal, Antinarcissus, Octopus-Typewriter, Glass Veal, Beef Sphinx, and others… 

The New Candle of John Thomas

There is a very entertaining discussion posted online a few years ago when one of these academics (Mark Tursi) wanted to make a big anthology based on Joron’s concepts.

But apparently that came to nothing and the anthology that eventually did surface was by an enthusiastic newcomer named John Thomas Allen, who also founded the ”New Surrealist Institute” and apparently has been quite active in social media. There is a blog including scattered more or less interesting interviews, reflections and poems. What is weird about it that this NSI is held forth as a new avantgarde movement, separate from other groupings. And at the same time it doesn’t publish collective games or collective statements, everything is presented by the leader personally. The others might not even be aware that they are in a ”group”.

What is explicitly presented as the manifesto of this movement is the anthology, presumably in its entirety, ”Nouveau’s Midnight Sun: Transcriptions from Golgonooza and beyond” (2014). It is a rather thin collection of poems with a personal and enthusiastic but not very thorough introduction by the editor. Of the crowd included in the book, there seems to be a few neosurrealists in the sense of clueless re-inventors, paired with several post-new-york-school-veterans and few post-californian-beat veterans, and their diverse followers, providing a lot of manifest surrealist influence fluctuating between the several-times-watered-down and the faithful-halfdigested and a lot of scattered namedropping of surrealist works and quotes (and a token experienced surrealist in Bogartte). Contributors are introduced not so much with a background sketch nor an attempt to characterise their poetic quest, but with anecdotes as to what they each contributed in the editor’s spiritual quest (or networking trajectory) along with a bit of the usual citing of selected academic degrees and teaching posts, prizes and awards received (seriously! can you Americans stop this? can’t you see that even if being a poet was about credentials - which it certainly isn’t - then simple official acceptance is not one that merits…)

Of sources for his variety of surrealism, Allen in all his texts keeps referring mainly to academic art historian Celia Rabinovitch and the later, ex-surrealist, religious existentialist, David Gascoyne. It follows the ”spiritual” strain in surrealism attributed to Lamantia. There might be such a strain and it might be worth following, but it would be more interesting to found it more in own experience than in renegades and academics. And while we all are happy with the notion of ”profane illumination” and a metaphysical dimension of surrealism, while some of us have dived into thorough studies of alchemy, gnosticism, occultism and whatnot while others have not, any attempts to reconcile surrealism with theology and with churches, also in the vaguest sense, have been either missing the point by reducing surrealism to some kind of profound humanism, or have sensed and somehow lived the obvious contradiction. Citing an academic for legitimity and then admitting one is at a quest of ”combining Surrealism and God” (!) does not sound like a particularly dramatic spiritual departure…

However, and this is important, while Allen speaks of ”a new surrealism” and his title clearly links with Joron’s, he does not in his texts invoke Neosurrealism as opposed to orthodox surrealism, and he does not bring up the national criterion, nor seem enthusiastic about what is American, nor raise the domestic cultural market criterion, and he does not attack Franklin Rosemont. He is simply an energetic enthusiast intent on leading a supposedly sleeping movement to new glory (last time, there was some Internet artists who suggested that Photoshop and the Internet had finally revived the sleeping movement and set it back upon its path to due fame). Maybe it isn’t really sleeping, and maybe it isn’t looking for new glory, and maybe it doesn’t need new self-advertising leaders?

(If indeed this is inteded as surrealism rather than neosurrealism, it may be regarded as a parallell intervention to the recent neophyte surrealist online journal Peculiar Mormyrid. Even looser in its circumscriptions, combining various allegedly surrealist submissions from all around including those of many an organised or experienced surrealist of more exhibitions leanings, it also has a quite different tone. With very unusual (unamerican?) modesty emphasising itself being a ”fledgling” surrealist journal, trying out collective games (though only on the blog part of the webpage and not in the journal, only online and not in the flesh…), mixing texts of different genres and all kinds of images rather than focusing on the poem, it does not make these bold or controversial statements (nor any theoretical-level statements at all), which may perhaps make it look hopelessly timid and vague. But more importantly, at least a small number of participants give the impression that they actually want to play the game, surprise themselves and step into the doorway of the unknown, rather than make a name for themselves.)


In this post, I have made an attempt to understand what people are trying to put into the concept Neosurrealism by way of some significant texts around it. I am not dealing with the poems that are considered to constitute the core of the thing, not even if more programmatic by its advocates. Simply because some of it is ok, some even very good, and quite a bit of it is really poor, and it is not very interesting to sit and judge over poems, especially not to reprimand people for writing poor poems. What I am interested in here is what the concept might mean, if it may constitute a movement, and what relationship it might have to surrealism.

Many people are clearly easy-going eclecticists with a ”fear of touch” who think that actively associating with an actual movement (rather than just a ”school of writing”) is a compromise of integrity. That’s one of the explanations for neosurrealism.

But then this issue of the domestic scene seems crucial. Anyone who is not specifically directed towards the US domestic literary situation, not actively relating to local developments, bickerings, and local minor traditions of using, misusing or refusing foreign influences, and not publishing in domestic journals for the betterment of the national literature, are obviously disregarded as aloof elitists or madmen.

And finally, it seems to still be about the Rosemont factor; the traumatic impact on the peaceful domestic scene by an ultraradical verbal onslaught claiming tradition and principles, like that of the Chicago group. Any living surrealism will question your raison d’être if you are an aspiring writer and academic, and the Chicago group raised this point of view in a version which was rather healthily devoid of shyness, civil concerns and compromise (some of their polemics might not have been quite on target over the years, but the basic argument here is clear as a bell). The massive complaints of how ”isolated” and ”sterile” this do come out as something of a self-contradiction; apparently it did have a rather wide impact in teaching people that surrealism wasn’t something that you could freely adapt to your own fuzzy within-literary concerns, local eclecticism and career dreams without raising some objections…

For a moment there, I had a paranoid thought that these facets of Neosurrealism (whose presence in surrealist networks is symptomatic) would join forces with some of the more bitter old US surrealists in an unholy alliance where open-minded ”lack of orthodoxy”, resentment against old bully Franklin Rosemont, and giving up the hopes of group activity, internationalism and desire for immediate change would form the common ground. But on the other hand, why?

It may be regrettable that the recent resurgence of discussion about surrealist organisation in the US, while having merits in bringing unknown anecdotes and long-circulated rumours into the open (Note: this current discussion may have as its headlight the massive Invisible Heads anthology; but it must be noted that as anthology and long-term documentation its value goes far beyond any such rhetorical function), still retains its bedrock in who did something bad to whom 40 years ago. But it is not confined to that. Not all contacts and alliances being made are based on politeness, shared resentment, or hope of reciprocation. There are still hopes beyond that. Whoever is a surrealist will remain a surrealist for reasons other than making a name and reforming literature. Whoever is a poet will be a poet regardless of labels. Whoever is a careerist will do their careerist thing, and keep aiming for recognition by superiors while eventually turning against their less successful peers or followers, once they have no free additional cred to give. Surrealism has no legitimity to offer.

Neo-surrealism is of course pointless in itself as a label, but possibly pragmatically useful as a warning sign since it is usually applied wherever the major concerns are to claim ”inspiration” from surrealism for reforming literature and promoting careers within the borders of the United States. Even though I would be much more interested in not cementing such a border and instead seeing poets keep on wriggling with the tempting challenges of extraliterary concerns and poetry itself and possibly even become surrealists rather than literary figures one day…  Whoever is badmouthing or misrepresenting surrealism is not a big deal. The main point is that poetry is so much more an adventure, so much more impractical, and even so much more fun, than neosurrealism or any other literary endeavour. Surrealism is about changing life and transforming the world, it does not wish to reform literature and promote careers; this is a simple and useful criterion.