All 7 entries tagged Surrealism

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November 16, 2010

"Be the Hammer or the Anvil" Exhibition in Dundee, Scotland: Fetishism and the Female.

Writing about web page

In September, I met Catriona McAra at the ‘Violence and Reconciliation’ conference at Exeter University – I wrote up a bit about her panel here . I recently heard about a new project that she is working on: an all female group show in Dundee responding to the notion of fetishism and the female.

Taking its title from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus In Furs, the show aims to explore each artist’s individual approach to fetishism and materiality through newly commissioned bodies of work. The exhibition will also include a small pop-up library of subject associated literature on loan from the Glasgow Women’s Library. McAra has been commissioned to produce two text accompaniments, one of which will materialise after a week working alongside the artists at GENERATOR projects.

It’s an exciting project working through women’s art and surrealism, and I wanted to highlight it on my blog. It is taking place until December 5th 2010 in the GENERATOR artist space in Dundee. For directions, see this link .

Hammer or Anvil Exhibition, Dundee, 2010

October 12, 2010

Surrealist Workshops at Northampton University and Cardiff High School.

While I was on a month-long trip to the UK recently, I managed to give two workshops on Surrealism and poetry, one at University of Northampton and the other at Cardiff High School in South Wales.

I worked as an academic at University of Northampton for many years, researching and teaching English Literature and Creative Writing. I am now a Visiting Research Fellow at the university, and I gave a workshop on Surrealism as part of my first visit as a Visiting Fellow.

I have also built a strong relationship with Cardiff High School. One of my first jobs after my undergraduate degree was working as a classroom assistant at Cardiff High School.

The workshops took similar formats: they involved reading some Surrealist texts such as the Beatles song, I am the Walrus , André Breton’s poem Free Union , and my own Magritte-inspired poem ‘Lonesome City Dweller’. I spoke the groups about the magazine Polarity for which I am contributing editor, and we discussed how polarities are at the heart of the philosophy of French Surrealism.

At Northampton, it was really touching to see some of my old students, and to notice how they are developing as writers. They were able to produce some remarkable Surrealist poems. I have chosen three that I liked particularly. Take for example Matt Bushell’s poem ‘Laddering Shot’:

Laddering Shot

Inbetween you sing
your arms a laddering shot

waving to the hello of timeless music
decayed by bones and fleshy fingers
whose words grip you like a gun
with a cantata tongue
licking your card houses
and match-stick battle ships
built and destroyed
by your love

by Matt Bushell

I love the way in which Matt works with words – it reminds me a little bit of another Matt – the Birmingham poet Matt Nunn. As in Nunn, the language in this poem is muscular and bold and ultimately convincing.

Amberley Turnell approached the task in a different way producing a narrative that is both public and personal:

Cue Applause

Forced blooms from a steel barrel
point teeth to camera 1.
“Listen,” he slams,
“I do this for your
Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

For. Our. Freedom.
I beat in time with purple stumps
lacing butterfly wings so they stay.
Sweet tea blisters into quavers;
music from my mother’s frown.
I roll to sit and the cat sweats.

By Amberley Turnell

I like the unexpectedness of many of the images in this poem: how the decorous blooms jostle against the hardness of the steel barrel and the teeth. A flash from a political broadcast leads us on the thoughts of a maimed and sadistic narrator, who find painful blisters rather than soothing tea. Debilitated by the guilt indicated by the ‘mother’s frown’, the narrator ends signalling that s/he is debilitated – shut up with the cat in his/her damage like a sweat box.

Like Amberly, Ruth Gasson mingles the personal and political in her poem ‘Kunar Province’:

Kunar Province

She reaches for the salt
knocking the pot and spilling crystals
into the warzone.

Singing of roses and rings
as the shots call across windows,
her salt drying to tears.

He sings of pies and plums
as he holds the monster close
stroking it to climax.

The scent of cinnamon blended with tar
suffocates, as she watches his face
explode into paint.

By Ruth Gasson

What I like about this poem is the mingling of familiar symbols of war with words and motifs that are peculiarly British e.g. the reference to British nursery rhymes in ‘He sings of pies and plums’. Kunar Province is, of course, a region of Afghanistan, but what Gasson seems to be signalling in this poem is the influence and attitudes of the people at home. The monster mentioned might be war, but it seems far from real, just as the exploding face bursts into paint, not blood.

There were other interesting poems that I am not able to deal with in so much detail here. Joseph Marion Bunn (laureate for Northampton this year) wrote some amusing pieces; Chris Davey presented a post-apocalyptic scene; and Chris Fordham presented some memorable images in his poem ‘A Common Song’, especially his description of ‘Bomb / pretty melodies spilling like blood’.

The students at Cardiff High School had less time to complete their Surrealist writing, but, nevertheless, they came up with some remarkable images and phrases. The students’ writing was based on a number of polarities which I stole from the themes of issues of Polarity: death versus taxes, arms versus song, and purple versus white. (These were made up by the clever editors: George Ttoouli, Neeral Bhatt and James Brookes.)

Working on the theme of death versus taxes’, Elliot Stockford wrote about ‘money moving with great stillness’, while Rose Malleson imagined fingers ‘stained with the Queen’s ink’. Livia Frankish described ‘money trees burnt and shrivelled’, while Michael Dunn conjured a sinister taxman whose ‘hat is the shape of regret, his jacket made of poor men’s tears’. Finally, Peter Davies pictured a tax office as ‘a room full of hats, each one finely rimmed and mounted on top of one another’. Ethan Wood, asked:

Which of these men ,
wielding sword or pen,
will lead us to the stars?
One breaks necks, the other nibs.

Fewer students worked on the theme of arms versus song, but a few did. Harry Greening described ‘a small black room, covered with secrets’ where a man is tortured by sound. Exploring sound and silence, Jacob A. Bryning offered the memorable line: ‘A black hole knows no rhythm’. More students worked on the theme of purple versus white. Dan Nicol described purple as something

that starves you up
laughs and carves
and spills your cup.

Amy Giles saw an illicit relationship in the theme describing ‘a painter’s hand smudged on her gown’ and the canvas ‘which holds no excuses, tells all’. Katherine Churchill offered a sensuous exploration of colour with ‘royalty rich colour running across me on the ground’. For Kathryn Roberts, the colour white is a prison:

The pure white walls and
Pure white floors glistened.
He sat not able to move.

Altogether, both of the workshops were inspiring and enlivening, and it was great to be back teaching Creative Writing again. I hope to have inspired a few more people to go back to French Surrealist writing, as well as more modern Surrealist texts.

May 11, 2010

'Way', a Poem by Tristan Tzara.

What is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written out at the tip of each finger
and at the very end of the road is a flower which walks along with you


Translation by Michael Bendikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. by Michael Benedikt, Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, p. 104.


Tristan Tzara (1896 -1963)
Keywords: Dada, the fountain and the crystal, freedom, clarity and majestic fullness, purity, transparency, evolution towards inner surrealism, poetry as a means of deformation leading to new knowledge, light versus dark images, poetic charge, the dramatic play of difference, deliberate bareness, understatement, spontaneity, the will to unite poetry and thought or the image and the mind.

May 06, 2010

What is Surrealism? Traditional (?!) Characteristics.

I am currently preparing a talk on Welsh poetry and Surrealism for the Hay Jamboree and so I am going back to basics and asking myself the question, what is surrealism and what are its traditional (probably an inappropriate word!) characteristics? José Pierre explains in his essay, ‘To Be or Not To Be Surrealist’ that there is ‘nothing specifically French about Surrealism, save perhaps for the language, of course, which in poetry as well as theoretical texts was developed to an unrivalled point of incandescence’ (Pierre 1999: 34). Surrealism is often thought of as an avant-garde branch of poetry, but Pierre suggests that “Contrary to what is usually maintained, Surrealism is not an avant-garde movement’ (1999: 34). For the avant-garde, originality is the main priority, where as for the French Surrealists, the focus was on a particular ‘state of mind’ (Pierre 1999: 34). Thinking through how to define Surrealism in general, Pierre suggests that there has to ‘a “great rejection” of the unbearable constraints imposed on individuals by the common institutional context in which they live’ (1999: 35).

What is clear in trying to define Surrealism, is that for the French Surrealists and consequent surrealist writing, poetry is key. Pierre explains that in French Surrealism, ‘Poetry was the favored means of entering into communication with the profound movements of the universe’ (1999: 36). Surrealist poetry became ‘the key to creation in whatever medium, whether writing, painting, or sculpture’ (Pierre 1999: 37). This is unsurprising though when one considers the Surrealist interest in Freudian psychology, which ‘makes poetry indigenous to the very constitution of the mind’ so ‘the mind as Freud sees it, is in the greater part of its tendency exactly a poetry-making organ’ (Trilling 1950: 52).

In the chapter, ‘Definitions’, the critic Paul C. Ray considers the key ideas of French Surrealism, but is suspicious of easy definitions. Ray refers to the view of Jules Monnerot that it is better to build up a picture of Surrealism gradually by studying its key ideas, than to try to sum it up in a few lines. Ray lists these key ideas as follows:

1. Automatism
2. Objective Chance
3. The Surrealist Object
4. The Surrealist Image
5. The Occult
6. Humour

To these I would add another few key ideas or themes such as:

7. Dreamwork
8. The Primitive
9. Love

Over the next few days I am going to discuss these key ideas, drawing on Ray and other critics to define what Surrealism really is. The entries to follow are:

• Surrealism and Dreamwork (Entry 1 of 9)
• Surrealist Automatism (Entry 2 of 9)
• Surrealism and Objective Chance (Entry 3 of 9)
• The Surrealist Object (Entry 4 of 9)
• The Surrealist Image (Entry 5 of 9)
• Surrealism and the Occult (Entry 6 of 9)
• Surrealism and the Primitive (Entry 7 of 9)
• Surrealism and Humour (Entry 8 of 9)
• Surrealist Love (Entry 9 of 9)

General References

Pierre, José (1999) ‘To Be or Not To Be Surrealist’ in Surrealism: Two Private Eyes, ed. Edward Weisburger, New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications.

Ray, Paul C. (1971) The Surrealist Movement in England, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Trilling, Robert (1950) The Liberal Imagination, New York: Viking.

May 05, 2010

‘ “Poetry Ought to Have a Practical Purpose” ’, a poem by Paul Eluard.

Portrait of Paul Eluard by Salvador Dali

For My Exacting Friends

If I tell you that the sun in the woods
Is like a belly carried away in a bed
You believe me you approve of my desires

If I tell you that the crystal of rainy days
Echoes forever in the laziness of love’s ecstasies
You believe me you draw out the duration of your loving

If I tell you that in the branches of my bed
A bird is nesting that never says yes
You believe me you share my distress

If I tell you that at the bottom of some stream
A river’s key turns like an overture to verdure
You believe me still more you can follow

But if I sing to you of my whole long highway with no detours
And my enormous countryside like a footpath unending
You give up on me you depart for the wilds

For you only wander aimlessly without recognizing that men
Have the need to hope and struggle
To explain the world and to change it

With one step of my heart I shall lead you
I’ve lived without power for a long time it’s the way I live now
But I’m amazed to hear you say that I speak to you just to delight you
When I would free you to unite you
As much as with algae and the reeds of the dawn
As with our other brothers creating their own daylight

Translated by Michael Benedikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Paul Eluard (1895 – 1952)
Key interests: purity, spontaneity, intensity, the isolation of man, the irrational, things defined by the mind that sees them, the ability to transmute everything into everything else, paradox, the telescoping of images.

‘ “I’ll Reinvent the Rose for You”’, a poem by Louis Aragon.

Writing about web page

I’ll reinvent the rose for you
For you are that rose which cannot be described
These few words at least in the order proper to her ritual
That rose which only words distant from roses can describe
The way it is with the ecstatic cry and the terrible sadness which it translates
From the stars of pleaure above love’s deep abyss

I will reinvent for youth rose of adoring fingers
Which create a nave as they interlace but whose petals then suddenly fall away
I will reinvent for you the rose beneath the balconies
Of lovers whose only beds are their arms

The rose at the heart of sculpted stone figures dead without benefit of confession
The rose of a peasant blown to bits by a landmine in his field
The scarlet scent of a letter that has been “discovered”
In which nothing’s addressed to me neither the insult nor the compliment

Some rendezvous to which no one has come

An entire army in flight on a very windy day

A maternal footstep before prison-gates

A man’s song at siesta-time beneath the olive trees

A cock-fight in a mist-enshrouded countryside
The rose of a soldier cut off from his own home country

I’ll reinvent for you my rose as many roses
As there are diamonds in the waters of the seas
As there are past centuries adrift in the dust of the earth’s atmosphere
As there are dreams in just one childish head

As there can be reflections in one tear


Translated by Michael Benedikt

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Louis Aragon (1897-1982)
Key interests: poetry of the real, the mystery of the everyday, simplicity, intellectual cruelty, poetry as a slap, the poetic shiver, collage, newspaper posters, black and white cinema, automatic crystallizations, remaking clichés, flat language, artistic distance from one’s audience, love and despair towards language, nominalism (no thought beyond words), verbal incapacity, contradictions, madness, the inexpressible.

A Poem, 'Free Union', by André Breton.

My wife whose hair is a brush fire
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger
Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude
Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow
Whose tongue is made out of amber and polished glass
Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer
The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut
Whose tongue is an incredible stone
My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child
Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows
My wife whose temples are the slate of greenhouse roofs
With steam on the windows
My wife whose shoulders are champagne
Are fountains that curl from the heads of dolphins over the ice
My wife whose wrists are matches
Whose fingers are raffles holding the ace of hearts
Whose fingers are fresh cut hay
My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit
And Midsummer Night
That are hedges of privet and resting places for sea snails
Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea
And a fusion of wheat and a mill
Whose legs are spindles
In the delicate movements of watches and despair
My wife whose calves are sweet with the sap of elders
Whose feet are carved initials
Keyrings and the feet of steeplejacks
My wife whose neck is fine milled barley
Whose throat contains the Valley of God
And encounters in the bed of the maelstrom
My wife whose breasts are of night

And are undersea molehills
And crucibles of rubies
My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses
Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight
Is a giant talon
My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight
With a back of quicksilver
And bright lights
My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and white chalk
And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk
My wife with the thighs of a skiff
That are lustrous and feathered like arrows
Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock
And imperceptible balance
My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax
Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring
My wife with the sex of an iris
A mine and a platypus
With the sex of an alga and old-fashioned candles
My wife with the sex of a mirror
My wife with eyes full of tears
With eyes that are purple armour and a magnetized needle
With eyes of savannahs
With eyes full of water to drink in prisons
My wife with eyes that are forests forever under the axe
My wife with eyes that are the equal of water and air and earth and fire


Translated by David Antin

Taken from The Poetry of Surrealism: An Anthology, ed. Michael Benedikt (Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1974).


Andre Breton (1896-1966)
Key interests: Openness to chance events, surprise for its own sake, the attitude of a child, presence and immediacy, a return to the full significance of language, poetry as electricity, word games, puns, anagrams, aphorisms, the play of images, shock, against logic, constantly destructive, lacking in unity.


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