box of jars

The Spirit of Correspondence
marc jaffee

It is in poetry, and prose poetry especially, that surrealist attitudes become keenly felt well ahead of the twentieth century. Rimbaud's prose poems, generally classified in the Symbolist/Modernist tradition, anticipate many of the interests of surrealist literature. Prose poetry has always been receptive to a poetics of juxtaposition, chance, and reverie; since Lautréamont's seminal Maldoror, the prose poem has been amorously entwined with surrealism. Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein, for example, perfected the practice of "incommensurable meanings activated by our imagination" (to use Simic's phrase) in 1914, ten years before André Breton wrote the first Surrealist Manifesto.

Influenced by Freudian dream analysis, Breton's conception of Surrealism emphasizes the motif of substitution. Substitution– a counterpart to convergence– is central to the work of prose poets as diverse as Stein, Simic, and Francis Ponge.

Ponge is a poet whose Surrealist tendencies belie his unclassifiable style. He did not, in fact, think of himself as a poet, but as a kind of observer or chronicler. Nonetheless, his compositions have the lapidary quality of the Symbolist poets and the semantic spontaneity of Stein. Mute Objects of Expression is an intricate catalogue of minutiae, a series of carefully observed descriptions– "a ruffle of cool satin marvelously crumpled a ruff profuse with little tongues twisted and torn by the violence of their talk" is one of the many ways Ponge describes a carnation.

In his Note on Art, Tristan Tzara contends: "Art is at present the only construction complete unto itself, about which nothing more can be said, such is its richness, vitality, sense, wisdom. Understanding, seeing. Describing a flower: relative poetry more or less paper flower. Seeing." This was written in 1917, while Tzara was still working his way through Dadaism. Compare this with a quote from Francis Ponge, written 35 years later, in Mute Objects of Expression (La Rage de l'Expression); Ponge writes: "Accept the challenge things offer to language. These carnations, for instance, defy language. I won't rest till I have drawn together a few words that will compel anyone reading or hearing them to say: this has to do with something like a carnation." These two descriptions of the act of description are both getting at the same idea: things in themselves are no longer reproducible ("more or less paper flower")– poetry must necessarily reach after an elusive, impalpable reality ("the challenge things offer to language"), and thereby elucidate that mystery.

What aligns Ponge with Surrealism, though, is the idea that description itself is an act of substitution: the carnation cannot be objectively conveyed. This is the difference between Robert Burns' my love is like a red, red rose and Gertrude Stein's a rose is a rose is a rose: in the former, we see the rose, in the latter, we see the idea of a rose.

Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End, a book of prose poems on themes of illusion, memory, and dreams, employs and develops this tradition. In one poem, he writes: "I was already dozing off in the shade, dreaming that the rustling trees were my many selves explaining themselves all at the same time so that I could not make out a single word. My life was a beautiful mystery on the verge of understanding, always on the verge! Think of it!" I read this odd yet utterly engaging book as being, in part, a reflection on the twentieth century. The poems employ a deceptively humorous tone; the speaker's view of the world is characterized by surprise ("She's pressing me gently with a hot steam iron"), deception ("The chair is really a table making fun of itself"), and symbolism ("Time– the lizard in the sunlight").

As a movement, Surrealism occupies a temporal space that is bracketed by two world wars. Underlying the poems in The World Doesn't End is the sense that confusion and strangeness are the only recourse in a world that has been as destructive as ours. Two world wars cannot be compared to anything else– their magnitude defies comprehension. The nonchalant depictions of violence in Surrealist art (cf. Dali & Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou) resonate, associatively, with the horrors of the first world war and of the wars to come. Violence, for Freud and the Surrealists alike, is a recurrent emblem of the unknowable psyche.

Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound features a classic example of surrealism à la Freud: a dream sequence designed by none other than Salvador Dali. Gregory Peck has amnesia and must unlock the secret of his repressed memories– the dream itself holds the key (naturally!). Peck wanders through a spatially fluid dreamscape, confronted with a series of symbolic objects, each its own clue to the source of his amnesia: a gruesome event from his childhood.

from Spellbound (1945)

Yet my favorite conception of surrealism is by Baudelaire: "Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day, / Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond. // There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children, / Sweet as oboes, green as meadows" (from the sonnet "Corréspondances"). An arrangement, not of objects, but of sensations, into a set: synesthesia uncovers the hidden relations between things. Baudelaire convinces us that perfumes and oboes correspond, that they share a commonality, as Cornell convinces us that his objects were meant to be placed together just so.

In the development of modern poetry, I see a direct link from Symbolism to Modernism to the work of John Ashbery and Tomaž Šalamun– this link is the surreal ethos. "The poet," T.S. Eliot wrote, "must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning" (from the essay The Metaphysical Poets, 1921). Ashbery and Šalamun strike me as two poets who exemplify the poetic surreal; their poems are characterized by narrative discontinuity, sudden shifts in logic, and ambiguous imagery.

Two excerpts from John Ashbery:

"Things too real / To be of much concern, hence artificial, yet now all over the page, / The indoors with the outside becoming part of you / As you find you had never left off laughing at death, / The background, dark vine at the edge of the porch." (from "Forties Flick")

"The extreme austerity of an almost empty mind / Colliding with the lush, Rousseau-like foliage of its desire to communicate / Something between breaths, if only for the sake / Of others and their desire to understand you and desert you" (from "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name")

And one from Tomaž Šalamun:

"Covered with dirt, / what can you see? Lockets and octaves. An evergreen / spruce. A deep well and a shallow one, see how they / kiss. In-lining fox furs. Birds and flesh, / pierced with a wooden tip." (from "Until Pessoa Nothing")

One could try to unpack these lines, but I don't believe that the reader is being asked to do so. Tristan Tzara, in the quotation cited earlier, defines the artistic act as "understanding, seeing." (I discovered this quotation nested within Šalamun's poem "Letter from Kevin Holden" from his 2011 volume The Blue Tower.) Poetry since Tzara has developed this idea to such a degree that what is seen is no longer the sense of the poem; description has value in itself, regardless of what is being described. Šalamun and Ashbery's debt to surrealism (whether conscious or not) lies in the way their poems rely on associative meaning– a synesthetic type of logic: the convergence of unexpected elements into a meaningful set.


But in terms of surrealist images– and the image is where the surreal is perhaps most easily located– one need look no further than commercials. Much could be written about the commodification of the erstwhile avant-garde. More interestingly, though, commercials have in many ways become a province for abstraction, mystery, and startling juxtaposition.

In the '70s, spoken-word pioneer Ken Nordine made a brilliant series of ads for Levi's; they are excellent examples of the way the surreal aesthetic has informed advertising.

David Lynch, whose films seamlessly merge the recognizable with the bizarre, directed a commercial for Playstation 2, and here is the result.

Visceral and bracing, Lynch's mini-film barely seems to correspond to the product at all. If we had never heard of Playstation, what would we feel after seeing this? Some of us would feel suitably intrigued, others might feel nauseated. But I doubt we would infer the nature of the product. It could be an ad for a drug that increases intensity of sensation– and in fact, that's what video games do, in a sense. Lynch taps into the idea that, consciously or not, we the viewers want to be part of a mysterious, disorienting world that take us out of our daily reality, and into the deeper, stranger reality that lies under the surface.

Consider this commercial for Perrier.

How can one not think of Dali? This melting world is the logical (or illogical) extension of Dali's paintings; yet it is, somehow, its own world, its own story, its own sleekly constructed box. The protagonist guides us through her reality– we identify with her. All she wants is a refreshing glass of water! Who hasn't experienced that? Her needs are ours– yet she is not overly mystified by the fact that the world is melting around her, even her own house is threatening to drip away beneath her. She is not terrified by this, she is frustrated. This frustration (the human experience) allows the strangeness of her world (the irrational experience) to be a strangeness the viewer accepts, and, in some sense, recognizes as real.

Somewhere along the road of the twentieth century, we have learned to recognize this type of scenario not as the province of horror, but as an identifiable reality– a reflected image of ourselves, shadowed yet vivid. We believe, for a moment, that this woman is falling to her death. But no, there's a pool, luckily, as if it were conjured suddenly by her (and our) desires. What a stunning feat.

Surrealism is alive and well today. Its methods and values have permeated the cultural aesthetic in such a way that its current incarnations are nearly imperceptible. We have become inured to juxtaposition and discontinuity, to convergence and correspondence. In the surrealist ethos, these abstractions can be– must be!– seen as emotional.

Has surrealism, then, always existed? Yes, insofar as it is a manner of perceiving experience– because the way we revisit our dreams, our memories, our sensations, cannot be articulated, except indirectly: in hints, in elisions, in pieces, in shadows.

Ashbery, John. Houseboat Days (FSG, 1999).
Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Penguin, 1990).
Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil, trans. William Aggeler (Academy Literary Guild, 1954).
Ponge, Francis. Mute Objects of Expression, trans. Lee Fahnestock (Archipelago Books, 2006).
Rimbaud, Arthur. Illuminations, trans. John Ashbery (W. W. Norton, 2011).
Šalamun, Tomaž. The Blue Tower, trans. Michael Biggins (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).
Simic, Charles. Dime-Store Alchemy (NYRB Classics, 2011).
Simic, Charles. The World Doesn't End (Mariner Books, 1989).