Contemporary? American? Surrealism? & You?
Ron Silliman, when he linked to it from his blog, asked, “An oxymoron?” as part of his link. He was right. Surrealism, as it was practiced, is historically bound, but what do we say about its influence?
The contemporary uses of the surreal, as I read them, trace their most direct lineage to the work of James Tate, Russell Edson, and John Ashbery, who, themselves, were already a great distance in time and geography from Andre Breton's Le Manifeste du Surréalisme. And all of these poets writing since the 50s have more in common with each other than they do with Surréalisme itself. But it’s Breton these younger, contemporary poets talk about, even as “surrealism” as such, cannot happen, even as its elements happen, because we now exist in a post-Mickey Mouse, post-Dr. Strangelove world. The surreal itself is no longer the kind of force it once was. Its strangeness, its surreal qualities no longer look so surreal. If anything, they seem psychologically accurate. I’m also aware that, historically, it’s a very male club.
So do we need to call these contemporary writers something? General categories are nice, especially in the crowded field of contemporary American poetry, if only in the “If you like the poetry of Mary Ruefle you might also like the poetry of Geoffrey Nutter” kind of way. If the category is one of aesthetic affiliation, then why not? And if you don’t like the term “Contemporary American Surrealism,” maybe you could say “Post-modern Surrealism,” or perhaps “Black Ocean Waves Where Octopuses Dwellism.” (Have you noticed how many of these poets and presses are connected by images of the ocean? Is it a conspiracy with the dolphins? "So long, and thanks for all the fish?")
But the other pressure rises: naming is a reduction and becomes a misleading definition of individual writers . . . Black Mountain? . . . Objectivism? . . . Language Writing? . . . They all break down quickly when one comes to the second example. And all these writers change, day to day.
So, named or nameless, the tendency moves on. And this week, I got a copy of Geoffrey Nutter’s Christopher Sunset from Wave Books. His work is full of a completely humane way of perceiving, an elemental perception that hovers somewhere between innocence and experience (“If you like Geoffrey Nutter, you might like Dorothea Lasky”). I’ll not try to plug it into surreal tendencies, or make a grand argument for it as emblematic of something, but it is the first new book from Wave Books that I’ve seen since the Gulf Coast interview/conversation, so I approached it with these thoughts in mind. I’ll let him speak on the issue:
I’ve been puzzled long enough
by modernity and its poems.
It’s evening. I’m walking down
to the river to watch the sun set.
The clouds are like millions of bright blue leaves
scattered across the sky.
I’m sitting in the shade of a massive tree
but the shade is alive. And under the sunset
the giant gray trestles of the bridge.
And under the bridge, and nearer to me,
shards of bottles and the gravel
of the down-at-the-heels marina,
its broken-down boathouse, the gray
cinder blocks in the weeds, an overturned
boat, a length of black tubing.
It’s all coming together now.
It’s the sky and the earth, resting together
in the unassuming darkness.