William Logan on Third (or Fourth) Generation American Surrealism
Well, it’s not very much he says about Contemporary American Surrealism, really, but it was enough to get me all up and stomping around the room this morning. It comes in one of his New Criterion reviews. Logan’s not always wrong about poetry, but he often is. (This time I think he’s being too hard on Michael Dickman and too easy on Henri Cole and about right on Billy Collins, but that’s beside the point of what bothered me this morning.)
Here is a bit from Logan on what he sees going on in Surrealism these days. He’s using Dickman as the example, but he could be talking about any number of people, from Zapruder to Schomburg to Christle to Doxsee, or anyone even lightly (me and you?) inspired by Surrealism.
“Dickman represents the third, possibly the fourth, generation of American Surrealism, a style (or perhaps a sect) that has always seemed rather mushheaded in a hardboiled, go-ahead country addicted to facts, facts, facts. With its whiff of anti-religious sentiment, Surrealism may look revolutionary in France or eastern Europe—what better threat to Christians than visions that aren’t Christian? In America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence.
Dickman has little to add to the droopy watches of Surrealists gone before, but, now that the movement has grown ever more attenuated, he sees its possibility as a manner without a lick of necessity. If he says, “I was just whispering// into my glass// pillow” . . . you don’t think, “Oh, the young Apollinaire!” You think, “Cinderella!”
With his rabbity enjambment and insistent double-spacing, the poet tries a little too hard to be outrageous.”
First of all, Logan says this tendency “has always seemed rather mushheaded in a hardboiled, go-ahead country addicted to facts, facts, facts.” I agree with that assessment of its reception. It’s that mushheadedness that stands against the American tendency to “facts”, that throws that addiction back in the face of American culture, and does it with a healthy dose of absurdity in the context of the American fact fantasy complex. This alone, this “mushheadedness,” seems to me reason enough to investigate its power to reveal. It’s one way, there are others, of course, but it’s also a way.
Logan takes this notion in two equally simplistic directions. The first, the “revolutionary” look of Surrealism in “France or eastern Europe” because its “visions” aren’t “Christian.” I missed that memo that said Surrealism necessarily had this whiff of an anti- or other than Christian vision. I wonder what Max Jacob would have to say about that. Maybe it does have such a whiff, but if so, it could be said that American Realism also has that whiff in its anti-transcendent assumptions. Surrealism can, of course, be a contrary vision to the vision of Christianity, just as it can be a contrary vision to Capitalism or Socialism or the Moonies. But it isn’t necessarily so. Where one person sees “oppositions” another could say “complexity” or “complications of,” so that Surrealism could easily be defended as a complication of Christianity rather than an anti-Christian posture.
This leads me to my next point. Logan doesn’t allow this opposition into America: “In America, it’s more like middle-class self-indulgence,” he writes. OK, but isn’t that’s just another version of saying that people who write in this manner are rather mushheaded? This is the kind of accusation that’s been leveled at everyone from Eliot and Stevens to the language poets and everyone who does anything outside of the “facts, facts, facts” addiction that Logan first pointed to. Leisure-class fiddling. La la. If I had a dime, that sort of thing. Some poets, of any aesthetic flavor, could be described as writing from a position of self-indulgence. But this is “middle-class self-indulgence.” There could also, then, I suppose, be such a things as “high-class self-indulgence” or “low-class self-indulgence,” but no one ever seems to mention them. Why toss the class issue into it? Is self-indulgence at the middle-class level something especially ripe for Surrealism, or for critique, or for being tagged as a class issue at all? Ah, the poor maligned, shrinking middle class. It was such a good idea, to have one, and now look what we’ve done with it!
But say that Contemporary American Surrealism does have such an air. It would seem, then, if Surrealism can be seen as oppositional, as parable, satire, psychological enactment, then it would seem to be that Surrealism would be a useful and valid a way to talk about the psychological issues of the middle class. Or is Surrealism only to enact the self interest of the more (I suppose?) officially validated issues of the upper and lower classes? This is a tangent from what Logan was speaking about, but it’s in such moments, such transitory moments in reviews and essays and blurbs on books where biases and positions are reinforced, and there is also, often, a kind of sneering directed at the middle class while at the same time a kind of valorization of some abstract idea of a “real” American. The middle class is a cultural straw dog, draped with kitsch and narcissism.
“All my problems are meaningless. That doesn’t make them go away,” Neil Young sang, back in the 1970s, which was his version of whispering into his glass pillow. Which reminds me, Logan would have had a better case, but less of a Surreal one, by sticking with Dickman’s bit on Dickinson, for when he goes to the “Whispering into glass pillows,” it, for me at least, rather unmade his point. “I was just whispering// into my glass// pillow” is a good send up of what it means to disclose, to be a teller, of fact, fact, fact. I was thinking about that when reading it, not about Apollinaire or Cinderella. (I also apparently missed the memo that said Cinderella was now unsuitable landscape. I live and I learn.)
Just my two cents.