Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, January 5, 2008

The Surrealistic Gamble

I reckon almost any time a poet publishes a poem, even when the publishing is in the form of handing the poem to a person, she or he gambles. The stakes aren't high, financially or otherwise, except, I suppose, in some rare, extreme instances. The poet gambles that the reader will want to read the poem, will read it, will understand what the poem is up to, and will then appreciate what the poem is up to. Also, a poet may have some feelings or pride invested in the poem; poetry is "art," after all, so allegedly there's more at stake emotionally than there is, say, in a draft of a report, but I think people who draft and share reports--in a business or a not-for-profit organization--probably feel as if they're as much at risk as the poet who shares a poem, and if their job is at stake, they may feel much more at risk. Yes, poets should take pride in their work and be invested in it, but I also think it's possible to over-dramatize what's at stake in a poem.

But back to poetry itself: I think that, in the case of poems that deploy surrealism in one form or another, the risk that the reader won't "get" the poem almost always increases significantly. Robert Bly, for one, would adamantly insist that the risk is always worth it. He wants poems--his and others'--to "leap." He celebrates the surrealistic work of Spanish poets, for example, and he often derides American poetry for being flat-footed, for only hopping, at best. (One book he wrote on the subject is in fact called Leaping Poetry, as in poetry that leaps, that associates rapidly and freely, not as in jumping over poems.)

I think a poet hopes that the juxtapositions, associations, and non-rational, intuitive leaps will convey meaning, perhaps in the way our dreams convey meaning to us--but not in the way our dreams fail to convey meaning to others when we tell them about our dreams. (It seems not even psychiatrists are interested in the dreams others, even paying, clients have; the stock of dreams has gone through the floor since Freudian and Jungian heydays.) Maybe there's a rough, workable analogy to jazz here. The jazz musician hopes the listener will "get" the leaps of improvisations.

I was mulling all of this over when I decided to post the following surrealistic poem, which I think hops, at least; maybe it leaps, according to Bly's criteria; but maybe it also falls flat after it gets up in the air. I like the poem well enough, he said, feinting with damned praise, but with surrealism, I'm almost never sure what the reader will think, whereas with other kinds of poems that may be quite imaginative but not surrealistic, per se, I usually fee as if I can predict roughly how a reader will respond. Oh, well: it may be surrealism, but at least it's only four brisk stanzas of the stuff, so there's that.

Oranges Night, Oranges Day

Morning tosses oranges to night,
which juggles then peels them,
inhaling a blossom-rubbed
sea-breeze. Peeled whole oranges

become lanterns lit by juice.
They quiver at the sound
of a midnight train, its long
announcement preceding it

into town. The sun steps off
the train carrying a valise
in the shape of a quarter-moon.
The sun has traveled all night

and wants a bath,
maybe a glass of orange juice,
perhaps a nap beneath
gray flannel clouds.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
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