Monday, December 1, 2008

Fooling Around With Surrealism

There's not a lot of time left in the semester, so we had to race through the topic of surrealism today. A student made the apt point that a "manifesto of surrealism" seemed liked an instance of hypocrisy: we need a manual of rules for telling us how to break the rules?!

We also talked about the important role surrealism played in Modernist poetry; arguably the most famous Modernist poem, The Waste Land, is surrealistic.

Sometimes it's easier to start talking about surrealism in connection with painting, so I established a spectrum between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, with Dali and Pollock thrown in there somewhere for kicks. Almost everyone in the class loved paintings by Monet and Van Gogh, thought Dali was amusing and relatively accessible, but didn't quite know about Pollock. I described Warhol's film of the egg, and they didn't seem amused, although a couple of them noted that showing such a film would make people reconsider the practice and act of viewing films.

We then read a poem by Charles Simic, and one by Theodore Roethke. In the Simic poem, the key is that he begins by refusing to see the fork (in this case) in a routine way. The poem assumes we are seeing a fork for the first time, and that assumption is the trigger for surrealism. Roethke's poem takes a different approach. It is more like expressionism. It presents a kind of violent, confused emotional response to something ordinary--cuttings, as in cut flowers or cut willow branches. Surrealistic images spring from the emotional response, the inner turmoil. But again, the poem refuses to be merely descriptive.

We then talked about why anyone would want to write surrealistically. Answers: to represent reality more faithfully than realism (ironically); to break through the confines of conventions and predictable genres or modes (like the contemporary first-person, autobiographical narrative poem); to explore the unpredictable murk of the psyche.

I had also asked the class to bring relatively ordinary objects from home. These included a penny, a 2 dollar bill, a black candle, some kind of mysterious lamp shade, a stuffed animal that looked like a kitten and actually seemed to breath (this item freaked out everyone), a deer-skull, a watch, and dice.

We then began to write poems about the objects--our object own or someone else's. The poems needed to be "surrealistic" in some way--that is, not simply and conventionally descriptive. Robert Bly calls this kind of poetry "leaping poetry," and he argues that there's not enough of it in the American tradition. Of course, as I mentioned to the class, the trick is to make sure the reader has a prayer of making those leaps with you.

At any rate, I chose the dice (or die) someone had brought--red, with white dots. I couldn't resist. This is the draft I wrote:


Fold night several times until
it becomes a cube. The North Star
shines on one side, Orion's Belt
on another, and so on. Repeat the
process. You have two cubes.
Now let your fist swallow both
die. Hold your fist high, shake
it against the sky defiantly.
Make a wager with God.
Toss the cubes onto
a flat black velvet night. Look
at the way the constellated cubes
have come to rest, inert
and grave. Of course, you've lost.
The House always wins. God is
the House. The sky is God's casino.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom
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