Expansive Poetics – (Andre Breton 5 – Andre Breton’s Poetry of the Marvelous)

Andre Breton

AG: So (Philip Lamantia), (Andre) Breton and the Surrealist school wanted a poetry of marvelousness, not any old plodding (like) the plums (that) you left in the ice-box (“This Is Just To Say”)– (“I have eaten/the plums/that were in/the icebox/ and which/ you were probably/ saving/for breakfast/ Forgive me/they were delicious/so sweet/and so cold.” – which is (William Carlos) Williams),  or the chewing-gum – (the little black mushrooms growing on the subway platform when I looked at them they were used chewing-gum) – [Allen is quoting from (Charles Reznikoff here“Walk about a subway station/in a grove of steel pillars/ how their knobs,  the rivet-heads – /unlike those of oaks -/are regularly placed/ how barren the ground is/ except here and there on the platform/a flat black fungus/that was chewing- gum”] Occasionally, Reznikoff and the Imagists will get something marvelous out of the direct view of reality – like I always thought that the mushroom chewing-gum idea of Reznikoff’s was magical transformation, actually.

Student (CC): Well, can’t.. I think everyday ordinary existence..can be.. can strike awe.. whether it be, you know, with Williams, some young sick woman, or nature.. viewing nature… (even) looking at a painting of a mountain.

AG: Well, the Surrealists spit on it all. They say “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” there. They really want..

Student (CC): I think there’s two sides of the same image.

AG: No, I think you’re confusing the issue (and maybe confusing the class). It’s not two sides of the same image and not intended by the Surrealists to be, nor intended by Williams, though you may have the opinion that it is the same thing. The method is a little different.

Student (CC): Right

AG: Because, really, there’s a motif and a sketch from a physical view, like you do a sketch, and then, with the Surrealists, there’s really the intention to draw from the imagination, not knowing what the subject is, but allowing the subject to form itself from the unconscious. At least in Williams you begin with a fixed epiphany of a moment in time and its physical forms. With Williams (and, especially with (Jack) Kerouac, and with Walt Whitman), the unconscious comes into play in the associative description. So that you do get Surrealist touches in almost any literalist writing (or any literal writer, if he’s any good at all), especially with the Objectivist school, which said that the thoughts in the mind are also furniture (just like the wheel barrow and the ice-box). You could also describe your thoughts in your mind as if looking at them from the outside, objectively. You could get it combined that way, in the practice of the Objectivists. But they were really two different distinct schools and different practices, and both are really interesting. And if you can have practice in both of them and combine both, then, when you get around to writing when you want on any subject, you have a whole spectrum of inspirations to draw from.

Student (Helen Luster): Well, Allen, when they’d do this in automatic writing, did they ever get the idea that it was not just dictated from the unconscious but…

AG: Yes, from other spheres – the sphere of the marvelous

Student (Helen Luster): No, I mean like some from other spirit energies or something?

AG: Yeah, they had all sorts of that, but they felt that that was also too limiting.. that human imagination has complete freedom not to depend on the spirits from other dimensions – that we were the other dimension. Either we created another dimension with our imagination or that our imagination really has its dwelling place in othersuper-reality. If any of you have seen (Jean) Cocteau’s (movie), “Orpheus”,you remember the poet was taking dictation from a radio in his limousine, which would have a set of numbers“un, sept, trois huit, douze…” “les oiseaux un les doigts avec qui est chante no, “les oiseaux chante avec les doigts” (the birds sing with their fingers)  [Editorial note – the line is a line from Guillaume Apollinaire]-So these were the news broadcasts coming over the radio of his unconscious. And there’s this recurrent theme in the movie by Cocteau (who was a friend to the Surrealists) . So, dig Breton’s“Free Union” which is his most successful experiment – “…whose waist is an hourglass” (A la taille de sablier)… well, that’s somewhat… that could be eighteenth-century – “Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger/Whose mouth is a bright cockade with the fragrance of a star of the first magnitude/Whose teeth leave prints like the tracks of white mice over snow/Whose tongue is made of amber and polished glass” /Whose tongue is a stabbed wafer/(“.. à la taille de loutre entre les dents du tigre/… à la bouche de cocarde et de bouquets d’étoiles de dernière grandeur/Aux dents d’empreinte de souris blanche sur la terre blanche/A la langue d’ambre  et de verre frottés/Ma femme à la langue d’hostie poignardée.”) – A la langue de poupée qui ouvre et ferme les yeux”)

“My wife whose hair is a brush fire/Whose thoughts are summer lightning..”Ma femme à la chevelure de feu de bois/Aux pensées d’éclairs de chaleur“– And, actually, you begin to get some uncanny images coming up now. It’s like Surrealist movies, if you’ve ever seen them (and Surrealist movies do have that odor or strangeness of a silent dream). – [Allen continues his reading of Andre Breton’s “Free Union”] – “The tongue of a doll with eyes that open and shut/Whose tongue is an incredible stone/ My wife whose eyelashes are strokes in the handwriting of a child/Whose eyebrows are nests of swallows…” (A la langue de poupée qui ouvre et ferme les yeux/A la langue de pierre incroyable/Ma femme aux cils de bâton d’écriture d’enfant/Aux sourcils de bord de nid d’hirondelle)

”Whose fingers are fresh-cut hay/My wife with the armpits of martens and beech fruit” (Aux doigts de foin coupé/Ma femme aux aisselles de martre et de fênes“) – Actually, that’s probably a bit literal – the featheriness of the marten and the odor of beech fruit – “And Midsummer Night/That are hedges of privet and nesting places for sea snails/ Whose arms are of sea foam and a landlocked sea…” (De nuit de la Saint Jean/De troène et de nids de scalares/Aux bras d’écume de mer et d’écluse”)

”My wife whose breasts are of the night/And are undersea molehills/And crucibles of rubies..” (“Ma femme aux seins de taupinière marine/Ma femme aux seins de creuset du rubis“) (There’s a certain literality to that, like, (the) metaphor – “My wife whose nipples are crucibles of rubies” – I suppose you could pass that (off) as euphemistic poetry, that is, poetry of exaggeration, hyperbolic floweriness) – “My wife whose breasts are haunted by the ghosts of dew-moistened roses/Whose belly is a fan unfolded in the sunlight/Is a giant talon…” (“Aux seins de spectre de la rose sous la rosée/ Ma femme au ventre de dépliement d’éventail des jours/Au ventre de griffe géante“) – (My wife whose belly is a giant talon? – It’s a very odd excruciating image, actually)

“My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight/With a back of quicksilver/And bright lights/My wife whose nape is of smooth worn stone and wet chalk..”(“Ma femme au dos d’oiseau qui fuit vertical/Au dos de vif argent/Au dos de lumière/A la nuque de pierre roulée et de craie mouillée(William Carlos) Williams would hardly ever have written anything like that – “My wife hose nape is..of wet chalk.”) – “And of a glass slipped through the fingers of someone who has just drunk/ My wife with the thighs of a skiff..” – (a little canoe, or a little sailboat) (“Et de chute d’un verre dans lequel on vient de boire/ Ma femme aux hanches de nacelle)

“That are lustrous and feathered like arrows/Stemmed with the light tailbones of a white peacock/And imperceptible balance/ My wife whose rump is sandstone and flax/Whose rump is the back of a swan and the spring/My wife with the sex of an iris/A mine and a platypus/With the sex of an algae and old-fashioned candles” –(“Aux hanches de lustre et de pennes de flèche/Et de tiges de plumes de paon blanc / De balance insensible/Ma femme aux fesses de grès et d’amiante/Ma femme aux fesses de dos de cygne/Ma femme aux fesses de printemps/Au sexe de glaïeul/Ma femme au sexe de placer et d’ornithorynque/Ma femme au sexe d’algue et de bonbons anciens“)- that’s the best lines in it, I think – “My wife with the sex of an iris/A mine and a platypus/With the sex of an algae and old-fashioned candles” (“Ma femme …/Ma femme au sexe d’algue et de bonbons anciens”) –(Well, they’re all true in a funny way – the platypussy aspect, the iris aspect, the mine, depth, algae, old-fashioned candles. So there’s a strange literalism to the Surrealism. Although it doesn’t look so at first, it’s actually, what Aristotle called, describing metaphor,(as) “the apt relation of dissimilars” (which is actually, what Surrealism occasionally touches on), and then, at other times, I guess, it’s the contrary, contrariness relation, just for the sensation of putting together opposites and shocking the mind out of its normal range and reach of association).

Actually, when you break up the mind’s associations you create a little gap. This kind of stuff .. and certainly the mind does create that gap so that you actually begin to see words as words in themselves (rather than as references to the icebox or wheelbarrow).And so emerges a modern theory of poetry, very similar to modern theories of painting – that is, as the subject of the panting is the paint on the canvas, rather than the object which the painting represents, which leads to the Abstract Expressionist school, so the subject of poetry may be the arrangement of words on the page and the effects you get out of those words, independent of any associations or connotations or denotations, that you have with the words. Let us say, aside from any representational intention of the words, you might have a series of words just for the colors of the words, or the sound of the words, or, perhaps, say, subliminal associations between them, or contrasts between the words

to be continued..

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-five and three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately thirty-five-and-three-quarter minutes in]

Addenda: (en francais)  Andre Breton Interview (from 1961):


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