Expansive Poetics – (Andre Breton 3 – Andre Breton and William Carlos Williams)

Andre Breton and William Carlos Williams

Student (CC): (But) aren’t there dream-like qualities to each of those poets?

AG: Whom?

Student (CC): ((Tristan) Tzara), (Andre) Breton and (William Carlos) Williams

AG: Yeah, but Williams’ main method was literalistic – pretty much pragmatic Yankee literal, trying to correspond to reality, and Breton and Surrealism had as their aim to
liberate men from reality, or what was supposed to be reality, and put them on another plane of totally free imagination where there was no anchor-drag back to the forms that are perceived by reason. So they wanted something anti-rational. Maybe turn the page and you’ll get his theory [Allen is referring here to the classroom anthology]  I put that in (put the (First) Surrealist Manifesto in) because it’s like a prose poem. “It is bad faith” says Breton in his Manifeste, “that our right to employ the word SURREALISME in the very special sense that we understand it has been disputed, for it is obvious that, before we came along, the word had not won a foothold. I shall therefore define it once and for all – (C’est de très mauvaise foi qu’on nous contesterait le droit d’employer le mot Surréalisme dans le sens très particulier où nous l’entendons car il est clair qu’avant nous ce mot n’avait pas fait fortune. Je le définis donc une fois pour toutes”) – “SURREALISME – noun, masculine. Pure psychic automatism, by means of which one proposes to express either verbally or by means of writing, the real functioning of thought, in the absence of any control exerted by reason, and without regard to any aesthetic or moral preoccupations.” –
SURREALISME, n. m. Automatisme psychique pur par lequel on se propose d’exprimer, soit verbalement, soit par écrit, soit de tout autre manière, le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale.” – “.. based upon a belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association which have been hitherto neglected, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.”(“..repose sur la croyance à la réalité supérieure de certaines formes d’associations négligées jusqu’à lui, à la toute puissance du rêve, au jeu désintéressé de la pensée. Il tend à ruiner définitivement tous les autres mécanismes psychiques et à se substituer à eux dans la résolution des principaux problèmes de la vie. – that is, not interested in being literal, not interested in making sense, not interested in being tied down to a description of – [Allen recites from memory Williams’ famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow“] – “so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens” – So the Surrealistic view of that was – “nothing/depends upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens.” – Yes?

Student: If you were to apply what you said about Keats’ “Negative Capability” to that, you know, black and white dispute, why couldn’t they both co-exist?

AG: Well, they’re co-existing in this anthology.

Student: Right

AG: ..and they’re co-existing, actually, in (Jack) Kerouacs practice, and in (Gregory) Corso‘s practice, and actually in mine. That’s where I did, actually, step off a little from Williams’ solid ground and begin to make unconscious conjunctions of words prompted by simple intuition and (my) unconscious, without knowing what I was saying. I’ll always write down a line without knowing what it means if the line comes to me. And if it sounds interesting, I’ll find out it means something later. (William) Burroughs will always put down a phrase as if it has a perfume, like “Wind Hand Caught in the Door” [Editorial note – this phrase, from The Soft Machine, is an explicit example, noted by Burroughs of his cut-up method] , whether or not he understands it rationally, because, actually, years later, it makes sense. It always makes sense years and years and years later. It always comes true. Always, assuming you’ve got some direct inspiration. No, assuming there’s a glitter and perfume to the line, assuming there’s a real attractiveness to the line and the line is thick enough with picture images and booby-trapped sufficiently with surprises and lots of little fire-crackers in the conjunctions between the different words, funny strange jumps of the mind and gaps – likely it’ll be yoking disparate events that have a pragmatic reality, except you just don’t understand it at the time.

Kerouac’s discovery and theory about it came in a line, (that I talked about in the Spring), from On The Road I think it was “the trucks charging forward in the wind…mute..”, no, “trucks..”, I don’t know the whole line but it (includes the phrase) “a mute seizure of tarpaulin power”. (Editorial note – “The charging restless mute unvoiced road keening in a seizure of tarpaulin power”] He just liked the phrase – “tarpaulin power. And then, a couple of days later, he suddenly realized that it meant that the trucks with their loads covered with tarpaulin – “a.. seizure of tarpaulin power – on the highway. He couldn’t figure out where he got the word “tarpaulin” next to “power”. But it came to him, and then he realized that his big mind was much more acutet than any calculating common-sense slow plodding mental craft. But, of course, then you have to have a good imagination, big jumps in your mind, and then be able to register them without shame (like Keats’ “Negative Capability”). Obviously these forms co-exist.

I thought, as I say in this introduction, [ Editorial note – Allen is referring to his introduction to the classroom anthology], when I was writing “Howl”, I was trying to combine Williams’  literality with Surrealist method, with Kerouac’s spontaneous American style also.

Student (CC): Isn’t the common element the deep image? That is, the little image of Williams approaches the archetypal or subconscious and also the Surrealist use of imagery?

AG: Well, let’s see. How would we say that Williams’ image approaches the sub-conscious? How would you say (that or) define that or how would you…

Student (CC): Well, just in reading…

AG: Describe it.

Student (CC):  .. (in) Williams, it’s just ever.. it’s just ever-present, especially in “..Brueghel“, Pictures from Brueghel, and Paterson (especially, in Paterson)

AG: Well, there’s a lot of juxtaposition. He doesn’t very often go crazy and just indulge in language like Breton just for the fun of putting words next to each other fortheir opposite sense. See, Breton and the others very deliberately put words opposite each other that have  no literal meaning, on purpose, just to get a break in the mmd, just to break the reason. Whereas (for) Williams, more or less his method was like (Paul) Cezanne, following the motif and trying to reconstitute the actuality, reconstitute the appearance of the visual (mostly the visual) motif.  Actually what Williams (said was), “I take pictures and try to squeeze them into little lines” (that’s something he told me in a car in Paterson once), “My method is to try and squeeze a picture into my short lines” (and he used the word, “squeeze” – take some big vast picture and “squeeze” it – or, even a wheelbarrow, to squeeze the wheelbarrow into those little lines and still keep the picture – or what (Ezra) Pound calls phanopoeia – the image cast on the mind’s eye, the cinematic image cast on the mind’s eye).

Surrealism will have cinematic images but it’ll combine them with jump-cuts real fast within the lines so that you don’t actually know where it’s all coming from but you know it’s comng from your own brain, because, after all, it comes from your brain, so it’s you, and it’s your own mind. So what they’re saying (is) this is a literal representation of the mind rather than a literal representation of the external reality that the mind perceives. So the Surrealists are really painting pictures of the mind, and painting accurate sketches of the jumps and movements of the mind, rather than ploddingly and painstakingly sitting and trying to sketch the.. little red cherry-like balls hanging from the withered  glib-glub branches in the black vase.. [Editorial note – Allen here attempts to describe. literally, an actual flower arrangement and vase in the room]

Student (CC): And unicorns.

AG: Well, the unicorn would be thrown in by the Surrealists

Student (CC): I see

AG: You know, the Surrealists.. Williams and Cezanne wouldn’t throw in a unicorn.A fancy Surrealist might then say, “This is bullshit. What do you want?  You can take a picture if you want it, or you can get a journalist to describe it if you want that, or a catalogue description. So why not have the liberty? Why not set loose from the anchor of supposed reality and take complete liberty and do anything you want because the page is the one place where you have absolute freedom of imagination”. There is no karmic consequence visible immediately from writing down “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked”. It’s only on the page. You don’t have to live it out yourself. You don’t have to sign a contract and you don’t have to produce the evidence.. Yeah?..

Student: So there are basically two methods – one is to plan your poem, so that you break the mind’s patterns, and the other is to..

AG: Well, you can’t plan it if you’re going to break the mind’s patterns. You just start doing automatic writing, or write down what occurs spontaneously

Student: Yeah…

AG: But you could  get the plan (to) write down anything that comes into your head once you get a fixed theme that you can make variations of, or if you’re using this form of litany or list.

Student: You said also that (Andrei)  Breton used this style of juxtaposition of different words… and images, purposely..

AG: Yeah

Student:  .. to bring…

AG: Well, purposely, that is he leaves himself open for any juxtaposition that arises to be written down.

Student: Oh, okay

AG: And I guess he has a shrewd purpose sometime. I mean, he’s aware of what he’s doing. Although he liked Phillippe Soupault better, because Soupault’s prose in “Les Chants Magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), I think, he thought was the most perfect example of automatism, automatic writing.
So they (the Surrealists) experimented with all kinds – like dream-writing, hypnotic writing, trying to write not knowing what your hand was writing down. Most of it was very literary-sounding, actually, more rationalistic than the raw crude Williams that was just trying to look at something outside him and write it down simple, like a kid..

 to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately thirteen-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-three minutes in]

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