Surrealism -2 (Schwitters and Pope)

Alexander Pope

Yesterday, we featured Allen from a 1998 Naropa symposium on Surrealism. Panelists were asked to choose a “Surrealist” text or texts and also to provide some context for it. The other panelists on this occasion were Jonathan (Jacob) Rabinowitz, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Jack Collom, Jane Augustine and Anne Waldman, (with additional comments and observations from filmmaker Stan Brakhage in the audience)

Surprisingly, Allen’s choice (of Philip Lamantia) was the only unreservedly authentically historically-defined Surrealist. The others read from and chose text that might be defined as “surreal” but was not strictly so.

Bobbie-Louise Hawkins, for example, began, reading from Kurt Schwitters (who might more properly be identified as a Dada-ist):

…All that wonderful German hammer, which you can get on tapes – Kurt Schwitters is available on tapes. [see also here]  He.. You not only have Kurt Schwitters on those tapes doing  “An Anna Blume”  but you have his son doing an incredible thing of his called  “UrSonate”  – let me pump (it) up a little (BLH reads along with the recording of “An Anna Blume”) – “O thou, beloved of my twenty-seven senses.I love thine! Thou thee/
thee thine, I thine,/ thou mine, we?..”

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Jack Collom’s selection is even more bizarre – Alexander Pope!  He begins by acknowledging that and then justifying his thesis of Pope as proto-Surrealist:

Let me take a second for me to take out my text. It’s sort of an oddity..  We were asked to give a reading of text or texts plus background. I’m going to have to take a few minutes with the background so that the text won’t seem too surreal in our context. The word “surreal” was chopped artificially out of “Surrealism“. There is no French word “real”. So the “ism” came first in this case. Behind this doctrinaire-sounding inception, the roots of the word are “real” (“belonging to the thing itself”, according to Skeat) and the usual multiplicity of prepositional directions. – “sur” – (on, upon, over, above, in, into, onto, on board, towards, about, respecting, concerning, on account of, out of, from”). Anyway, away! – I’m not going to dig further right now into the mess of meanings, except to propose that the “real” referred to, is not really “the thing itself” as in Skeat, but the social, phenomenological conception of it,  that the surreal move is away from the common standard of perception, especially relationships, presumably into some neglected truth behind, below, apart, etcetera.  So, “away from standard”, let’s say.

Alexander Pope, poet in a Neoclassical age, two hundred and fifty years ago (1988) lived entirely in the energy straining away from standards. He was precocious,rose away from standard at the start. He was dwarfed and crippled physically by tuberculosis of the spine and suffered violent headaches, awful nerves, all his life.  He was Roman Catholic in an Anglican country with all the ceremony, symbol, and glitter of that minority practice, was forbidden on that account a university education and the right to vote (among other things). He was isolated in many ways, paranoid, at war with society and exiled at home. He created a fantasy world of his own in details of living, five acres of landscape garden, his personal Oz. He was a poet. Period. I don’t want to reduce the word “surreal” to nothing, but to make, just here and now, a gesture indicating the expansiveness of the quality. He was a poet.  His verse lives in its oddnesshis poetry. His voice in poems was that of a detached observer – “Sir Real” – His rhymed iambic pentameter is only the ground off which his energy, (through endless violations – foot-reversal, added syllables, vowelling on and off, consonant crunch, caesura placement, varied length of phrase and of syllable, slant sounds, alliteration, assonance, etcetera, all cunningly harmonious or disharmonious), was made particular, the life-blood of his system. He was a satirist, fiercer than Dada, He loved beauty in the midst of ugliness, then, later in life, loved order in the midst of chaos. And if chaos is real,(as becomes more and more apparent), he was ‘sur-real” in that. Whatever dominated his worldly awareness, he went against. Hs mock-epic “The Rape of the Lock” postulates a ludicrous situation energized by literal magic – Picture a boat of idle rich folk on the Thames having a nice time.  In this section, which I have passed out  [JC has handed out xerox copies], a little sonnet-length section of the long mock epic, The Rape of the Lock, the pretty pretty scene is given its due with masterly care.  I’ll just read the first six lines here – “But now secure the painted vessel glides,/ The sun-beams trembling on the floating tides,/While melting music steals upon the sky,/ And soften’d sounds along the waters die./Smooth flow the waves, the zephyrs gently play,/ Belinda smil’d, and all the world was gay.”

And then, in opposition to the “on top of the real” floating gold portrayed, the “Sylph”, Ariel, a magic creature, separated by that gulf, is full of impending woe, ready-for-military-action (however mock),  yet reflects, intensifies the float, the gold, the being above.

And the last eight lines –  “All but the Sylph—with careful thoughts opprest,/ Th’ impending woe sat heavy on his breast./ He summons strait his denizens of air;/ The lucid squadrons round the sails repair:/ Soft o’er the shrouds aerial whispers breathe, /That seem’d but zephyrs to the train beneath. /Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold, .Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold.”

The imaginary is opposed, by type, by purpose, by mood, to the palpable in this imagined poem. (It) is a counter-energy, yet grows from, and, in large part, mirrors its forms – any imaginary – The  penultimate line  – “Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold” – These little leisurely magic homunculae in the low before the storm lulling with insect-wings, moving by (their) own muscular volition. The picture is so striking. The word “insect” so perfectly odd (because oddness has its perfections), the elements are all “real“, the whole,  “sur” – That combination within one detail (and there’s nothing not made of details) , or
the “lucid squadrons” (to me, this image, armies translucent, lit from behind perhaps, is as surreal as any more superficially wild leap).

Even line six – Belinda smil’d, and all the world was gay.” – When you look, the image(s)
fill out – one little crescent of teeth becomes a world-wide psychic sunrise, the swelling
of white mouth rocks to a ball mood, or whatever.. It is  weird. And then, (so is) any poetic language (just to carry it out to the ludicrous inevitable). Any poetic language is made of gestures that were simply isolated in the ‘twenties,  and language itself is artificial, weird, surreal, from the first words spilling out of a mouth – The quality of being looked at by consciousness jerks things out of  any “real” state they may assume they’re in (viz: quantum theory – the universe a hologram where “the whole things there no matter how you slice it”) We can’t get away from getting away. And – quote,  “at the same time”,  there were people, say, in a Zurich Café, (Dada-ists) seventy years ago, who made certain distinctions, of costume, language, action, and outgoing implications as to provide maximum electric shock (e.g. touch) in context.”

Collom’s presentation ends here

– more to follow

Stan Brakhage (from the audience):  I just want to say, I’m interested in biography and one of the most maligned or over-looked and even maligned biographies of our time is Edith Sitwell‘s biography of Pope, which you’ll find hard-to-find, and it’s really a wonderful book, and well worth searching out, about his life and his poetry

Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding at approximately twenty-nine-and-a-half minutes in.

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