When I was younger some of my favourite artists and musicians were surrealists. Salvador Dali and The Beatles, for example. Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower. That sort of thing. The imagery and the language of these were exciting and daring and I couldn’t get enough of the thinking behind such overtly provocative works. But as my adventures in art and music progressed, I started to realise that while the effects of these were immediate on the first viewing, they quickly wore off.
I don’t want to see another damn melting clock.
It took a while, but I began to realise that surrealism in small doses is okay, but there always has to be some kind of grounding in the familiar, in real life. It has to be relatable. Maybe it’s just the way I look at the world, but I’ve got to a stage in my life where surrealism is deeply unsatisfactory to see or read, particularly in poetry.
Let’s make a hypothetical poem. It’s going to be a surreal one, so we’re going to look at imagery. I see a plum. The plum has a moustache for some reason. The plum has a moustache, that’s the first line of this poem. Okay, so if this poem was a Robert Garnham poem, I’d then go on to follow the plum around for a few stanzas to see what life is like being a plum with a moustache. In such a way I ground the poem in the every day, in the humdrum. The plum has a problem eating soup because of the moustache. The plum can’t get a date because every plum he meets doesn’t like moustaches. You know, run of the mill kind of stuff.
But if I were a surrealist, then in the next verse, I’d move on from the plum with the moustache. I see a tap dancing horse called Mona, and the King of South Dakota is there, waving a cricket bat. And yes, this is all rather whimsical at the moment and a little but humorous, but if I read this again tomorrow I’d think: yeah, whatever.
I have, therefore, identified the moment, the junction, where a poem can go either way. On the left, full blown surrealism, all sunny and stupid and a bit dizzy. And on the right, the kind of tempered down-to-earth surrealism that people can relate to. This Point of Realist Return (PRR) is immediately divisible by the interest of the reader (I) and responds well to Repeating Reading (RR). I divided by PRR times RR equals a Satisfying Read (SR). A surrealist poem may also have a PRR but there the I is, unfortunately, not equal to the RR, and therefore the SR is of a lower outcome than the less surrealistic piece.
I hope that this has cleared things up.
What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the poems which work best for me are those which have some kind of bearing on my life. My hero, Frank O’Hara, wrote poems based on his own life, his famous ‘I Do This I Do That’ poems. Yet he, too, dabbled in surrealism earlier in his career, and these poems are stodgy and hard work to read. You could tell that he was having a lot of fun writing them, but as a reader, well, there’s ironing to be getting on with.
I’m not against other poets being surreal. The performance poetry community is wide and varied and this is what makes it so vibrant. If every poet was the same, then we’d be better off not turning up. And who knows, perhaps someone might come along and surprise me with a set of sheer surrealist excellence.