Showing posts with label surrealism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label surrealism. Show all posts

Thursday 20 January 2011

Sinclair Beiles on surrealist poetry

'Most surrealist poetry became mannered and in its quest for unusual relationships between words, and ideas, was set down at the expense of feelings and motives. The poems became beautiful seashells devoid of life.'

Sinclair Beiles, from the introduction to Marta Proctor's Offering of fire.

Saturday 04 September 2010

A daisy in the memory of a shark - Pete Winslow

A daisy in the memory of a shark is a collection of poems by little known US surrealist poet Pete Winslow, published by City Lights Books in 1973. Winslow was just 37 when he died the year before as a result of complications following surgery. He had published a handful of small collections since the early 1960s. There is very little information about Winslow on the internet.

Lines from some of the poems in A daisy in the memory of a shark read as follows:

I called the ocean by its first name
I became an eon but a billion years passed in an instant...

A strange wind carries children to the tops of buildings...

How may I become your clothes when you are so lovely nude
This is the problem of the moon
Whose solution is to disappear...

The invisible telephones of the wind are ringing...

I am famous for the beer which flows from my hair...

Morning stretched its layers of light so softly
That hundreds of night creatures caught unaware
Run about on the table while we have coffee...

I bid my life for the girl tasting of poppies...

The murmur of the city is the beginning of the earthquake...

Your eyelids close
And you inspect me with your alternate eyes...

My pillow over my face
Its hair turning my mind to feathers...

My portrait is ill today its hair is falling out...

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Ted Joans: in search of the marvellous

On May 7 2003, the 74-year-old African-American beat poet and artist Ted Joans was discovered dead in his apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia. It is believed Joans, who was seriously ill with diabetes, had been dead for almost three weeks. The irony that such a gregarious man as Joans should have died alone has been commented on. Yet despite being one of the most colourful, energetic and prolific members of the beat generation, Joans was also probably one of the least known.

Born Theodore Jones in 1928 in Cairo, Illinois, (he later changed the surname to differentiate from the more common spelling) his parents were show people who worked on a Mississippi riverboat. In 1943 his father was murdered by white workers during the Detroit race riots. It was also about this time that he discovered surrealism, which, as he wrote years later, he chose as a weapon to defend himself against ‘abject vicissitudes’ of a racist society.

After graduating from the University of Indiana with a Fine Arts degree in 1951, Joans moved to New York where he settled in the Greenwich Village scene of artists, poets, coffee bars and jazz. He once shared a room with Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and learned to play the trumpet. By the middle of the decade he had become part of the emerging beat scene, participating in public poetry readings with writers and poets such as Diane di Prima, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as fellow African-Americans Amiri Baraka (then Leroi Jones) and Bob Kaufman.

His first poetry collections were published in the late 1950s. After the failure of his first marriage and feeling that the beat scene had become too commercialised, however, Joans set off for France in the first of a series of extensive travels that would also take him to north Africa, Holland, Germany, England and even South Africa. Wherever he went, Joans became immersed in a fervent activity of writing, painting and public reading, dividing regular residences between Timbuktu, Amsterdam and New York.

When Joans visited South Africa in 1994 he gave readings at the Windybrow Theatre in Hillbrow and at Kippies Jazz Club in Newtown. I remember being struck by his warmth and ageing grace, although he hadn’t lost any of his occasional ribald humour. His insistence that poets should focus on ‘writing the poem’, rather feeling restricted by formalist constraints, was true to the spontaneous spirit of jazz and surrealism. His vibrant, charismatic performance reminded me that poetry is a shared, living experience; not words buried alive in a book.

In almost 40 years, Joans published as many titles, the majority of them in small limited editions now out of print. Most probably the only collections still readily available are those published by Calder & Boyers in the early 1970s, A Black Pow-Wow of Jazz Poems and Afrodisia, as well as two recent selected volumes, Teducation (Coffee House Press) and Our Thang (Exstatis Editions), which also featured drawings by Joan’s companion, artist Laura Corsiglia.

Joans’ poetry is influenced by Langston Hughes, André Breton, his fellow beat poets and jazz. It is characterised predominantly by colloquial expressions of black consciousness, revolutionary pride and eroticism. Believing that any revolution based purely on political change was futile, Joans emphasised that liberation was also required from ‘self-inflicted oppressions’, particularly those related to sex. His goal was, as with Breton, ‘human emancipation’.

Although surrealism plays a somewhat marginal a role in his poetry, it is clearly expressed in his art, particularly his collages, which are reminiscent of Max Ernst. "Jazz is my religion," he once said, "and surrealism is my point of view.”

Despite Joans’ numerous publications, he nevertheless remained less known than some of his contemporaries, less anthologised, and certainly less cash flush. Yet for the man who regarded the rhino as his totem animal, he was, as he wrote to writer Jack Foley, "..never in the rat race, only the rhino race in search of the marvellous".

(Published in Sunday Independent, May 2003)

Tuesday 18 November 2008

"Something was coming out of my throat..."

"The morning I got up to begin this book I coughed. Something was coming out of my throat: it was strangling me. I broke the thread which held it and yanked it out. I went back to bed and said: I have just spat out my heart.
"There is an instrument called the quena made of human bones. It owes its origin to the worship of an Indian for his mistress. When she died he made a flute out of her bones. The quena has a more penetrating more haunting sound than the ordinary flute.
"Those who write know the process. I thought of it as I was spitting out my heart.
"Only I do not wait for my love to die."

Anais Nin, House of Incest, Peter Owen, 1978.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Reality and Magic

“Everyday life is surrealistic, made of miracles, weird and inexplicable events. There is no borderline between reality and magic.” Alejandro Jodorowsky

Sunday 30 December 2007

French surrealist author Julien Gracq dies aged 97

At the Lycée Claude Bernard in Paris during the 1950s a number of 16-year-olds were fascinated by their history and geography teacher, Monsieur Poirier. He was small, with short hair and dressed in a dark suit. Punctual and efficient, no one ever thought of playing tricks on him. When his teaching was over he gathered up his papers and went away. The reason for the particular interest in him was the discovery that Louis Poirier, who has died aged 97, was in fact Julien Gracq, the novelist, who had won (and refused) the Goncourt prize in 1951.

Thursday 01 November 2007

Before the Mirror: surrealism in the 21st century

In 2001, the Tate Modern Art Gallery in London hosted the exhibition Surrealism - Desire Unbound. Focusing on the premise that desire was central to the surrealist vision of love, poetry and liberty, the exhibition displayed a comprehensive range of almost 300 paintings, sculptures, objects and documents stemming from the early pre-surrealist dada period through to relatively recent works of the 1970s.

While passing through the successive 13 rooms/domains of surrealist desire, one was initially introduced to works by Marcel Duchamp, Georgio di Chirico, Man Ray and Francis Picabia before plunging into the delirious surreality of artists such as René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, André Masson, Joan Miró, Aschille Gorky, Hans Bellmer, Meret Oppenheim, Toyen, Paul Delvaux, Roland Penrose, Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst. Also on exhibit were works by artists loosely associated with the movement such as Frida Kahlo and Leonor Fini.

The exhibition also displayed the recently rediscovered photographs of Claude Cahun, whose work was not exhibited during her lifetime.

Some of the works on display explicitly revealed the physical side of the surrealists' obsession with sexual desire: highly erotic collages from the Czech surrealist group plus the phallic costume created by Jean Bênoit for The execution of the will of the Marquis de Sade in 1959. Journeying deeper still into the 'darker side' of eroticism was Alberto Giacometti's sculpture Woman with her Throat Cut and Hans Bellmer's photographs of his artificial doll, some of which resembled a mutilated woman's body in erotically suggestive positions - and all this while recordings of gasps and sighs of women having sex were issued from speakers in the walls.

Documents on display included manuscript pages from André Breton's Nadja, as well as first editions of books by Breton, Paul Éluard, Valentine Penrose, Leonora Carrington, Benjamin Péret and René Char. There was a copy of the surrealist journal Medium from the 1950s. There were books of pornographic poetry by the poets illustrated with pornographic drawings by the artists.

Among documents from various 'ancestors' of surrealism was a letter in minute handwriting on blue paper from the Marquis de Sade to his wife. Sade's will was also on display alongside Bênoit's costume piece. There was also continuous screenings of Luis Buñuel's movie classics Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or, followed by Maya Deren's beautiful Meshes of the Afternoon.

Overhead projectors threw photographic images onto a large blank wall, punctuated by texts of poems by Louis Aragon or André Breton:

They tell me over there the beaches are black
With lava that's gone down to the sea
And stretch out at the foot of a huge peak smoking with snow
Under a second sun of wild canaries…
(André Breton, They tell me over there)

Walking away from the exhibition, though, I couldn't help being struck by some ironies. Firstly, that an exhibition devoted to one of the great revolutionary movements of the 20th century should be sponsored by a major international financial group, Morgan Stanley. Also that the exhibition should be swamped by overwhelming hoards of pretentious middle-class art farts that Breton and Co would have despised (or at least according to the myths). Another irony was that the organisers of the exhibition stated that surrealism was an art and literary movement that started in the 1920s and ended in the 1960s, when surrealism, or at least the surrealist spirit, is still alive and all around us.

But these ironies, I suppose, are inevitable. Over the decades corporate capitalism has made a point of being a 'patron of the arts', all in the cause of marketing. Whether the art is comprehensible to them is probably irrelevant. Morgan Stanley's funding of this exhibition is certainly rendered absurd by declaring in its sponsorship statement that surrealism challenged traditional approaches to art in the same manner that the financial group encourages its clients to challenge traditional approaches to managing their finances!

Much art - particularly modern art - has found its way into the corporate world of banking halls, offices and boardrooms. Around Johannesburg, for example, Rothko, Miro and Kandinsky appear to be favourites. If this develops into a widened exposure or appreciation of the artist, excellent, but generally the response is either one of ignorance or ridicule. Often such artworks are not even selected on their artistic merits, but on whether they fit into the colour schemes of the building. I once managed to get a reproduction of Miro's Blue II hanging in my office. It was accepted on the grounds that my employer's predominate corporate colour was blue. Staring at the painting often sent me into some beautiful reveries (which I considered more important than the work at hand), but the response of my colleagues was one of ridicule - you know, 'my five-year-old daughter could have done that!'

Morgan Stanley apparently owns many of the paintings on display in the exhibition, but whether this is a result of genuine art appreciation could be subject to debate. Some capitalist art collections have been created out of art appreciation, others out of appreciation of their current (and future) financial worth. And in these instances the revolutionary and subversive spirit of surrealism - surrealism as a means of liberation - is probably ignored. It is not surprising that the surrealist commitment to political revolution - and in particular the Paris group's (albeit temporary) alignment with the French Communist Party - was not referred to at the exhibition.

Then again, capitalism had been courting surrealism almost since the beginning - the collections of Peggy Guggenheim and Edward James, for example, started back in the 1930s. Dalí became capitalism's pet and he revelled in the opportunity to make mega dollars, hence Breton's dubbing him 'Avida Dollars' (an anagram on 'Salvador Dalí'). But it wasn't just the 'charlatan' Dalí. Man Ray hobnobbed with French aristocracy and Hollywood stars and made no bones about it. The US surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford also made a point of keeping in with the rich, mixing with the likes of Cecil Beaton and Edith Sitwell. Breton himself hung around Guggenheim's salon. And there was Aragon's love affair with the wealthy Nancy Cunard…

The surrealists were - and still are - mainly products of a bourgeois culture, so in a way it is hardly surprising that it is from this culture - against which they were/are rebelling - that they receive the most (however misunderstood) appreciation.

Yet surrealism has never been an art or literary movement (or worse still, a form of escapism). To my mind it is a permanent revolution aimed at the transformation of life, its principal weapons being magic, poetry (visual, verbal or written), eroticism and revolt. Backed up with an unyielding belief in the omnipotence of liberty, dreams and desire, surrealism supports the victory of the pleasure principle over the reality principle and wages an uncompromising war against a paltry existence based on enslavement, bigotry and sham, as well as the abuse of money and power by corporate capitalism, religion, military and state.

So when surrealism finds itself in the hands of the very establishment whose values it seeks to sweep away, it's like a joke gone wrong.

South African poet Sinclair Beiles, commenting on contemporary surrealist poetry, wrote: 'Most surrealist poetry became mannered and its quest for unusual relationships between words, and ideas, were set down at the expense of feelings and motives. The poems became beautiful seashells devoid of life.'

Surrealism looks into the mirror of the 21st century and sees - what? A marketing director signing off a sponsorship cheque?

(first published online on donga in 2002)