Without Understanding

Thinking about the Surreal

22 January 2023

A few weeks ago , former England rubgy union scrum half Danny Care described the firing of England coach Eddie Jones as “surreal”. Will Collar recently employed the same term when describing his hat trick for Stockport County in their FA Cup tie with Charlton Athletic. Both these cases suggest that the word “surreal” has moved away from its origins in the world of dreams and the unconscious and has shifted towards being an expression of disbelief or a descriptor of absurdity. In contemporary poetry, the term is still in use and has been applied to the work of poets such as Selima Hill and Caroline Bird. I found that “ The Art of Recklessness” by the late poet Dean Young caused me to think about whether old school surrealism has survived in contemporary poetry. Has it become more of a synonym for “absurd” or is it something else entirely?

Young quotes from “Free Union” by Andre Breton, the seminal figure in the surrealist movement. A couple of lines will serve as examples of the work.

“My wife whose shoulders are champagne” or

(My wife) “whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger”

While lines like these are perhaps absolutely typical of the originators of surrealism, they are also pretty much what a contemporary poet might produce if asked to parody the style. So has surrealism lost the power of its original impact?

Young says “even before the poem ends, a modern reader, rather familiar with eyebrows that are nests of sparrows, grows a bit bored, a bit too clued in to the system…this raunchy, racy poem seems a bit quaint’.

It’s interesting to compare this with Caroline Bird’s “Checkout” a playful and moving description of an end of life scenario. Here, it’s the situation and its consequences which might be described as surreal, as the protagonist is asked to fill in a customer satisfaction questionnaire before exiting life.

The central image in the poem is this -

“Your face like a cartoon treasure chest glowing with gold light”

To me, it’s an image that feels materially different from those of Breton, yet it could certainly have originated in a dream. Are they both surreal in the same way? My instinct is to say no but perhaps I’m wrong! It’s interesting that I can’t currently articulate the difference in a meaningful way! Am I being affected by the word “cartoon” which suggests contemporary animation or is it just that the poets have very different voices?

I’m still thinking about this stuff and if anyone else is, I’d really recommend Young’s “The Art of Recklessness’ as a stimulating read.