The Theory and Techniques of Surrealist Poetry by Alan Gullette

The theory is the intention of your design process. For me, it’s pretty difficult to write such conceptual poetry but my design process it to celebrate everyday speech, motherhood, flux of life, time travel, the power of the mind (quantum physic’s observer effect,) and the surreal absurdity of life in my existentialism.

You can overthink, you can not know enough, or you can know it intuitively and yet still need to find someone with the words to name it for you – this creates a step, and so I step up. And so, I leave you in the capable hands of Alan Gullette

The Theory and Techniques of Surrealist Poetry

  • University of Tennessee-Knoxville
  • Spring 1979
  • English 4240: Advanced Poetry Writing
  • Prof. Jon Manchip White
  • Alan Gullette, Spring 1979

To speak of the techniques of surrealist poetry is necessarily to speak of the theory behind their practice, a theory that is unique in literature because it transcends literature and art altogether and invades the domains of philosophy, psychology, and even politics.  In fact, as we will see, surrealism is essentially a technique and an inquiry utilizing that technique as a key to unlock the limitless within the human mind, effecting an essentially spiritual liberation.  (Or so the story goes.)  I will summarize this theory, indicate the emphasis on chance and spontaneity in the techniques, and finally discuss the validity of surrealism as an approach to literature.

Surrealism as a movement in literature had its formal beginning with the publication of the Manifesto of Surrealism by André Breton in 1924.  Prior to that, in 1919, the first automatic text, The Magnetic Fields, was produced by Breton and Philippe Soupault.  In his first manifesto Breton explicitly defines surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state” — the purpose of which is to express and thus reveal “the true functioning of thought.”1  There is a need, of course, to discuss the signal importance of this claim — that is, if the claim has any meaning, and if the techniques prescribed by surrealism achieve what it purported of them.  Insofar as western civilization (and thus our very lives) is practically built on thought (or was built, and is sustained, by the activities of thought — to an extent to be determined by the very phenomenological inquiry that surrealism intends to be), then surely it is important to look into surrealism, its basic concepts, to see what is there.  And this is quite apart from the curiosity one might have about the various techniques employed by the surrealist poet; though in fact an understanding of the concepts lends credibility to the techniques and thus one begins to regard them in the light of their own purported expansive possibilities.

The concept of surreality is that of a reality “higher” than that to which we are accustomed: the reality of “waking consciousness.”  This surreality is proposed as a unity of the world of waking reality and that of dream; of objectivity and subjectivity; of world and imagination or mind; etc.  In another important work, The Communicating Vessels (1931), Breton expresses this plainly enough:  “the world of dream and the real world are one and the same.”2  The analogy contained in the title is that the mind and the world are not separate but are continuously “communicating” like two connected “vessels.”

At the “living center” of the unity of surreality is a sublime point — or “the point sublime” — with which some part of the human mind communicates directly.  In these terms, then, surrealism’s aim can be said to be the development of a consciousness of this communication, and therefore a realization of the surreal unity.3  This is implied by the interest in thought, especially in thought freed from the usual constraints of convention, logic, morality, the concern for producing aesthetic beauty, and various other forms of repression.  Logic and tradition are seen by the surrealists to drastically limit thought and imagination — and thus experience, consciousness, and behavior.  The essence of this delimiting is what Breton called “the great enigma” — “the permanent cause of the conflict that exists between man and the world” — and this is just “the impossibility of justifying everything by the logical.”4  Logic, in this view, attempts to rule in the conscious mind and in that narrow field of reality which it allows to enter consciousness; but logic is necessarily frustrated, since the functioning of logic requires a language which separates the subject from the object.  Besides division as a natural operation of thought as it is normally used (and in surrealist use the word seeks to unify — for Breton, “words make love”), however, there is also a movement toward security which keeps us safely within the confines of the familiar, the known, the conventional.  Breton criticized contemporary thought for its “extravagant overestimation oft he known compared with what remains to be known,” since knowledge is purely a function of memory and ceases to have anything to do with reality (which changes).5  “The key to the mental prison” — and thus the device for the liberation of thought — was to be found in “the free, unlimited play of analogies” which alone can break the “paltry means of cognition” that ordinarily prevent us from “associating . . . the unassociable,” and by “breaking without discrimination that which we do not dare to wish to see broken.”6  Hence we have the spontaneous juxtaposition, the unthought-of combination, the starling simile, which was actually a device of Dadaist poetry and an element in the work of Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Apollinaire, precursors of surrealism.

In opening up thought, then, by sitting down to write automatically, having an intention only to record what comes into the mind spontaneously, without fear as to what might arise from the hidden depths of the subconscious — in relinquishing control over one’s own thought, one creates a channel for the “verbal manifestation” of “the cosmic Word” (no less!).7  To delineate this radical jump, we have the notion of objective chance, which is the discovery of a natural link between the personal, collective, and even “cosmic” unconsciousness, such as occurs with the find (trouvaille), or found object.8  (A surrealist will sometimes find an object which seizes his attention with its uniqueness or with the uniqueness or unusualness of its situation or context — from which the function of the object, if man-made, would be a puzzle; or it might be a rock or a piece of wood bearing suggestive markings; or anything extraordinary or coincidental.  Such objects would be incorporated into the surrealists’ sculptures, montages, collages, or be displayed as “ready-makes,” etc.)  The find represents the communication of the vessels of mind and world through the intersection of desire and change at a particular point in time and space.9  In the case of automatic writing, it is the word that is “found” — a voice is given to Chance.  And since the point sublime is “the secret source of objective chance,” then surely the automatically written words are manifestations of the cosmic Word.10  (The Greeks, paradoxically, identified the Word with logic — or vice versa — at any rate that which the surrealist has to escape or suspend in order to receive the “new” word as a revelation.)  It was André Breton’s belief that the “evidence” arrived at through surrealist “research” (as he termed the results and utilization of automatism and other experimental techniques) was profoundly meaningful in its revealing some truth about the nature of thought and of the relationship between the mind and the supreme point and that between the supreme point and the specific present reality, etc.

A necessary concomitant of this belief is that literature and art should serve as tools for a surrealist revolution — primarily conceived as a revolution in consciousness, entailing the infinite expansion of reality by the growing realization of the coming-together of mind and matter, the absolute and the specific, etc.  And yet, despite the profound relevance or liberating nature of their transcriptions, the surrealist writers were themselves no more than “modest recording instruments.”  Conceiving of poetry in this way, it was only logical that “Breton subscribed without question to the opinion that poetic excellence can only be the result of spontaneity.”11  If not spontaneous — i.e., produced using surrealist techniques — then obviously it could not be related to surreality and thus to the ever-present point sublime.  (For we can only posit a center if we posit a circumference, i.e., a surface; the present would then be nothing more than the temporal manifestation of that absolute sublime, which seems to be the position of Zen Buddhism — which likewise denies the separation of self and object:  deny, in fact, the existence of either self or object, seeing them as apparitions, the products of thought.)  With the introduction of the absolute, all values shift, and art must be judged, if at all, by its revelatory power.12

Let us now look at some of the other forms of automatism that were used in surrealist “research.”  The best-known technique after automatic writing was the modified children’s game known as “the exquisite corpse.”  This involved several people consecutively writing entire lines or parts of a sentence without being able to see what others have written.  The name comes from the first result of this method (in 1925): “Le cadavre exquis boira le vin nouveau” — “the exquisite corpse drinks the new wine.”13Another method was the drawing of words from a hat after they had been cut out of a newspaper article of the desired length.  The words were copied in that sequence.14

Akin to the automatic texts were those produced as dream transcriptions and those that resulted from “spiritualist séances” conducted by Breton (which sometimes involved hypnotism) and even from sleep-writing.  Robert Desnos was the most gifted in all of these experiments, demonstrating the greatest facility, and was also able to speak “automatically.”  There were sleep-dialogues that sometimes became violent. Desnos, Breton, and probably many of the others experimented with opium and other drugs, which is only logical considering their essentially psychedelic (i.e., “mind-revealing”) pursuit and the pervading spirit of experimentation.

In closing, let me return to the question of validity concerning surrealist literary techniques, about which there has probably been considerable controversy.  First of all, if we adopt a surrealist viewpoint, then, as we have seen, art logically must be and naturally will tend to be surrealist, and thus be justifiable only in its ability to reveal the new, the “never seen,” the parallel activity of thought and chance in consciousness.  But if we reject the surrealist position, then the poetry cannot be judged on the basis of usual aesthetic standards, simply because it was theoretically created without concern for any such standards.  Therefore, surrealist poetry is exempt from aesthetic judgment.  More important by far — infinitely more important, perhaps — is the response that arise in the individual who tries to openly experience the work as “evidence” in the case for the sublime as the living center of the surreal unity of psyche and “external reality,” of inside and outside.

  • Notes
  • 1    André Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen Lane (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 28.
  • 2    Quoted in J. H. Matthews, André Breton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967), p. 13.
  • 3    Mary Ann Caws, Surrealism and the Literary Imagination (The Hague and Paris: Mouton & Co., 1966), p. 46.
  • 4    See Matthews, op cit., p. 27.
  • 5    Ibid. p. 19.
  • 6    Ibid. p. 27.
  • 7    Michel Carrouges, André Breton and the Basic Concepts of Surrealism, trans. Maura Prendergast (University of Alabama Press, 1974), p. 56.
  • 8    Ibid. p. 7.
  • 9    Matthews, p. 32.
  • 10  Carrouges, p. 199.
  • 11  Matthews, p. 30.
  • 12  Cf. “Art must draw its justification ‘solely from its revelatory power'” (Breton), Matthews, p. 28.
  • 13  Herta Wescher, Collage, trans. Robert Wolf (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968), p. 194-5.
  • 14  Ibid., p. 134.  Tristan Tzara and the Dadaists used this technique before the surrealists were “surrealists.”  Poe, even earlier, suggested a very similar technique in his instructions for “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”

    Web Links and Further Information
    Surrealist Writers
  • Jon Manchip White (1924-2013) was Lindsay Young Professor of English at the University of Tennessee and helped develop UTK’s Creative Writing Program.  His many credits include: Mask of Dust (a.k.a. A Race for Life) (1953), Nightclimber (1968), and The Last Grand Master (1985).  His supernatural collection Echoes and Shadows (2004) was published by Tartarus Press.

    Alan Gullette > Essays