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What do surrealists and haiku poets have in common?

In this month’s Haiku column I ask, What do surrealism and haiku have in common?

Surrealists aimed to jar people. But they didn’t just jar. They had methods and messages. Surrealists filled their writings and paintings with images they believed were imbued with the deeper, common experiences of man.

This is where I start to equate surrealism with haiku. Surrealists were looking to show what was beyond every day. They were looking to show how we take everything around us for granted.

Now think about Basho’s famous “old pond” poem.  Wasn’t it the first poem to say, there is “this” and then there is you interpreting “this”? This is how I build my case.

Let me know what you think!


This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Gene. I have been thinking about connections between the arts and haiku poetry and so find it interesting to read people’s thoughts here.

    Re. your question: I understand (most) surrealists to have tried to bypass conscious mind and to make contact with the unconscious through dreams, word association, automatic writing, hypnosis, mind-altering substances… This aim to go beyond and beneath the conscious/reasoning mind and pull out a fresh, writhing, alive experience may be one of the things that surrealists and haiku poets share (though not all the means!).

    Regarding two-part haiku, I like to see the juxtaposition of the two elements as displaying side by side, literally, unconsciously associated content. In a successful juxtaposition, a sense of strangeness, an uncanny feeling is being set up. Isn’t this central to the attraction for both reader and writer: looking at the seemingly disparate elements/parts of the poem, experiencing the tensions generated and their resolution in a moment of recognition in which the unseen / unconscious connections emerge?

    In this sense, surrealists (at least those of the more constructive strand) and haiku poets may be said to use juxtaposition of the seemingly disparate as a means to reach underneath and beyond the well-trodden tracks of our conscious landscape; to (to use your words) ‘jar’ and encourage filling in the gaps/holes between the elements through reconnecting with deeper/hidden levels of the mind. Of course, this is only one of several commonalities; there’s also choice of words, images, form of presentation, and so on.

    Happily, we have this month’s Per Diem, Kirsten Cliff’s collection “Dream Speak,” to help us explore this matter further.

  2. In Chapter 3 of *Haiku Poetics in Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde Poetry* (Lexington Books, 2011) [“Haiku in France: From Couchoud to Eluard’s Surrealism”], Jeffrey Johnson posits that it was actually haiku and Japanese poetry that helped give birth to Surrealism, drawing on commentary from Kenneth Rexroth, William Schwartz, and Julien Vocance.

    Some quotes from the intro to that chapter:

    “Rexroth refers to condensation (no spare word), lack of syntactical connectives, visuality, and haiku juxtaposition. The association of modernist poetic experimentation and Japanese haiku was, in Rexroth’s phrasing, “a remarkable example of historical cultural convergence.” Furthermore, the reforms undertaken by the 1920s avant-garde in poetry exactly coincide with the awareness of haiku *as a distinct genre*—a process that began […] with translations around 1900.”

    “ . . . Schwartz wrote in 1925, “The question is, what started the present tendency towards condensation in French poetry? If the germs did not come from contact with the ‘compressed’ and reticent poetry of Japan, to what other literary form can the tendency be traced?””

    “[Haiku’s] influence was pervasive, and Vocance, a French promoter of haiku […], asked of Eluard, “Surrealism maybe owes [haiku] a lot, right, Eluard?” indicating that Eluard “knew the facts.””

    “During the teens and twenties in particular, haiku came to be increasingly associated with the poetics of radical juxtaposition and visual experimentation in France and elsewhere. Generally, Buson was considered essential to this visual association, and […] this dated from the time of Couchoud’s pioneering work. From Couchoud, to Neuville, to Vocance, and on to Eluard, haiku left its lasting mark on French poetics . . .”

    The entirety of Chapter 3 is devoted to “tracing the trajectory” and haiku’s role in Surrealism.

  3. “It has always seemed to me that extreme clarity is surreal.”

    Patrick Sweeney

    That makes sense to me, in an intuitive way. My mother needed to be in a nursing home her last months. Helping her with supper several times a week was a blessing. After her passing, being in a familiar restaurant felt strange – surreal? My worlds had changed and took some time to change back to everyday life.

    Thanks for the link, Dave – on my reading list this week.


  4. It has always seemed to me that extreme clarity is surreal. It is a jarring experience to encounter the truth of nature. The inner life of Basho must’ve had strange orbits…how could such a penetrating vision be anything but surreal…one cannot kiss an angel with closed lips.

  5. Browsing the wiki page on “surrealism,” some points of potential contrast:

    “Surrealism would advocate the idea that ordinary and depictive expressions are vital and important, but that the sense of their arrangement must be open to the full range of imagination according to the Hegelian Dialectic. They also looked to the Marxist dialectic and the work of such theorists as Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse.”

    “Freud’s work with free association, dream analysis, and the unconscious was of utmost importance to the Surrealists in developing methods to liberate imagination. They embraced idiosyncrasy, while rejecting the idea of an underlying madness. Later, Salvador Dalí explained it as: ‘There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.’”

    “Feminists have in the past critiqued Surrealism, claiming that it is fundamentally a male movement and a male fellowship, despite […] Feminist critics believe that it adopts archaic attitudes toward women, such as worshiping them symbolically through stereotypes and sexist norms. Women are often made to represent higher values and transformed into objects of desire and of mystery” (wiki). “… it was in principle a mistake to regard Surrealist poems and other art works as direct manifestations of the unconscious, when they were indeed highly shaped and processed by the ego” (Freud).

    Surrealism, a term coined by Apollinaire (in 1917); I return to his “Calligramms” (subtitled, “Poems of war and peace, 1913-1916”), for inspiration cioncerning possibilities of concrete disjunction in haiku. Here linked, “Il Pleut,” and a few more:

    Marjorie Perloff writes (in a review of the Revell translation of “Alcools,” the poem, “Zone”):

    “Apollinaire’s Paris is a long way from Baudelaire’s; it is the Paris of refugees, whose odor fills the hall of the “gare Saint-Lazare”, who carry “red eiderdowns” even as the poet himself carries his heart. It is also the Paris of “Christs of another shape another faith / Subordinate Christs of uncertain hopes” in the form of South Sea and Guinean fetishes. And, most of all, it is a Paris that the poet adores but is always leaving–to go to Marseilles, Coblenz, Amsterdam, the trenches–almost anywhere. It is thus that Baudelaire’s imaginary voyage has become real, only to be even more disillusioning than its precursor.”

    “Zone” – an epic poem of Paris: “the great poem of early Modernism” (Martin Sorrell).

    Taking a wider view, Perloff has devoted some thought to the continuing relevance of modernism – a complex topic. This paper is a recent example:

    Marjorie Perloff
    published in Modernist Cultures, Vol. 1: Issue 1, Spring 2005

    Epilogue, MODERNISM NOW
    Marjorie Perloff
    published in A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture, ed. David Bradshaw and Kevin Dettmar (2006), pp. 571-78.

    Also, to mention her 2002 book, “21st Century Modernism”
    (some sections are available at the above link)

    On the topic title which Gene has presented, the simplest, most inarguable answer would be “influence.”


  6. Discussions here and on the forum– Field Notes– seem to have gone from paucity to surfeitude in a hurry.

    Paucity– where my cats go when they’re bored with the country.

    Surfeitude– too many waves, man!

  7. If you are going to ” equate” haiku and Surrealism, you should account for surrealism historically and include critical testimony of fellow travelers. American haiku, like surrealism, is a response to circumstances, and indeed several different responses to circumstances differently perceived. I for one consider haiku a therapy against habits of mind engendered or reinforced by surrealism. Indeed, a lapsed surrealist like Bonnefoy has much in common with a particular strand of haiku, that which refuses to either reduce experience to objects or abstract objects from experience.

  8. An interesting question, Gene, and I also learned from Peter’s response. Look forward to the discussion. Thank you!

    warm August night
    light fading –

    (Time of Singing, 1996)

  9. A few lines that jumped out at me from the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 are these: “the real functioning of thought”, “the dictation of thought in the absence of all control”, and “the omnipotence of dream.”

    All of these phrases seem to have everything to do with the construction of a haiku. The process and the product. The haiku poet goes for essence—the real functioning of thought. No excess. No ornamentation. So much of what surrealism is about is about how little we know. Surrealists showcase the charade of our knowledge. The depth of human understanding is often puddle-deep. The surrealist is unlike a haiku poet and perhaps more like a senryu poet. That penchant for the absurd. The compulsion to shock. A necessary method to grab the passer-by by the collar.

    The best surrealists make a mockery of reason and logic. The marble bust of Sophocles beside a mannequin. A half-seen shadow. (Think Blyth’s definition of haiku: “that half-said thing”) A train in the distance. That billow of steam from the engine… (The dream of travel). Here, I’m thinking of de Chirico mostly. Image after image, a barrage of what next? The juxtaposition of light and shadow—“the chiaroscuro of cobbled streets,” to quote Wikipedia. Break down the image to its minimalist forms and beauty then becomes whatever the viewer, or the reader, brings to the table, so to speak. The viewer is left to make all the sense. How haiku.

    The surrealist’s mind races to a strange stillness. Perhaps, the mind only achieves that stillness because of the strangeness it encounters. A slowing down of time. Stop-time. A still life of unimaginable objects, imagined. Made real. The haiku poet must also slow down. Be still. i m a g i n e . Enter dream time. And above all stop that logical thinking in its tracks.

    The best haiku are achieved out of control. Or, at the very least, when the artist has opened a direct line to the creative process. A clear channel to the unconscious mind. Absurdity helps clear one’s head. Break down logic by shattering rational thought. In this way, it’s possible that the mind goes blank if only for a moment, it may be just long enough for a haiku to settle beside the poet and write itself. Or pop into the poet’s head unexpectedly. The thousand-yard stare of what’s happening right now.

    The daydream is often a haiku in its earliest draft. What do surrealist have in common with haiku poets? More than I ever thought now that I think about it.


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