Unpublished talk delivered by Andrew Joron at the University of Chicago in April 2009, one week after Franklin Rosemont’s death.
How did it happen that the most important contingent of organized surrealist activity in the United States took off in Chicago in 1966, continuing up to the present day? The Chicago-based author Nelson Algren, a writer of naturalistic fiction and of a book called Chicago, City on the Make, reportedly told Franklin Rosemont, co-founder of the Chicago Surrealist Group, “Surrealism? In Chicago? You’re going to need a lot of luck.” But surprisingly, Chicago proved to be a favorable site for the inception of a surrealist group in many ways. Chicago’s history of labor activism, especially as the headquarters of the Wobblies, the most unorthodox and freewheeling radical labor organization in the U.S., certainly has something to do with the surrealist take-off in Chicago. This is because surrealism aims not just at a revolution of the mind, but at a social revolution as well, a fact too frequently forgotten in the attempts to stick surrealism into the museum of obsolete art movements.
Actually surrealism is not an art movement at all, but a movement for the liberation of not just human life but all life, even the life of nonliving things, at every level, including the pavement stones outside, and up through political economy and art, why not. So the question of “why Chicago?” goes beyond just cultural history. Penelope Rosemont, another co-found of the Chicago group, in her memoir Dreams and Everyday Life, has cited the natural landscape around Chicago as a propaedeutic of the surrealist imagination: “The lakes,” she wrote, “were formed during the last glaciers. The land and lakes tossed together in a way that defied reason and kept secrets.”
But the human landscape of Chicago, as is well known, also has been “tossed together,” starting in the mid nineteenth century, with the immigration of workers from the Catholic countries of Europe and the migration of emancipated slaves from the American South, producing mixtures that have disturbed the straight-line grids of White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture. Chicago’s ethically and racially diverse working-class, caught up in the dark Satanic mills of the city’s booming factories and stockyards, gave rise to the most potent and most radical labor movements ever seen in the U.S. The date of May 1st, international workers’ day, celebrated everywhere except in the U.S., commemorates the Chicago general strike of 1886, which culminated in the bomb-throwing incident in Haymarket Square and the state execution of a number of anarchists.
But it was above all the founding of the anarchistically inclined I.W.W. union, the Wobblies, in Chicago in 1905 that provides a direct line to the activism of the Chicago Surrealist Group today. Franklin and Penelope Rosemont, the co-founders and most prominent members of the Chicago Surrealist Group, both born and raised in the Chicago area, in their youth participated in labor organizing through the I.W.W. Chicago office. Penelope’s father, as she reports in her new book, “would sing Wobbly songs to wake [her] up in the morning.” Franklin Rosemont’s father was a union activist who has been described as a “working-class intellectual.”
The Wobblies themselves could be described as a working-class intellectual movement; they disdained conventional channels for achieving change, preferring direct action over bargaining with the bosses. Going beyond the purely economic focus of most labor unions, the Wobblies regarded working-class culture––especially the songs and stories of migratory workers who rode the rails––as important forms of resistance. The Wobblies’ emphasis on preserving and promoting the spontaneous creativity of down-and-out workers who were marginalized even within the working class became known as “hobohemianism.” The idea that true cultural creativity is found welling upward from the lower echelons of class society, and the idea that creative activity and oppositional activity are actually one and the same, were positions articulated by the Paris surrealists. But these ideas were already circulating in the U.S. and especially in Chicago thanks to the Wobblies––and the Chicago surrealists, having received this influence starting with their parents, have drawn upon this legacy in developing a surrealist practice with uniquely American roots.
In talking about the Chicago Surrealist Group, I’m mostly going to be focusing on the writings of Franklin and Penelope Rosemont; they are co-founders and in many ways are still the chief instigators. The group eventually expanded beyond Chicago and in this later incarnation has called itself the Surrealist Movement in the United States, and I’ll discuss some aspects of this later incarnation, and the work of some other members, as well. But for now I want to describe the group’s beginnings here in Chicago.
Now, as the youngsters who would later become the Chicago surrealists came of age in the fifties, the early Wobbly influence was supplemented with the influence of Beat literature. The “hobohemianism” of the Wobblies shaded naturally into the Beats’ “on-the-road” philosophy and countercultural critique of American life. As a young man, Franklin Rosemont himself went “on the road” in emulation of the Beats, ending up in San Francisco’s North Beach district for a time. Rosemont at this point was writing Beat-inspired poetry, and was invited by San Francisco poet Bob Kaufman to contribute to the now-famous Beat literary journal Beatitude. And the Beat influence is still visible, and is even still paramount, in the jazzy, often humorous tone and style of the poetry produced by the Chicago Surrealist Group. This may be because at some point in the sixties, the Chicago surrealists consciously and intentionally closed themselves off from engaging with major post-Beat developments in American literature. The Beat moment represents in many ways the last point of contact the Chicago surrealists had with innovative trends in American writing, because from their point of view, such later trends simply lack the revolutionary impetus of jazz and blues and Beat-influenced surrealist poetry.
In the zeitgeist of the fifties and early sixties, there was a natural affinity, recognized by the writers of the time, between the Beats’ rebellion against square, linear, conservative American culture, all in the name of expressing a more primal, libidinally free way of being, and the surrealists’ own rebellion against classical French culture. Both movements locate the source of imagination in convulsive eros, and encourage this source to override all moral, political, and aesthetic strictures on its expression. The synthesis of Beat and surrealist poetics occurs most obviously in the work of Philip Lamantia and Bob Kaufman but the current runs through most of the writers who are now classified as Beats.
It didn’t take long, though, for the alternative-seeking young activists who would later become the Chicago Surrealist Group to see surrealism as the primary element in the swirl of oppositional energy that the group was attracted to––a mix that included jazz and blues along with the Beat and Wobbly traditions, and that also included the black intellectual tradition being taught by St. Clair Drake at Roosevelt University, where the core group of the Chicago surrealists first met as students. For a group committed to the synthesis of imagination plus rebellion, surrealism stood out as the general theory that could best comprehend and extend the entire range of practices aimed at opposing and transforming the alienation of capitalist culture in the U.S.
In a way, the Chicago Surrealist Group grew out of the seed of a single phrase, “Elephants are contagious!”, attributed to the French surrealists Benjamin Peret and Paul Eluard, a phrase that Franklin Rosemont discovered in high school in a Reader’s Companion to World Literature entry on surrealism. As Rosemount recounted to Ron Sakolsky, “Those three words opened the door to the wonders and possibilities of language.” In the story Rosemont told to Ron Sakolsky for the Autonomedia anthology Surrealist Subversions, this phrase (“elephants are contagious”) ended up graffittied all over the walls of buildings in Maywood, the Chicago suburb where Rosemont grew up.
However, there is an earlier version of Rosemont’s first encounter with surrealism, in Rosemont’s first book of poetry, The Morning of a Machine Gun. In that book, Rosemont says “I discovered my accord with surrealism after dropping out of high school, when I began to notice that certain ‘chances of everyday life’ corresponded in a seemingly inexplicable fashion with the texts I was then writing. It was at this momemt that I read Andre Breton’s Nadja, which hastened the evolution of my thought.”
In any case, during Rosemont’s “on-the-road” period––on his Beat-inspired hitch-hiking sojourns across the Western U.S. and down into Mexico––he was already sufficiently familiar with the surrealist pantheon to seek out the great surrealist artist Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. It’s well known that Franklin and Penelope Rosemont travelled to France in 1965 to meet Andre Breton, and were welcomed by him into the surrealist movement, and that the Chicago Surrealist Group really was born at that moment, or shortly thereafter. But five years previous to the meeting with Breton, the first surrealist whom Franklin Rosemont met in person was the British expatriate Leonora Carrington in Mexico City. Carrington, for her part, came up to live in Chicago from 1989 to 1992, before returning to Mexico, and she still lives there, age 92. While the Chicago Surrealist Group is known for their fierce adherence to Bretonian principles, they have also described their brand of surrealism as “Carringtonian” as well.
However, it’s hard to see how this description fits very well, because political activism, and the political import of surrealist activity, stands out as a constant theme and overriding concern of the Chicago surrealists, and Carrington’s surrealism could hardly said to be preoccupied by political struggle, except by some kind of distant inference and implication. And the Chicago surrealists’ political practice would be anything but distant and implied. At the foundation of the Chicago group’s practice, as I mentioned, was their involvement with the I.W.W. Rosemont and friends started and ran the I.W.W.’s Solidarity Bookshop here in Chicago from 1964 to about 1974. The bookstore became known as a distribution point for Marxist, anarchist, surrealist, and radical publications of all kinds and also functioned in its way as a community center for radicals and freethinkers. The Solidarity Bookshop and the organization around it really provided the launching pad for the Chicago Surrealist Group, which was officially formed in 1966, shortly after Franklin and Penelope Rosemont returned to Chicago after meeting with Andre Breton in France.
By their own reports, the Rosemonts’ meetings were rather brief––Breton was already ill––and limited by language barriers on both sides. Despite the fleeting nature of their contact, the aura around the surrealist leader was, as the Rosemonts perceived it, quite intense. As Franklin Rosemont has written, “Of [the] first meeting with Breton, brief as it was, I retain an image distinct and ineffaceable, as of incidents in life that are larger than life, beyond all expectation, unhoped-for and staggering.” Rosemont also wrote, in his introduction to the compendium What Is Surrealism?, that “[s]ince [Breton] spoke little English, and our knowledge of French was meager at the time, the conversation was in short sentences, aided by translations of several surrealist friends.” Rosemont further testifies that “Although I met with Andre Breton too briefly and have come to know him through his writings, he remains for me [and this next phrase is italicized in the original] the closest of all possible friends.”
It turned out that the Rosemonts had reached out to Breton and the surrealist group in France at the last possible moment, because Breton died in 1966 and the French surrealist group officially dissolved in 1969. But the end of organized surrealist activity in France was the beginning of organized surrealist activity in the U.S., owing to the militant energy of the Chicago Surrealist Group. And the range of their activity became very wide indeed, once the disparate strands of their oppositional political and cultural activities were definitively tied together by surrealism––or more precisely by the idea of surrealist revolution. For the Chicago group correctly understood surrealism to be––and this bears repeating––not an art movement but a movement for the transformation of existence through the liberation of desire and imagination. Surrealism understood in this way includes and carries forward the Marxist project, the Freudian project, and the poetic project initiated by Lautreamont and Rimbaud, poets who produced works unfettered by traditional moral and aesthetic concerns. Far from being restricted to aesthetic categories, surrealism is a world view and a way of life, and a way of transforming life on every level, from the personal to the global. And this is the vision that the Chicago group has aspired to, since its formation in 1966.
Of course, this was the sixties, and a lot of different groups were working for revolution at that time, both in the U.S. and internationally. But even after the revolutionary tide receded in the seventies, the Chicago Surrealist Group has persevered until the present day, with no apparent loss of revolutionary zeal.
One very important aspect of the Chicago group’s activity has been the publication and dissemination of surrealist writings––in fact the Chicago group is responsible for making many of the classic texts of French surrealism available in the U.S. for the first time. One very important compendium of these classic texts, over 700 pages long, entitled What Is Surrealism?, was edited by Franklin Rosemont, who also provided a lengthy introduction for the volume. This anthology remains even now one of the best reference points for surrealist writing in the English language. In 1967, the group launched Black Swan Press (named after the black swan in Lautreamont’s proto-surrealist novel Maldoror). The press, which continues to function and which has published hundreds of surrealist and surrealist-related titles, was initially operated out of the Solidarity Bookshop. After the bookstore closed down in the seventies, Black Swan Press relocated but in some ways took over some of the functions of the store, distributing surrealist titles by other publishers as well. Around this time, the Chicago surrealists developed a strong relationship with the radical book publisher Charles H. Kerr here in Chicago. Charles H. Kerr has been publishing a long list of radical labor, anarchist, and Marxist titles since 1886, but its fortunes were on the wane until the connection with the surrealist group revived it. The relationship between Black Swan Press and Charles H. Kerr is so close––there’s even a similar look to the design of Black Swan and Charles H. Kerr titles––that they appear to be two wings of the same publishing operation.
The Chicago Surrealist Group is engaged not only in book production but also puts out a magazine, entitled Arsenal: Surrealist Subversion. Only four issues have came out, to my knowledge; the first issue was published in 1970 and the last one in 1989. It’s a large-format journal, heavily illustrated, and jam-packed with classic and contemporary writings by surrealists from all over the world. The journal (it’s really more of an anthology series than a magazine) also includes samplings from old-time popular culture, such as blues lyrics, that the surrealists find compatible with their project, as well as work by forgotten or neglected “outsider” artists and poets. Arsenal also features, as one would expect, a lot of work by the Chicago surrealists themselves: visual art, poems, pronouncements, manifestoes, and the like.
In a manifesto published in the very first issue of Arsenal in 1970, Franklin Rosemont declared, “What remains for surrealism to do far exceeds what surrealism has done.” Well, it’s almost forty years later, and despite vigorous activity by the Chicago Surrealist Group on multiple political and cultural fronts, including the mounting of an International Surrealist Exhibition here in Chicago in 1976, it can’t yet be said that what surrealism has done in the U.S. after 1970 far exceeds what was accomplished in Europe before 1970. That’s not to say that the Surrealist Movement in the U.S., which is another name that the Chicago group goes by, hasn’t accomplished a lot: in addition to their tireless political agitation, they’ve ardently promoted, through publications and events, the classic concepts of Bretonian surrealism here in the U.S., and sought to embody these principles in their own practice and poetry.
Looking back on these accomplishments, we can say that what the Chicago surrealists have produced was not only inspired by, but bears a strong family resemblance to, the work of the Paris surrealists. So strong that the word “imitative” might be applied by an ungenerous critic. Ron Sakolsky, who is a sympathetic commentator, has described Arsenal as having “typographical excellence, a distinctive design, and a special tone of its own.” In fact, however, the typography, design and tone of Arsenal is not entirely its own, but instead loudly echoes the typography, design, and tone of the French surrealist journal of the 1930s, Surrealism in the Service of the Revolution. This echo-effect is clearly no accident, but a deliberate act of homage or (again, to an ungenerous eye) imitation.
In other words, surrealism in the U.S. appears to be a perpetuation of French surrealism. The distinction between U.S. and French surrealism then corresponds to the distinction Thomas Kuhn makes, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, between normal and revolutionary science. Revolutionary science involves a paradigm shift, while normal science perpetuates a given paradigm, at most expanding it to cover new content.
One way that the Chicago group has expanded the original program of French surrealism is to seek out what they call the “popular accomplices” of surrealism in the U.S. These “accomplices,” it turns out, mostly belong to old-time culture: pulp magazines, Bugs Bunny, radio voices, flying saucers, Krazy Kat comics, and blues singers of a bygone era, exemplars of what Greil Marcus, in the context of folk music, has called “old weird America.” After the sixties, there doesn’t seem to have been much in American popular culture worth rescuing from a surrealist perspective.
The French surrealists, for their part, were also attracted to outmoded cultural artifacts. As Walter Benjamin pointed out in his essay on surrealism (and I quote), the Parisian surrealists were the “first to perceive the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’ in the first iron constructions, the first factory buildings, the earliest photos, the objects that have begun to be extinct, grand pianos, the dresses of five years ago, fashionable restaurants when the vogue has begun to ebb from them.” I’m not sure if Benjamin was being a bit ironic here, when he wants to perceive “revolutionary energies” in five-year-old dresses and once-fashionable restaurants. But his point still stands. In Marxist terms, the use-value of things only becomes apparent once things have been emancipated from the cash nexus of exchange value; discarded things therefore are most susceptible to the imaginative redemption of their use value. Such discarded and outmoded things correspond to what, in Freudian terms, is called “the day’s residues,” experiences that sink into our unconscious at evening to be processed by the dream-work. In this analogy, outmoded cultural artifacts are like “history’s residues,” products of industrial civilization that end up tossed aside and buried by the very civilization that produced them, sinking to a more primitive, pre-civilized level of meaning that only the surrealist method, schooled in dreams, can access.
Surrealists, both French and American, put a lot of faith in the idea that when things get pulled out of the unconscious, they enter consciousness with explosive, liberating, and revolutionary force. This is the opposite of what Freud meant by the “return of the repressed,” where my my wish or desire, if it gets repressed, returns in an alienated form that I can’t control, resulting in neurosis. Freud saw the ego as being more or less oppressed by unconscious drives, and demanded that “where the Id was, there Ego shall be,” healing the ego by shining the light of consciousness into the unconscious. This polarity gets reversed in classic surrealism: the conventionalized, rationalized categories of consciousness are overthrown when the irrational forces of the unconscious are liberated, resulting in the free circulation of desire.
This model of throwing off the shackles of civilization in order to return humanity to its original unfallen state goes back, of course, to Rousseau and the Romantics. But there’s a stunning simplicity in the way the Chicago surrealists in particular use this model to reconcile and stabilize the inherently unstable synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Rimbaud (or sometimes the lineup is given as Marx, Freud, and Lautreamont), the three representative components of classic surrealism. With the victory of the irrational over the rational, what starts out as a psychological victory embodied in the free association of desires within the individual psyche becomes, in the form of collective action between individuals, a political victory of the working class, resulting in the free association of producers (a phrase that was actually used by Marx to describe communism), which in turn is paralleled by a poetic victory, as the free association of words yields the automatic poem.
We can see how this model plays out in practice in Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit, a study of the blues from a surrealist perspective, first published in 1975. Garon is not a resident of Chicago, but is nonetheless an important member of the Chicago Surrealist Group, participating in many of their activities and helping to articulate many of their positions. Some of the material that appears in Blues and the Poetic Spirit was first published in Arsenal, and the book features a preface by Franklin Rosemont. In this book, Garon speaks of the (quote/unquote) “poetic assault on consciousness,” (p. 49) and what he means by this is an assault by the poetic spirit, partisan of the unconscious, storming the barricades of consciousness in the name of the liberation of desire. As an exemplary manifestation of the poetic spirit, “the blues,” Garon writes, “is above all a vehicle of desire linked closely… to the unconscious.” (p.45) True poetry, linked closely to the unconscious and manifested in this case in the blues, is a primitive force that opposes itself to the civilized (meaning alienated) consciousness. As Garon puts it, the blues “is a relatively unalienated form of expression. In a sense,” he continues, “‘unalienated’ becomes a synonym for ‘primitive,’ and this offers a key to the fundamental revaluation of the blues.” (p. 35) Defending his use of the word “primitive,” Garon invokes the French surrealists’ celebration of African art in the 1920s and 30s, saying that “Today the battle over primitive art is over, resulting in a more or less complete vindication of the surrealist point of view. It is thus only appropriate,” Garon says, “ that the surrealists [meaning here the Chicago Group] should also be the first to champion the…qualities of another realm of primitivism––the blues.” (p. 35)
I’ll follow Garon’s argument a little further here, because his approach to the “poetic spirit” of the blues highlights the Chicago Surrealist Group’s approach to poetry in general. What Garon has called the (quote/unquote) “poetic assault on consciousness” amounts to an assault of the primitive (meaning unalienated) on the civilized (meaning alienated). This assault is in fact inseparable from the poetic act itself. As Garon states, “Poetic activity goes hand in hand with practical action and the two cannot be separated,” (p. 65) Elsewhere he states that there is “a dynamic fusion between the concept of revolt and the concept of poetry,” and that this inherently poetic revolt is directed at “the repressive structures of Western civilization.” (pp. 20–21) These structures are repressive both from the standpoint of morality and of political economy. In Garon’s words, “it is through poetry that revolt most enticingly penetrates the barrier of the prevailing morality” (p. 64) On the one hand, poetic revolt entails the enticing penetration of a prudish morality. On the other hand, this inherently primitive, because closely linked to the unconscious, act of poetic revolt is also directed against the political-economic class structure of repression. As Garon states, “Our discussion also makes clear how, in one sense, the working class is analogous to the unconscious or, structurally, the id. Freedom from repression, and liberation of the unconscious, is analogous to the liberation of the working class.” (p. 132)
In this series of analogies, the poetic act is held to be analogous to the act of moral and political revolt, and these acts in turn are analogous to the liberation of the unconscious. These identifications, in all their circularity, are underpinned by the power of analogy, and Garon states as much: it is “the principle of poetic analogy,” he writes, “that permits us to venture confidently from the known to the unknown.” (p. 18) This is a confident program, reconciling and stabilizing what was originally an unstable synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Rimbaud in French surrealism.
In Franklin Rosemont’s first book of poems, The Morning of a Machine Gun, published in 1968, Rosemont articulates the same chain of associations between poetry, political revolution, and unconscious desire: “The function of poetry,” Rosemont writes, “ is to destroy conventional and limiting associations and all the decrepit, stifling myths of capitalist civilization by liberating images of desire.” It’s important to remember that these words were written in 1968 by a young man at the height of the youth insurrection of the sixties––at a time when rebellious students in France in May 1968 were writing phrases like “Take your desires for reality,” in full awareness of the surrealist origins of that phrase, on the walls of buildings in Paris.
But even in the late sixties, at a time when the commodification of the lifeworld was already fairly advanced, desire was circulating in a much different way, socially and psychologically, than it had in the twenties, when the surrealists appropriated the term from Freud. “Desire” in the sense that the surrealists use it refers to the Freudian revelation of unconscious, largely sexual desire as the driving force behind our mental economy. This revelation was an explosive one for the Victorian era in which Freud’s studies first emerged, and even in the twenties and thirties, when European liberal culture was still steeped in traditional values, it was more than a little inflammatory to call for the liberation of desire.
However, consumer capitalism learned, about a minute after the surrealists did, to make the equation between unconscious desire and social action, so that the media spectacle surrounds us incessantly with images of desire, to the extent that the very idea of “liberating images of desire” has itself become one of the “stifling myths of capitalist civilization.” The history of consumer capitalism in the U.S., since the end of World War II up to the present crisis, has been the history of the unleashing of the pleasure principle as an engine of capitalist accumulation. So when Franklin Rosemont declared in 1968, in the introduction to his first book of poems, “We unhesitatingly insist that the revolution is for pleasure!” the declaration would find an uncanny echo in the discourse of advertising.
It’s occasionally asserted, in the writings of the Chicago Surrealist Group, that the terms and categories developed by surrealism in the past cannot simply be perpetuated into the future. In Blues and the Poetic Spirit, Paul Garon states, “Surrealism is not a dreary catechism of unchanging theses, it is based on dialectics and analogy and refuses by definition any ossification or stagnation.” (p. 28) Similarly, Franklin Rosemont, in his introduction to What Is Surrealism?, asserts that “Surrealism is not a catechism to be learned, nor an ‘ideal’ to be established. It is a wild leap, or a series of leaps, into the very source of everything in life that opposes the unliveable.” Yet, in the very next sentence, Rosemont proceeds to recite what looks like a catechism of categories received from French surrealism: these, according to Rosemont, consist in “the automatic message; the interrogation of dreams; the triumph of mad love; the ‘systematic derangement of the senses’ proclaimed by Rimbaud; black humor; and the conquest of the irrational.” Rosemont ends by saying that “whoever pretends that these complementary aspects of the revolutionary poetic cause belong to the past merely confesses his capitulation to the ruling ideology.”
These statements broach the question of whether surrealism is a set of transhistorical truths, applicable to any historical context whatsoever, in which case it would indeed amount to the “cathechism” so vigorously denied in both statements; or whether surrealism, as an empancipatory overcoming of the limits of the real, always departs from a historically specific set of initial conditions, developing a new arsenal of the imagination in response to fluctuating borders and limits; in which case surrealism past might not resemble surrealism future.
It would not be merely ironic, but tragic if surrealism, which literally means the movement of the real overflowing its own limits, were confined to the limits of a cathechism. In physics, a closed system eventually cools down and stops; an open system is open to its environment, and grows by taking in energy from its environment, evolving and adapting its own nature not only to survive, but to take advantage of, the hazards of openness. In other words, a living membrane is a porous membrane, allowing multiple passages between self and not-self.
The Chicago Surrealist Group has shown itself to be open to a number of cultural forms beyond the ambit of French surrealism, most notably in its search for what it calls the “popular accomplices” of surrealism in American culture. The word “accomplice” would seem to imply that these forms occupy a subordinate position, but the group’s writings make clear that the popular productions it has claimed for surrealism––Bugs Bunny cartoons, for example––are to be accepted as equals to the productions of the surrealists themselves. Beyond this, the group often has collaborated with non-surrealist political organizations and publications. But it has consistently refused to engage with non-surrealist American poetry after the Beats, except to denounce it.
In Ron Sakolsky’s introduction the Autonomedia anthology Surrealist Subversions, he describes the Chicago Surrealist Group’s “longstanding indifference, even allergic reaction to, the local and national ‘poetry scene.’ All through the seventies,” Sakolsky writes, “Franklin Rosemont was frequently invited to read at the Body Politic and other ‘prestigious’ Chicago venues but he always declined, preferring not to encumber surrealism’s revolutionary message with concessions to ‘literary eclecticism.’ The Chicago Surrealist Group,” Sakolsky continues, “ has always refused to publish in literary quarterlies and ‘little magazines,’ agreeing to take part in the 1974 City Lights Anthology only when Ferlinghetti guaranteed them a separate section under their own editorship.”
Also relevant in this respect is a statement appearing in the third issue of Arsenal (1976), to the effect that (quote) “we do not collaborate on bourgeois literary and artistic reviews, preferring to present our researches in our own publications, where the integrity and scope of the surrealist project are not compromised by the abject opportunist deceit characteristic of the cultural racket. . . . The only possible exceptions might be in cases in which an entire issue, or a large section of a publication was placed at our disposal, carte blanche, under our exclusive editorship.”
However, as Sakolsky argues on their behalf, “it is not ‘sectarianism’ that motivates the group to keep their distance from the local and national ‘literary world,’ but a desire to combat confusion.” And here he quotes Rosemont’s statement that “Surrealism has nothing in common with competitive neo-avantgardism, or any other grant-chasing, government-fund-seeking old-boy networks. Surrealists,” Rosemont goes on to say, “are at the antipodes of the Eliot/Pound mainstream and its present-day Charles Olson/Ginsbergian rivulets.”
This total rejection of everything that’s happened in American poetry since the seventies constitutes, in my opinion, a strategic error, an untimely retreat from a contested terrain. The Chicago Surrealist Group has not hesitated to take it to the streets when necessary, and they’ve made common cause with an assortment of radical labor and student groups. So their abandonment of struggle with the forces at play in American poetry represents both a failure of nerve and a failure of imagination on the part of the group. A great opportunity was lost as a result of this retreat––an opportunity for surrealism as well as for American poetry.
Just as the group has valorized Hegelian dialectics, but has not looked beyond Hegel to see what further developments in philosophy might contribute to the surrealist project, the group has not looked beyond the automatic poem to see the ways poetic language has developed. If the forms that surrealism takes are not timeless but historically specific, then it’s possible for the form of the automatic poem to become historically exhausted. Surrealism can be renewed, not by closing itself off from the rest of culture, but by cultivating a critical openness and attentiveness to the ways that culture, and poetic language in particular, are changing, and then struggling with those changes, and maybe even taking inspiration from them. Here’s to a confusion of sources, and a heterogeneous mixing of disparate elements, out of which surrealist action must emerge.
But to conclude, I want to say that American poets, in turn, would do well to pay a lot more attention to the theories and activities of the Chicago Surrealist Group. Their message, that the poetic Marvellous and political revolution must go hand-in-hand, is one that needs to be heard. Over their long history, the group has issued a veritable flood of publications, all of them teeming with revolutionary fervor and imagination. Next to What Is Surrealism?, the anthology of Andre Breton’s writings edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont, there is the anthology Surrealist Women, edited by Penelope Rosemont, which collects powerful and important work by surrealist women from all over the world. The four issues of Arsenal, if you can find them, are valuable compendiums, densely packed with provocative material. American poets need to engage with this body of work; they will find in it much that is inspiring, instructing, and relevant to the present crisis. Long live the Chicago Surrealist Group!
André Breton, What Is Surrealism?, edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont (London: Pluto Press, 1978)
Paul Garon, Blues and the Poetic Spirit (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978)
Franklin Rosemont, The Morning of a Machine Gun (Chicago: Surrealist Editions, 1968)
Penelope Rosemont, Dreams & Everyday Life (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2008)
Ron Sakolsky, editor, Surrealist Subversions (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2002)
An award-winning poet, essayist, and translator, Andrew Joron started writing science fiction and then expanded his scope to include innovative techniques in poetry. Andrew has taught at the UC Santa Cruz and been a visiting writer at many colleges and universities. His books of poems include Force Fields (1987), Science Fiction (1992), Invisible Machines (1997), The Removes (1999), Fathom (2004), The Sound Mirror (2008), and Trance Archive: New and Selected Poems from City Lights editions in 2010. As an editor he has seen to publication the Collected Poems of Gustaf Sobin (2011), and The Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia from University of California Press in 2013. He has published a book of essays, The Cry at Zero: Collected Prose with Counterpath in 2007. He has also translated three books from the German, Literary Essays, Ernst Bloch (Stanford University Press, 1998), The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart (Wakefield Press, 2011) and Of Things by Michael Donhauser, co-translated with Nick Hoff (Burning Deck, 2016). Magazine publications include Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Amazing Stories as well as The Nation, Hambone, and Sulfur. In addition to teaching, Andrew has worked as a science librarian and in the publishing industry.
Featured image: Photo by Melina Piccolo.