• Tom Hibbard (1947-2022)
  • New Translations of Surrealist Poems

Preface: The Continuing Relevance of Surrealism and Dadaism

Though Dadaism and Surrealism—focusing on Surrealism in particular—no longer are viewed as emergent art movements, they both remain lively and forward-looking in the midst of contemporary writing and art discussions of the times. Andre Breton published the first Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, two years shy of one-hundred years ago. None-the-less, the idea that “dream and reality” combine into an artistic, poetic and philosophical milieu that brings together contemporary interests remains relevant in many ways and emphatically in present day worlds brimming with unreality, falsification and base commercialism. Especially commercialism’s effect on both everyday and specialized perspectives and perceptions causes significant difficulties that complicate and disrupt any type of social interaction and productive interconnection of people, entities and infrastructure.

The poems translated here are mostly from the era of the beginning of Dada and Surrealism all the way to the end of the Twentieth Century and the passing of the founding members of the Surrealist movement. None of the original Dadaists or Surrealists lived into the Twenty-first Century. Yet writers and artists of today continue mining symbolism, ideas and thoughts from the disjunctive art style and the haunting portrayal of social and individual life that emanates from these early art movements. Seances, automatic writing and psychological suggestion using sleeping or hypnotized individuals are no longer as popular as in the 1930s in experimenting with aesthetics, perception and the subconscious. A shadowy nighttime portrait of empty Greek buildings in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico or a picture of a woman embracing a Gila Monster or a businessman with an umbrella strolling the powdery blue skies above might be characterized as early Surrealist images.

More recent Surrealist images would perhaps be, in a sense, a reversal of these previous works, not with emphasis on straightforward attributes but, rather, on representing a sense of pervasive spontaneity and mystery. Today’s Surreal landscape is unusually and unexpectedly, though naturally, beautiful rather than distorted or disrupted. It is less specific and more, in a sense, connected with a wider context. The aim has changed from portraying, in word or in art, not a “real,” that is, “shocking” encounter in symbolic images—a select group of vultures or of sheep for instance. The aim today is rather the portrayal of a reality or of reality in-itself as consistently and primordially enigmatic and surreal, along with miraculous and wondrous—surrealism as a constant or “basic” attribute—a given imaginative and paradoxical circumstance. Often a "normal" human being is faced with the puzzle of an illogical or nonsensical adventure. The true reality, including everyday reality, such as looking at oneself in a mirror or walking in one’s neighborhood or on a nature trail, is in fact straightforwardly portrayed as being, among many other things, surreal—the terrain as it retains its disorienting unfamiliarity—perhaps in association with eternity. Other categories are Modernist, Structuralist, Globalist, Depression Era, Impressionist, Expressionist. There are also electronic versions of reality—television, radio, filmic—whose authoritative “actual” visibilities contain some of the most misleading distortions and misrepresentations of all. This is no criticism of the original Surrealists nor of the virtues of early Surrealist artworks—the styles of Salvador Dali, Man Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, Rene Char, Luis Bunuel. Instead, it’s a criticism of the intolerant literalism and stubbornly insensitive materialism in the ways in which many societies at this time are generally viewed—without imagination, without mystery, without possibility, without diversity, without any unknown, without mercy or hope—uniform, absolute.

In a brief memoir of the nineteen-twenties, thirties and forties in Paris, Lost Profiles, republished in 2016 from City Lights Books in San Francisco, Philippe Soupault looks back at the activities and ideas of the writers and artists, most of whom he encountered personally during those extremely tumultuous and creative times. Soupault, leader and participant in both the original Dadaist and the original Surrealist movements, kept up his dissident activities until his death in 1990. During World War II, Soupault was arrested and imprisoned by Nazis in North Africa, as a consequence of his radio broadcasts. Later he travelled with his wife to the U.S., where he became a professor at Swarthmore College. After the war, he returned to France. Soupault wrote many collections of poetry during his lifetime, among them Rose des vents, Message de l'île déserte, Odes à Londres bombardée, and Poèmes retrouvés. He also wrote, in 1928, Les Dernières Nuits de Paris (The Last Nights of Paris), a brilliant novella describing troubled, deteriorating Paris. And several other novels, including Les Moribonds (The Moribund) 1934 and Les Temps des assassins (The Time of the Assassins) 1945. Also a 1981 autobiography, Mémoires de l’oubli (Memoirs of the Forgotten).

Probably Soupault’s most famous piece of writing, authored with Andre Breton, is Les Champs Magnetiques (Magnetic Fields), published in 1919—the first piece of writing officially embodying Surrealist tenets and the Surrealist movement. In Lost Profiles, Soupault praises Dadaism as being “much more than a schoolboy prank” and, in fact, in some ways superior to the Surrealist movement. Dadaism preceded Surrealism, but in Soupault’s opinion Dadaism’s rough escapades brought the movement down, eventually giving way to Surrealism. Whereas Dadaism is destructive and deconstructive, Surrealism uncovers axiomatic structures already present and associated with the idea of permanence. Romanian Tristan Tzara led the Dada movement, first in Zurich, Switzerland, and then in Paris. And Tzara’s The Approximate Man, from 1929, quoted in David Gascoyne’s Short Survey of Surrealism verifies Tzara’s advanced substantive writing style.

"Language is given to man that he may make Surreal use of it."(Gascoyne) What is a Surreal use? Here is an excerpt from Breton and Soupault's first Surrealist writing, Magnetic Fields.

At midnight, you will again see the open windows and closed doors. Music emerges from all the holes where you can see microbes and capitalized lines of poetry dying like worms. But further on, still further on, there are more cries so blue you die of excitement.

These lines—these sorts of lines—make Surreal use of language because the words are recognizable but the writing is incomprehensible and unpredictable. The incongruous motion of the unclear word-assemblages points toward a "transcendent inquiry," one that redefines all discourse and discourses, including silence, and begins the establishment of a conceptual outline of a linguistic community, one that precedes exteriority and objectivity, history and science. Surrealism makes "reality" and unreality into a profound, new reality, bordering on incomprehensibility. It scorns practicality and puts in its place a logos of contradiction, an imaginative existential "Word," a knowledge invisible, a fragmented literacy that reaches beyond linearity, adamance, finality, brutality and so on, toward a universal structure of understanding. Surrealism transforms deceptive literal fascism into an intuitive common expression.

Soupault describes Surrealism as “a generation in revolt,” but he also considered that revolt a “poetic revolt.” He names Arthur Rimbaud as the “prophet” of the Surrealist movement and says of that time, “I felt that I was witnessing the end of the world, the decline of civilization.” Shortly later, World War II broke out, thereby worsening—or clarifying—the entire situation. During the war, writes Soupault, “We had the feeling that we were being thwarted, that a new gap had been opened between our generation and the one that had survived.” Soupault cites fellow Surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy, among many others, and writes, “The end of the war did not, indeed, represent victory to us but rather a sudden awakening.” During the 1930s, the Surrealist movement flourished and blossomed internationally. Many non-Surrealist artists and writers were also active in France and Europe at that time, including Marcel Proust (died 1922). But Soupault could not feel comfortable. More than an artistic movement, Soupault viewed the times as a “moral revolution” and poetry as “liberation.” Despite his continuing admiration for some of its members, such as Antonin Artaud and Paul Eluard, Soupault “defected” from the Surrealist movement, on the grounds that it was becoming merely “a school,” no longer a world-wide movement. “I realized that Surrealism, such as I had dreamed it, was losing all its purity for me.” At the same time, Soupault states, “I have never ceased to be Surrealist.”

Surrealism is not a literary school or a religion. It is the expression of an attitude and a state of mind and especially the expression of freedom. All the rules all the definitions, all the masks imposed on it have not diminished its power.

“The Sound Of The Bell,” by Pierre Reverdy

All is quiet

The wind passes singing about it

And the trees shiver

The animals are dead

There is no longer anyone


The stars have stopped shining

The world no longer turns

A head is bowed

Hair sweeps across the night

The last bell that remains standing

Rings midnight

“Condolences,” by Philippe Soupault

Above all do not return behind

Longings are anemones

Lying in wait only for remorse

l prefer the faithful stars

And quietude and monarch butterflies

Which have the look of the night

And flowers and my better dreams

Softly like the wolves

I explore the domain of each day

And I discover the unknown

Only step by step

And steps in the steps

I am without pity

For he who is identical

But someone sings an old song

Always farther away from myself

Always the same

“Infinite Solitude.” by Louis Aragon

The divine elegy is a seat of weeping

It judges the gravel from the graves

The feathers, the twigs, the fetus

Of straw

These veils are hung on the beautiful bodies of alabaster

Like the lyre of gold in front of a theater

It murmurs a word that echoes

It is the hour where everyone sleeps

It is the moment supreme

It is now or never

It is the hour of the shepherd

Full of stars in the firmament

Full of everything that is great

To the green and of the unripe

Cassiopeia is also a pretty girl

She counts the fetuses, the feathers and the twigs

She is seated and crying

Along the current

Of a little stream

I see there a boat

Of candy, of flowers

In all the colors

“Servitudes,” by Philippe Soupault

It was night yesterday

But the billboards sing

The trees stretch themselves

The statue at the hairdresser’s smiles

No spitting

No smoking

The rays of the sun in the hands are exactly right

There are fourteen

I invent unknown streets

From new continents bloom

Newspapers that will come out tomorrow

Watch out for wet paint

I will go walking naked with a cane in my hand

“The Floor Of Night,” by Rene Char (From First Alluvium)

So that the same love comes back

To this smoking chimney

To this house that bleeds

And the emptiness would be strengthened

They will make happy the protectors

With the serpent in the attic

“As Well As,” by Philippe Soupault

Alone along the road

That has neither beginning nor end

It no longer is anything to smile

And especially the guffaws

Like the tiger that ventures neither bite nor caress

Alone all alone

Like a big like a little

In pursuit of the clouds

And of the night that has neither beginning nor end

All alone for the daily surrender

And the flight against dreams

And the nightmares of the day and the night

That one invents to suffer better

Then one must have the power to forget

Everyone forgets everything except joy

Alone against injustice

Boredom and everything else

The truth the hour of awakening

Then it is finally time

To know and to no

The day that stands up