Friday, November 4, 2011

Misunderstood isms I have known

Sady Doyle asks, "Why Are Youngsters Afraid of the Word ‘Feminist’?" Then she answers her own question in the subhead: "[Because] Young women (and men) are too busy fighting sexism." She argues that young people reject the word feminism for legitimate reasons (because everyone ignores feminists, because feminism is racist, because men can't be feminists) and older feminists do too much fist-shaking and complaining. I appreciate that she's playing devil's advocate here, but I'm not convinced. John recently asked a class of young women if any of them identified as feminists, and not one of them did. Asked their reasons, they mostly cited the following:
  • "Feminists" are radical. We're not radical; we shave our legs and wear makeup; we don't burn bras. (John pointed out that rumors of "bra burning" are greatly exaggerated.)
  • "Feminists" think they're better than men.
  • "Feminists" were fighting for equality, and haven't we achieved all that?
I still think most people reject feminism because they don't understand what it is.

Also in XX news: Robert Alan Wendeborn asks, "Do Women Writers Care About Surrealism?" He's referring to a post on Montevidayo, in which commenters attempt to create a list of American surrealists or neo-surrealists, a list mostly devoid of women. I threw out a few theories:
  • "Surrealism" is meaningful as a name for a movement that took place in the '20s. I'm not sure if it's particularly meaningful now, except when applied to a large handful of writers who are always referred to as surrealist, such as James Tate, Russel Edson and their imitators/inheritors (see Zach Schomburg). But surrealist writing stood in much starker contrast to its context when it began as a movement. Now that discursive, associative, free-verse lyric poetry is pretty much the norm, it feels like elements of surrealism (the definition is "Pure psychic automatism, by which one proposes to express, either verbally, in writing, or by any other manner, the real functioning of thought") are pervasive. (It's a continuum, of course; Mary Oliver and Michael Ryan make little if any reference to the "surreal.") However, people only seem to use the word "surrealism" to apply to a narrow slice of what's being written, and it's usually applied to men. Maybe women are writing "surrealist" poetry, it's just not recognized as such because the tradition is male-dominated.
  • Although surrealism, Dada, and the theater of the absurd (later but related) were partly a response to/rejection of bourgeois values, surrealism now feels as bourgeois as anything. I don't associate surrealism with a poetry of oppression or revolution or protest. I associate it with privilege. This isn't to say I don't like surrealist poetry; I do. But more often than not I read it for amusement. (Maybe Max Jacob and Ionesco were revolutionary at the time, but now it just reads as droll.) Maybe women are less likely than men to be satisfied with being amusing (since, you know, we got oppression).
  • That definition above is actually just the first half. The second half (from Breton's manifesto): "Dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation" (or, in another translation, "Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern"). Certainly most poetry that gets the "surrealist" label slapped on it does not meet this criteria. Charles Simic and Dean Young do not write in a vacuum of reason or without aesthetic concern.
So what does "surrealism" mean now, and are women writing it or not?


  1. It's probably not possible to talk that effectively about Surrealism and its ongoing influence at the present time without recognizing that it exists internationally and so therefore making it a discussion about U.S. poetry only would not ultimately work.

    Check out this website for an upcoming 2012 event, and note its list of Surrealists and Friends for a sense of how, even when an event is taking place in the U.S., the participants come from many places--and of course many of them are also women:

    How one relates the original context of Surrealism to this work probably requires a very knotty discussion. Let's just say that any literary context changes over time, sometimes reaching a dead end and sometimes changing into something only tenuously related to the context's origin.

    Surrealist approaches are more likely to be politically influential in countries other than the U.S.

  2. I think there's a reasonably obvious case to be made for the Plath of Ariel as surrealist. I'm not entirely sure women qualify under your second bullet point, e.g. Language poetry and the like are also mostly just amusing but don't seem male-dominated. The argument is somewhat plausible though. (I've always excused the lack of diversity of my reading prefs. with the thought that I'm interested in being amused rather than in engaging with pressing issues.)

  3. Mark: Knotty indeed. The list in question was focused on U.S. poetry, but I'm sure the answers are more interesting if we consider international writers.

    Sarang: You find language poetry amusing? Interesting. I wouldn't classify it that way. But again, at its roots, it was meant to be radical. Movements tend to lose power over time.

  4. i haven't read this whole thing, but it might be interesting:

  5. See, this is from the first question: "much of your work employs surrealist staples such as dream logic, collage, collaboration, tragicomic approaches to human existence, and inventive syntax which tries to get at a usually-inaccessible kind of hyper-reality." These elements have been completely subsumed into American poetry. I use all those elements in my poetry and no one has ever called it surreal.

  6. Interesting, though, that all the poets in that forum pretty much reject the application of the term to their work, or at least question it.

  7. As I've generally understood the term "surrealist," I've found more examples of paintings and painters that I think of a surrealist than poets and writers.

    The immediate example I think of as surrealist is Salvador Dali, his painting with the melting clocks, the one with the burning giraffe in the background, etc. Other painters I think of as surrealist, more or less, are Rene Magritte and Yves Tanguy.

    (My knowledge of painting isn't in-depth, I'm mostly familiar, a little, with some of the more widely known names.)

    Two central qualities that seem to me to characterize poetry I would call surrealist are intense evocative imagery and intensely non-linear thought.

    Rexroth commented somewhere (it might have been in his introduction to his book of translations of the poet Pierre Reverdy) that much poetry that critics have called surrealist is really something more like cubist in its approach.

    One of the poets writing in English whose work has, sometimes, had qualities I would call surrealist is Lawrence Ferlinghetti, expecially his earlier poems, some of the poems in Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind.

    Other poets I think of offhand as surrealist, more or less, at least sometimes, are Andre Breton and Yves Bonnefoy. Also a little bit I've read by Tristan Tzara, though I haven't read that much of his work.

    As I sit here thinking of poets I might describe as surrealist, at least sometimes, all the poets who come to mind offhand are in fact men. By no means am I saying that there are no women surrealist poets, I have no basis for saying that. Now I'm curious, I'll need to go looking.

  8. The way I'd think of it is that the good things in any radically new approach to writing tend to be absorbed by mainstream writers, and survive their original political context. But then I don't take literature-as-politics very seriously; I've always been inclined to accept the Auden line that "poetry makes nothing happen." (Easy for me, I know, I don't write the stuff!) I definitely do not find Lang. poetry amusing as a rule; as with most writing most of it is very dull, but when it works (as in some of Rae Armantrout) it is amusing. (Poss. worth noting here that physicists use "amusing" a lot, to mean something like "neat.")

  9. "John recently asked a class of young women if any of them identified as feminists, and not one of them did."

    The above, counterintuitively, cld be read as vaguely promising: maybe it's better to not latch onto something that one doesn't understand; I find people who identify their projects as feminist to be sometimes off-putting/too smug: it's friggin' difficult to be a feminist so when I see confident declarations I get weary; for me no less than maximal dialectical sophistication will really do honor to the moniker.

    As well, I agree very much:

    "I still think most people reject feminism because they don't understand what it is."

    In some ways this is legitimate: what discourse is more multiple, pleated, diverse?

    This seems suspect to me:

    "Maybe women are less likely than men to be satisfied with being amusing (since, you know, we got oppression)."

    To reduce surealism to amusement seems maybe logical in the context of now, but not historically; and the above logic seems to equate oppression to the somber, which seems dubious/overdetermining. Not invalid in all instances, but by no means necesssarily the norm.

    E Bishop wrote in relation to surealism; and B Guest has written about growing up underneath its shadow.

  10. From another blog (but by "nonlinear"):

    "I haven't really thought it out too thoroughly, but it feels like oppressed people wouldn't bother with surrealism. Like surrealism is essentially a bourgeois, privileged art. Not that that makes it bad, but.... "

    My friendmentorteacher Ckaudia Keelan many times stated that, for her, contemporary practitioners of surrealism have lost the fact that initially the method was very political, that many contents cld not be safely written without disguises, that it was far from being an act of amusement and very much at the throat.

    I don't know enough to "prove" this stance is aptest but it does interest me.

  11. I'm a CC English teacher,and I often give poetry assignments that "exterminate rational thought." I try to free the mind from logic so that it may apprehend a realer reality. My students resist so much--consider these assignments "so fucking gay"--that I'm convinced I'm doing something of earthquaking importance. Surrealism is of earthquaking importance. The resistance symptomizes the tyranny of public opinion in the US. One must never express an original thought in an individual way--that'd be "weird." That'd be "so fucking gay." Tyranny flourishes in such an atmosphere of conformity and ignorance. Surrealism is still a powerful tool for subverting conformity--very serious, even when it's funny like Tate or Young or Edson. Just because it's funny doesn't mean it's not serious.

  12. The union of funny and serious is exactly where I want to be, both when I'm writing and when I'm reading (or experiencing any kind of art). I don't think surrealism in itself necessarily entails funniness though. A lot of surrealism is definitely not funny.

    I just read somewhere that Tate vehemently denied the surrealism label.

  13. That's right, he denies it because when people label you a surrealist, they think there's nothing more to say about you. They think they have you all figured out.

    The Elisa Gabbert and Gabbert& Rooney (sounds like a folk duo)poems I've read are right at the confluence of serious and funny. (Except when they're just funny, as when "the beers" in one line suggests another line about "De Beers" and diamonds.)

  14. Yes, our collabs slide farther away from "serious" on the scale...

  15. About feminism: the answer your John received parallels my experience as a teacher of argumentative writing. My students are almost monolithically conservative--though most of them don't really know what "conservative" means. And this cc comprises students of allages and from all socio-econ backgrounds from ritzy to destitute. No matter what issue we discuss or write about, most of them will express conservative opinions. A lot of them are receptive to my libertarian ideas about decriminalizing drugs and prostitution, and most of the younger students prefer comprehensive sex ed to abstinence only; but when I say I'm against capital punishment, I see the iron enter their souls. I know what nearly all of them will argue: pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-Iraq war, anti-affirmative action, anti-"Obamacare." "Under God" belongs in the Pledge; this is a Christian country. Felons should not be allowed to vote. I see the same conservative opinions over and over. Female students rarely write about gender issues. Most of them are a lot more interested in the crumbling economy and how they'll survive.

  16. That's disheartening. But it took me a while to come around to some of my liberal views ... I'm sure some of them will see the light. Maybe you can play a part in changing someone's mind.

  17. Maybe I can; you can't tell what deferred effect you may have on an apparently recalcitrant student. But some people--you know, if they took a personality test, they'd score low on "openness to experience," and that personality type is likely to have an authoritarian outlook. Some people are going to be like that; that's their nature. It's like drugs: a certain %age of the population--I think Artaud said this--will destroy itself no matter what. If you take away drugs and alcohol, they'll blow their brains out. If you take away guns, they'll hang themselves. If you take away rope, they'll jump out a window. If you make all buildings one story high, they'll watch back-to-back episodes of Glee. They can't be helped.