"Philip Lamantia and Andre Breton" -- Garrett Caples

[T]o him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernal but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

That the standard biography of André Breton, which has all the appearance of being exhaustive, nonetheless excludes Philip Lamantia is a disservice not only to both poets but to the reader as well. For surely the reader would be interested to learn that, during his Second World War exile in the United States, Breton admitted but one American poet into the ranks of surrealism—let us not count Charles Duits, who wrote in French and receives ample coverage—that this poet was only 15 at the time, that he went on to become one of the major poets of a generation that includes Creeley and Duncan, O’Hara and Ashbery, and that he was still alive and living in San Francisco at the time of publication. Two years later, City Lights would issue Lamantia’s Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems 1943-1993, containing the poet's own account in "Poem for André Breton":

When we met for the last time by chance, you were
       with Yves Tanguy whose blue eyes were the myth
       for all time, in the autumn of 1944
Daylight tubes stretched to masonry on Fifth and
       Fifty-Seventh in the logos of onomatopeic
       languages of autochthonic peoples
Never have I beheld the Everglades less dimly than
       today dreaming the Ode to André Breton, you
       who surpassed all in the tasty knowables of
       Charles Fourier
Only the great calumet pipe for both of you We are
       hidden by stars and tars of this time
No one had glimpsed you great poet of my time But
       the look of your eyes in the horizon of
       northern fires turning verbal at Strawberry
the Sierra Nevada seen from Mount Diablo on the rare
       clear day is enough of a gift to hold up over
       the rivers of noise
Metallic salt flies free
that "the state of grace" is never fallen
that the psychonic entities are oak leaves burnished
       with mysteries of marvelous love whose powers
       wake you with the glyph of geometric odors
       flaring in the siroccos about to return to
Mousterian flint stones caress the airs of Timbuctu
       as I turn a corner of volcanic sunset from the
       latest eruption of Mount Saint Helens

Being a poem, “Poem for André Breton” compresses the events that triggered it almost entirely out of sight in favor of evoking Breton’s aura. Its intensity speaks for itself, and I have no doubt the poem provides more valuable testimony about what Breton was like “in the flesh” than a literal description could. And yet the particulars of their encounter are worth telling, and while they are not mine to tell, I feel compelled nonetheless to record at least some of what I’ve heard—or misheard—about the meeting of André Breton and Philip Lamantia.

In an interview with David Meltzer in San Francisco Beat (2001), Lamantia gives the following details:

I was turned on to Surrealism through a great Dali retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Art (now SFMOMA), followed by an equally marvelous exhibition of Miró. Within weeks I had read everything available on Surrealism that I could get from the public library. There wasn't much: David Gascoyne, the premier British Surrealist poet-whose Short Survey of Surrealism was superb-Julien Levy's Surrealism, Georges Lamaître's From Cubism to Surrealism in French Literature(he was teaching at Stanford), and finally, the discovery of the luxurious New York Surrealist review, VVV-two issues edited by Breton and friends-which I found in the tiny but ample no-loan library at the museum. In almost no time I had a dozen poems ready for publication and sent some to View: A Magazine of the Arts, which was edited, in New York, by the only important American poet who was plausibly Surrealist, Charles Henri Ford. In Spring 1943 my poems were featured on one of View's large-format pages. On the cover was a photograph by Man Ray . . . It was just after this that I discovered VVV's whereabouts and sent other poems there to André Breton. He wrote, accepting three poems and requesting a letter from me "clarifying" my relation to Surrealism. Acceptance by the man I fervently believed the most important poet and mind of the century led to my decision to quit school and take off for New York. I arrived in April 1944 in Manhattan . . . (135)
Between the poem and the interview, we’re left with a space of roughly eight months of 1944, during which Lamantia and Breton met exactly three times. The first meeting occurred in the offices of View, located on the top floor at 1 East 53rd Street, swank digs, in other words, complete with a small antechamber gallery where Lamantia met a young Jackson MacLow. Unlike VVV, View was well-heeled and could offer Lamantia a job, most of which consisted of wading through and rejecting piles of unsolicited MSS; Henri Ford claimed Lamantia as a discovery, and apparently, with the exception of incarcerated murderer turned Christian Scientist Joe Massey, Philip was the only poet to emerge from those very same piles and be published in View. The magazine had taken the further step of announcing in its December 1943 issue that View Editions would bring out "First Poems by Philip Lamantia with a cover by Max Ernst” (141). He was being “launched in literature,” as the phrase went, which, for his parents, put a reasonable face on the otherwise mad proposition of letting their now 16-year-old, expelled from high school poet of a son run off and join the surrealists. That Breton lent his imprimatur to the book project is evident both from the fact that he’d already accepted some of the poems for VVV and from the choice of Ernst as artist (though by the time of Lamantia’s actual arrival, Ernst and Breton had fallen out). Announced for the same series of View Editions, moreover, was a bilingual selection of Breton’s own verse, Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, with a cover by Marcel Duchamp. This volume in fact occasioned the first meeting between Breton and Lamantia, who was working in the office when Breton arrived to sign the contract with Ford. Breton was visibly pleased to meet Philip at last, though they could only communicate through Ford, as Breton spoke no English and Lamantia no French. The meeting was brief—clearly Breton was making his rounds—but it served to establish personal contact between the poets, leading to their second, most substantial encounter.

Through surrealist channels it was arranged that Breton and Lamantia would dine together, in private, save for the presence of art and music critic Leon Kochnitzky—a mutual friend as well as a colleague of Breton’s at the Office of War Information—to act as translator. The significance of this meeting can be gauged by the fact that Breton is usually portrayed as over-aloof from the art milieu during his stay in New York. The introduction to an anthology of View, for example, cites Edouard Roditi, translator of Young Cherry Trees: : “Surrealism proper, Roditi reminds us, was a closed society. ‘One must be invited to join, and we never sought admission’” (xii). Maybe you needed the right key. Suffice to say, an audience alone with Breton was rare, generally reserved for old friends, important fellow exiles, or, inevitably, new surrealists. For his part, Breton wanted to further sound Lamantia’s purchase on surrealism as well as answer any questions the younger poet may have had about it. As for Lamantia, he thought Breton was “the most important poet and mind of the century”; enough said. In 1944, Breton was 48 years old. Photographs of him at the time reveal the combined effects of exile, poverty, and war shortages; he has shed much of the heft he exhibits in late ’30s photos, and his hair has taken on a tempestuous wave the like of which cannot be seen in photos dating from any other period of his life. It is this lean Breton we must imagine rushing into the now-forgotten restaurant, some minutes late, with a flourish of courtly apologies. He seats himself and focuses his considerable powers of attention on the young poet opposite him. At least two documents from the period record Lamantia’s appearance: the standard surrealist mugshot, age 15, published in VVV alongside his letter of “clarification,” under the title “Surrealism in 1943”; and, even closer in date, two shots of him, age 16, walking beside Maya Deren in her film At Land (1944). The very Rimbaldian image; I suspect Breton was pleased.

Think of the two or three best conversations of your life and imagine the difficulty of distilling into written form an account that conveyed the tenor of their nuances with any degree of accuracy. Lamantia has never published a description of his dinner with André Breton and, being 60 years and a further conversation removed, I can’t hope to reproduce here the substance of their dialogue. Yet I confess I couldn’t help pressing Philip on the subject once I knew him well enough to do so. Invariably such inquires occurred seated around the “the great calumet pipe” of line four of “Poem for André Breton”; “calumet” derives from the Greek word kalamos, and with this reed as its pen, my memory doubtlessly contains certain distortions. The details bleed into each other. But as I recall he told me they talked about the war, of course, and much about poetry. Being surrealists they dwelt on the relationship of poetry to desire, for the author of Nadja felt a deep sympathy with the fevered eroticism of the “BIANCA” section of “Touch of the Marvelous,” one of three poems by Lamantia published in VVV. What I remember more clearly are Lamantia’s observations on Breton himself. Like many commentators, Philip remarked Breton’s huge gesticulating hands and his immense leonine head, both animated by a magnetic personality that bridged their linguistic divide. Indeed this raises what, for me, is the most intriguing detail of the encounter, for while Leon Kochnitzky did translate back and forth between the two poets, Lamantia nonetheless formed the distinct impression that Breton understood English quite well, judging by the immediacy of the older poet’s reactions. I mention this because Breton is often faulted for not learning English during his time in NY, as if this failure were indicative of some typically French sense of superiority. Yet the breadth of his reading alone—from Scrutator’s 1910 Occult Reviewarticle on “Automatic Drawing” that Breton cites in “The Automatic Message” to the plays of J. M. Synge in The Anthology of Black Humor to the poems of Lamantia in VVV—indicates a more than functional level of English comprehension. Breton was no linguistic chauvinist and, if he refused to speak English, I imagine it’s because he couldn’t express himself as André Breton in another tongue. It’s quite possible to have extensive passive knowledge of a language yet be unable to generate the least statement of intellectual import in it. As Breton endured a painful exile to preserve his freedom of expression, what right have we in retrospect to demand he sacrifice it? If he wanted to talk to you, in any case, he found a way, and I can’t imagine this is the last time the initiator of a movement as international in character as surrealism resorted to some such expedient in order to communicate with an artist in whom he had an interest.

Of the third and final meeting between these poets, we have the testimony of “Poem for André Breton,” in which Lamantia provides the location (5th & 57th) and the approximate date, “autumn of 1944.” From August 20 to October 20 of that year Breton was on the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, composing Arcanum 17, so in all likelihood the encounter Lamantia recalls occurred in November. He could see them coming from a block away, talking with animation, so complete their absorption in each other they might have been walking through an uninhabited forest, with no expectation of encountering another intelligence. Yet as they drew near Breton suddenly stopped short, exclaiming, to the mild astonishment of Tanguy, C'est le jeune poète americain! as he thrust out a massive hand for Lamantia to clasp. Chance encounters delighted Breton, and the remainder of this one was spent in a quasi-silence of Chaplinesque courtesy, a brief island of calm on the perpetually streaming sidewalk of Manhattan pedestrians. Breton, Lamantia said, had the air of a magician, unveiling mysteries. He introduced Philip to Tanguy, who displayed the vague glimmer of one who had been informed and then had promptly forgotten about the existence of the young poet. Though Tanguy spent most of his time in Woodbury, CT, his art is reproduced in the same issue of VVV as “Surrealism in 1943,” itself facing an image by his friend Enrico Donati, so one presumes at least a faint awareness on his part. It’s no doubt a tribute to the depth of their penetration that his eyes impressed themselves so firmly in Lamantia’s memory, if you consider the flame-like appearance of Tanguy’s hair at the time. Perhaps these flames were absorbed by Breton’s own aspect, as Lamantia sees “the look of [his] eyes in the horizon of northern fires turning verbal at Strawberry California” in line five of “Poem for André Breton.” Being the focus of Breton’s magnetic enthusiasm was intense. I’m almost positive Philip said something to the effect that it felt like the sun beaming down on you. If so, this would square not only with descriptions of Breton left by other writers but also with Lamantia’s own imagery. The word “imagery” is misleading here, for while it is true line five characterizes “the look” of Breton’s eyes in terms of another apparently visual phenomenon—I say “apparently” because the poet specifies the image is “turning verbal”—the resulting analogy cannot itself be characterized in visual terms, for the resemblance it posits is not physical but metaphysical. Another way to put it might be to say that the surrealist image is by definition analogical—Reverdy’s “bringing together of two more or less distant [yet, he immediately adds, pertinent] realities”—but not necessarily visual, in contradistinction to the idea promulgated by language poets and deep imagists that surrealism is primarily oriented toward visual imagery.

The three meetings between André Breton and Philip Lamantia were, of course, of inestimably greater significance to the life of the younger poet. He was but 16 when they met while Breton was an international figure of several decades’ standing, connected with many of the greatest artists of the time. Indeed, held against the background of Lamantia’s biography and previous work, “Poem for André Breton” reflects a sense of this proportion, insofar as the majority of the poem refers specifically to Lamantia’s own experience. That is, he reads Breton into various landscapes of talismanic importance to his own poetics, such as “Mount Diablo”—site of the creation of the world in Pomo Indian legend—which figures in Meadowlark West(1986). In the tenth and final line of “Poem for André Breton,” the dedicatee seems to disappear entirely, yet I can’t help but feel Breton is submerged in the image of “volcanic sunset,” erupting in slow moments to transform the world below. Given Lamantia’s considerable achievements subsequent to their brief personal contact, the indication that he sees Breton even as he reviews his own intellectual interests is the most profound homage he could pay to the founder and chief theoretician of the surrealist movement. In a sense, “Poem for André Breton” embodies the very reason why even in periods of dissidence Lamantia has always been the most authentic voice of surrealism in American poetry since his appearance in VVV. For he has shown the uncanny ability to assimilate prior surrealist innovation and from there generate anew. I use the word “uncanny” here advisedly, for you must have a certain faculty for analogical reasoning in order to grasp those surrealist principles that can’t be fully articulated and that fundamentally resist systemization. Surrealism, it can’t be said enough, is not a style, and those who absorb it as such are quickly left holding so many awkward antiques. I remember Philip reflecting once on his good fortune to have been exposed to both Dali and Miró during his initial period of discovery, for it impressed on him an immediate awareness that surrealism isn’t a matter of aesthetics. While Breton’s influence on Lamantia is substantial, for example, it hasn’t chiefly manifested itself on the stylistic level, though the final two lines of “Plumage of Recognition” (also in VVV) seem to me his most Bretonian (“I am at a house built by Gaudi / ‘May I come in?’”). More often, the agonistic violence of Lamantia’s poetry, as well as his persistent concern with religious and mystical experience, recall for me the work of Georges Bataille. And while Breton probably wouldn’t have condoned an overtly Catholic book like Ekstasis(1959), it would be a mistake, I think, to assume a categorical difference between these poems and their near-contemporaries in Narcotica (1959) and Destroyed Works (1962). Surrealism will not be bound by dogma—not even on Breton’s authority—and if you can’t enlarge its domain in any appreciable fashion, of what use are you to surrealism?

Though admittedly of far less personal importance for André Breton, the story of his encounter with Philip Lamantia seems to me of sufficient biographical significance to warrant inclusion in any definitive account of Breton’s life. The objection that Henri Ford, not Breton, “discovered” Lamantia is without force, insofar as the sequence in which they published him was dictated largely by Philip’s circumstances. It was only after submitting work to View, a magazine widely available on newsstands, that he located the much more occulted VVV. In his now-lost reply to Lamantia's initial letter, Breton regretted not having been able to debut the young poet in VVV, which, while undoubtedly indicative of his rivalry with his sometime collaborator Ford, also suggests the extent to which he considered Philip the genuine article. Breton’s ultimate presentation of Lamantia in VVV is restrained but unmistakable; in addition to the Donati image en face, the title “Surrealism in 1943” appearing above the letter of clarification plainly claims Lamantia for surrealism by permitting him to speak for surrealism. As the letter’s nominal addressee, Breton in effect endorses it, not so much in the position of arbitrator of surrealism as in his equally characteristic posture of listener. This aspect of Breton has, I think, been underappreciated by subsequent commentators. Ford, it is true, had the literary acumen to recognize the accomplishment of Lamantia’s First Poems, though the volume of that title would never appear due to a break between them. (It was not, however, destined to be the “long-forgotten embarrassment” someone once labeled his own “youthful poems”; reorganized under the title Erotic Poems, it would be issued in Berkeley by Bern Porter in 1946, after Lamantia returned to San Francisco.) Nonetheless, the fact that he took Lamantia seriously enough to solicit a statement of his views on surrealism says a lot about Breton. The tendency among adults, of course, is to treat the prodigy as a child, an inarticulate savant, not a source for consultation, and I can well imagine this contributes to the consternation and rancor which smolder behind statements about Breton by those adult poets he didn’t consult on the same subject. Breton was truly alive to the revolutionary possibility of Rimbaud, and not without cause; the first English-language surrealist poet, David Gascoyne, published his first book at 16 and wrote his Short Survey of Surrealism, the first book on the subject in English, at 19. But as Breton also writes in “Letter to a Young Girl Living in America” (1952), in order “to appreciate” Rimbaud, “one must have left one’s whole childhood behind” (271), and it’s no accident that, in the arrangement of Lamantia’s poems, Breton gives pride of place to “The Islands of Africa,” dedicated “To the memory of Arthur Rimbaud, the rebel and the seeker.” Lamantia’s poetry had placed him precociously beyond childhood, and it was on such terms that Breton choose to engage with him.


I began this piece in February 2004 without quite realizing that month marked the 60th anniversary of Philip Lamantia’s appearance in VVV. Only after quoting his account in the Meltzer interview did it occur to me to track the sequence of events from October 8, 1943—the date of Lamantia’s letter of clarification—through his April 1944 arrival in Manhattan. As the piece took shape, the US Government—with the craven participation of a French Government desperate to appease it—began facilitating a coup d'état in Haiti against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a populist chosen by over 90% of his country’s electorate, quite unlike the 2nd Bush Administration which seeks his departure. The rebels are composed of bloodthirsty gangs from the previous coup plus thugs from the Duvalier era, supplied with American weapons funneled in through the adjoining Dominican Republic. On February 29th, in one of the more brazen moves of its brazen career, the Bush Administration had Aristide and his family kidnapped at gunpoint and held prisoner for two weeks in the Central African Republic, a country whose human rights record is so bad we don’t even have (official) relations with it. As of now, freed through a variety of diplomatic efforts, Aristide is in Jamaica, in defiance of the US, which has, in turn, begun to threaten Jamaica for hosting him. Jamaica, however, represents the united will of the Caribbean island nations in opposition to this overthrow of a democratically-elected government. Thus the standoff continues, and as events unfold I can’t help but relate them to André Breton, particularly the Breton of exile and Arcanum 17, who made such brief but decisive contact with Lamantia. About a year after their final encounter, Breton, en route to the uncertainty of post-liberation Paris, stopped off in Port-au-Prince to give a series of lectures at the invitation of Pierre Mabille, a lifelong friend and fellow surrealist who was then France’s cultural attaché to Haiti. In his introduction to the anthology Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean (1996), Michael Richardson summarizes the events that ensued:

Breton's talks had a dramatic effect . . . and were partially responsible for the fall of the government, with far-reaching consequences. The government's fall led to the election as president of Dumarais Estimé, a popular, progressively inclined and relatively honest politician. Estimé was a black, the first non-mulatto president since the [1915-1934] US occupation [of Haiti] and also the first not to be a pawn of US interests (the United States retained control of the Haitian treasury until 1947). His attempt to assert the independence of Haiti, breaking dependence on the United States and the power of the mulatto élite, failed, and he was overthrown in a coup d'état in 1948 which restored mulatto power. (20-21)
In “André Breton and Port-au-Prince,” reprinted in the same anthology, René Depestre offers an eyewitness account of Breton’s role in these events. On December 20, 1945, to a packed theatre audience composed of intellectuals, university students, and assembled dignitaries—including US-sponsored dictator Elie Lescot—Breton gave a lecture on surrealism in which he praised the “lyrical element” of Haitian culture and the “inalienable enthusiasm for liberty” of its people. The audience was electrified. Depestre and his fellow editors printed the lecture in a special year-end issue of their student newspaper, La Ruche ("the beehive"). Never was a publication more aptly named, for as soon as Lescot confiscated the issue and jailed the editors, the students staged a strike that led to a general strike that brought down the dictatorship. In the interm between the fall of Lescot in January and the election of Estimé in August of 1946, Breton and Mabille were expelled from Haiti by the military junta which then ruled and which would return to overthrow Estimé in 1948 (see Refusal 231-33). After a brief period of mulatto rule, François Duvalier would stage a US-backed coup in 1956.

“What Breton said was hardly incendiary,” Richardson remarks, yet clearly it was. While Breton himself would later point out that “the social forces that caused [the revolution] were all in place and would doubtless have become manifest had he not visited the island” (Refusal 21)the fact that he sparked the Haitian Revolution of 1946 bespeaks the same incendiary quality Lamantia credits with kindling his own endeavors in “Poem for André Breton.” Refusal of the Shadow provides further testimony on this aspect of Breton from Paul Laraque—a Haitian poet who heard Breton’s lecture and met with him privately—in “André Breton and Haiti”:

With leonine head, a mane of sun, Breton stepped forward, a god begotten by lightning. To see him was to grasp the beauty of the angel of revolt. The shadows became sources of light. The storm of life was shot through with bolts of light whose flashing blades, burst from the scabbard of night, tore through the veil of time and restored the lost paradise of innocence to love. Putting all mysticism aside, one then felt that mankind's supreme ambition is two-fold: to banish hell form the earth and to integrate heaven into it. (218)

Some people reproach Breton with having been too intransigent; others with not having been intransigent enough. What is certain is that he was, in all senses of the word, incorruptible; even whilst being very broadminded, he never to my knowledge compromised his principles. (220)

For us the surrealist coming to consciousness corresponded to the revelation of Breton's personality, spiritually by the mediation of his works but above all, in a way that cannot be gauged, by an entirely physical attraction. My own debt to Breton lay, above all, in his having brought me lucidity. (223)
I find these remarks extraordinary, all the moreso because I can’t imagine a black poet saying this about any other white poet of the period. Certainly none of Breton’s Anglo-American contemporaries could elicit a like response. Kenneth Rexroth—who, on Lamantia’s return to San Francisco, became his poetic mentor for the next few years—made this point loud and clear in “Why Is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?” (1963):
Now, it so happens that if any international community recruited English and American poets in the interbellum period, it was fascism—Pound, Yeats, Eliot are on record. This is not because American poets are exceptionally vicious men, although some of them are and have been. It is simply because fascism is so much more easily assimilated by simple and emotionally unstable minds—you don’t have to read so many books. (211)
If this remark sounds caustic, we would do well to recall that for the entire period of Anglo-American high modernism—roughly corresponding to the first half of the twentieth century—“America,” as the US styles itself, was officially an apartheid state. Hatred of the other was our cultural norm; discrimination against blacks and Asians was codified in various laws, and this by no means exhausted the varieties of American bigotry. Both Pound and Eliot, for instance, were candidly anti-Semitic; Eliot couldn’t even stand Irishmen (neither, it seems, could Yeats). There’s certainly no candidate for the type of respect Laraque pays Breton among these cosmic bumblers. Yet Rexroth’s account of the reactionary tendencies in American poetry has gone largely unheeded by the contemporary avant-garde. I hear talk of rehabilitating Pound’s poetics in the name of a vague liberalism about as often as I hear Breton characterized as “fascist” for some real or imagined intransigence. Both sentiments—I can’t really call them “ideas”—reveal a fundamental obtuseness in the prevailing discourse around poetry, for the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those history supports.

Irrespective of their professional degree of anti-romanticism, and whether it be stamped “neo-classical” or “avant-garde,” most poets I’ve encountered subscribe to some version of Shelley’s “poet as unacknowledged legislator,” usually though by no means always rooted in a deeply exaggerated sense of their own importance. They romanticize themselves; indeed, who doesn’t? The secret dream of these poets is that their words alone might move other people to action, not through argument so much as force of conviction. The potential pitfall of this desire was evident to Rexroth. Poets tend to enjoy reading, so when Rexroth points out a deficiency in this department, he refers not to quantity but kind. The very pleasure poets seek in the act of reading renders many of them incapable of pursuing any topic to its necessary depth, because doing so would likely compromise their enjoyment. They might have to read some pretty boring shit in order to get the information they need to take an informed position. Their own emphasis on aesthetics, poetics, the formal aspect of writing leaves them vulnerable to oversimplification and elegance where substance must prevail and prone to purely theoretical articulation where particularity and application are all that matter. For all its theoretical politics, the present Eurocentric avant-garde displays little curiosity about the actual mechanisms of American imperialism that dictate our day-to-day life in the form of the ubiquitous crap we make other peoples make for us for next to nothing. Such realities are too ugly and complicated for theory, and theory’s shown itself unable to cope after 9/11. When the twin towers collapsed, a lot of elegant ideas went with them. Without conscious intent or explicit appeal, his words ignited a smoldering revolution, and I sometimes wonder if this incendiary aspect of André Breton hasn’t contributed to the warmth with which he’s denounced, even today, by poets and intellectuals who groan under the weight of their political impotence. Breton provokes a seemingly personal rage in people who weren’t even born during his lifetime and have barely read a line he wrote. They’re content with second-hand assessments of him by Tel Quel writers whose work appeared in English translation long before most of his major books. They hold him responsible for Crevel’s suicide or Artaud’s madness and they resent his fleeing the Occupation of Paris instead of remaining to face certain death as the charismatic leader of a semi-organized, self-declaredly anti-Nazi movement. Breton opposed authoritarian regimes throughout his life, condemning Stalinism in the ’30s, for example, when everyone else on the left worshipped it. He wasn’t satisfied with ideological alibis. “Yes,” he wrote in Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Else (1942), “I can be captivated by a system, but never to the extent of not wanting to see the fallible point of what a man like myself tells me is the truth” (209). This statement reveals a crucial difference in principle between surrealism and Anglo-American avant-garde aesthetics even as it suggests why surrealism was the one genuinely multicultural movement within modernism. Breton’s rigorous interrogation of the self, in other words, set the tone for extraordinary dialogues with the other, marked not by co-optation but by genuine exchange. Thus there were black surrealists, Asian surrealists, Arabs, Jews, Serbs, Slavs; in his post-WW2 collection of essays La Clé des champs (1953), Breton would proclaim Haitian writer Clément Magloire-Saint-Aude the supreme surrealist poet of his time (102). Contrast this with, say, the Academie Français, whose first black member—surrealist fellow traveler and former president of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor—was elected in 1983 (Dixon xxi). In a period of rampant xenophobia punctuated by two world wars, Breton was a beacon of resistance in the name of the true marvelous of humanity. Yet France couldn’t even get it up to preserve his apartment, intact for over 30 years after his death and, judging from photographs, as authentic a corridor to the marvelous as Simon Rodia’s towers or the grottos of Facteur Cheval. It’s a sign of the small esteem in which he’s held in the culture to which he gave so much.

February-April 2004

André Breton. “Letter to a Young Girl Living in America” & “Clément Magloire-Saint-Aude” in Le Clé des champs (1953). Translated as Free Rein by Michel Parmentier & Jacqueline D’Amboise. Lincoln: Nebraska, 1995.

——. Prolegomena to a Third Manifesto of Surrealism or Else (1942) in What is Surrealism? Selected Writings. n.p.: Monad, 1978.

Melvin Dixon. “Introduction” to The Collected Poetry by Léopold Sédar Senghor. Charlottesville: Virginia, 1991.

Charles Henri Ford, ed. View III.4 (Dec, 1943): 141.

——, ed. View: Parade of the Avant-Garde. NY: Thunder’s Mouth, 1991.

Philip Lamantia. Bed of Sphinxes: New & Selected Poems 1943-1993. SF: City Lights, 1997.

——. Meadowlark West. SF: City Lights, 1986.

——. Destroyed Works. SF: Auerhahn, 1962.

——. Ekstasis. SF: Auerhahn, 1959.

——. Narcotica. SF: Auerhahn, 1959.

——. Erotic Poems. Berkeley: Bern Porter, 1946.

——. “Surrealism in 1943” & “Poems” in VVV 4 (1944): 18-20.

David Meltzer, ed. San Francisco Beat. SF: City Lights, 2001.

Kenneth Rexroth. “Why is American Poetry Culturally Deprived?” (1963) in World Outside the Window. NY: New Directions, 1987.

Michael Richardson, ed. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. London: Verso, 1996.

Table of Contents
Titanic Operas Home Page