In our bicentennial year, Charles Simic and Mark Strand, two poets of kindred excellences and temperaments, published an anthology entitled Another Republic and devoted to seventeen European and Latin American poets whose work was (and still largely remains) outside the orbit and canon of this nation’s taste and habit of mind. The seventeen included Vasko Popa, Yannis Ritsos, Fernando Pessoa, Miroslav Holub, Zbigniew Herbert, Paul Celan, and Johannes Bobrowski, along with a few more familiar Nobel laureates-to-be. The editors lumped their poets into two general batches, the “mythological,” a group that included Henri Michaux, Francis Ponge, Julio Cortázar, Italo Calvino, and Octavio Paz, and another group, the “historical,” devoted to Yehudah Amichai, Paul Celan, Zbigniew Herbert, Czesl/aw Milosz, and Yannis Ritsos, while acknowledging that some of the poets fall between the two stools, or partake of both categories, while resisting identification with either one. They furthermore define the “mythological” strain by deriving it from sources in Surrealism.
Surrealism has never really enjoyed much favor in North America, a fact Octavio Paz has explained this way:
The French tradition and the English tradition in this epoch are at opposite poles to each other. French poetry is more radical, more total. In an absolute and exemplary way it has assumed the heritage of European Romanticism, a romanticism which begins with William Blake and the German romantics like Novalis, and via Baudelaire and the Symbolists culminates in twentieth-century French poetry, notably Surrealism. It is a poetry where the world becomes writing and language becomes the double of the world.
Furthermore, our sense of Surrealism, at least when it figures in poetry, is of something facile, lazy, and aimless except in its ambition to surprise by a violation of logic, taste, and rigor. Bad Surrealism can grow tiresome very easily, and one does not feel encouraged to continue reading a poem such as Charles Henri Ford’s “He Cut His Finger on Eternity,” which begins:
What grouchy war-tanks intend to shred
or crouch the road’s middle to stop my copy?
I’ll ride roughshod as an anniversary
down the great coiled gap of your ear.
If we have no good native Surrealists, we can at least boast of a few fine imported ones, of which Charles Simic is certainly one of the best. “Imported,” however, is the wrong term for someone who was a refugee, a DP (Displaced Person) who was born in Belgrade in 1938 and left when he was fifteen. The poetry Simic writes is not simply better than bad Surrealism; it is what we instantly recognize as a responsible mode of writing, a poetry that, for all its unexpected turns, startling juxtapositions, dream sequences, mysteries, will be found, upon careful consideration, to make a deep and striking kind of sense. It is utterly without Dali pretensions or Dada postures. It makes no appeal to the unconscious for the liberty to write nonsense. In Simic’s art especially we must attune our ear to a voice usually softspoken, often …