Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's not all fish in acid: Why Robert Desnos matters (to me)

Before GLS, I had only a glancing acquaintance with Surrealism.  It consisted of my firm dislike for Dali paintings, which always made me feel slightly ill.  Then I met Robert Desnos in one of Deborah Keenan's classes, and I fell in love with what Eddie Hirsch referred to as his “deeply joyous and wildly stubborn” self.  One of my assignments was to research Desnos, and I did so enthusiastically.  Now, years later, I think I finally understand those Dali paintings, and I owe it all to Desnos.

Very Brief Summary

He had somewhat humble beginnings, a dramatic life in an interesting time and place surrounded by interesting people and ideas.  (You should read about them.)  He wrote whatever he wanted, however he wanted, and no one could tell him what he could or could not write, not Breton (the leader of the Surrealist movement) and not even the Nazis.  He died a tragic death. 

Why I love Desnos

He wasn't afraid of forms or free verse.  He wasn't afraid of being labeled a commercial sellout when he started working in radio and advertisement, using writing to, gasp, make a living.  He wasn't afraid to call the Surrealists out when he thought they were being ridiculous ("Comrades" is pretty great).  He didn't think he could only write with one voice, and there was no experiment he woulnd't try.  He laughed at people who looked down their noses at him, and he kept doing what he wanted: writing whatever he wanted however he wanted.  He didn't care if you understood; he didn't care if HE understood.  He just wrote. 

From a poem I wrote to Desnos

I want to read everything you wrote
so maybe I can be brave like you
some day maybe I can write
fearlessly like you whatever however
I want with a merry smirk
at all of those who say you can't

"Love like fish swims in acid"

I got my chance to read what he wrote when we looked at The Voice of Robert Desnos for the April Poetry Book Club meeting.  Finally, I had the excuse I needed to read a somewhat comprehensive and chronological selection of his work.  It was like watching someone grow up.  From that irritatingly incomprehensible automatic writing poetry (whose practitioners started going a bit crazy) to his tediously extensive love affair with unrequited love to his mostly sometimes slightly more comprehensible later works, Desnos was all over the place, and there's always something to like.

In the earlier poems, it was usually a single phrase that made sense amidst the seemingly randomly assembled flotsam of the unconscious mind.  I could grab onto that weird and beautiful bit and hold on for dear life, letting the rest of the poem wash past me.  Later, when he was being viciously political or sly or playful or in reciprocated love (finally), sometimes a whole poem could keep me in its world.  But those earlier ones . . . 

Why GLaaS matters

And then, that moment of insight I never could have had if I hadn't been sitting with a group of smart people discussing why I still liked Desnos even when he didn't make any sense to me.  "I can't see pictures in my head," I said.  "I can't visualize like most people can.  People have tried to explain Surrealism to me, and I have stared at Dali's paintings for as long as I could bear, and they meant nothing to me.  But when I read this early stuff by Desnos, when I see these ideas as words thrown down in a poem randomly together, suddenly, I understand what Surrealism is; I feel like maybe I understand Dali paintings now that I've seen them as text."

I even got a poem out of the evening, one of those muse-gift ones where something you've been reading and something else you've been contemplating collide just right, and you complete the poem right then!

Always at least half-full

Anyway, one of the reasons we started GLaaS is to make sure alumni can continue to have those discussions that lead to those moments of insight we remember so well from our classes.  Just because we have our degrees doesn't mean we can't still experience that kind of learning.  I, for one, am glad.  Also, Jean's porch is outstanding.  Hope to see you there this summer.

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