Saturday, 16 April 2011

Little Birds - English surrealism

This is just a notelet, sparked by thinking about translations of Lorca into English (no specific translation). English is full of clutter that you cannot really avoid - conjunctions, prepositions, definite and indefinite articles - all of which isolate the verb and noun, particularly the poor helpless noun that is exposed as prey to a hard-fisted literal reading. Eventually the noun grows tough and develops a defiant resilience. The Surrealists' notion ofThe Chance Meeting on a Dissecting Table of a Sewing Machine and an Umbrella is cursed by the distinct and separate entities that refuse to melt into much more than Lewis Carroll's happy dream in:

...Little Birds are bathing
Crocodiles in cream,
Like a happy dream:
Like, but not so lasting -
Crocodiles, when fasting,
Are not all they seem!

Little Birds are choking
Baronets with bun,
Taught to fire a gun:
Taught, I say, to splinter
Salmon in the winter -
Merely for the fun.

Little Birds are hiding
Crimes in carpet-bags,
Blessed by happy stags:
Blessed, I say, though beaten -
Since our friends are eaten
When the memory flags...

(from 'Little Birds')

I do love Lewis Carroll, and Edward Lear too. They are England's true surrealists. Myles na gCopaleen used to do those odd surreal lines for a lark, producing them out of the hat of his imagination as a parody of 'significance', but then he was as Irish as (being himself) Flann O'Brien, and the Irish take on surrealism is generally more jaunty.

Of course, crocodiles bathed in cream, baronets choked with buns, splintering salmon, and stags blessing carpet-bags are strange, violent excursions into what is almost Jan Svankmajer territory. Not in the context of the whole poem though. The whole poem works more on the energies of social solecism rather than of revolutionary manifesto which may be why David Gascoyne's surreal poems have always felt a little laboured to me.

There is something jowly and pugnacious about English, however you sing it, however Keatsian you get with your vowels and sensory delights. It will not easily relinquish its empiricism. I am tempted to take Tom Paulin's criticism of Tennyson as 'velvet on a tin tray' (I think my memory is serving me well) as a compliment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should check out Juan Rulfo.. or Cortazar, I will be checking your suggestions on the english surrealist. Great post..