Writing the Night

Hugh Haughton

  • Selected Poems by David Gascoyne
    Enitharmon, 253 pp, £8.95, November 1994, ISBN 1 870612 34 5

In the Thirties and early Forties the English poet David Gascoyne was much enamoured of the Continental, Late Romantic image of writing and of the writer as a visionary misfit. By the end of the Thirties, his place in the great Euro-Visionary Song Contest was almost secured. He confessed his ambition in his Journals in 1938:

Want to write an essay on ‘The Apotheosis of Lautréamont’ ... stressing the importance of the ‘magical’ theory of poetry in the understanding of L; the surrender of English poetry to rationalism, of English poets to rationalist critics and of the necessity for the poet today to create a super-rationalist faith ex nihilo. Reiteration of the idea that the practice of magic (in poetry) involves ‘damnation’ (Hölderlin goes mad, Rimbaud abandons writing, Lautréamont dies abnormally young): i.e. the poet’s destiny is to risk madness despair and death for the sake of a possibility of a redeeming existence by means of the secret power of the Word.

In a footnote to this apotheosis of the poet as doomed super-rationalist, avatar of the ‘secret power of the Word’, Gascoyne invoked the entire canon of the damned: Hölderlin, Nerval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Esenin, Mayakovsky, Hart Crane, Lorca and, as a lone, unlikely English representative of the same tradition, A.E. Housman. Earlier in the same year, having been sent new books by Auden, Spender and MacNeice from Faber, he reflected on ‘the great gap between their generation’s conception of poetry’ and his own: ‘what I call poetry is not understood in England, but I believe it to be something of far greater value than what is at present understood there.’ Reiterating the big names of his tradition, he announced: ‘I belong to Europe before I belong to England.’

Gascoyne made a glittering start. He published his first book, Roman Balcony, in 1932 while he was still at secondary school in London. Barely 17, he appeared in Alida Monro’s anthology Recent Poetry in 1933 alongside Yeats, Eliot, Auden and George Barker. Then, on leaving school, he published a novel, Opening Day, and before long his work could be found in the small magazines of his time such as Geoffrey Grigson’s New Verse and his friend Roger Roughton’s Contemporary Poetry and Prose, Browsing in Zwemmer’s as a schoolboy, he had encountered Surrealism in its heyday and news of the Surrealist revolution in Europe in the mid-Thirties transformed his life. His journals of the time are the record of a passionate cross-Channel love affair with the Parisian avant garde (and varyingly intellectual fringe members of both sexes on both sides of the Channel). He spent his most creative decade commuting between bohemian Surrealist Paris, dominated by its belligerent pontiff, André Breton, and his parents’ comfortable bourgeois home in Teddington. Like Herbert Read, he became an English go-between for French Surrealism and readers in Britain. He translated Dali, Péret, Eluard and Breton and wrote commentaries – such as A Short Survey of Surrealism published in 1935. He was one of the few poets this side of the Channel to qualify as a bona fide Surrealist. His second book of poems, published in 1936, was modishly entitled Man’s Life Is This Meat and demonstrated a concerted English attempt to dally in the magnetic Elysian fields of Surrealist art. It included poems to Dali and Tanguy, ‘Charity Week’ inspired by Ernst’s collages in Une Semaine de bonté, and ‘The Very Image’, a poem whose stanzas, Gascoyne tells us, could each have borne one of Magritte’s titles. One of them is called ‘Gnu Opaque’ which Gascoyne explains was an instance of ‘objective hazard’, being taken from the watermark on the paper he wrote it on. It ends: ‘It isn’t easy to see in this light / And night writes no replies.’ Writing the night was one of the Surrealists’ dreams, but, as Gascoyne’s solemn imitations too often remind us, dreams sometimes pall in the cold light of print.

In fact Surrealist poetry, for all its heroic devotion to spontaneous creativity and the rites of hysteria, wasn’t easy to sustain. Despite the efforts of Gascoyne and Read, and the native tradition of nonsense-poetry, Surrealist poetry proved harder than Surrealist visual art to get through HM Customs. Gascoyne’s ‘Rites of Hysteria’ illustrates the problems:

A cluster of insane massacres turns green upon the highroad
Green as the nadir of a mystery in the closet of a dream
And a wild growth of lascivious pamphlets became a beehive
The afternoon scrambles like an asylum out of its hovel
The afternoon swallows a bucketful of chemical sorrows
And the owners of the rubber pitchforks bake all their illusions
In an oven of dirty globes and weedgrown stupors

Dream-work shouldn’t seem such hard work, or free association so laborious. Everything is overworked in this dutifully ‘wild growth’ of massacres and mysteries, asylums and dreams, stupors and illusions. The exquisite corpses and exotic copulations that animated the art of Surrealists in France have somehow lost their ludic pizazz in Gascoyne’s heavy-footed English: ‘The sewing-machine on the pillar condenses the windmill’s halo’; ‘the icicle stabs at the breast with the bleeding-nipple’; ‘A screen of hysteria blots out the folded hemlocks.’ It was decades later that poets such as John Ashbery or Paul Muldoon helped Anglophone poetry to a convincing use of Surrealist licence for its own ways and meanings.

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