Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Writing Prompt: Surrealist Proverbs

I’ve been leafing through John Ashbery’s Collected French Translations: Poetry, part of a monumental two-volume series of Ashbery’s translation work edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie. One of my favorite sections is called “The Original Judgment,” (as opposed to the Last Judgment?) a collection of sentences that I can only call surrealist proverbs. These wild aphorisms were a collaboration by André Breton and Paul Eluard, the French surrealist poets. 

Paul Eluard and André Breton, photographed by Man Ray
Here are a few of my favorites from Breton and Eluard’s text:

Put order in its place, disturb the stones of the road.

Form your eyes by closing them.

Sing the vast pity of monsters.

Speak according to the madness that has seduced you.

When they ask to see the inside of your hand, show them the undiscovered planets in the sky.

Do me the favor of entering and leaving on tiptoe.

Adjust your gait to that of the storms.

Perform miracles so as to deny them.

Write the imperishable in sand.

Never wait for yourself.

[translations © 2014 by John Ashbery]

I’ve been trying to think of what these remarkable sentences have in common. In other words, how do you create a surrealist proverb? First of all, the verbs are almost all imperatives or commands: put, write, sing, speak, etc. Proverbs often take this form: “Waste not, want not,” for instance. Breton and Eluard’s sentences frequently involve a jagged juxtaposition of opposites, as in “Adjust your gait to that of the storms.” Clearly, storms don’t really have a gait, so the authors have fused together two terms that normally aren’t combined, one of the key techniques of surrealism. The authors also assume a tone as if they are speaking the obvious—pure common sense—but what they say is only meaningful in the most Daffy Duck way: “Never wait for yourself.” Literally, we can’t wait for ourselves, but figuratively, we do that all the time, afraid to keep pace with our desires and impulses.

So, how would you go about writing a surrealist proverb? Some of these statements begin with a phrase that is perfectly logical: “Never wait for…” or “Sing…” or “Write the…” Start off with a phrase or structure that could have a rational outcome, but then twist the sentence into a Moebius strip that ends up somewhere completely unexpected.

Don’t think too much about how the sentence is going to turn out. Allow the surrealist spontaneity of your fingers to outpace your rational mind. Make a fanning generalization about something incredibly pinpoint.

Begin with what seems like a rational structure, something a “wise” elder would tell a young whippersnapper, and then suddenly flip it the way a flying saucer moves after take off, right as it hits warp speed. 

Here are a couple of my own takes on this form:

Be the writer your fingers want to be.

Take no chances, and you will taste no clouds.

Promote asymmetry in all that you touch.

I think you could also alter this form slightly and make the sentence a question. Instead of a surrealist proverb, a surrealist koan:

What role will you play in the inevitable fireworks?

If you'd like to leave your own surrealist proverb here, please add it as a comment. 

For a comprehensive guide to surrealist techniques in the visual arts, see Angela Latchkey’s website.

Zack Rogow is the cotranslator of André Breton’s Earthlight, selected poems from the first half of his career, reprinted in a bilingual edition by Black Widow Press. He also translated Breton’s Arcanum 17

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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