How To Write Surrealist Poetry

How To Write Surrealist Poetry

In this post we examine five ways (with examples) for you to write surrealist poetry.

How To Write Surrealist Poetry

Surrealism is an interdisciplinary art movement that started in the 1920s in France. It tried to expand the way we see reality by including dreams and the unconscious through automatic writing. These writers produced some very unusual literature! To create poetry, they invented many new techniques which are inspirational as much as they are fun. This article aims to introduce you to some of them. 

Surrealist Poetry = Play + Juxtaposition + Chance

Surrealist writers challenged the production process of texts. Waiting for the occasional muse to stop by was not what they had in mind. Instead, they introduced elements of play, juxtaposition, and chance to prevent them from overthinking. Their texts often had vivid images, striking metaphors, and, as a by-product, a lot of nonsense. But who’s to say what is nonsense and what is poetic wisdom? Here are a few techniques with examples.

5 Surrealist Techniques To Write Poetry

The Surrealists aimed to free our imagination of the control mechanisms of our consciousness. They came up with many games to produce texts, as well as techniques to manipulate pre-existing texts. Give them a try and find out what works for you.

1. Found Poem/ Dada Hat Poem:

Found poetry can be made from any pre-existing text, let’s say, a newspaper article. You simply cut up an article or, like I have done, the front page of a newspaper. All the scraps go into a hat or some other container. Mix them well. Then you line them up in the exact order you take them out. The only editing allowed is rearranging the slips of paper.

Here’s what I did to the headlines of the lifestyle section of The Guardian:

Surrealist Poetry
Source: Susanne Bennett, 13 June 2022

Some of these phrases don’t seem to make sense at first. But if you let them sink in, your brain will try to make sense of them. Eventually, you will create some explanations. It’s that intellectual process that the Surrealist poets try to trigger.

2. Coulage

This is a technique from Surrealist visual artists. We can adapt it to our purposes. It sounds a lot like ‘collage’, doesn’t it? A collage (the French word means ‘stuck together’) is created when we combine things that we have cut up previously. That’s not what we’re doing here.

A coulage (from the French word for pouring, flowing) is an involuntary sculpture. As writers, we can’t pour words, but we can imitate the process by using magnetic poetry and a magnet.

For an extra dash of poetic seriousness, I’ve used two magnets on the Shakespearean kit from Magnetic Poetry. At first, my coulage looks like this:

Surrealist Poetry
Source: Susanne Bennett, 13 June 2022

Then, you take the sculptures apart. Now you can read the words. I came up with this:

Surrealist Poetry
Source: Susanne Bennett, 13 June 2022

Again, you can edit by rearranging and adjusting tenses, articles, suffixes to achieve concord. In my example, I’d be tempted to change ‘slander villain’ to ‘slanderous villain’. Also, ‘Wherefore dream’ would be followed by a question mark at the end of the line.

3. Cut-Up

Again, you take an existing text (for example, a poem) apart and rearrange it to create a new text. You can cut up the poem in any way you like, line by line, word by word, or phrase by phrase. Just don’t expect rhyme and meter to work out in your new text. Again, you may adjust here and there to achieve concord. Let’s take the first quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 7.

This is the Original:

Lo! in the orient when the gracious light
Lifts up his burning head, each under eye
Doth homage to his new-appearing sight,
Serving with looks his sacred majesty;[…]

 I cut up the original poem, rearranged it and then my first quatrain looked like this:

Surrealist Poetry
Source: Susanne Bennett, 16 June 2022

It’s a completely different poem! And all it took was a pair of scissors and some shuffling.

4. Substitution Poem

Choose a source text. This can be a poem from a famous author, a medical text, or an instruction manual.

Then, insert three or four blanks in every line of your source text. Underneath each blank, you need to make a little note to explain the word’s grammatical function, such as ‘present tense verb’ or ‘adverb’.

Once you’ve put in all your blanks, you can start to fill them in again with words chosen at random. Beware that you don’t remember the original content too well. It might be a good idea to use a dictionary.

I chose William Blake’s poem Ah Sun-Flower!  The words in brackets are my blanks. I only inserted 2 blanks per line since the poem is short.

Blank by blank, I’ve taken each word out, flipped through the dictionary, and taken the first entry that matches my word category. If my first choice didn’t match at all, I repeated the process. I then worked my way through the poem, without thinking if the dictionary word suits the context or not.

Here is William Blake’s original poem, with curly brackets showing where I placed the blanks.

Source: Susanne Bennett, 16 June 2022

Just to give you an idea: my first sentence (with substitutions) reads like this:

‘Ah, Maze! Skinny of time,
Who chooses the strikes of the Sun …’

5. Translation poem

Translation can be understood in many ways: You can translate an existing poem word by word or phrase by phrase, from Old English to Modern English, from academic language to street slang. Essentially, you paraphrase the poem. If you take this to great lengths, the result will not reveal what you started with.

I chose to work again on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 7. Here is my Surrealist translation:

Whoa! In the East when the soft sun
rises its fiery front, each under vigil
Gives praise to this now visible scene,
Humbly gazes at his holy highness;[…]

Another way to translate is to change the literary form. How about taking your favourite sonnet and reworking it into a villanelle? Or a free verse poem?

The Last Word

Surrealist poetry techniques are great to free your imagination. As with all theories, it’s best to take them with a grain of salt. True surrealists would never edit; yet what these techniques yield might not be considered great poetry by all.

Being a practical poet, I recommend using Surrealist techniques as a source of ideas. You can edit them or use them as a springboard for something completely different. How you treat your text is entirely up to you! The beauty of any art is that artists are free to do as they choose. I hope you have fun exploring surrealism!

Susanne Bennett

By Susanne Bennett. Susanne  is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.

More Posts From Susanne

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Posted on: 23rd June 2022
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