Poetry, novels, politics, resistance in the war effort, surrealism. Robert Desnos was certainly someone who had a broad range of talents. But his role is surrealism during the 1920s was arguably his most influential act in literature – described by Breton as the “prophet” of the movement. But he was also someone who was deeply involved in communist politics, and living in France during the German occupation in World War II – undoubtedly a very dangerous occupation.
Born in 1900, Desnos was originally introduced to the Parisian Dada group by Benjamin Péret in 1919. He soon became friends with its contemporaries, including Breton, and became art of what many critics dub the ‘vanguard’ of surrealism. He developed a particular interest in the process of automatic writing i.e. writing without consciously considering the text, supposedly accessing things one wouldn’t want to say or think of saying. Pairing images together that, in a rational sense, have no place being joined. Indeed Desnos began producing surrealist aphorisms in 1922 and wrote in a variety of styles. Today I only really want to look at his poetry, just because it stands out as something even more special for me. Obviously we have to consider the translation process, but I still maintain his poems hold as strong in English, despite the fact that beats of the poetry may have been changed.
His poetry is dreamlike, often breathing life into the inanimate, and seeing visceral incarnations of emotion and the metaphysical – love, hate and fear are all examples of things you would physically see in the world of Desnos. He begins to develop these symbolic ideals within a fairly strict rhyme structure made up of quatrains, arguably making it more similar to Baudelaire’s style rather than Breton. Much like his lyric poem ‘The Night of Loveless Nights’ (1926), Desnos drifts away from Breton’s influence, especially after the two fall out over political arguments. A great example is ‘The Landscape’. This poem seems more concerned with the process of reflection, as much as the reflection itself. Desnos contemplates the nature of love and it’s nature as “The word no book on Earth defines”. His imagery is grand, archaic even but it’s clear and powerful – the “white nerve” of the storm, “the foam on the wave”. You can’t help but wonder at the grand majesty of some of his images. True, if this isn’t your style it may be easy to be bogged down in what he says, it may seem heavy handed. But for me I adore his verse simply because of its concern with dreams. His structure seems to physically represent that lucid state of perception, each of his poems seem like day dreams, but on a far grander scale.
But his roots lay firmly in surrealism, and even up until his later days as a writer, he contributed to various manifestos and magazines on surrealism and reviewing the genre in its contextual setting. One symptom of this in his writing was the personification of the inanimate. His poem ‘Sky Song’ , includes speech from a boat, a seashell, a fire, a flower among others. Each utters a lyric statement which seems random and yet strangely relevant on the nature of Desnos and an implied narrator. Indeed one of the seashell’s speeches ends abruptly on the word ‘in’. It highlights Desnos’ use of the grand, emotive imagery but in a surrealist forms. Arguably this subverts it, or others may argue it enhances it – to be honest I really think it just depends what style of poetry you prefer.
Yet there’s also times when the language of his poetry becomes randomised, automatic in the sense that you feel like it’s come directly from his brain in some kind of unconscious process. The poem ‘Identity of Images’ is a good example. The very last line, “Sonorous coal coal, pitiless coal” seems more concerned with the sound of language, perhaps more geared for being read aloud than just read – although that starts a whole other argument about poetry altogether. The poem also contains the lines “The beautiful swimmer who was afraid of coral wakes” and the initial statement – “I am fighting furiously with animals and bottles”. Both of these show a distinct trait of surrealist poetry, a dramatic and yet understated statement of object. He just says it, no matter how surreal or random the statement seems. The result for me is that it grasps you. When I see that first statement I immediately want to continue. For me this is the peak of Desnos’ style. He’ll ingratiate you in his poetry with a distinct surrealist style and then trap you inside them with his grand, sweeping imagery – often solidified by the rather classical structure and rhyming.
Unfortunately Desnos was indeed a hunted poet. After beginning a career in radio, his communist politics and membership of the French resistance resulted in his incarceration by the Nazis. After being deported to Poland in 1944, he eventually died in 1945 from Typhoid – a month after his concentration camp was taken over by the allied forces. It’s argued by many that he wrote many poems while incarcerated but they were destroyed during the allied attack. For a long time there was even a legend of ‘the last poem’ written by Desnos before he died – but unfortunately this was simply a rumour at the result of bad translation by a Czech magazine. So really it’s difficult to pin down an exact context of his poetry is Desnos’ life. The only influence we understand for certain is hi dedication to the surrealists but even that faded after the whole argument with Breton. It seems to me he more keeps the style with him, and the attitude of experimentation.
Desnos represents a perfect example of how surrealism can affect pre-existing modes of expression. We’ve seen that already in photography, painting etc but with poetry Desnos took the classical form and turned it on its head – while also maintaining the sweeping rhetoric, the deeply metaphorical and beautifully grand imagery. He is the surrealist fusion, and I would recommend his poetry to anyone. I always come away with a new sense of life, and a new idea of how to look at it.