Friday, March 6, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors

Always for the First Time

By André Breton (1896-1966)

Always for the first time
Hardly do I know you by sight
You return at some hour of the night to a house at an angle to my window
A wholly imaginary house
It is there that from one second to the next
In the inviolate darkness
I anticipate once more the fascinating rift occurring
The one and only rift
In the facade and in my heart
The closer I come to you
In reality
The more the key sings at the door of the unknown room
Where you appear alone before me
At first you coalesce entirely with the brightness
The elusive angle of a curtain
It's a field of jasmine I gazed upon at dawn on a road in the vicinity of Grasse
With the diagonal slant of its girls picking
Behind them the dark falling wing of the plants stripped bare
Before them a T-square of dazzling light
The curtain invisibly raised
In a frenzy all the flowers swarm back in
It is you at grips with that too long hour never dim enough until sleep
You as though you could be
The same except that I shall perhaps never meet you
You pretend not to know I am watching you
Marvelously I am no longer sure you know
Your idleness brings tears to my eyes
A swarm of interpretations surrounds each of your gestures
It's a honeydew hunt
There are rocking chairs on a deck there are branches that may well scratch you in the forest
There are in a shop window in the rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
Two lovely crossed legs caught in long stockings
Flaring out in the center of a great white clover
There is a silken ladder rolled out over the ivy
There is
By my leaning over the precipice
Of your presence and your absence in hopeless fusion
My finding the secret
Of loving you
Always for the first time

André Breton has been called the founder of Surrealism. There are various definitions of Surrealism, as you'll find if you Google, saying much the same thing in slightly different ways. These two between them seem to cover it most comprehensively:

A movement in art and literature that flourished in the early twentieth century. Surrealism aimed at expressing imaginative dreams and visions free from conscious rational control.

A 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.

Breton's own Surrealist Manifesto of 1924 calls it:

Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express — verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner — the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by the thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.

It grew out of symbolism and dada, and was influenced by Freudian psychology. A number of other French poets of that era also identified as Surrealists. (The most famous exponent was, of course, the Spanish painter, Salvador Dali.) 

I find some contemporary Surrealist writings a bit too weird, the dreaminess more like nightmare, so I've not been interested in trying it. But the early Surrealists were less extreme. This piece is delicate and lovely, and coherent enough to carry me along unresistingly, while still being more imaginative than rational. I might try it some time after all! Indeed, following the rise of 'confessional' poetry and our awareness of the subconscious, I suspect many of us are doing something like it from time to time, without the label.

As usual, the link on the poet's name, above, leads you to the Wikipedia article. If you'd like something a little more detailed and literary, the Poetry Foundation article might fit the bill.

There is also an Amazon author page, really four pages, including not only poetry but fiction and critical / philosophical essays.


  1. Thank you for this poem that I have read and loved before and then forgotten, but how could I? "The one and only rift
    In the facade and in my heart ..."
    I have another definition of the surreal that helped my theatre students long ago--the "more" real--more real what we glimpse out of the corner of our eye (or consciousness) than surface reality. That works for this poem too, as we know he saw something, sometime and reveals new realities that made for him, over and over. I think I've been in love like that, forever new.

  2. I love the line "the more the key sings at the door of the unknown room"! Thanks for the introduction, Rosemary, and for your wonderfully literate presentation. I feel like I have audited a literature class. Always a good thing!

  3. Thank you for this post, Rosemary!

    I love this style and this, "The more the key sings at the door of the unknown room"


  4. This was interesting, Rosemary. I had not heard of Andre Breton before, and his poem is a unique one. Fascinating to think that he is the Father of Surrealism. Adds yet another dimension to his poetry.

  5. I knew about Breton being the father of surrealism but not much more. When I was a student we read few 20th century authors. Things have changed since. But it means I learnt from your post.

  6. This piece carries me away successfully.... Thank you, Rosemary!

  7. An inspirational poem....just wonderful. Thanks for showcasing it!

  8. Always delighted when you enjoy these things I share. (Big smile.)


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