On Rebecca Watts’ poem Spiritus Mundi Reloaded

In my last update I mentioned that I had tried comparing Rupi Kaur to other poets and was unable to. That was an update I promised myself was going to focus on Rebecca Watts – my first draft was a comparison of the two, but I abandoned it. After finishing Rebecca Watts’ The Met Office Advises Caution I decided I didn’t want to cover it as a simple review. Of it’s 52 poems I made note of about a dozen that I thought were particularly good, which may sound weak but is a staggeringly high hit rate for a contemporary book of poetry by my admittedly way-too-high standards.

The most lasting impression of where she failed as an author were in the poems for which I felt I had no context. Not being from the UK I imagine a lot of this is due to my own ignorance of certain subjects or news events, but I feel like the notes in the back could have done a better job of clearing up the context around which certain poems were written. I plan on exploring a few of her poems in depth so let this be the end of my article as a review: It’s a good book of poetry.

Watts opens the volume with a poem called Realism, setting the tone moving forward and planting her flag squarely in established literary territory. On the other end of my table, I had just set a bookmark in my copy of Surrealist Poetry in English, a collection of poems following the development of that movement in primarily America and England. It opens with a reference to an essay by Edouard Roditi, dated 1936.

By his reasoning, in the face of Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Cummings, Stein and other established writers, whose commonality he finds in the precision of their writing – to be more than just an imitator, the young poet can challenge the dominant attitude. It is possible, he says, to revolt against it by bringing an element of chance into poetry – this element of chance he names Surrealism. I took note of this little bit of synchronicity. To this day I share Roditi’s concerns (not his opinion on Cummings, but that’s a topic for another time) but with the knowledge that surrealism was never able to answer or challenge them.

I personally love Eliot more than words can say, but he at least left us, as writers, somewhere to go. It was Joyce, really, almost single-handedly, who ended the progress of literature. That’s a little silly to say. I don’t know really, there is some logical path towards mastery in writing that Joyce reached – and then reached past. He added dimensions to the practice most of us can’t even begin to figure out how to explore. With a cursory understanding of the concepts, surrealism sounds to me like a way to imitate the magic of Joyce without requiring his rigor.

That assumption isn’t just based on a bad understanding of surrealism, but it’s based on the assumption that Roditi’s idea of surrealism was the dominant one. That’s really not the case. The majority of the movement was influenced by Jung and Freud, trying to establish that the language of dreams was not only universal enough to be meaningful, but that by utilizing random processes one could bring the conscious and unconscious under the same kind of control, and create a world of literature where the two were not in opposition.

Did I get that right? I’m hardly an expert. Let me quote Herbert Read: “what [the surrealist poet] offers to society is not a bagful of his own tricks, his idiosyncracies, but rather some knowledge of the secrets to which he has had access, the secrets of the self which are buried in every man alike, but which only the sensibility of the artist can reveal to us… largely made up of elements from the unconscious, and the more we learn about the unconscious, the more collective it appears to be.”

The idea of the collective unconscious has been twisted since then to signify some kind of supernatural connection between all people, but in a more basic sense it describes the unconscious processes of the mind that are not idiosyncratic, not unique to the individual. For instance, if I summon a random number to mind, it may be the last number I read, or a number on the screen in front of me I’m currently blind to, or a number of significance to a paper I wrote twenty years ago. The idea is that I’m accessing information consciously which my unconscious has stored.

The main goal of surrealism seems to be able to increase our access to that information, and most appear to believe that through such access we will discover a deeper meaning and a deeper significance not only in what our unconscious stores, but in how we live our lives. Through this idea of surrealism, post-modernity is necessarily surreal. It is the norm in American culture right now to construct our responses not around the spoken, but the unspoken. The language of nearly every facet of our lives is focused towards the unconscious.

Our understanding of film is based on taste and enjoyment, rarely critical criteria. Our popular music is impossible to understand through any conscious lens. Racism and sexism are not focused so much on the system as they are on indicative phrasings and behaviors – it has become a mission of many to eradicate not conscious, but unconscious bigotry. You all might think I’m insane when I say the internet is the one part of modern life I don’t find surreal. It is, of all places, the one we enter into the most consciously, despite what many reactionaries think.

I don’t want to get too deep into that, just let it suffice to say that I think surrealism so dominated art at its inception that it came to dominate culture entirely, insofar as it represents a sort of despair at being unable to match the overwhelming, and overwhelmingly rigorous, artistic accomplishments of the past. The cause, in the words of Joanna Newsom, is ozymandian.

John Ashberry said in 1968: “that President Johnson is a surrealist; that Congress is 95 percent surrealist and that the entire nation and the world including Vietnam are surrealist places.” When the movement was under attack by more conservative authors – that’s the thing about surrealism, it may read as subversive or as obfuscating reality, but it has always been an attempt to describe the real more accurately than realism could. It is not an effort to distort or change reality, simply to describe it in an expanded terminology of imagery.

In the poem Spiritus Mundi Reloaded, Watts describes her asking a friend in an email about his new songs, and he responds with titles apparently written automatically. She calls him an echolaliac, I might call him a surrealist, but then, I don’t know him. She decides, with a nod towards a “universal consciousness” to look up a number he used, 54.8, to find its associations, maybe even divine how it came to him. She likens this to breathing, and describes the buddhist practice of mindfulness, putting focus on an automatic process in order to, in a sense, obliterate it.

“Could this explain why 54.8 is the latitude of your favorite city – another fact I discerned from the god-shaped cloud, concatenator of disparate knowns, analogue of the Great One Mind, with which we don’t have to commune for long before we can apprehend each of the Buddha’s discourses, or the satellite’s dispassionate measure of a world?”

Watts describes how this search made her feel like “a bird breaking into a golf ball,” and how she found a kernel of something which she never knew she had been looking for.

What she describes is the process of surrealism. Embracing the random in order to, ultimately, control it – and of course if randomness comes completely under control, it ceases to be randomness at all. This poem is very uncharacteristic of Watts in terms of style, at least from the rest of this volume. It’s written very close to prose, with some very big words, and I think this is meant to highlight the focus of the poem. As a poet myself I don’t know whether the lack of line breaks is more or less automatic than the alternative – enjambment becomes an unconscious practice, but so does the less overtly artistic process of prose writing.

I don’t find that particularly important. What is important, or seems to be important to me, is just the fact that it is different. In a volume of poetry, anything that’s different is intentionally different – the difference itself is a sign of artistic intent. Watts demonstrates that her friend’s attempt to be goofy, her attempt to be poetic, and the Buddha’s attempt to be wise are all fundamentally the same activity. She creates that all-important connection that demonstrates not only that it’s fine to be silly, but that it’s wise to be silly. “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men,” a kernel of wisdom which seems to date back as far as ancient Greece.

“Generally I regret the substitution of hyperlinks for attention, of superficial connections for the effort of thought,” Watts writes. In this case it seems to have paid off, but how valid is the concern? To even understand it we would have to know with certainty which parts of our expression are conscious and which are unconscious, not to mention the expressions of those we’re engaged with. I used to think that conversation was all conscious, that people really considered everything they said to each other and that’s how communication worked. Obviously, I was young.

While artistic expression aims to be entirely intentional, it’s fallacious to call casual conversation entirely accidental. The beauty of conversation is that it’s a puzzling mix of the conscious and unconscious, surviving mainly in territories where we can’t exactly discern which is which. That’s at the heart of this poem, that art is the process by which we figure out what we’re truly conscious about. Surrealism had in mind another road, to figure out the distinction by putting the unconscious in focus, tracing the line between the two from the other side of the fence.

I don’t know, it’s a very interesting subject. I’m looking at it through the lens of poetry, but it has bigger implications for philosophy. The difference between the conscious and the unconscious has far-reaching implications for authorial intent, and expanding how we understand this concept could change how we conceive of the canon of western literature, and even history. The difference could also be seen as at the heart of the question of free will, and we could argue for hours on whether a surrealist understanding of Buddha is paradoxical. I’ve put a lot of work into presenting this indefinite interpretation…

And in the end, I return to the beginning of The Met Office Advises Caution and realize that the synchronicity that was the impetus for this study wasn’t as clear-cut as I thought. Surrealism isn’t a refutation of realism, but of rationalism. The connection I drew wasn’t necessarily there – as I try to draw these conscious lines around an unconscious realm, I’m reminded of trying to swat a fly – every time I think I’ve got it, a moment later I hear the buzzing again, and I don’t even know if it’s coming from the fly anymore.

What is reality? A storm of impressions now and again impeded by communication? A series of communications now and again impeded by false impressions? To close out the poem Realism, Watts sets this against her more literal descriptions of a tree:

I believe the tree
and note it down as the answer
to its own question.

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