Surrealism emerged as the direct result of the publication of André Breton’s Le Manifeste du Surréalisme (Manifesto of Surrealism) in 1924. In this manifesto, Breton presented two definitions of Surrealism:

SURREALISM, noun, masc., Pure psychic automatism by which it is intended to express, either verbally or in writing, the true function of thought. Thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.
ENCYCL. Philos. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association heretofore neglected, in the omnipotence of the dream, and in the disinterested play of thought. It leads to the permanent destruction of all other psychic mechanisms and to its substitution for them in the solution of the principal problems of life.

The first definition speaks to the Surrealist methodology—the use of techniques, such as automatic writing, self-induced hallucinations, and word games like the exquisite corpse to make manifest repressed mental activities. The second definition lays out the surrealist view of reality and expresses the Surrealist’s desire to open the vistas of the arts through the close observation of the dream state and the free play of thought.

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Camp Activities

The following activities have been adapted from “Teach This Poem: “America” by Claude McKay.” They can be done alone or with a guardian, sibling, friend, or partner.

  1. Warm-up: Think about the well-known song “America the Beautiful.” How does this song make you feel? What are some of the reasons you feel this way? (If you cannot call the song to mind, think instead about how the phrase “America the beautiful” makes you feel.)
     
  2. Before Reading the Poem: Listen twice to Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.” (He adds his own words at the beginning in praise of veterans and soldiers. This may be difficult to understand, but the rest of his lyrics are clear.) The first time, listen all the way through to get an idea of how he sings this song. The second time, write down what you hear when he sings—the lyrics, the tone, the emotions he evokes in you. Is this arrangement what you expected? Why or why not? Share what you have written if you have a partner.
     
  3. Reading the Poem: Read the poem “America” by Claude McKay silently, then write down the words, phrases, and structures that jump out at you.
     
  4. Listening to the Poem (If you have a partner, take turns reading the poem aloud): Listen as the poem is read and write down any additional words and phrases that jump out at you.
     
  5. Small-group Discussion: Share the words and phrases you noticed when you read and heard the poem. What do these words and phrases tell you about how the speaker in the poem feels about America? Does the way the speaker feels change over the course of the poem, or does it seem to stay the same?
     
  6. Whole-class Discussion: Based on what you noticed in the song and the poem, what are the similarities and differences between the feelings Ray Charles evokes about America and the way the speaker in Claude McKay’s poem seems to feel? How might America’s history influence these feelings? 
     
  7. Extension for Grades 7–8: Claude McKay wrote “America” in the form of a sonnet. This poem was first published in 1921, at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. Learn more about this literary movement, of which McKay was a key figure, then consider why he might have chosen to write this particular poem in such a traditional form.
     
  8. Extension for Grades 9–12: What do you think the speaker in the poem might mean in the last four lines? Try to write a poem (perhaps in the form of a sonnet) that shows, through powerful images, how you feel about the ideals on which America was founded and what you see happening to this foundation today.

Videos to Watch

 

“Three Dimensions” by Man Ray“Meditation” by Charles Baudelaire

Read and listen to “Three Dimensions” by Man Ray and “Meditation” by Charles Baudelaire. Follow poets.org on TikTok for more videos.

Poems to Read

Proem” by Octavio Paz

The Woman and the Flame” by Aimé Césaire 

It Was Going on Five in the Morning” by André Breton 

No, Love Is Not Dead” by Robert Desnos

No Palms” by Dorothea Tanning

Poem” by Man Ray

Appalling Heart” by Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Arbolé, Arbolé . . .” by Federico García Lorca 

Mirabeau Bridge” by Guillaume Apollinaire

Poets to Know

The following poets incorporated Surrealist methods in their work. Click on their names to read their biographies:

André Breton
Stéphane Mallarmé
Dorothea Tanning

Guillaume Apollinaire
Mina Loy
Arthur Rimbaud
Robert Desnos
Paul Éluard
Aimé Césaire
Charles Baudelaire
Federico García Lorca
Man Ray
Octavio Paz

Read more about Spanish Surrealist artists and writers: “La Generacion del 27: Dalí, Buñuel, and Lorca.

Term to Learn

Surrealism refers both to the 1920s artistic movement celebrating imagination over realism and, more broadly, to the incorporation of fantasy and strangeness in a work.