Lee Ballentine: Erotic Grammar

One of our best members and best poets, Lee Ballentine, gave a generous sampling of his processes and internal surrealist organ without body methods of writing a surrealist poem.

I’ve always wondered what went on in the head of others devoted to this somewhat arcane art, and what compulsion it was that drove them.  Turns out, reading this, that perhaps  we aren’t all as different as we like to think.



Some findings about my surrealism, based on fairly long self-observation hopefully not on self-absorption.

1. That there is a primordial meaning-making function active in us: a process of synthesis that arises soon after language itself. This kind of “meaning” arises because it has a survival value in the natural world. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning.

2. That there is also a wage model of meaning in which we surrender our powers, like “meaning” as above (or other powers such as Eros) in exchange for a currency of structure. As when we are conditioned to accept meaning in exchange for safety or food or money. Welcome to the soup kitchen; before we serve today’s meal let’s all join hands and recite an ideological credo.

3. That surrealism is the organism’s antidote to meaning, evolved by the primordial creative to liberate itself from the tyranny of survival. The old name for surrealism is The Dream, and at its heart is the nightly reclaiming of freedom from causality, and from both kinds of “meaning” as above. Having sold our souls during the dangerous day in the natural world, or during the apparently safe day of the salaryman, we take them back under the sun at midnight.

4. That my method is to start writing without meaning, using the stimulus of The Found (or objective chance) and progress using both intuitive vision and automatism, and keep applying those functions until the poem is done. If that happens late in the process, as in the case of The Double, let’s say at mile marker 9, we end up with a poem which is mostly baked into a form of synthetic meaning and also of syncretic meaning. Much ambiguity has been processed out and managed but what remains is at the heart of the poem.

5. That this “what remains” must always be disruptive of the forces, internal and external, that make it possible to exploit us. If we read a poem and fail to “understand” it, we should hold fast to that which we do not understand, for it is that part which expresses the recovery of our freedom.

6. That if, on the other hand, I stop my meaning-making function early in the process (mile marker 3) I may end up with broken and erotic grammars, language experiment, even Dada.

7. That if, as in my poems written in the last year or two (many under the stimulus of this NSI) I get to about mile marker 6, I have a poem that feels, to me, very pure. It recovers freedom by allowing synthesis to progress under the control of visionary intuition. It tries to find the expression that excites the frisson, stopping before arriving at the self-satisfaction of metaphor.

The World's Tiniest Matches

The World’s Tiniest Matches (Photo credit: the opoponax)


3 thoughts on “Lee Ballentine: Erotic Grammar

  1. This is an incredibly clear and useful description of the process in a way that suggests an opening for any poem – or any other work of art, as necessary. The brief discussion of “meaning” is very….meaningful. One does not want to get lost in a squabble over mere words – but one could say there’s a meaning wh. is built on fear and survival – but something greater and more perilous than that exists – or is at least achievable.

  2. This explains quite clearly to me why I feel as though many of Lee’s poems seem to be written literally “about me” — they always speak to me on that “primordial” level of which he speaks in bullet 1. I feel a sense of relief reading his explication of the surrealist process he undergoes when working his poetry… All I’ve ever believed in my bones about the interplay of New Criticism, Phenomenology, Synchronicity and Jungian Archetypes — all of which falls under the easier definition of human interconnectivity — is embodied in these crystals which Lee has pushed up through the detritus left behind in the diligence of mining for meaning. They glitter and gleam in my guts…

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