The word surreal has entered the everyday vocabulary of English and is often used to mean ‘‘odd,’’ ‘‘unusual,’’ or ‘‘unexpected.’’ Originally, however, it was derived to denote an artistic movement called surrealism. The word joins realism to the prefix ‘‘sur-,’’ which generally means something like ‘‘over’’ or ‘‘above’’; thus, the word surmount means ‘‘to overcome.’’
Surrealism was an artistic movement that tried to identify and capture a higher psychological reality. It explicitly rejected logic and rationality in favor of artistic forms of expression that emphasized the irrational, illogical movement of the mind as it encountered experience. The movement became popular after World War I. That war, which left millions dead and wounded, came to be regarded as a kind of madness that represented the inevitable outcome of Western rational thought, in particular because war planners used science to find new, more efficient ways to kill: the airplane, mustard gas, the machine gun. Accordingly, during the post-World War I period, many artists and thinkers explored new ways of confronting reality. Many were attracted to the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud, who emphasized the irrational subconscious mind to explain mental disorders (or even to explain the behavior of people who were not mentally disturbed). The result was forms of art that were often puzzling, absurd, startling, and at times unnerving. Readers and art lovers often did not understand them, for the works envisioned experience as chaotic, irrational, and often bizarre.
To label ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances’’ as a surrealist poem, or Simic as a surrealist poet, is unnecessarily restrictive. Like many contemporary poets, Simic inherited a wide range of poetic traditions that inspired his writing. He differs from the surrealists, for example, in writing poems that are generally regarded as simple—not in the negative sense of ‘‘simplistic’’ but rather in the sense of using ordinary, everyday language rather than the abstruse (or, difficult to understand) language that sometimes characterizes contemporary poetry. Indeed, the source of much of his popularity is that his poems are eminently readable by people who are not themselves poets or literary critics. His poems sometimes contain violence, and often they are marked by sadness, but they also contain humorous elements. It would be more accurate to suggest that Simic’s poetry, including ‘‘Classic Ballroom Dances,’’ has some of the characteristics of surrealist poetry. In particular, the poem is built around a sequence of images rather than logical statements. This movement from one image to another suggests the movement of the poet’s mind as he tries to capture the way in which the stereotypical activities of people resemble the movements of a dance.
(extracted from) Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010