Surrealist Poetry Celebration: Kurt Seligmann, Nat Herz, Philip Lamantia, Will Alexander, Brian Lucas


by Garrett Caples

Currently up at the Weinstein Gallery is the first U.S. retrospective of surrealist painter Kurt Seligmann (1900-1962) in over 50 years: First Message from the Spirit World of the Object. On Friday, May 22, 2015, at 7 p.m., in celebration of this event, the gallery will host a surrealist poetry reading featuring contemporary poets Will Alexander and Brian Lucas, along with readings of the work of two poets personally associated with Seligmann: Philip Lamantia, read by co-editor of the Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia (UC Press, 2013), Andrew Joron; and Nat Herz, read by myself. As a teenage poet working for View magazine in New York City during World War II, Lamantia became good friends with Seligmann, bonding over their shared interest in alchemy. Nat Herz, meanwhile, met Seligmann around the same time and collaborated with him on a book of poems and drawings called Impossible Landscapes. Unpublished at the time, Impossible Landscapes only saw the light of day in 1999 as a privately printed art book. This reading will be the first live presentation of these poems; the exhibit also features all 12 of the drawings Seligmann made for the project.

If you know anything about 20th Century poetry, then you’re probably already familiar with surrealist, beat, SF Renaissance poet Lamantia, who read at the 1955 Six Gallery reading where Allen Ginsberg debuted “Howl.” But you may well be wondering who Nat Herz is. What follows is a brief thumbnail sketch.

Poet, writer, photographer Nat Herz was born in 1920 and died suddenly at age 44 of a heart attack in 1964. He is perhaps best known as a photographer of the civil rights movement during the early ’60s, when he documented and participated in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In addition to such activity, Herz also took surrealist photographs, using window reflections, for example, to capture various superimposed images from life, as well as creatively arranging light and shadow to provoke uncanny imagery. Between 1958 and 1964, Herz published photographs and articles in a variety of magazines, from Popular Photography to TV Guide, and he also wrote the 1960 Konica Pocket Handbook. Also in 1960 he staged a one-man show, Color Statement, at the Terrain Gallery in New York, in addition to participating in group shows at various other venues.

As a writer, Herz is known as a protégé of Eli Siegel, winner of The Nation’s poetry prize in 1925 for his poem “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” and the inventor of the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, which holds that “All beauty is a making one of opposites.” Siegel—whose fans included William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth—presented a selection of Herz’s poetry in his 1959 anthology Personal & Impersonal: 6 Aesthetic Realists.

The following statement by Nat Herz, although made in relation to his photography, gives an idea of the principles animating all of his creative endeavors:

“For me, photography is the art of reality-as-it happens. I have wanted to be closer to this. I have wanted to be true to my deepest self as I used the camera to find form in the external world with its seeming muddle of beauty and ugliness, humor and despair, majesty and triviality. I have come closer to these ends, in fact recognized them as goals, through studying the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism with its founder Eli Siegel. I have lingered on the meaning of the Siegel Theory of Opposites as it is embodied in his fifteen questions: ‘Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?’ and it has paid off. I have learned something of what it means to try to love reality—no easy thing. I have wanted to get at the beauty of the world through a finely-tooled machine.”

If you’re in San Francisco this Friday and looking for something poetic to do, I encourage you to attend this reading and see the Seligmann show. If you know in advance you’ll attend, please rvsp at [email protected] but don’t let that stop you from attending on the spur of the moment.

Surrealist Poetry Reading

Friday, May 22, 2015

7 p.m.-9 p.m.

Weinstein Gallery

444 Clementina Street

San Francisco, CA 94103




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