This article explores the reception of Surrealism in postwar American poetry, focussing on Beat and San Francisco Renaissance writers’ responses to the movement. Whilst Surrealism’s influence is frequently asserted the article suggests that its impact remains only partially explored. Existing scholarship on Surrealism’s presence in twentieth century American poetry has tended to differentiate between the small number of writers who joined Breton’s circle, and the large number of poets whose work testifies to the movement’s protean yet extensive influence on modern and postmodern verse. Taking Beat and San Francisco Renaissance writers as a case study, this article seeks to interrogate such classifications, arguing that a writer’s ‘distance’ from the epicentre of the movement is not necessarily a reliable guide to the nature of their interactions with Surrealism. Within Beat and San Francisco avant-gardes we can find evidence of writers who joined the movement but who subjected its poetics, principles or politics to substantial modification, their particular versions of Surrealism not entirely congruent with Breton’s. Conversely, there are many writers who, it has been claimed, are influenced by the movement, yet this influence exceeded simply seasoning their work with the odd ‘surreal’ juxtaposition. For instance, though not a member of the group per se, Allen Ginsberg had extensive contact with the movement and he and his Beat colleagues helped redefine Surrealism’s postwar currency and profile. A-historical assertions of basic similarities or differences between Beat writers and narrow definitions of Surrealism cannot capture the dynamics and complexities of these dialogues.