To Make a Dadaist Poem

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by Pericles Lewis

Tristan Tzara was the leader of the most influential avant-garde movement after 1914, dada, was founded in Zürich during the war, when many artists and writers (including James Joyce) were taking refuge there from combat. If the cubists had revolutionized artistic practice and the futurists had drawn a link between art and revolution, dada was a sort of revolution against the very concept of art. Dada began as a kind of performance art (itself a new concept) in which people would gather at a night-club, the Cabaret Voltaire, to look at avant-garde art, listen to classical and dance music, read poetry (some of it nonsense poetry), declaim about the end of art, and criticize the war and western civilization. Tzara, gave the following instructions on how “To make a Dadaist Poem” (1920):

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

The word dada, with its resonance of baby-talk, expressed their protest against art. Dada valued cacophony, dreams, drugs, and the violation of syntax as techniques for freeing the unconscious from the domination of reason and tradition. Previous art, the dadaists thought, had served civilization. Their anti-art would challenge it.[1]

  1. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 107.
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