THE DADDY OF DADA
The Glowing Forgotten: Poems by Tristan Tzara, translated by Lee Harwood. Leafe Press. £3.50
This is a difficult book to review, for two reasons especially. One is that it is difficult to make an informed opinion of experimental writing when encountering it for the first time; the other is that this particular ‘school’ of poetry deliberately seeks to oppose established conventions of any kind, including those of interpretative analysis. The school to which I am referring is Dadaism. The word ‘Dada’, meaning ‘hobby-horse’, was picked randomly from the dictionary, and that alone tells us a little about its exponents. The Dadaists were a nihilistic and cynical school of artists, who deliberately set about opposing all conventions, material and thematic.
The beautiful title of the book takes its name from a poem called ‘The Approximate Man’:
one day one day one day I’ll put on the cloak of eternal warmth
buried forgotten by others in their turn forgotten by others
if I could only gain the glowing forgotten
We are right to be suspicious of verse in translation, but where there is no unmistakable meaning, no formal patterning and no rhyme, there ought to be less difficulty for the translator. There is still the problem of finding the closest approximation to the original word, and the closest approximation to the cadences of the original poem. We are told on the blurb of the book that Harwood translated the poems ‘with the approval and enthusiasm of Tzara himself’. An essential method of the Dadaist poet is the ‘cut and paste’ technique often associated with writers like William Burroughs, whereby the poet cuts out individual words from a printed page and shuffles the words around in various combinations until they reveal some aspect of the subconscious of the writer. This method implies that a haphazard technique is employed to express the subconscious, an uncoordinated thing in itself, and something everybody possesses. The method is, if not entirely artless, too aleatory to be considered a serious or significant way of working. You can set about attacking a lump of stone with a hammer and a claw-chisel, but it does not make you a sculptor. Reading these poems, I occasionally get the impression that if the poems were cut up again and rearranged in vaguely satisfying cadences there would be little lost in the way of indispensable meaning. Art is not created by chance, and here there is too little evidence of the devising hand. Tzara may have been a conscientious creator, but we rarely get the impression of a keen intellectual control that makes completeness and coherence out of disparate material – what Yeats memorably refers to as “the struggle of the fly in marmalade”. Tzara would, I imagine, complain that I am missing the point, but it would be difficult, and perhaps of little use, to attempt to shrug off my own points of reference, my own preferences and prejudices.
The Dadaist poets claim that their poems have no fixed and definable meaning, that the reader interprets their poems as he likes, but this in a sense makes the reader as much an authority – indeed, as much an author – as the writer who ‘created’ the poem. The analogy carries over into the visual arts: the Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp is ultimately responsible for the degenerate generation of contemporary artists who will take a glass of water ‘masquerading’ as an oak tree, an unmade bed littered with the vestiges of sexual encounter, or a bestial corpse preserved in formaldehyde, and claim it as their own art.
The meanings of these poems are too often too vague, and my distrust deepens in the knowledge that the vagueness was the poet’s intention. Yet where does incantatory verse merge with the subliminal? When does it possess the transcendental qualities of mantra, or cabbala? I must admit, at times these poems are weirdly appealing, through their approximate meanings, their black humour, oceanic rhythms and interweaving refrains. The main device he employs seems to be what one could technically term ‘asyntactic parataxis’: there is a linguistic lawlessness, a deliberate omission of connectives. We should perhaps be sympathetic to the successes and failures of experimental writing; the ventures out are worth making. Language, like everything else, has to evolve to survive, but it is in the end inescapably semantic. It has to make sense. There are those, however, who think that when they encounter something disorientating and contrived that they must be in the presence of art. I am not one of them.
Jim Newcombe, 2005