“The Poem Will Resemble You”: How To Dada

“I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince, I have no right to drag others into my river, I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices his art in his own way.”

– Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto 1918”

Tristan Tzara, one of the founders and most influential members of the Dadaist movement, described in his 1918 “Dada Manifesto” the (un)organizing principles of Dadaism:

“Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners: Dada; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create: Dada; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets: Dada; every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions, and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight: Dada; abolition of memory… Dada; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity… Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: LIFE.”

Born from collective and personal traumas of World War I, Dadaism pointed to the  Enlightenment privileging of reason, consciousness, and rationality as the root causes behind the world’s dismal state of affairs. Thus, the remedy was to be found by turning these hierarchies upside-down, instead emphasizing what Donna M. Kristiansen identifies as “spontaneity,  negation, and… absurdity” (458).

With this background in mind, let’s take a look at a couple of Dadaist sources, making an attempt to close read them (and yes, you can “close read” a silent film). The first is a text that Professor Griffin has linked to on Gauchospace (http://modernism.research.yale.edu/wiki/index.php/To_Make_a_Dadaist_Poem),  by the aforementioned Tzara, titled “To Make a Dadaist Poem” (1920) (bolds mine):

To Make a Dadaist Poem

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.

I have bolded the words that struck me as important. First, I thought it was interesting to note the text’s genre–a “how to” article. As such, the text claims to empower the reader with the ability to create a “Dadaist” poem–that by following these steps, you can create your very own Dadaist poem, perhaps even becoming through this act a “Dadaist” yourself. Further, this logical, step-by-step format sits in an interesting tension with the ideals of Dada: that art should exist in opposition to logic or meaning. This text, instead, claims that you can “build-your-own” meaning by following these given instructions,  and that it will be “as easy as 1-2-3.” These quoted cliches are familiar to us because they recall commercial advertisements hawking cheap, ready-for-assembly products, but for a movement that “stresse[d] impulse and spontaneity” (Kristiansen 458), it seems suspiciously prescriptive–both too specific and generic at the same time.

Perhaps the “spontaneity” of this text lies in the ability of the reader (now writer, or at least, assembler/transcriber, as well) to create a poem from anything, into anything, in a process governed by chance (in what order a given word is drawn from the bag). But there are actually some very specific constraints at work: first, that the original/source text is a newspaper article (not a novel? a magazine? a handwritten note?); second, that the reader cut out each word of that article (not phrases? letters? what do we do with punctuation?); third, that the reader transcribe each word in order as they draw them from the bag; and finally, that the reader use every word (hence, “Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.”).

The imperative verbs beginning almost every line: “Take,” “Choose,” “Cut,” Shake,” and “Copy,” place the reader in the position in the role of mediator between the speaker (instructor) and the text that results from following the speaker’s instructions. Furthermore, while the results of following these instructions would be “infinite” (every possible reader using any possible source text, in many different possible ordering outcomes), they certainly can’t be thought of as “infinitely original,” as one of the prerequisites is that the poem is constructed of the reassembled pieces of another work in its entirety. Is this how we are to understand the enigmatic statement, “The poem will resemble you”? That we are all randomly strung together pieces of code (for indeed, words are codes, or pieces of code), that abide by a few simple rules to form a new/old, cohesive/disjointed “text.” If the poem “resemble[s]” us, do we “resemble” the poem?

In light of these issues that Dada seeks to address, watch the following video, a short film by Hans Richter, another leading Dadaist thinker.

Does the film deal with the same issues the Tzara text does? How about any of the other Dadaist poems that were assigned? How can film respond/convey/signify/represent in a way that text alone cannot? How is it limited in a way that text is not?

When thinking about your comments, it might be helpful to keep some of the following themes integral to Dadaism in mind: the unconscious/conscious, language, subjecthood, subject/object relations, ethics, power, violence, will, energy, trauma, the mundane, alienation/estrangement, gender, fashionability, technology, art/aesthetics. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it might help you get started if you feel a little lost!

Additionally, I found a few videos on Dadaism on Youtube–check them out if you are interested in/skeptical about the subject. Professor Griffin mentioned that we would be addressing it in lecture on Tuesday, so it might be helpful to situate you in the zeitgeist of the period.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Kristiansen, Donna M. “What Is Dada?.” Educational Theatre Journal 20.3 (1968): 457-462. Print.

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30 Comments Add yours

  1. mastababa says:

    You might like this poetry project; This takes your position, your location, as you move around, converts it to a combination of three words through a service called what3words, and then generates Dadaist poetry on the fly.
    As you keep moving, more words are automatically added to your poem, making your Dadaist poem longer and longer, while constantly redefining itself.

    You can find, and experiment with, it, here:

    http://www.saunteringverse.com

  2. Lucas Cohen says:

    An interesting connection can be made between the activity we did in section on Tuesday and the instructions for how to Dada. Our minds constantly seek to find meaning in randomness; It may seem unlikely that random words selected from a magazine in a random order would represent the person who pulled them from a bag, but maybe the meaning is just our minds seeing what they want to see. Dadaism focuses on overturning logic and reason, so why not the logic of Dadaism itself. It almost seems like the ultimate Dada move.

  3. nessarae93 says:

    People have the ability to find art in the most absurd ways. In that sense, Dadaism shows that with an extreme outlook and criticizes all art. But even in the poem written in complete giberish, it can find meaning. Hearing the poem with different tones evoke different feelings and connections. I dont believe dadaism quite makes its point if people can find meaning in something so silly.

  4. ahushjoy says:

    I myself have never heard of Dadaism either, but in a way there almost seems to be a romantic ideal about rejecting set conventions. At the same time the manner it is being portrayed suggests it has the potential to be of an extremely dark nature, perhaps reflecting the times that these writers had to live through. Something curious I noted in the definition is that they believed in absolute artist freedom but at the same time somewhat stressed making shocking statements, doesn’t this somewhat contradict their views as wanting to make shocking statements in a way is a form of restraint? Film is limited compared to text as an interpretation already has been made so in a sense it is more absolute than text, but at the same time it can be not as limited as there are sights that cannot quite be captured with words no matter how hard we try.

  5. samhumy says:

    While the film deals with similar issues that the text deals with, dadaist poems seem to be able to speak more towards their goal. For the time period especially, film is limited in that it leaves little up to the imagination. Little can be achieved beyond what is presented in the film, and because special effects and so on were very limited back then, the dadaist was very limited in his or her production. Text on the other hand can be interpreted this way and that, and paints a picture differently in each person’s mind. The reader comes up with their own dadaist creation as opposed to being fed something concrete. As dadaists were striving to create something opposite of concrete, it seems that text triumphs over film in this genre.

  6. michaeljfanelli says:

    First of all, I should say just how surprised and almost impressed I am that such a radical species of movement existed so far in the past. If Dada was presented as a movement emerging within the last few decades, I would hardly think twice about it – lumping it in with the countless other ridiculously abstract, contemporary artistic-ish prerogatives flooding the creative world. But the fact that Dadaism was a product of the first world war and seeks to rebel for a semi legitimate cause? Well, that’s just kind of cool. In regards to the two pieces offered here, I would agree that the “how to” poem seems a bit too stringent and legible for the genre, but I think he is trying to emphasize the liberation of personal identity and the beauty of the universal objectivity of randomness. As for the film, I think it is expressing a somewhat similar message to the poem in that it encourages a consideration of the potential of unconventionality. The video makes comical the accustomed presence of guns and bowler hats just as the poem rejects the mundanity of actually writing your own poem. However the film is able to exclusively affect the viewer by juxtaposing relevant images and scenes comfortably, allowing for a user-friendly presentation of abstractions. This film was limited in lacking sound, but I think there’s also definitely something to be said for the personal interpretation involved with written words that movies can’t quite capture.

  7. shar0ntam says:

    I find it interesting that Dadaism depends on a random collection of words in a bag to represent the purpose of the poem. Because of this method, I believe Dadaism is a work of art rather than a structured poem having meaning and logical reasoning behind it. Therefore, I do not believe Dadaism could resemble and define a person because everything is based on a random collection of words pieced together. When I was watching the film, I noticed that the Tzara text was similar to the film. The film and text are very random and odd because the film would display scenes that are unrelated like a flying hat to a gun shooting a guy. The scenes are very jumpy, which makes the video appear unsmooth. This is like the Tzara text because random words are mixed together and the poem sounds off. Therefore, I believe the purpose of Dadaism is to represent creativity on the root words.

  8. suschang says:

    I think one of the most interesting factors that define Dadaism is use of a newspaper article. One must use another’s work to create a “unique” poem of their own. The characteristics of a dadaist poem remind me of postmodernist characteristics. One alludes to popular culture through the newspaper article words and uses them as building blocks for their own creative endeavor. The process of using random words creates a sense of discontinuity and overall chaos, like postmodernism. This movement’s birth as a backlash against Enlightenment ideals reflects postmodernism’s birth as a backlash against modernist ideals. Both movements are very similar in that way. Also, both movements began around a similar time frame, helping to explain their similarities.

  9. luis1204 says:

    I had never heard of Dadaism until it came up in this class and at first I was very confused. I did not understand how such a hectic poem created out of “spontaneity” could possible resemble the creator. But after reading this blog I now know that reason and rationality are considered the root causes behind today’s injustices and therefore Dada is a tendency in art that seeks to change these conventional attitudes and practices in aesthetics, society, and morality.

  10. tmdenton says:

    I think that Tzara’s “how to” guide to Dada poetry is intended to show the absurdity of trying put words, thoughts, and ideas into any kind of meaningful structure. I think this is revealed by the specificity of the Tzara’s method. He gives a very specific set of instructions to, essentially, make absurdity out of what is a well-ordered, supposedly meaningful text structure. Isn’t it in itself absurd to instruct someone on how to create an absurd abstraction of words? How anyone could think that by following these easy steps they will create a tradition-flaunting poem and in the process arrive at self-realization, seems highly unlikely. I think that he creates this problem within his text in order to question the very idea of ordering information in a text, or even creating representation through an ordered text, such as in a newspaper article. This makes sense, given the period in which Tzara was writing. The nearly unimaginable amount of misery, disorder, destruction, death, and confusion spawned by the First World War can still be hardly represented on paper. If the reality recent history of his time defied true textual representation, it would not be a far leap to question any type of representation through structured text.

  11. krawfish says:

    I’ve only ever briefly heard of dadaism, and that’s in my economics class where we scarcely went over it. Reading the “directions” to dadaism caught my attention because in one way, it does seem like it would resemble us- the way/order we pick the words is by chance and fate (random), and that in itself can have a deeper meaning to how we are and why we had picked that way. In a bigger way, it allows us to really question why this had happened, but in another way, we may not be able to understand these scrambled sentences at all. Sometimes, we don’t discover things about ourselves and we aren’t able to see it that way. If we don’t understand the “poem” we “created” for ourselves, how are we able to question? What if it is incomprehensible?

  12. What struck me most was the interpretation of “How To Write A Dadaist Poem.” I think that, given the extremely expansive possibilities of Dadaism, that those instructions should not at all be taken as absolute. Yes, the instructions say to use a newspaper, but I think that the essence of Dadaism is that you could potentially choose any form of media. You could use, say a novel, and it would still work. Maybe you do cut a phrase or two instead of singular words, but it wouldn’t matter. Dadaism can be argued as one of the freest forms of expression, and that must be taken into account when examining “How To Write A Dadaist Poem.”

  13. seswanson says:

    The video is able to use images and music (if it hadn’t been removed) while the text is only able to use words. However, there are some things that a text can express that a video cannot. One has more power over text because one is choosing words and assembling them as they see fit. In a video, one can choose clips but is limited by the visual or prerecorded aspect; the clips can only be manipulated so much. With words one is able to paint a picture however they choose, from a blank canvas. This being said, I think the video clip and the Tzara both embody Dadaism very well. I think it is interesting that the speaker of Tzara’s poem chooses to instruct the reader to use an article from a newspaper. This allows the poet to then give their own spin and meaning to a current event. I loved the line: “The poem will resemble you.” I feel like this really is the whole idea, that everyone will assemble things differently, showing each persons uniqueness. It also gives the writer of the poem power over the event; they are able to take interesting words and reconstruct them in their own way.

  14. I believe the film conveys the Dadaist movement pretty well. The series of images that are put together are chaotic and seemingly at random. It does give the feeling that each person would create their own meaning from the film. Each person sees what they want to see in the random images just like with the random words in the poetry.

  15. ardriller says:

    I didn’t have a newspaper on hand, so I used my horoscope In October’s issue of Seventeen magazine to make my own Dadaist poem:

    natural know to yourself! but totally favors. meant be,
    certain person not you’ve friendship The your but to
    you’re it. On been have it. Talk you 4th, opening In a
    an doing take to get the isn’t or end any this gut, so afraid you’ll

    I have yet to see how this resembles me but I’m curious find out.

  16. It is interesting for me to be introduced to Dadism in literature, because I have heard of Dadaism in artwork before. Marcel Duchamp is a famous Dada artist most famous for his piece “Fountain” which is essentially a urinal, standing alone. The idea of using conventional and mundane items to convey a message purely by chance is prevalent in this art form. The word “sensibility” in Tzara’s text is extremely significant because whether or not the poem means something or nothing, the sensibility is what you make out of it. A film is another form of art work that can convey something through unconventional means. A still of hats floating to the sky with a still of tea cups crashing to the floor is a contrast of everyday items taken out of context and used to “resemble” some form of message. I think that any form of art work can visually convey the same quality message as a poem.

  17. tfung116 says:

    Dadaism is a new concept to me as well. I thought that the Tzara text and the videos presented the concept of Dadaism in an informative and varied way. Dadaism is random and deals with chance. The Tzara text about how to create a Dadaist poem is random and accidental; the mix of words would be different each time for each person. In the video, the compilation of images was also very nonspecific and crazy. It reminds me of and closely resembles surrealism.

    1. maxinegarcia says:

      The first video shown also reminded me of surrealism, but I also know fully well that the Dadaist video lacks the symbolism and meaning of a surrealist work, which are heavily laden with messages. The fact that Dadaism urges the audience to deny logic and other means of understanding art actually makes it extremely difficult for me to process in any which way. When I am told that a piece of work was made out of pure spontaneity, it removes the means in which I would typically critique or comprehend a work of art. The video, in my opinion, doesn’t translate or convey anything in particular that the text did not. Although the video was more detailed, both formats achieved a very arbitrary, meaningless sort of end result.

  18. Dadaism is a new concept to me. After reading the blog, it seemed to be an interesting, widely unknown topic. I googled to learn more, and noticed how the appearing articles kept stating “how to make a dada poem” with complete instructions. I thought this juxtaposition of such an abstract, unplanned poem and the concise, numbered instructions was something to take note of.

  19. charisbrooke says:

    I have always been fascinated by art’s role in culture, especially around the time of war. In the “ABC’s of Dadaism” video, it is clearly stated that Dadaism was used as a sort of rebellion against World War I, or even just an escape from the reality of Europe at that time. Dadaist art is chaotic and freeflowing, which is completely opposite from the orderly, mundane life Europeans experienced during wartime. However, I also noticed a darkness about Dadaist art that I think was influenced by this same wartime which proves to me that art will always have a stamp that resembles the era and culture in which it was made. In its entirety, I find Dadaist art to be a new way for humans to freely express themselves, much like surrealist or realistic art.

  20. thejkwan says:

    Dadaism is completely new to me. Before this blog, I literally have never heard of Dadaism. On top of that, I feel like I don’t fully understand the concept of dadaism. However, I do find the steps to creating a dadaist poem very interesting but I feel that the newly created poem would only reflect the person that made it if the content of the poem related to the writer as well.

  21. nateho1991 says:

    I am not completely sure if I get the concept of Dadaism, but it seems like an organized form of chaotic art. When google-ing Dadaism, an interesting quote I found was Carl Jung: “it’s too idiotic to be schizophrenic.” The fact that this concept of Dadaism abandons reason and logic, makes it rather chaotic and insane. But perhaps that is the beauty of Dadaism, and what makes it an interesting form of art.
    When looking at the video, I thought it was just chaotic and random. It was exactly how Dadaism was described. This video showed things text cannot. For example, it immediately creates a image we can see. This is good and bad. It’s good that we can immediately see what the artist wants us to see. However, it does not mean the message is more powerful. Texts are powerful because it leaves the interpretation to us, unlike a video where the interpretations are already made.

  22. bsteele94 says:

    The film deals with the same themes as the Tzara text, with both throwing the idea of structure away in favor of essentially pure randomness. This same principle applies to the Dadaist readings assigned. Film is able to convey more intuitively moving messages more quickly than text, such as the scene of the Richter film when the two men are fighting and progressive shots of their teeth being destroyed are shown. This is one of many things film can do that text can’t, at least as easily, though text is capable of certain things film is not. Among many things, text is able to provide a window into a characters thoughts and feelings more directly and naturally than film, and can also dwell on specific thoughts for longer without sacrificing pacing.

  23. alexiskopp14 says:

    Dadaism is a completely foreign idea to me, as I have never heard of it before this blog post. I actually find it very interesting. When watching the film, one could find some relationships that it has with the Tzara text and other Dadaist works of art. In the Tzara text, a lot of it seemed to be rather random and unrelated, just as the movie was. The movie had a large variety of different scenes that didn’t seem to go together, just as the text did.

    Both film and text have advantages and drawbacks. Film, has the advantage that the viewer can actually see what is happening; however the drawback, in this case, is that there is no use of language, so the viewer uses their own discretion to piece together what is going on. Text, on the other hand, has quite the opposite attributes and deficits. It has the ability to allow the reader to know exactly what the author meant with their word choice. The disadvantage to textual works, however, is that even though the reader can see what the author wrote, they are left to imagine or envision what those words would look like in action. With that, film is limited in the sense that it cannot use words or language or sound to portray what the film is saying or meaning.

  24. chrismkeane says:

    It appears that this film does deal with the same issues that Tzara text and the other Dadaist poems. It is created by stringing together scenes that do not seem to go together, just as the Dadaist poems are supposed to be created with random words. It was like watching someone’s stream of conscience, maybe not an entirely sane person though. A film can convey its message more clearly to how the director intended it to be interpreted because there is not as much room for imagination as compared to a text. This is of course how it is limited also, as you read you interpret a lot of things for yourself but this cannot be done as much while watching a film because you are presented with a visual experience.

  25. fw221b says:

    I think the whole deal with Dadaism is that it attempts to get people to infer meaning and create structure and understanding out of something made up entirely out of chaos and randomness. None of it makes any logical sense, but it is because we naturally want to see and make reason out of it, that we either get extremely frustrated or start seeing some kind of meaning or purpose behind it all.

    I find that both of these two examples – the text and the video – show us that it’s not so much about the content, but rather what we take from it. Dadaism is about expressing your own opinions, and so in an ironic sense, it is giving us something that is set (like the images of the video or the instructions in the text) where we have no choice in what we see, but at the same time, we have the freedom to think of it as we will. And so whatever we derive from it, that represents our own individual thought and opinion. It’s kind of like an ironic play on how though those around us try to impose structure, it is ultimately up to us to take from it what we will and how we perceive the issues brought on with it so as to voice and express our own opinions.

  26. I didn’t understand how a random collection of words being pulled from a bag could represent me. I also don’t think i fully understand what Dadaism is supposed to represent by using this exercise. Is it trying to suggest that we have no or very limited control in what we do, or that elements that represent us are defined mainly by chance? If so, then I do not agree. Though I think some things in life are by chance, for the most part a person is defined by the actions they choose and the choices they make. While it can be liberating to leave some choices to chance, it doesn’t mean that ones subconscious or true-self would be revealed by doing so.

  27. kielyford says:

    The main part that stuck out to me was when it said that a poem that you had no control over making is something that describes you. To me that seems impossible because how can something describe you if your personality and choices had no hand in making the poem. The only thing that you would get to choose would be the article and the length of that poem. By cutting up the words and choosing them at random you have no control over what the poem is saying. The only way that I can see the poem describing you is if the author of “To Make a Dadaist Poem” believes in fate and the words that a person picks from a hat were the words they were meant to pick and then they therefore describe you. If that is the case then the poem that a person creates is not random, it is the poem that they were meant to create and therefore that poem already describes them.

  28. I have never heard of Dadaism before in my life, and I think that this way to create poetry is really interesting. This really speaks to me because my life has been so hectic that I seek order whenever I can, but this emphasizes the chaos that is life. I think it’s really interesting in that poetry is something that is supposed to make sense and have order, but the entire point in this is to create something that makes no sense at all. In my mind this is kinda backwards thinking because in that life is so hectic we should try to find order that we can follow instead of create more chaos.

  29. helenkimmm says:

    I think it’s interesting how Dada poetry relies on chance for the formation of the poem. What if the words you randomly choose do not create a phrase or sentence that makes sense? How does it resemble you if you do not know what it means or if you do not like the words you have chosen? Is there a limit to how many words you can choose or do you just keep choosing until there are no longer words left in the bag? Is there a preference for what news section the article is from (local, world, politics, sports, entertainment,art, home)? Considering all the questions that I have of the process in the creation of a Dada poem, I think I would be very unhappy with the results of my own Dada poem and would be most likely insulted that the poem is supposed to “resemble” me.

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