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“Let’s Do It A Dada” @almaclassics #dada

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Seven Dada Manifestos and Lampisteries by Tristan Tzara
Translated by Barbara Wright

What, exactly, is Dada? A good question, really. Dada is everything and nothing; Dada is playful yet profound; Dada is deep as well as superficial; Dada is all of those things or none of those things. Or maybe not… ūüėÄ

Striking cover featuring Picabia art, designed by Will Dady at Alma

The Wikipedia definition of the Dada movement describes it as consisting of artists who rejected the logic, reason, and aestheticism of modern capitalist society, instead expressing nonsense, irrationality, and anti-bourgeois protest in their works. The art of the movement spanned visual, literary, and sound media, including collage, sound poetry, cut-up writing, and sculpture. Dadaist artists expressed their discontent with violence, war, and nationalism, and maintained political affinities with the radical left.

Tzara was a key figure in the movement and is sometimes credited in coming up with the name for the group. However, the word Dada has a number of different meanings in several other languages and the etymology of the movement’s title is disputed! This volume, from the Calder collection and reprinted in a lovely edition from Alma Classics, contains a number of Dada manifestos written by Tzara over the years, as well as a series entitled “Lampisteries” – and it’s a bracing and stimulating read.

Dada is a quantity of life in transparent, effortless and gyratory transformation.

The manifestos are mostly short, written usually to be read out loud and yet featuring some fascinating typographical effects. They span the years 1916 to 1921, showing how Tzara’s view of the movement changed and evolved; and although they initially seem a little nonsensical, it soon becomes clear that they are anything but.

What are Beauty, Truth, Art, Good, Liberty? Words which have a different meaning for every individual. Words which claim to make everybody agree, which is why they’re usually written with capital letters.

Tzara rejects the norm, challenges the status quo and states the case for dismantling all the artistic certainties which have gone before. And out of this chaos and nonsense come truths – you read on and suddenly phrases jump out at you, making perfect sense and forcing you to reappraise what you’ve accepted up until now. The manifestos are contrary and contradictory, yet always invigorating.

The miracle. I open my heart to creation.

The manifestos are also surprisingly modern and relevant; a discussion of poetry and art early in the book rings true today, and when instructing how to create Dada poetry, he sets out the use of cut-ups decades before Burroughs and Gysin, then David Bowie, made them fashionable. Tzara’s writings are also surprisingly funny, although I suppose I should have expected this from a movement that wanted to tear up the past and produce a lot of nonsense!

So life is cheap. Death is a bit more expensive. But life is charming and death is equally charming.

The second part of the book contains Tzara’s “Lampisteries” and a translator’s note explains that a lampiste makes lamps, but the word is slang for a scapegoat. However, interestingly enough, to my English-speaking brain the word also suggests lampoon which is quite apt for Dada…

You know very well that this species is only distinguished from others by its mania for writing and reading books.

Tzara’s “Lampisteries” are short, poetic, artistic responses to different art forms rather than a formal ‘review’ and this is again a very modern conceit. He’s pungent and pithy, attempting to get under the skin of whatever he’s writing about, sharing his reaction to it and by doing do so creating another work of art himself. The language is often beautiful and the writing never dull; and the amount of phrases I’ve pulled out is testament to the unexpected depth on display here.

Tzara by Robert Delaunay [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although I’ve always had an interest in Dada, I hadn’t actually read many works by members of the group (all I can be sure of is having read Breton’s “Nadja” many moons ago); that’s my loss, if this book is anything to judge by. The Alma edition comes with illustrations by Francis Picabia, another leading figure in the movement, and the lovely cover design is by Will Dady at Alma. Translator Barbara Wright was well-known for her translations of French surrealist and existential writing, and has made numerous appearances on the blog for her work with Raymond Queneau’s writings. She obviously did another marvellous job with Tzara’s work, and the book contains details of original publication dates and locations at the end.

Dada was a much too wide-ranging a movement to really do justice in a short review; a quick online search reveals myriad sources and resources, which could create a few dangerous research wormholes in which to get stuck… However, this book is a welcome reissue by Alma and a wonderful place to start if you want to begin exploring the wild, bracing and never dull world of Dada!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma, for which many thanks!)

And just for the hell of it, here’s Blixa and the gang blasting out one of my favourite Einst√ľrzende Neubauten¬†songs that just might have a relevant title….

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Beginning this Beast of a Book…

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The poetry shelf has swollen recently (*sigh*) with the arrival of this huge, rather lovely but a little daunting book… I was prompted into buying it after watching an odd little documentary series on Sky Arts, all about French artists of the early 20th century. It was a bit strange (very patronising narration and too much animation) but it did set me off digging in the stacks. I was looking in particular for a book of Apollinaire’s poems which I was sure I had – or at least once had – but I really couldn’t find it, and what’s more discovered that I had very little French poetry at all, apart from Baudelaire and Rimbaud (of course…)

Needless to say, I ended up browsing online. There was an interesting-looking Penguin volume of French poetry but the translations were all prose renderings. I have no issue with poetic prose (I love it, in fact) but this didn’t seem quite what I wanted. However, this particular book came up in the searches and so I sent off for a Reasonably Priced Copy and it turned up this week in surprisingly good condition for the cost.

As you’ll see, it’s edited by Paul Auster who provides a loooong intro which I’ve just glanced at, and where he seems to be justifying his choices – which kind of implies omissions. I haven’t read it all, and I don’t know enough about French poetry to know what he’s left out! However, the poems included are translated by numerous talented people, each one credited after the work, and true to my stated intent, I have *dipped* into this book and so far found some really wonderful gems. I thought I would share a short one here, translated by Lee Harwood. I think this book may be the source of many great treasures…

Way
    Рby Tristan Tzara

what is this road that separates us
across which I hold out the hand of my thoughts
a flower is written at the end of each finger
and the end of the road is a flower which walks with you

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