In Uncategorized on March 15, 2011 at 11:19 pm

A previous Demotic Archive text-gathering- on artists (mis)understandings of Lenin – included material from Robert Motherwell’s 1951 anthology The Dada Painter’s and Poets. I wanted to unfold further the influence of this book, forming a sense of how it was read and utilised by new generations of poets and artists upon publication.

What follows is a gathering of poetic and discursive materials as “a starter” on this topic selected and written by Jerome Rothenberg, who observes in an email 12/03/11:

… yes, there is in fact a great deal that I could say, with Motherwell’s book as a point of departure.  When David Antin and I first sat down with it, shortly after it appeared, what it opened up was both surprising and needed as a way into a kind of poetry and art that we and others were soon exploring or maybe re-exploring.  Before that Dada was something that would turn up in what were already historical accounts of experimental modernism but it was really Dada Painters & Poets that began to flesh it out for us.

The materials below begin with three poems from Rothenberg’s THAT DADA STRAIN collection, with its varying, exploratory proximities  to the ideas, personalities, languages, and histories of Dada. Two discursive pieces then provide (1) a poetic- historical overview and  (2) a trajectory from Dada through Kurt Schwitters, Eugene Gomringer and Seneca singer and ritualist Richard Johnny John…

I also read these materials in relation to two further quotations. The first is Anne Waldman’s comment on the “various trajectories of collaboration” the Motherwell anthology demonstrates.  The other is Brion Gysin’s recollection to Nicholas Zurbrugg:

Everytime we met [in the late 50s in Paris], Tzara would whine, “Would you be kind enough to tell me just why your young friends insist on going back over the ground we covered in 1920?” What could I say, except, “Perhaps they feel you did not cover it thoroughly enough.” Tzara snorted: “We did it all! Nothing has advanced since Dada – how could it!”



the zig zag mothers of the gods
of science       the lunatic fixed stars
& pharmacies
fathers who left the tents of anarchism
the arctic bones
strung out on saint germain
like tom toms
living light bulbs
“art is junk” the urinal
says “dig a hole
“& swim in it”
a message from the grim computer
“ye are hamburgers”




Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, 1916

A glass tube
for my leg    says Hugo Ball
my hat a cylinder
in blue & white
the night    the german ostriches    the sink
he pisses in
all these become his world
his dada song, begun there
holds the image
until it comes at us:
the image from its cross
looks down:
a ribbon
a revolver
these contribute
to his death
also to what his death contributes
later, too hysterical
too sick with god
& time:
a carousel
a roasted poet
the queen says to his mind
& enters
where the street of mirrors starts
she sees his face
in hunger of the world
as pain, the consciousness
of death    not why we die
bit why we dream about it
& why our dreams can’t save
the dying remnant
as I write this poem
the voice cries
from a further room
the dancer / singer calls me
from a further room
I step into an obelisk
below the waist
my mouth opens to sing
but freezes
in grief for you
the collapse of language
tabla tokta tokta takabala
taka tak
a glass tube ecstasy
escapes from time
babula m’balam
the image & the word
over your bed
hang    crucified
again the cabaret explodes
again again
in glass
a glass nerve
a priestly gas pump
her hair out





sad in his world
or in yours
he walks for years beside
the economic lilies
explores the mysteries of bread
a wax archangel
stands on his tongue
his hands     cold     dry
deprived of water
in the room under the room
where Lenin sat
aromas of Bukovina gather
Moinesti with its corn mush
brinza cheese
redheaded Leah
like a hungry wolf
the word he dreams is
dada ice
dada piano
dada flower
dada tears
dada pendulum
dada vanilla
dada don quixote
dada humid
dada archipelago
dada pharmacy
dada sexenial
dada dichotomous
dada dichroic
dada dicrotic
dada didactic
dada didelphian
dada diluvial
dada dingdong
the fur of dada stretched out in the sun
dada on a hill old fox old dada
sammy rosenstock alive old exile
got Zurich on my mind
glass toys betwixt the stars with chains
electric flags & posters
“logic is a complication!
“logic is always wrong!
cries dada
holy cow
o cube
o hobby horse
the freedom first encountered in
first trip to Zurich
ghosts drunk on energy
they pulled the bells of war down
martyred the cabaret
until it exploded
like yiddish dada in the street
the overture to cheese
o Sammy brother
the sad one of your tribe
you said: disgust
you sat next to the photo of
redheaded Leah
under the axe & clock
your monocle hung from your vest
red life grew distant
in the room where Lenin sat
the walls sang politics to us
his nurse’s name was “dada”
so was yours
& sputtered poetry
redbellies laughing thru empty skulls
“my name is Sammy Rosenstock
“is later Tristan Tzara
“I am so sad with life
“I love it
“I am of course Rumanian
“I allow myself to contradict
“I put an owl in a hexagon
“I climb on the stage
“I’m prim
“I’m formal
“I applaud the revolution
“the hands of bandits
“blind worms & dada nightmares
“invade your bowels
” messiahs are passee
“the word we dream is
“dada sweepeth out
“dada teareth linens
“rips clouds & prayers to shreds
“thou rides on hiccups
“dada has a balcony
“we squat there     pregnant birds
“we shit on thine umbrella
“dada is against the future
“dada lives
“in fire          wisdom      fear
“– is fear of dada
“like a star? —
“no           like a fish      a plant      the moon
“a metal word
“distorted      boiling
“illumines the urethra
” sixty fingers on each arm
“I am a monster too
“I play with cushions
like hymns of queens
the eye of Lenin
now so wide
pushes the curtains
the chess game opens like a poem
metaphysics of perdition
rules them
tired of the stars
his horse eats colored snakes
o angel horse
on thee rides Hugo Ball
himself an angel horse
here Huelsenbeck & Jung walk
here Arp
here Janco
here kings of Zanzibar
here april nuns
here Tristan Tzara
ghost of Abulafla no ghost
he makes his buttocks jump
like belly of oriental queen
madonna face of Emmy Hennings
a silent fiddle
cuts the room in two
Hugo like a mannikin
at piano
stammers      yodels      farts in rhyme
in lusts of sabbath
— hiccups —
— bowwows —
dusts off the mask of dada
cardboard horsehair leather wire cloth
wears dada collars      dada boots
cothurnus of a bishop
lesbian sardines
ecstatic mice
vanilla derbies
from comers of Cabaret Voltaire
how many kings crow?
how many krazy kittens
cry for you?
how many centuries between
Zurich & Moinesti?
how many grandfathers?
how many clicks before the poem ends?
how much incesticide?
how many accordions to serenade
redheaded Leah?
Lenin dies
brave gymnasts march again
thru workers’ suburbs
Stalin’s moustache adrift
— o feckless future —
writes Mandelstam:
“huge laughing
“cockroaches on his lip
“the glimmer of his boot-rims
“scum & chicken necks
“half human
“the executions slide across his tongue
“like berries
o revolutions of the fathers
you tease us back to death
pink sands of California
line my coast
saloons & oracles
stemming the tide
can’t end it
you are dead
& dada life is growing
from your monocle
ignored      exalted
you lead me to my future
making poems together
flames & tongues      we write
like idiots
ballets of sperm
a brain song for the new machine
squadrons of princes pissing in the street
— intensity      disgust —
an empty church from which
you drew the drapes back
the face of Jesus on each drape
“on each Jesus was my heart”
you wrote
messiah of stale loaves
of frogs in shoes
god dada
messiahs are passee
there is no greater saviour
than this      no eye
so credible
your fart that night was luminous
it stoked the cannons
thruout Europe
in the bus to Amsterdam
in Missouri in Brazil in the Antilles
in a bathrobe
under your bed the shadows massed
like sleeping robbers
the moon became our moon
again o moon
over Moinesti
o moon of tiny exiles
moustaches of antelopes we eat
& cry out “fire”
a swamp of stars waits
toads squashed flat against
red bellies
at center of a dream
— magnetic eyes —
whose center is a center
& in the center
is another center
& in each center is a center
& a center on each center
composed by centers
like earth
the brain
the passage to other worlds
passage to something sad
lost dada
an old horse rotting in the garden
maneless      waiting
for the full moon
someone leaps into the saddle
rushes after you
exuding light



“You are mistaken if you take Dada for a modern school, or as a reaction against the schools of today. … Dada is not at all modern.  It is more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference. … The true Dadas are against Dada.” (Tristan Tzara)

Which was Tzara’s way of proclaiming Dada’s postmodernity — not as chronology but as an irritation (a disgust) with solutions altogether (“no more solutions! no more words!”) & with prescriptions (old or new) for making art.  It is important to remember: that at the heart of Dada was a pullback from the absolute: from closed solutions based on single means: not a question of technique, then, but of a way of being, a state-of-mind (of “spirit”), “a stance” (: Charles Olson, decades later) “toward reality.”  For which the only technique was the suppression of technique, the only sense of form was to deny form as a value.  And for all of that, Dada drew from means that were common to its time & to its predecesors in Futurism & Expressionism: a series of projects it would work on until its own (predicted) self-destruction as a movement.  Collage.  Performance.  New Typographies.  Chance operations.  And a high devouring humor.

At the same time Dada had its myth(s) of origin.  Its time was one of war, its place the neutral heart of Europe.  In Zurich, then, a group of artists/poets, brought together by a flight from war & time, set up a venue of their own (the Cabaret Voltaire) & took a name at total variance with the names that came before (expressionism, futurism, constructivism, orphism, etc.).  Their strategy was what a later poet (E. Sanders) would call “a total assault on the culture” — or in the words of one of their own (R. Huelsenbeck) “the liberation of the creative forces from the tutelage of the advocates of power.”  From Zurich the movement dispersed to Germany & France & elsewhere: a first international & generational outcry, by means of art & at the same time making Art (with capitals) its central target.  The “official” German version lurched toward a leftist politics, while the French, holding the center of European modernism, turned Dada into Surrealism (1924) & brought the movement to an end.  With that turning came a realignment with Art or an attempt to conquer Art’s domain: a sense that Dada-qua-Surrealism — like Dada-qua-Bolshevism in Berlin — was itself a solution rather than a challenge to all possible solutions, Dada included.  But the Surrealist accomodation — if it was that — was mild compared to other attempts to rein in the revolutionary nature of the new poetry & art, in favor of a middle-ground & fashionable modernism.  Through all of which, Dada remained a lurking presence, erupting from then to now in a string of neo-Dadaisms, the careers of which will be charted in the volume still to follow.

As with other “movements” before & after, Dada was largely the work of poets or of those who saw in poetry a liberating gesture setting it apart from that of Art.  Of the poets in the Zurich group, Hugo Ball was the founder of the Cabaret Voltaire & of the first Dada magazine, with which it shared its name; he claimed — in a Dada act that turned into a kind of mystic seizure (see below) — to have invented a new “poetry without words,” but fled Zurich shortly thereafter to live out his life in the Swiss mountains, as a kind of Catholic Dada saint.  Tristan Tzara (b. Sammi Rosenstock in Rumania) was — at nineteen — the movement’s principal publicist & its link to the Dada poets of Paris (Breton, Soupault, Peret, Picabia, et al.), some of whom would be, in turn, the founding fathers of Surrealism.  In a similar vein, Richard Huelsenbeck brought Dada to Berlin & a new life at the edge of postwar German politics.  Less overtly political, the work of a number of other German & Dutch Dadas (Kurt Schwitters, who changed his movement’s name to Merz; Hans Arp; Max Ernst; Theo van Doesburg, working through the Dutch De Stijl) crossed notably into poetry, with Schwitters & Arp approaching major status as new language artists.  Finally, New York Dada (so-called) virtually preceded that of Zurich & focused, oddly, on such European expatriates — circa World War One & early 1920s — as Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Else von Freytag-Loringhoven.  Like Futurism & Surrealism, the movement also had worldwide implications.


(with Charles Bernstein, Regis Bonvicino, Marjorie Perloff, Cecilia Vicuña)

Marjorie Perloff: How has translation of German Dada and Concrete poetry – Schwitters, Ball, Jandl, etc.— influenced your own poetry? Does it seem more congenial to you than French Dada?

Among the Dadas, Schwitters was clearly the one with whom I had the most extended encounter through translation, while the Concrete poet on whom I worked extensively wasn’t Jandl so much as Gomringer.  With Ball the only kind of translation I attempted was a performance of his soundwork, Karawane, which I slipped into my own performance of That Dada Strain.  The translations also included a smaller group from French-language poets such as Tzara and Picabia, but it was That Dada Strain, the whole series of poems, that was as much my response as the translations.

Back in the late 50s or early 60s, when Motherwell’s big Dada book opened me up to Dada, I thought that what was needed was a gathering of actual poems.  Motherwell had presented very few of those, and so I announced that I was preparing an anthology to be called That Dada Strain and to be published by my press, Hawk’s Well.  I translated a handful from Tzara, Arp, Schwitters, Huelsenbeck, and Picabia, but the press didn’t last and I got otherwise diverted.  I didn’t really come back to anything like that until sometime in the 70s, and That Dada Strain, as it emerged then, was a series of poems addressed to the Dada poets – transcreations of a sort, to use Haroldo De Campos’s term.  Translations and appropriations were embedded or collaged in some of the poems, and sound poems and  actual translations were sometimes included in performance versions.

In doing that I don’t think I was so much favoring German Dada as Zürich Dada – not least of all because the antiwar and transnational stance of the Zürich exiles corresponded to my own feelings about Vietnam and the Vietnam aftermath – about the whole twentieth-century experience of war and repression if it came to it.  Even so, Paris is very much there in the two opening poems, as well as Schwitters’ Germany in the poem addressed to him.  It was Schwitters too on whom I focused later – by way of translation – because I saw him as an experimental extremist whose work coincided with much in our own time but had never been translated and carried over into English.  (Except by him, of course, when he was in exile in England.)  That Schwitters was himself a victim of war and fascism also had an appeal to me.

What I did with Schwitters was both to translate him and to follow him into performance.  I also tried to bring him forward as a precursor of concrete poetry, but his concrete poems like his sound poems and his poems in English needed no translation.  Where I got into the translation of concrete poetry was with Gomringer – a whole book of poems translated into English as a kind of primer, I thought, not only of Gomringer’s poetry but of the fundamentals of translation, operating in an area of minimal poetry that seemed to eschew translation.  Even more of a transcreation for me was a series of ritual songs that I translated from the Seneca Indian “society of the mystic animals.”  I had collected these in a collaboration with the Seneca singer and ritualist, Richard Johnny John, and I wanted a way to show the sophistication of the apparently minimal use of words and vocables (“meaningless” sounds) in Seneca chanting.   Instead of setting up a song poem like this




The animals are coming

I set it up like this:




The animals are coming     HEHUHHEH




The results, I thought, followed along the lines of what Ernest Fenollosa, early in the game and speaking of something quite different, had called “a brilliant flash of concrete poetry.”


SOURCES: “THAT DADA STRAIN”, “A GLASS TUBE ECSTASY, FOR HUGO BALL,” and “THE HOLY WORDS OF TRISTAN TZARA”  are from  That Dada  Strain (New Directions, New York,  1983).

PROLOGUE TO DADA appears in  Poems for the Millenium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Press, Vol. 1 (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995), whilst the concluding Excerpt From the Sibila Interview appears in Poetics and Polemics 1980-2005 (University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2008).

The quote from Anne Waldman is from her Vow to Poetry: Essays, Interviews and Manifestos (Coffee House Press, Saint Paul), 2001 319. That by Bryon Gysin is from Nicholas Zurbrugg ed. Art, Performance, Media: 31 Interviews (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis), 190.

See Jerome Rothenbergs POEMS AND POETICS blog archive here and the UBU Web ethnopoetics gallery here.


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