DON'T SHOOT THE PIANIST


CHANSON DADA. SELECTED POEMS
by Tristan Tzara.
Translated with an introduction and Essay by Lee Harwood
.
[143pp. $17.95. Black Widow Press, Boston, Mass. USA]


If, like this reviewer, you are dismayed by the pseudo-sophisticated doublethink of The Poetry of Saying then fear not! Chanson Dada has arrived! With a few minor caveats I have no hesitation recommending this careful and well-presented volume of selected poems translated from the French by poet and longtime Tzara expert, Lee Harwood. The textual apparatus includes a comprehensive guide to sources and a bibliography of Tzara's writings published between 1913 and 1982. There is a biographical introduction and, for good measure, by way on an afterword, a helpful illustrated essay 'dada / My Heart Belongs to Dada'.
 
Tristan Tzara (Samuel Rosenstock), a near contemporary of Andre Breton, Lotte H. Eisner and Marcuse, was born in Romania in 1896 and died in Paris in 1963. Tzara was one of the main founders of Zurich Dada at the notorious Cabaret Voltaire (he was actually there
, assisting at the birth of the post-avant garde, on February 5, 1916). Subsequently, after the war, he became a key mover in the Paris Surrealist group. He combined a kind of anarchic individualism with a 'revolutionary' Marxist perspective, and, it seems - I sincerely hope - remained a literary provocateur well into the post war period. Lee Harwood, a veteran of the British Poetry Revival and, according to John Ashberry, one of our 'best kept secrets', was born in 1939. From the blurb, we learn that he is based in Brighton, a quintessentially surreal locale, where he has lived for most of the past 35 years.
 
Chanson Dada comprises fifty texts, including a number of prose style experimental pieces, numerous discrete, strophic lyrics and a number of extracts from larger works including 'The Approximate Man', and 'Mr. AA the antiphilosopher'. There are poems dedicated to Desnos and Lorca and an elliptical eulogy on Apollinaire unsurprisingly entitled 'the death of guillaume apollinaire'. All the pieces are organised in chronological order of composition: the earliest, 'evening', dates from 1913, just before Zurich, and the most recent, the elegiac 'end of summer' from 1955. Notwithstanding their provenance, despite the Cubo-Futurist background to Dada art of the period, very few of the poems show any tendency to formal radicalism as defined by our current fashionable orthodoxy. It is true that the 19 sections of 'Cosmic Realities Vanilla Tobacco Dawnings' (1914) show traces of the style of typographical experimentation associated with Apollinaire's Calligrammes. 'The Jugglers' (1916) exhibits a use of words in upper case with elements of open field, but in the main, these two pieces are exceptions, rather than rule. There is nothing in this volume that echoes the picto-poetic experimentalism of Schwitters or the aggressive typo-collages of the Berlin Dadaists. On the whole, the bulk of these texts are in a rather conventional free verse strophic form. Many, as in 'vegetable swallow', 'around', and 'way', are built from regular quatrains. Tzara often relies on gnomic fragments, such as stanza 7 of 'Cosmic Realities': 'say: empty thought/quick you know/I'll be a/cello'.

The press release says Harwood has 'caught nicely this poet's blend of irony, black humour and lyricism...' and, yes, this is so. Indeed, it is clear that good old-fashioned readability is one of Tzara's great strengths. His lyrical style is, I suspect, based upon an internalised version of the cut-up technique. Tzara's own To Make a Dadaist Poem of 1920 is probably the first advocacy of the randomised cut-up text; four years later the First Surrealist Manifesto recommended the use of news headlines for creating semi-automatic poetry. Here, in Chanson Dada, we can see emergent imagery coalescing into evocative, chance-induced word patterns: 'words that can't grasp facts/barely usable for laughter' [from 'on the road of sea stars'], or 'in the white of my thoughts/a blackbird howls the grass sings/over the headless town' [from 'For Robert Desnos']. Every poem is bursting with memorable word-pictures, all accelerated into a poetical roller-coaster fuelled by the absence of punctuation.

It remains to consider Harwood's essay. The final section, entitled ''Dada' after Dada/We're in the Money', is where we run into a difficulty with this volume. He quotes Beat guru Ginsberg and even Tzara himself regarding the apparent paradox (a sophistry) of trying to write an explanation about a movement that denied the validity of all explanations this modulates into another old chestnut the problem of 'incorporation'. Harwood follows Hans Richter in defaming 'Neo-Dada' (true, he exempts Rauschenberg) and derides Pop in the name of anti-capitalism. 'Is the goal of art to earn money and fondle the nice bourgeois?' asked Tzara. Like his mentor, Harwood wails: 'Pop art... showed an uncritical fascination and acceptance of the objects and materials of a consumer society.' Here Warhol is a predictable villain, but Duchamp's 'cool amorality' exemplifies an antipathy towards the New York scene in both its pre-war (not quite Dada at all) and post-war manifestations. It was Lawrence Alloway who observed ironically 'What worries intellectuals is the fact that mass arts spread; they encroach upon the high ground...' This is one of the (many) weaknesses of the so-called British Poetry Revival - loss of nerve in the face of modernity and the mass media. Withdrawal into the past - to think that the 'good old days' are gone forever - inculcates, contrary to the true spirit of Dada, the doublethink of a 'progressive' attitude that is in fact ultra-conservative. But on this point perhaps the final words must be Tzara's own: 'don't shoot the pianist/I've done what I could' [from 'without striking a blow'].

Chanson Dada is, the publisher's claim, the only general survey of Tzara's poems available in the English language. Lee Harwood has completely revised and updated his 'now classic' survey and we must salute him, but a word of warning: this is not a bilingual edition so you can't compare translations with originals. An alphabetic index of titles is the one missing element, but this is a minor whinge on my part. Productionwise Chanson is an attractive book: the glossy front cover sports an impish portrait of Tzara - archetypal Dada-dandy - enshrined within the distinctive Black Widow hour-glass pattern design in black red and blue. What more can one say? Get this: it will look nice on your coffee table.


           A.C. Evans 2005