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Review of The Dada Market

[First published in Taproot Reviews, #3, fall, 1993.]


The Dada Market, translated by Willard Bohn, Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.


A wide-ranging look at the work of 42 Dada poets from Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and other countries, The Dada Market offers a brief biography of each poet and a representative sampling of their poems. The poems are printed in their original language as well as in English translation.

The samplings are hardly more than sound bites, unable to give a clear idea of the poet's approach and style: Max Ernst checks in with three poems; Paul Eluard with two; Philippe Soupault with three; Kurt Schwitters with three. If you are not already familiar with a poet's work, you won't get more than a taste of what it's like.

But what this anthology lacks in depth it provides in breadth. The Dada Market gives a satisfying overview of the range of Dada poetry, the international nature of the movement, and the common bonds the poets shared. It also gives an honest presentation of Dada's good and bad poetry and poets, allowing the reader to judge them as s/he will. Since the Dada movement inspired so many later schools of poetry and art, ranging from the Surrealists to Pop Art, this look at the Dadas and their achievements should be of interest to most poets today.

Dada's fundamentally nondogmatic aesthetics allowed art of widely differing approaches to flourish under the common banner of experimentation. "It is a joyful way of life," as Tristan Tzara once defined Dada. This joyful openness led Dada poets to search for something beyond traditional verse, to pare down poetry to its bare essentials and begin anew, to explore poetry as elements of pure sound, for example, or to see letters as graphic units to be shaped by the poet's imagination.

Such experiments led the Dadaists into areas which later became surrealist, Language, sound and concrete poetry. In short, the Dadaist poets removed language from its relationship to meaning, using words for the sounds they created or the shapes they formed, for the intriguing mind- tingling they created when juxtaposed in novel ways, and for the sweet, simple, everyday fun of playing with words.

This collection contains some fine examples of these early experiments. Raoul Hausmann's poems, for example, arrange letters to form sound sequences beyond literal meaning. There's no need for these fascinating constructions to be translated into English because they were not originally rendered in a human language at all. Hausmann's poems exist out on the linguistic edge where language has not yet been formalized out of the range of sounds the human voice is capable of forming. The sounds themselves, not yet assigned meanings, play across the page. Man Ray's poem consisting of hyphen-like lines arranged into pseudo-verse negates language as a vehicle for poetry at all, while Julius Evola's line "aeaeaeaeaea eda the vertical dikes light up ledah ega" resembles a line of traditional verse decomposing into its component elements.

Such experimentation takes poetry to its beginnings in biology, before culture fashioned it into a thousand fossilized structures far removed from the original impulses which created them. By scraping poetry down to its building blocks, the Dadaists performed a great service for all poets who followed them. Beginning with the basics, poets could rebuild poetry along new lines, into anything they pleased, into whatever their instincts demanded.

As such, the Dadaists--some of whom were involved in the revolutionary turmoil of their times--were really beyond politics, for what they achieved was both inherently reactionary and revolutionary simultaneously. Reactionary because it denied all human progress and called for a return to a fundamental, biologically-determined basis for human civilization; and revolutionary because it overturned the existing order and pointed to a new world in which poetry could more closely express humanity's desires.

Whatever the political implication you may see in them, the Dadaists are the undeniable seedlings of the twentieth century's poetic avant-garde. And The Dada Market offers a satisfying selection of their wares.

--Thomas Wiloch