Friday, January 19, 2007

Who's Afraid of Dada? (Charles Wright, for one)

This is an excerpt from Morgan Schuldt's interview with Charles Wright, which in its entirety can be found here.

Wright: "There is much to admire in Charles Bernstein's and Ron Silliman's work, and in Michael Palmer's especially. But their aims, linguistic and political, don't entice me. At least not now. I think their best hope is to be absorbed, like Surrealism, into the accomplishable fabric of perception and writing. What they don't want is to become like Dada, a dead end, to be brought out like a stuffed goose from time to time by academics, to be looked at and explained. Things have beginnings and ends."

This is yet another ahistorical dismissal of Dada - much like Donald Revell's "the excesses of Dada" (which follows from the New Critical mantra of "the excesses of the 1920s") - from someone who obviously has very little understanding of it.

Here are some thoughts:

- Wright blames "academics" for bringing back Dada once in a while. This sounds more than a little suspect coming from such a thoroughly academic poet as Wright, a poet who's probably taught more frequently in colleges and universities than all the Dada poets together.

- I keep reading/hearing people refer to Dada as if it was somehow synonymous with "meaningless." This critique is completely ahistorical. Dada's critique of the empiricist/enlightenment culture of the West seems very meaningful to me, and continues to be meaningful. Even Tzara's cut-up manifesto (which is probably, unfortunately the best known text of Dada) is a critique of the Romantic concept of the individual (and if we are to believe Tom Sandquist - who wrote the book "Dada East" - has ties to traditional Jewish thought), and thus not meaningless at all. Many of the Dadaists were even highly religious. In Germany, Dadaists like Heartfield and Grosz fought hard against the rise of Nazism.

To say that Dada is some kind of nihilist tantrum could not be futher from the truth. In its break with the idea of the autonomous art work, its attempt to situate art in social praxis, Dada strove to make art more, not less, meaningful. However, it criticized the conventional idea of "meaning" as impotently participating in a culture that was (is) destroying the world.

- Further, only a thoroughly insular academic American poet would be under the delusion that Dada being a "dead end." Dada had and continues to have an immense effect on poetry and art around the world. In the 1920s Dada spread like a virus,permutating through cultures in Europe and elsewhere (Finland, Slovenia, Japan etc), giving rise to exciting new art movements all over the place. Not the least being Surrealism, which became the major stream of Modernism in much of Europe, and had an immense influence on American art (including poetry of course). And of course you see Dada reappear in Concretism, Happenings etc in the 1960s and since then. Dada engaged in some of the first important experiments with film (the Swede Viking Eggeling and his pal Richter creating radically abstract films). Etc etc. Wright again could not be more historically inaccurate.

- The point I feel most strongly about is however not Wright's historical inaccuracies but his statement that language poets should hope to be "absorbed, like Surrealism, into the accomplishable fabric of perception and writing." This absorption of Surrealism has thoroughly blunted the strength of that poetics, rendering it into something jokey and half-hearted [Though I think it's important to point out that there is a lot of great Surrealist writing still being written which has not suffered this fate.]. This process of "absorption" is what continually maintains an idea of center of language and poetry, a force of homogeneity, not invention. Elsewhere Wright complains that MFA schools churn out too many "competent" but unexciting poets - well Wright's the problem, not the answer, because the central problem of MFA schools is not that they exist or have many students, but that their guiding movement is to pull back all things exciting into their mediocre "accomplishable fabric."

- In the title to this entry I asked who is afraid of Dada, now nearly 90 years after some exiles and war-deserters gathered in Zurich. The fact that Dada can still scare Wright and Don Revell is a sign of its strength. And one reason it scares these guys is that it carries the possibility of doing away with the kind of hierarchies that Wright and Revell are in charge of. It is in other words its meaningfulness, not its meaninglessness, that is threatening.

- This doesn't mean that I think we should all do cut-ups or sound poems. One of the strengths of Dada was its heterogeneity. There is no orthodox Dadaism. As a result it kept going through interesting permutations as it moved through the world.

- A final note: I like interviews, but I think interviewers should come up with slightly more insightful questions than: "So the rhetorical dazzle of Language poetry doesn't impress you?" [By the way, a total mischaracterization of a group of poets who oppose "rhetorical dazzle"!!]. Those kinds of questions lead to the kind of unhelpful, sweepings generalizations that I have discussed above. I'm sure Wright has interesting things to say - but ask him about things he knows about.


Blogger Matt said...


Hey, I appreciate this post very much.

It's always weird to hear somebody talking about Dada in that very narrow way that Wright's comment points to.

The thing is, no one revives Dada.

The parts of it which continue are something which our contemporary poetry is totally and thoroughly steeped in. Tzara's "How to Make a Dadaist Poem" was done against a particular backdrop -- historical, cultural, aesthetic. Thus, we couldn't "revive" Dada even if we wanted to, because it's 2007 and not 1916. What's important (for making more poems) are the tools in our poetic toolkit that Dada provided us with for making more work, against OUR backdrop (that is, in conjunction with the tools that were invented both before and after Dada). One doesn't throw out the hammer, because someone invented a nailgun. And in the same way, we don't throw out the Sonnet, because Tzara came along. Nor do we throw out Tzara because of Lyn Hejinian.

For someone to make a contemporary Dada poem via the method Tzara lays out in his piece would be both silly and (weirdly) a sort of contradiction -- contemporary Dada doesn't exist (though the Dada toolkit is alive and available for use along with the Beat toolkit and the NY School toolkit and the LANGUAGE toolkit etc.). Making a contemporary Dada poem would ignore both the reasons for Tzara's piece in the first place and also nearly 90 years of variations/innovations on the cut-up theme that have occurred since then. It would be like somebody trying to write a Brahms symphony TODAY, using only the tools and music history that Brahms had at his disposal when he was actually producing work -- such a work -- as a NEW Brahms symphony not written by Brahms -- would be derivative. A lot has happened in music since Brahms ceased composing, and to ignore that history is to ignore the history necessary for making new, significant, innovative work in our current moment.

Perhaps this is what Wright means when he mentions the absorption of the [techniques and innovations]of Silliman, Bernstein, Palmer, etc. Of course, he should have said "absorption of techniques innovations"...

Thanks again for the post.


10:09 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You say that Tzara wrote in a particular time and place - but then so have all writers!

Including writers who may be considered "tradition." And yet many people like to pretend like Keats is transcendent etc. (Seen in his own context, Keats becomes much more radical figure with his class-background and his clumpsy poesy.)

I see this rhetoric a lot: everything experimental is just rehashing Dada. All kinds of people writing like Stevens - and yet I never hear, "they're just rehashing Stevens."

That is one difference between what might be loosely called "experimentalism" and what might loosely be called "traditionalism". Experimentalism acknowledges belonging in time (and engages with it), while traditionalism tries to create an illusory idea of transcendence (the "ah" that comes at the end of the pious poem at a poetry reading). As Rimbaud said, you've got to be absolutely modern.

So in some sense it's a bit more than a toolkit. Different poetries do have different goals. A lot of the avant-garde has to do with dissatiscation with the role of art in a bourgeois society, a lot of it is about creating discomfort or revulsion rather than false reconciliation between reader and the world.

This is why Revell dislikes "the excesses of Dada" - it is art that refuses to sublimate conflict. (And yet there are folks who think that Revell is somehow not a conservative poet.)

In some sense, I think Dada still scares the Wrights and Revells of the world because it didn't want to be just another toolkit that could be recuperated for the literary establishment (which can easily change it style-kits but not its ends, its role in society).

In some sense, I do think Tzara forces us to throw out the sonnet, or at least remake it (like Berrigan). And yet American Poetry is full of people who like the pretend they can still write sonnets in a kind of pseudo-Elizabethan style. That may give them a job but it renders their work absolutely irrelevant.

So it's a big paradox. Dada insists on being more than just stylistic innovation and yet it's the one movement (Dada is really an umbrella term) that gets consistently used as an example of an archaic style.


6:51 AM  

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