Burn Your Poems and Ride the Hobby-Horse

REVIEW — In a recent review of two books from the Subtext collective (some sort of Seattle based poetry commune), Stephen Thomas, wrote, “Wallace Steven remarked somewhere that every successful poem expresses a theory of poetry… Every serious poet has had to come to terms with the power of language to express its own meanings apart from, or even in opposition, to the poet’s own intention. The Language poets seem to start with this experience. It is not too much to say that they cultivate a distrust of language and that their poems often frustrate the ‘basic’ function of language to narrate, to explain, to describe and to import knowledge or wisdom.”


I should point out that every serious poet should be burned with a Buick Regal’s cigarette lighter and thrown into the Duwamish until they learn that the basic function of the human throat is to howl. The ‘basic’ fuction of langauge is to frustrate this impulse.

Eighty years ago, in Zurich among a population of international outcasts and deserters from the Great War, a group of artists exploded what had been German Expressionism. They protested Western Civilization (the whole ball of wax), a society whose devotion to a coldly analytical and rational language had wrought Verdun and the Somme. Remembered largely now as the foundation for Surrealism and trivialized for their jokes, such as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, La Fonatine (1917), The First Texts of Dada revels in the serious anarchy and the subversive antics that gave birth to Dada.

Hugo Ball — one of the principal perpetrators of Dada and the author of the only Dada novel, Tenderenda the Fantast, included in this book and which of course bears absolutely no resemblance to what then passed for a novel and often doesn’t bare clear resemblence to any known language — believed that under the “influence of Kant and German idealism, as well as Lutheran sobriety, that language had been made abstract and thus had been debased into a utilitarianism that allowed it to be plundered by jingoism, literary professionalism, journalism, and intellectual vacuity. It had become a tool for upholding the ruling value system.” Ball made it his mission to purify the word. He saw Dada, which was initially performed at the Cabaret Voltaire as a fusion of sound, drama, and painting; a cacophony of contradiction, music played on found objects (known as Merz performance, the philosophy that any sound or text can be incorporated as material into a performance), monologues of gibberish, that is an art free from any concrete constraints.

This book charts the inception of Dada and more importantly presents three texts in their confounding entirety. This is not a book about art history; it’s a handbook for subversion and a champion of the vitality of art as terrorism. It is not much to say that Dada cultivated a mistrust of language; they burned every scrap of it they could find.

Blago Bung Blago Bung Bosso Fataka!
The First Texts of German Dada (Anti-Classics of Dada)
Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Walter Serner
Translated by Malcom Green
Atlas Press, London 1995
ISB 0 947757 86 5
Paperback $15.99

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