Tzara’s Chisel


A Portrait of Tristan Tzara, “Papa-Dada”

Isidore Isou, a Romanian-born, French poet, founded a movement called Lettrism (Lettrisme) through which, in 1945, he forwarded a historical theory of poetry. According to his theory, Isou distinguished between two cycles of artistic production: The “Amplic” and the “Chiseling” cycles. In the Amplic one, a founding poet creates a paradigm to which each subsequent work of an age is confined.

After a paradigm is created, Isou theorized, writers explore all means of expression within the limits of the established parameters. An Amplic cycle is completed when every investigation of style, within the parameters, has been conducted. After the completion of a phase, poetry must be redefined. After the Amplic, the Chiseling cycle commences. In this phase, poets deconstruct the grand institution of poetry, refuting what had become the poetic norm, and clearing the way for a newer, grander Amplic cycle.

Isou argued that Homer’s writings founded the first Amplic cycle, which continued until the nineteenth century. Tristan Tzara, Isou believed, would lead the new Chiseling phase, violating the tenets of Homeric writing to clear the way for an improved aesthetic. The evidence of Tzara’s ability to do so is certainly compelling. Another Romanian born writer, Tzara became famous among avant-garde poets as the founder of Dadaism. (His contemporaries knew him as “Papa-Dada”.)

In his work, Tzara disintegrates and detaches words from their stern histories, creating a new aesthetic characterized by visual experiment and formal unpredictability. He attempts to design a poetic that features letters as basic phonic elements rather than overlooked foundations of meaning. Where literature preceding him prided itself in sense and accessibility, Tzara strived to upset poetic normalcy through irreverence.

Lynnette Shelley

For the purpose of this article, a brief discussion of Tristan’s poem “Cosmic Realities Vanilla Tobacco Wakings,” will present an idea of his whimsical, formally challenging style. (Mary Ann Caws did the English translation here.)

The third line immediately draws our eye as it falls away into the white marginal space, so little explored by contemporary poets. The form attracts our attention before the content even begins to. While the visual play challenges us, it’s not absurd to think that a poem might be as visually stunning as any other creative endeavor; that it might strike our senses instantly, like a sharp painting or finely prepared dish.

In a poem such as this, we must speak through vagueness lest a reduction harm the myriad interpretations available to a discerning reader. Tristan excuses the silliness of his writing straightaway: “listen I’ll write a poem but don’t laugh.” As the ‘chiseler’ of the new poetic cycle, it’s clear that he isn’t quite comfortable. Beyond the first line, little remains coherent to a reader desiring clarity of, say, a Homeric proportion.

The lines stand as absurd protest, one against the next. Tzara maintains a conversation (of difficult means) with a strange interlocutor, presumably his sister. In the third line—which spills from the rigid stanza as water filled past the brim—it seems the speaker is emphatic, trying to talk over somebody. In fact, on second reading, this initial chapter informs a poem of conflict, supported by the chapter’s final line; from “I don’t want to I don’t want to and he is squeezing me TOO TOO HARD,” we feel that something is being shaped, forced, and coerced. From this, we might interpret this poem as exemplifying the struggle of making—forcing—a poem to become something new; indeed, the reader witnesses the very act of ‘chiseling’ in its writing, as Tzara ‘squeezes’ the poem into new moulds.

The second through fifth chapters strongly indicate a Dadaist tendency of wordplay and clipped, nonsensical lines. While the conflict of Chiseling is subdued in these verses, the writing indicates a new poetic expression. The fourth chapter, (“I am a line dilating and I want to grow in a tube of tin / I say that just to amuse you”) references the self-effacing ‘shyness’ of the first lines. The speaker, it seems, continually tries to convince his reader that his exercise in vast forms isn’t to be taken too seriously. The language in these lines is pretty, almost imagist, and to enjoy it on those merits alone is enough.

In the later chapters, we see another interesting device—the use of brackets to imply a varied possibility of readings. The speaker inhabits a variety of different roles throughout the medial verses of the poem—brother, soldier, cello even—and the employment of brackets allows the lines a similar fluidity. The bracketed section can read more than a dozen different ways, depending on how you apply ‘of ice.’

The most readable construction: “consequently / lord lord [of ice] / forgive me.” Though we might think it gimmicky to use such diagrammatic elements, Tzara was among the first to explore the boundaries of a poetry that eschewed a purely romantic expressionism in favor of odd, impressive, difficult word play. In his curves and brackets, Tzara creates a schematic of a poem, rather than relying on the longstanding measure and meter readers had come to expect. In this way, rather than the “PRISONER” of poetry, Tzara becomes its lord. However, his visual innovation doesn’t end with these brackets.

Though in the initial chapters Tzara played with line structure, it’s not until the thirteenth that he refutes the established typeface. Because the poem stands as a shrouded address/argument between the speaker and his sister, the revealing of the sister’s name stands both visually and metaphorically as the apex of the piece. “Lila” is first printed in lowercase, then in capitals of increasing size, until “LILA” represents the visual focus of the entire page. Even reading chronologically, it is impossible to avoid the emboldened name, practically screaming off the page in either anger or ecstasy. Here, the speaker has headed off his conflict—the conflict of squeezing, chiseling a poem—and it is proved formally by the typeface. In this way, the poem becomes a painting as well; there does exist a focal point, a centerpiece which won’t leave the reader’s mind even as he progresses in the piece.

The final chapter, in its simplicity—both visually and stylistically—brings many of the stanzas’ disparate elements (lord, flower, dance, temperature) into a single stanza, all in appeal to the speaker’s sister. This last verse is quite stunning, really; it’s quieter than previous chapters, but more affecting. Tzara’s use of curving lines brings the poem to a beautiful close. Ending in mystery, the sister seems quite literally to slip off the page, away from the reader and into a “prison,” irretrievable. The speaker (and Tzara) has reworked an art form, certainly, but the conclusions and consequences are uncertain.

The cynic may argue that Tzara’s Dadaist poetry exists as silly play, contributing nothing to vaster poetic movements. In truth, however, an aware reader will notice that Tristan’s words move an entire poetic history. Against a well-established Amplic canon, Tzara becomes the father of a movement which ventures for new expression, chiseling hackneyed repetitions of ancient forms. In this single poem, he explores a range of formal play unrivaled even today in most of our poetries. Tzara’s message was clear: Forget stanzas of uniform line lengths and similar typeface and size; forgo an endlessly repeating presentation; eschew the identical formality that plagues our literary world.
Make something new.

The Dadaist review Tzara published for a brief period.

It seems odd that poets don’t more readily experiment with visual form; a poetic that incorporates every dimension of the medium would certainly be more effective. Of course, literary pursuits connote a degree of formal severity; beholden to a semi-dogmatic zeal for the literary canon, it is as if Homer himself leans over our shoulder with scrutinizing eye. Given this severity, I’ve become increasingly interested in pieces—recently Anne Carson’s Nox—that encourage peculiar formality. I’ve found that formal innovations improve poetry as much as stylistic ones, and should be sought after like fine rhythm or diction.

In either case, Tzara’s work should not be ignored—his writing offers more than simple alterations of form. Dadaism, as a literary movement, showed every writer—even the most conservative—that the poem doesn’t reside on an untouchable dais, lording over its peasant creators. Tzara proved that words are not holy; they can be deconstructed, stretched, curved, and whittled. This thought—a loss of poetic reservation—propelled literature into a new Amplic phase, and has informed the entirety of postmodern thought.

Thank Homer for Tristan Tzara.

Christian Harder is an undergraduate writer at Virginia Tech in literature who believes in innovations in form and style. He believes politics, preaching, and political correctness have no place in art and remains wary of the effect large cultural institutions and popular trends have on an otherwise intelligent public. He anticipates attending graduate school come next year. Harder maintains his website Pages to Pixels.




  • The formal adventures of what became known as concrete poetry (spearheaded by Apollinaire) are perhaps only the most obvious way of showing that the poem is not some sort of quasi-religious devotional object. More interesting to me, more beautiful and profound, is Tzara’s ‘Approximate Man’, where you will find a fresh take on poetic imagining without any use of visual novelties. This new attitude, which I think we can agree to orient around the term Postmodernism, can be traced back to Lautreamont. It’s fascinating to me that this sensibility can be found in prose as poetry, in Baudelaire, Lautreamont, and then 100 years later in Ashbery’s ‘Three Poems’ and indeed in Carson’s work.