(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Hans Arp was one of the founding members of the Dada movement, which had a broad impact on both art and literature in the early twentieth century. Dada’s principal target was man’s overestimation of reason. Its aim, Arp said, was “to destroy the reasonable deceptions of man,” to expose “the fragility of life and human works” through the use of Dadaist humor, which would reveal “the natural and unreasonable order” of things. The poems of Arp’s first collection, Die Wolkenpumpe (the cloud pump), date from this period, as does “Kaspar ist Tot” (“Kaspar Is Dead”), perhaps the most famous of all Dada poems. The Dada use of humor to reorient man’s attitude toward the world was followed by Arp in these poems, where he began to develop his decidedly personal “Arpian humor.”

Dada’s critique of modern man, however, was not entirely destructive, despite the commonly held belief that it was a totally negative response to the world. Arp’s own work is one of the best testaments to this fact. In order to rectify modern man’s mistaken view of his place in the universe, Arp offered the notion of a “concrete art” that could transform both man and the world. His intention was “to save man from the most dangerous of follies: vanity . . . to simplify the life of man . . . to identify him with nature.”

It was through his participation in the Dada group that Arp became acquainted with the Paris Surrealists, after he and his wife moved to the Paris suburb of Meudon in 1926, Arp frequently participated in Surrealist activities and contributed to their publications. Two important characteristics of Hans Arp’s poetry distinguish it, however, from the work of other Dada and Surrealist poets: his highly personal humor and the metaphysical philosophy that underlies all his mature work.

Arp’s humor achieves its effect by combining opposites: the celestial with the terrestrial, the eternal with the transitory, the sublime with the mundane, among others. That which comes from above—the celestial, the eternal, the sublime—sustains and nourishes man, while that which comes from below—the terrestrial, the transitory, the mundane—confuses and intoxicates him. Thus, Arp’s conception of humor is connected with his metaphysical philosophy, which aims to restore the lost balance of forces in man. Arp uses humor in his work to destroy “the reasonable deceptions of man,” which lead him to believe that he is “the summit of creation.”

“Kaspar Is Dead”

In Arp’s view...

(The entire section is 1047 words.)