Jean Arp Critical Essays

Arp, Jean (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Arp, Jean 1887–1966

Also known as Hans Arp, this Alsatian-born poet, painter, sculptor, and collagist, was a founder of the dada movement and an important participant in that and the surrealist movement. He wrote poetry in both French and German. (See also obituary, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Over the years, first in his reliefs and then in his whimsical writings, [Arp] developed what he called "concrete art" (as opposed to abstract art)—material and verbal shapes allowed to grow not after nature but like nature. They arise from spontaneous processes of dream, chance, play, and humor. (pp. 27-8)

Arp had an astonishingly sustained fifty-year career of work. He participated in almost every art movement in Europe without belonging to any. He reached fame slowly without scheming or scandal and avoided personal and political squabbles…. The pervasive wholeness of his work tends to obscure the slow evolution it went through. He moved from flat collages and paintings to sculpture in the round, and from tightly constructed poems in German toward more open works, including prose and prose poems in French….

Arp's plastic works and his writings remain childlike, often impish, but fraud does not enter here. Unlike the Surrealists who rarely abandoned a strong sense of decorum (partially in order to be able to violate it), Arp never differentiated between literary genres. Verses, prose poems, fairy tales, reminiscences, declarations of faith—they all fit side by side because of a pervasive whimsy that never detracts from deep communion with nature and life….

Arp is forever looking for, or rather finding, verbal patterns in which sound and sense have approximately equal weight. It often comes off as humor….

After reading a great deal of Arp in both German and French, I have the impression that it is not the unconscious, not any literary tradition, not an assertive talent, but the language itself that writes the poem…. One does best to relax and enjoy it, and possibly to keep a finger on the French…. The nervous exegete, worried about having missed a buried meaning, might fail to hear the sound surfing and syllable sledding. Once or twice the Beatles and Bob Dylan strolled by this way….

His poetry in German is, if not superior to, at least more interesting and varied than his French work. Born and raised in Strasbourg, Arp was genuinely bilingual (plus the local dialect). But he wrote differently in the two languages—more from the inside in German, I should say, less rhythmically and with a little less assurance in French. In both he uses the same techniques of permutating syllables and joining items not by their center (denotative meaning) but by their edges (sound and connotation). And it all contributes to the second point: Arp is a fascinating but almost impossible challenge for the translator….

His literary work stands in a special relation to his art. They form a single reciprocating engine. (p. 28)

Roger Shattuck, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1972 NYREV, Inc.), May 18, 1972.

Arp's favourite law [was] the law of chance….

Throughout a long and productive life as a sculptor, relief-maker, collagist, and maker of torn-paper pictures, Arp remained faithful to this law. In his poetry too he subscribed to its literary equivalent, automatism, and it was this which attracted him towards the Surrealist movement. He always detested 'reason', particularly scientific reason and its fruit, the machine. He revered nature and hoped through his work not to imitate her but to add to her repertoire of forms. To make this clear he invented the term 'concrete art' with the aim of drawing the distinction between what he did and the work of the abstract painters and sculptors. What they were up to, he maintained, was to provide a pictorial equivalent of one or another aspect of the observable world. He hoped to invent artifacts without precedent.

His success was as complete as it is possible to be when surrounded by a universe already overflowing with beings, objects and varied phenomena. Yet his poetry, crammed with imagery (for unlike his friend Schwitters he rarely resorted to sounds and noises), hints, by their collective reappearance, at those few natural shapes which obsessed and inspired him: the egg primarily. There is an egg or eggs in almost every poem, and after that the stone, that infertile cousin of the egg, then the cloud, the navel and the star.

Undeniably he succeeded in impregnating over and over again an apparently simple yet inimitable matrix whose offspring, whether very large sculptures or a few modest lines on paper, were his alone. The 'Arpshape', a term once fashionable in architectural circles, is immediately recognisable and, equally, inimitable. (p. 404)

George Melly, "Arpshape," in New Statesman, (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 22, 1974, pp. 404, 406.

Arp's French language poetry has never been given more than a brief introduction or a rapid "appreciation," usually by other artists, in spite of the fact that two major collections of his work appeared during his lifetime. Le Siège de l'air (Paris, 1946) contains all his published French poetry from 1915 to 1945, some with important revisions and additions, and a few translations of his German poetry. The second volume, Marcel Jean's careful and thorough edition of the entire volume of Arp's poetry (with a few exceptions), appeared in December 1966 under the title Jours effeuillés: Poèmes, essais, souvenirs, 1920–1965…. Included in the volume are many previously unpublished poems from 1961 to 1964, as well as many translations from the German. As in German, Arp frequently revised or rewrote his poetry and republished it under the same or different titles. Thus many poems appear twice in Jours effeuillés, in slightly different versions. (p. 159)

In general, one can divide the French poetry into two periods, before and after 1957, with a transitional period in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the French poetry, broadly speaking, there is no marked period of radical experimentation with language, as there is in German during the dada era, and although the later poetry is more conventional, there is a more even and continuous flow of innovative writing and experimentation with form. One might say there is no dada style in the French poetry, that it begins as surrealistic poetry, and that furthermore it remains largely surrealistic in style. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that the earliest French poems (excluding prose pieces and translations) date from the early thirties. The poetry of the 1930s and 1940s is characterized by unexpected images, the strangest possible word combinations, and punning. Basic order—such as time and the size of things—is entirely disrupted. During the transitional period there is slightly less word play and less consciousness of language than in the first period. After 1957 images are less disjointed, or have a greater life span, although they are still constructed with unusual combinations of words, and reference to reality is less disturbed. There is in fact a new style. Lighter, more lyrical, more obscure in the conventional modern manner, childish or foolish sometimes, coquettish and coy, often humorous, this poetry is certainly a degenerative aspect of Arp's style. (p. 160)

Obscure, anomalous, and perplexing at first glance, the French poetry prior to 1957 has an overall characteristic of universal strangeness. The reader must enter a state of poetic receptiveness removed from external reality, abandoning familiar landscapes and feelings. The reality of the poet's life has very little connection with his poetic manifestations, and although there are familiar objects—moustaches, flies, chairs, navels, butterflies, air—they are displaced from their normal contexts and constitute a unity of their own…. To the extent that most poems partake of this world of objects, they maintain a coherent structure. That is, they create an internal reality. Some poems refer to the "reality" depicted in another poem—for example, "Notre petit continent" and "Les habitants du continent des chas sans aiguilles." But throughout there is a strong impression of discontinuity, and a space between stanzas (if one may call them that) often represents a break in the structure of internal reality. In fact, by far the greatest number of poems combine such divergent images as to create an impression of irreality, an important characteristic of surrealist poetry in general, to which I shall return.

The poetic techniques described in this paper are more prevalent in the earlier period, although it would be misleading to believe that Arp's style radically changed. There is never an obvious break between "nonsense poetry" and "meaningful poetry." Some of the later poems could easily fit into the earlier period, and some techniques, such as the innovative use of sound association, are maintained throughout. (p. 161)

One can look at any poem and find an inactive subject with a verb of action or animation, human or animate qualities applied to inanimate or abstract nouns, personal pronouns referring to things, or encounters of qualities, objects, and actions that simply do not occur in real life, yet all presented in the most direct, matter-of-fact, undisguised manner. It is the regular, correct, and very simple syntax that is responsible for the directness of the images, a regularity that contributes no doubt tremendously to their shock value, and at the same time persuades the reader to accept them as possible. (In his later poetry Arp attempted to free himself from syntax, and some fragmentary sentences or lists of noun phrases occur. But this later poetry is more banal, perhaps precisely because of the slighter degree of contrast between images and syntax.)

While it is certain that the surrealist techniques of automatic writing and the systematic use of chance, dream, and hallucination all contribute to Arp's poetic creation, the surrealist formulation which applies most directly to his imagery is that of the écart, or distance between terms. The greater the distance, of course, the better the image, according to the surrealists. Thus the best surrealist images put into syntactical sequence two or more words that do not normally have a logical connection; loss of reality is the result. The pre-surrealist metaphor can bridge the gap between very distant terms, but there is usually a logical (e.g., symbolic, descriptive, causative) relationship that remains undisturbed. In surrealist poetry, as in Arp's, the metonymical relationship replaces the logical one. Unexpected or inappropriate words are juxtaposed to create images that have no apparent meaning, and the usually evident contrast between their semantic anomaly and their syntactic normalcy elevates Arp's images beyond the level of mere automatic or unconscious writing. The animated vision of the world which I see in Arp's imagery owes its existence to systematic use of metonymical substitution. (pp. 172-73)

Arp's series of images create a disjointed, unreal, but vividly animated world which is nevertheless not devoid of emotions…. Many feelings are created by these poems, although they are not attached to the traditional subject, the figure of the poet, but rather to other things with which the reader is induced to sympathize. In fact, man appears rarely and is usually not distinguished from animals, plants, objects, and even qualities.

Alfred Liede gives two formulas [in Dichtung als Spiel] to describe Arp's relationship to this world: he speaks both of a magic feeling for nature and of a return to the original anarchy of nature. These notions would account for the animation discussed in my study and for the presence of an emotionally charged world of objects, but they do not go far enough to explain Arp's uniqueness. It is the language-consciousness, the consistent exploitation of interrelationships on the linguistic level, that creates the sense of unity and coherence that so strongly opposes any anarchistic quality. Arp's world would be anarchistic were it not for the imposition of his style…. A poem of Arp's is as easy to recognize as the clean, curved lines of his sculpture.

Is Arp an innovator? Breton, Eluard, Aragon, Desnos, Soupault, and others employed stylistic devices that Arp used. And Arp was not in advance of them. Nevertheless his use of constellations and configurations, of which he may properly be said to be the inventor, was certainly a necessary prelude to the "discovery" of concrete poetry, the importance of which as a modern poetry movement cannot be denied. An active participant in the surrealist movement, Arp did preserve an individuality and uniqueness of style, which remains intensely personal and is as pleasurable after many readings as on first impression—surely an indication of its quality. (pp. 173-74)

Armine Kotin, "Language Techniques in Jean Arp's French Poetry," in Papers on Language and Literature (copyright © 1974 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville), Spring, 1974, pp. 159-174.