(Poetry Criticism)

Tristan Tzara 1896–1963

(Pseudonym of Samuel Rosenfeld) Rumanian-born French poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, and novelist.

Tzara is best remembered as a proponent and practitioner of Dadaism, an intellectual movement of the World War I era whose adherents espoused intentional irrationality and urged individuals to repudiate traditional values. Tzara and other European artists sought to establish a new style in which random associations challenged logic and grammar, and promoted an individual vitality free from the restraints of artistic, historical, and religious authority. Tzara's career included other artistic and political movements, including Surrealism and communism. His work often defies standard classification: He wrote dramas as well as poetry, criticism on both art and poetry, and essays on a range of social and cultural issues. Although his work is largely ignored by most English-speaking scholars, Tzara is esteemed in France for his large and diverse body of poetry.

Biographical Information

Tzara was born Samuel Rosenfeld in Moinesti, Bacu, Romania. Some sources date his birth April 4, 1896; others claim April 16, 1896. His first published poems appeared in a Rumanian literary review in 1912. Many of these poems, written in Rumanian and influenced by French symbolism, appear in a later volume of collected works, Les premiers poèmes (1958; Primele poèmes: First Poems). Tzara studied at Bucharist University from 1914 to 1915, during which time he also founded two journals in Romania: Simbolul (1912) and Chemarea (1915). In 1916 Tzara left Romania and immigrated to Switzerland. Together with Jean Arp, Hugo Ball, and others he created Dadaism and staged Dadaist performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Tzara then moved to France, settling in Paris in 1919. There he engaged in Dadaist experiments with Andre Breton and Louis Aragon. Serious philosophic differences caused a split between Tzara and Breton in 1921; soon after, Breton created the Surrealist movement, and by 1922 Dadaism had dissolved. From 1929 to 1934, Tzara participated in the activities of the Surrealist group in Paris. In 1934, he joined France's Communist Party, becoming a life-long member. Tzara served with the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, and he directed the cultural broadcast of the French Resistance in the south of France from 1943 to 1944, and also wrote for Resistance magazines. At the end of World War II he became a naturalized French citizen. In 1961, he was awarded the Taormina International

Grand Prize for Poetry. Tzara died December 24, 1963, in Paris.

Major Works

Tzara's early Dadaist verse, written between 1916 and 1924, utilizes agglomerations of obscure images, nonsense syllables, outrageous juxtapositions, ellipses, and inscrutable maxims to perplex readers and illustrate the limitations of language. Volumes such as Vingt-cinq poèmes (1918) and De nos oiseaux (1923) display the propositions outlined in Tzara's manifestos and critical essays, often blending criticism and poetry to create hybrid literary forms. Tzara's Surrealist poetry, written between 1929 and 1934, places less emphasis on the ridiculous than his Dadaist verse. Tzara's works published during this period include L'homme approximatif (1931; Approximate Man and Other Writings), an epic poem that is widely considered a landmark of twentieth-century French literature. This work portrays an unfulfilled wayfarer's search for universal knowledge and a universal language. This and Tzara's later Surrealist volumes—L'arbre des voyageurs (1930), Oú boivent les loups (1932), L'antitête (1933), and Grains et issues (1935)—reveal his obsession with language, his vision of humanity as afflicted by tedium and alienation, and his concern with the struggle to achieve completeness and enlightenment. As Tzara's interest in politics and his commitment to Communism increased during the thirties, his poetry included greater political content. It stressed revolutionary and humanistic values while maintaining Tzara's life-long interest in free imagery and linguistic experiments. Midis gagnés: poèmes (1939) focuses on Tzara's impressions of Spain during that country's civil war. The prose poems Sans coup férir (1949) and À haute flamme (1955) address political topics related World War II. Critics generally regard such later works as Terre sur terre (1946) and Le fruit permis (1956) as less vigorous and inventive but more controlled than his earlier poetry.

Critical Reception

One of the difficulties in evaluating Tzara's poetry, particularly his Dadaist works, is distinguishing between his poetic vision and his poetic pranks. Tzara deliberately confounded and confused his readers. He even mocked them for their difficulty reading his poetry. In "Le géant blanc lépreux du paysage" Tzara wrote, "Here…the reader begins to scream…he is skinny, idiotic, dirty—he does not understand my poetry." Some critics argue that the chaos of his poetry is only apparent and that the many challenges he poses to his readers have a serious, unified purpose. Other critics question whether it is possible to find what Mary Ann Caws calls an "interior ordering" in his poetry. Tzara himself observed that "Dada proclaimed the negation of theory and the expression of naked personality." Caws also says: "We may, perhaps most wisely, follow his insistent advice that we look at the Dada poem as a simple spectacle, as creation complete in itself and completely obvious." Roger Cardinal observes that "Tzara's ideal text would seem to be one in which words emerge in a naked state, not as carriers of meaning proper but as manifestations of a kind of pure electrical energy." Cardinal argues that Tzara approached this ideal, and he praises his poetry for "the naked energy of his singular consciousness."