Stumbling Across DADA Poetry

December 23, 2016

As the first 20th-century conceptual art movement, Dada rejected reason and logic, prizing nonsense, irrationality, and intuition. Being wildly diverse, their output stretched from performance art to Dada poetry, photography, sculpture, painting, and collage. The performance of Hugo Ball at Cabaret Voltaire marked the beginning of a new genre variously known as sound poems, poems without words, or abstract poems. To construct a Dada poem, the language should have been broken into syllables and individual letters, and then reconfigured as meaningless sounds. Breaking up and destroying language structures, their poetic formulation expunged language from its utilitarian purpose where word combinations turn into sonorous conjurations. By destroying everyday language, sound poems offered both a metaphor for the destruction caused by war and a commentary on the deceitfulness of language. A common feature of the dada soirée was the simultaneous poem, consisting of three or more participants speaking, singing, whistling, or bellowing different “poems” at the same time. In 1920, Tristan Tzara gave the following instruction on how To Make a Dadaist Poem:

Take a newspaper.Take some scissors.

Take some scissors.Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

Cut out the article.

Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag.Shake gently.

Shake gently.Next take out each cutting one after the other.

Next take out each cutting one after the other.Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.

Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.The poem will resemble you.

The poem will resemble you.

And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

finding home in cabaret voltaire, the group formed in 1920 and they were all on the same page in terms of approach and use of marcel found objects
Left: Hugo Ball at Cabaret Voltaire, Photograph by Marcel Janco, 1916, via / Right: Proof sheet for the projected anthology Dadaco, edited by George Grosz, John Heartfield, et al., 1919, with Ball's 1917 text "Karawane"

Hugo Ball Introducing DADA Poems

On June 23, 1916, Hugo Ball appeared on stage of Cabaret Voltaire to perform a series of his new sound poems in the form of constructed sequences of unrecognizable sound-words. Wearing a costume of rigid, shiny blue cardboard cylinders, he was unable to walk and had to be carried onto the darkened stage. Standing like an obelisk, he began to read slowly and solemnly. Determined to maintain composure and seriousness throughout the performance, he began with the poem Gadji beri bimba and then proceeded with Wolken (Labada’s Song to the Clouds) and Karawane (Elephant Caravan).

Wolken (excerpt)

elomen elomen lefitalominal
baumbala bunga
acycam glastula feirofim flinsi

elominuscula pluplubasch

endremin saxassa flumen flobollala
feilobasch falljada follidi

gluglamen gloglada gleroda glandridi

Karawane (excerpt)

ü üü ü
schampa wulla wussa olobo
hej tatta gorem
eschige zunbada
wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu
tumba ba-umf
kusa gauma
ba - umf

Poems didn’t have any recognizable words, but the sound effects made when read aloud were carefully constructed to correspond to the subject-matter alluded to in their titles – rain from heavy clouds soaks the earth with “gluglamen gloglada gleroda glandridi” and the heavy “wulubu ssubudu uluwu ssubudu” recreated a plodding rhythm of a caravan of elephants, while some commentators have pointed out that "elomen elomen lefitalominai" alludes to the Christ's cry from the cross. As Ball later recalled, after the lights went out as he had ordered, he "was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop". 

Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters

An oddball even for a Dada, Kurt Schwitters composed Ursonate in 1922 influenced by Raoul Hausmann’s poem fmsbw. Forty minutes long and consisting of vocal utterance, vowels and consonants and words with no meaning, he performed it regularly, continuing to develop it and extend it for at least the next ten years. His own legendary recording of the piece was lost for years until it turned up in an attic in Holland in the late 1980s.

Translated as “the sonata in primordial sounds”, it starts with the opening line: Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee. Endlessly repeating it in many different voices, Schwitters aimed to provoke audience who expected traditional prose. He hoped to encourage listeners to make connections between the sounds, creating their own meaning. Despite the fact that the poem sounds like a complete nonsense, it was in fact composed using a structure of a classical sonata consisting of four movements. Schwitters wrote a few pages of exacting specifications for reciting it, including correct pronunciation of the letters and brief prescriptions regarding tempo, pitch, dynamics, and emotional content.

DADA Poetry Generator

Being regarded as the early example of sound art, Dada poetry influenced many fellow artists who were not closely associated with the movement. This erratic poetry that celebrated the irrationality of language still continues to generate interest with artists and art enthusiasts. For those who are not that proficient in the traditional cut and paste technique, there are numerous Dada Poetry Generators online. Why not try to make your own Dada poem?

page Editors’ Tip: The Dada Market: An Anthology of Poetry by Willard Bohn

Willard Bohn’s collection of Dada poetry is the most comprehensive ever compiled. Forty-two poets writing in seven different languages (French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and Dutch) are presented in a bilingual format, where appropriate, with the original text and its English translation on facing pages. The collection, which opens with a critical and historical introduction, spans the years from 1914 to 1923 and includes such poets as Walter Conrad Arensberg, André Breton, Malcolm Cowley, Max Ernst, Mina Loy, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, and Tristan Tzara. In trying to strip artistic expression down to its bare essentials, these writers often created works that were experiments in sound or typography. Twelve works by ten Dada visual artists (six of whom are also represented by their poetry) illustrate the book.

Featured image: Hugo Ball - Karawane, via

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