Image credit: Gabriel Feld, "Babel 13"
These poems first appeared in the Dada periodicals Dada and 391, ephemeral publications that were distributed amongst avant-garde circles and passed out in the street to anyone who would take them. They epitomize many of the characteristics fundamental to the Dada movement: spontaneity, nonsense, and attention to graphic design.
The first poem, “Bilan” (“Assessment”), has an aesthetic focus: words are arranged on the page like strokes on a canvas, and may be chosen for their visual or tonal structures over their literal meaning. In this sense, Tzara’s ideas can be partially conveyed by his original text even to those who don’t speak French. However, phrases such as “toothpaste pastry” and “five centuries of syrupy dreaming” reveal the imaginative imagery that is also integral to Tzara’s work. His unique rhetorical style is as important to this piece as his visual arrangement and verbal trickery.
The second poem celebrates a fellow Dadaist, Marcel Janco, who produced fantastical masks that were often donned during performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Here, Tzara’s style imitates the composition of the masks— slapdash, hodgepodge creations that only make sense when you stop looking for sense.
“Chronique” (“Chronicle”), the final poem, continues the use of nonsense and wordplay, while throwing in a myriad of references to artists and poets such as Louis Aragon, an affiliate of Tzara and a founder of the Surrealist movement; Raymond Radiguet, a French novelist; Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Paul Dermee, three authors associated with Cubism; Pierre Albert Birot and Fernand Léger, avant-garde artists; Francis Picabia, a fellow Dadaist; the sculptor Georges Braque; and Francesco Petrarca or Petrarch, the Italian humanist of the 14th century. While these references may have been included as inside jokes to please or poke fun at his contemporaries, Tzara uses them less as proper nouns and more as aural and schematic suggestions.