The year of 1918 was quite an eventful one across the globe, as World War I was coming to a close — and, with the end of one era began another. During this time, both Ezra Pound, the American author of A Retrospect (1918), and the multiple authors of Dadaist Manifesto (1918) from France and Romania (Tristan Tzara; Franz Jung; George Grosz; Marcel Janco; Richard Huelsenbeck; Gerhard Preisz; Raoul Hausmann) found themselves shaping a new, modernist ideal in poetry. By comparing the use of the word “rhythm” within Pound’s A Retrospect and the others’ Dadaist Manifesto, I aim to first present each of their ideas of modernism separately, and then compare, deducing whether or not these two influential parties are in agreement in the way that poetry should or should not have been written in the following years of the 20th century.
Society typically imposes constraints on literature, but Ezra Pound worked hard to impose his own. He had a very specific idea of what he thought poetry should be and should become if it was not already. Pound, Hilda Doolittle, and Richard Aldington banded together as early as the year 1912 to create 3 principles that poetry should thereby live by (which he included in his essay, A Retrospect) — the third of which mentions rhythm in this context: “As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”. In his essay, Pound is, for the most part, firmly against abstractions, but rhythm seems to be an exception to the rule. He would rather have the writer relay their message in good prose than in rhyme or bland rhythm, just because. Would the sound of a metronome not be less distracting from the poetry than a musical tone? To Pound, apparently so. I believe the reason is because Pound believes that it is the author’s job to present, rather than to describe. To him, the simplest of terms should explain themselves to the reader, though not monotonously. On this topic, he says, “Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose… Don’t imagine that a thing will “go” in verse just because it’s too dull to go in prose”. His advice is to “Consider the way of the scientists rather than the way of an advertising agent for a new soap.” This is Pound’s way of expressing that modern poetry should not have to be flashy or showy in order to be considered good — it just needs to be the essence of a thought or a soul or a moment, and the rhythm will come to reflect this within the poetry, naturally.
Dadaism, as defined by one dictionary, is this: “A European artistic and literary movement (1916-1923) that flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values by producing works marked by nonsense, travesty, and incongruity,” though the authors of Dadaist Manifesto make it clear that, “DADA symbolises the most primitive relationship with the surrounding reality”. The people of this movement rejected traditional concepts of beauty and romanticism, along with all their extravagance, aiming to bring a realistic, gritty feel to the art and literature of the 20th century. The idea of rhythm comes in with further description by the authors, who believed that “Life is seen in a simultaneous confusion of noises, colours and spiritual rhythms which in Dadaist art are immediately captured by the sensational shouts and fevers of its bold everyday psyche and in all its brutal reality.” Though this belief encompasses all Dadaist art, it is the same for poetry, which the rest of the piece focuses on, particularly “The Bruitist Poem”, “The Simultaneous Poem”, and “The Static Poem”, which are all different forms of Dada, each honing in on different mundane aspects of a tramcar scenario. The “confusion” that the authors mention, encompassing everyday noises, colors, and spiritual rhythms, seems to delight them. The thrill of modernism, for the Dadaists, was to be unconventional, and to stray from anything that was regarded by them as unrealistic, which would, in turn, surprise and shock the reader. The “spiritual rhythm” of which the authors mentioned seems to refer to the reader’s spiritual experience of being grounded in the absolute reality that art and literature had and would become through Dadaism.
Rhythm, to the Dadaists, is something completely different from what Pound mentions in A Retrospect, and yet, it is the one word that irrefutably links these pieces together. Here is why: both Ezra Pound and the authors of Dadaist Manifesto believe that rhythm is something completely natural, and that that naturalness is the center of modernism. Both the Dadaists and Pound seek to rid their art and poetry of the “unnecessary”, which, to both of them, was anything but the most simple detail. Each of these modernist innovators refer to their work, in one way or another, as “the essence” of a moment or object. The simplicity of explaining one experience would speak to their reader so much more than fluffing it with words just to make it larger than life, or to create the rhythm of a metronome rather than letting the words flow. Instead, the modernists were coming to believe that the natural, spiritual rhythm of everyday life and the writers’ personal experience of it should be enough. Though Ezra Pound was in the U.S. during this time, and the writers of Dadaist Manifesto were centralized in Europe, each of them had similar views on how to make writing poetry more concise and, essentially, “real”, both during and after World War I. Together, Ezra Pound, Tristan Tzara, Franz Jung, George Grosz, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Gerhard Preisz, and Raoul Hausmann, along with many other modernists who shared their viewpoint, started a new era, opening up a “modern” way of viewing art, writing without abstractions, and using rhythm — to put it in the most cheesy way possible — both naturally and spiritually.