Tristan Tzara: Poems and Dada Manifesto

Instructor: Ronald Speener

Ronald, with my Masters in English, has taught composition, literature, humanities, critical thinking and computer classes.

Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) is one of the most influential creators of Dadaism, the literary and artistic movement from the first half of the 20th Century. In this lesson we will explore Tzara's life and writings.

Robert Delaunay


'And there in the café as he passed was that American poet with a pile of saucers in front of him and a stupid look on his potato face talking about the Dada movement with a Roumanian who said his name was Tristan Tzara, who always wore a monocle and had a headache...' This was Ernest Hemingway's impression of Tristan Tzara (The Snows of Kilimanjaro). Tristan Tzara was the creative force behind Dada in 1920s Paris.


Tristan Tzara (1896-19630) was born in Romania, Samuel Rosenstock. He took the name 'Tristan Tzara' as a penname in 1915 while studying philosophy in Zurich. His first attempts at poetry were in the school of symbolism. In symbolism, little is real, and everything is a symbol of a greater idea. For example, a rose is love, heartache, perfection. This school did not satisfy the rebellious nature of Tzara. The absurd chaos of Dada was riskier and more appealing for Tzara.

While in Zurich, Tzara became involved in the avant-garde theater Cabaret Voltaire, which included poems, music, and a mannequin with flowers for a head. To explain the artistic movement in Zurich, Tzara published Dada Manifesto 1918. The manifesto came to the attention of Andre Breton in Paris, the center of European experimental writing. Breton invited Tristan to Paris in 1920. Paris, The City of Lights, was a lure young Tzara could not resist.

Tzara in Paris

Paris in 1920 was Europe's artistic center. Artists, writers, and musicians flocked to Paris because it was the happening place. Picasso, Duchamp, Satie, Hemingway, Stein, and a host of other Americans littered the streets. New forms emerged in all the arts. Old forms were mocked. This was the perfect place for the young, rebellious Tzara.

In Paris, he became the catalyst for the avant-garde Dada movement. There he published the influential journals Dada and Le Coeur a Barbe or The Bearded Heart. In these publications he exposed Paris and the world to a new worldview: anarchy. As Tzara says in Lecture on Dada (1922), 'We are very often told that we are incoherent, but people intend this word to convey an insult which I find rather hard to grasp. Everything is incoherent.'

Tzara in Context

Tzara's worldview fit well with the disillusionment that many felt after World War I, during which roughly 10 million young men died. Although Tzara did not fight in the war, everyone felt the failure of the old order. Alienation was palpable, and Dada offered a way to cope. In the 30s, Surrealism became a popular art trend. Surrealism saw the world as a juxtaposition of reality and absurdity. Tzara actively promoted the artists and writers of Surrealism.

In 1939, World War II started in Europe, and Germany soon invaded France. Tzara, a Jew, fought in the French Resistance. After the war, he became involved in various political causes, including the unpopular independence of Algeria. He continued to champion the writers and artists arising from the ashes of World War II and died in Paris in 1963.

Dada Manifesto

The Dada Manifesto 1918 is not a reasoned argument on the tenets of Dada. It is a manifesto only as far as the root of the word 'manifest' means 'to show.' The work shows what Dada is rather than defines it. In the manifesto, Tristan clarifies, 'Art is a private thing, the artist makes it for himself; a comprehensible work is the product of a journalist…' Dada separates the artist from the audience, insisting meaning is individual and subjective, and art is what one says it is.

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