Cut-Up Poetry


At a Dadaist rally in the 1920s, Tristan Tzara proposed to create a poem by pulling words out of a hat. Supposedly a riot ensued and Tzara was forcibly ejected from the meeting without the chance to prove himself. Later on, in the magazine Dada 391, Tzara outlined this radical method of poetry in a poetic manifesto and “Cut-Up” was established for the ages.

Dada texts make no sense – the artists who composed them lived in a world where nothing made sense, where logic only ever gave way to tragedy. They relied instead on random chance, the accidental and the improvised for many of their creative endeavours. This organic embracing of anarchy prioritised process over product and the making of Dadaist poems became exercises in destiny rather than talent. Tzara proclaimed that poetry is for everyone and that a Cut-Up will always resemble its creator – an infinitely original author.

Dada was also obsessed with the mass communication of its time. Newspapers and popular print of any kind became a rich resource with which to disrupt society. Cutting up the headlines of the day and rearranging them into absurd, comic, smutty, incomprehensible new statements satirised the propaganda machine and highlighted the superficial and corrupted language of the media.

Cut-Ups were an extension of the Dadaists’ collage and photomontage practices – rendering the familiar strange and destabilising comfortable complacency – and they have inspired many a great artist since. Famously, William Burroughs would preach the virtues of the technique to his disciples, and both David Bowie and Thom Yorke have composed lyrics by drawing lines from a hat. No longer is the revolutionary – the poet of chance – thrown from the venue but rather celebrated and lauded for their innovation and creativity. Tristan Tzara would be proud.