Dada in the Classroom
My assignment didn’t cause consternation, but it presented challenges. I told them to write a poem on their favorite fruit, bring it to next week’s class, read (perform) it, and then share the fruit with the class. By way of preparation, we studied a badly copied (by me) art-book reproduction of a painting by Zurbaran and lingered at length over Pablo Neruda’s blurb on the back cover of Julio Cortazar’s book, Hopscotch, where (I paraphrase), Neruda claims that having never read Cortazar is like never having tasted a peach; a man like that, who never tasted a peach, would become sadder and sadder until one day he’d die of sadness. I dwelt briefly on that ever-bothersome noun “man,” as being generic for Reader, but faintly scented in this case by Neruda’s well-known erotic appetite that set up a suspect dynamic between Man-Reader, Untasted Peach, and Terminal Sadness. The women snickered.
We discussed fruit in poetry throughout the ages, beginning with the plum flowers and, eventually, plums of the Japanese haiku poets, through the modernists, particularly W.C. Williams, whose refrigerated and missing plums are on the lips of every poetry student in America. We then went around the room to see what was everyone’s favorite fruit. Grapes came up first, plums in a close second, melons third, apples fourth, and oranges sixth. Peaches came in a distant tenth, a fact due possibly to our location in southern Louisiana, where peaches don’t grow. I ascertained also that cumquats, fresh figs, persimmons, guava, and star-fruit were unknown to students in Poetry Writing 4000, an intermediate poetry class.
An “intermediate poetry class” is the product of decades-long elaboration of an absurdity that once ensconced within the English Department and the Humanities could only be dislodged by a major thought earthquake, equal in potency to the Dada revolution. No such earthquake-revolution has occured in the teaching of the humanities since Dada itself became the predominant pedagogy of our “higher education” system in the post-modern Sixties.
Some scholars would trace the introduction of Dada teaching in the humanities to the beginning of American education, with its menu of “electives.” “Electives” are Dada by nature, a quality that did not escape Ezra Pound, who credited “electives” for the opening in his poetry to other languages, quotation, parody, ironies, essaying, verse free to dance on the page and out of prosodic strictures, and the introduction of elements hitherto alien to poetry, such as economic opinions.
Still, it was not until the mid-Sixties that the “teaching” of the creative arts became institutionalized. Not coincidentally, the Dada method became “natural” to working artists first, then to poets. After the Dada presence in New York facilitated abstract-expressionism and the poetry of Frank O’Hara, American artists and poets no longer felt provincial when they compared themselves to the Europeans. By the second generation of New York artists and poets, the Dada roots of the new art were starting to be forgotten, to make room by the third, fourth, and fifth generation to the “natural” sense of art-making and “poetry-writing” that then could, through such “normality,” become pedagogy.
Even the description of such an evolution can seem “normal, if it were not for the stubborness of Dada itself, a movement born during World War I out of disgust with all Western “civilized” institutions, including universities, especially the humanities, which the Dadas saw as particularly pernicious. The Dada generation of 1915-1927, led by the brilliant and insufficiently understood poets Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball, and artists Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Janco Jean Arp, and George Grosz, called for an artist-led revolution in society, a revolution conducted by means of chance, randomness (“electives”), denial of previous esthetic pieties, and the shakeup of traditional institutions, including private property and the family.
The Dada arsenal was vast: laughter, joy, absurdity, unpredictability; in other words, an entirely different sense of existence than that of Unamuno’s “tragic” sense, or the Russian Constructivists’ and Italian Futurists’ aggressive mechanical utopias. Dada made use of everything for the sole purpose of undoing the ideas of everything. It’s not hard to see the dubious, if not downright dangerous, consequences of the Dada method, especially in universities, where rebellion, hormones, and questioning are the very things the institution is charged with controlling.
The students were seated at the seminar table with a fruit or a bowl of fruit in front of them when I walked in the following week. I sat at the head of the table. On my left was Amy, with a large cluster of white grapes in a blue bowl before her; at my right was Melanie, facing a Cassaba melon with several circles of words magic-markered around it; Matt faced a grapefruit; Martin an apple. The 12 students in “intermediate poetry” stood before their inscribed fruits like figures in a tableau-vivant, waiting for the signal to begin the performance. Amy distributed one grape to each of us and asked us to write a word on it. I wrote “peach” on mine; Melanie wrote “love,” and others wrote whatever they wrote, and then some of them ate it, and some of them threw their grape back at Amy who ate them all; six students ate their own word written on Amy’s grape, and Amy ate six words others had written on her grapes, including “peach” and “love.”
Melanie stood holding her Cassaba melon like a globe or Yorick’s skull in her left hand and read it slowly rotating it to see all the lines; she then passed the Cassaba around and everyone read a line; amazingly, there were exactly 13 circular lines on the melon; she then cut it open with a sharp folding knife of illegal dimensions (on an airplane, certainly) and passed slices that everyone ate like communion, there being present also an eerie, nearly sacerdotal silence. And so it went, fruit after fruit, read, performed, eaten, in an order that could have not been more perfect if Noah’s monitors had been there. We thus learned that: a) poetry can be edible (and perhaps it should be); b) fruit is a sexier medium than paper or pixels; c) school could be fun, d) “intermediate” could mean that even though the medium had not been quite reached (advanced), the closeness to experience itself (beginning), made it worthwhile, e) it’s not so easy to write on fruit without good magic markers, and f) T.S. Eliot need not be memorized.
Was Dada domesticated by this pedagogical demonstration? The Dadaists were prolific generators of forms: assemblage, collage, decoupage, simultaneous readings, collaoration (cadavre-exquis), noise making, tattooing innocents, placing people on bookshelves and books in spectators’ seats, wearing hats made from bird cages. Their fertility gave birth to the styles, looks, attitudes, and objects of the 20th century, but the best results were not the objects, but the process of making them.
The current thinking in the humanities is that creativity and artistic production are good things, so good, in fact, that their subversive qualities could be overlooked. After all, Dada, like other modern movements, has been studied to death; nothing alive could survive such exegesis. I am willing to bet, however, that 10 years hence, my fruit-writing students, now in advertising and new media, will look back on their school years and remember nothing except the Dada moment in their “intermediate” poetry class. Is Dada pedagogy useful in today’s clasroom? There isn’t any other worth the absurd price of “higher education.” More Dada!
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