Automatic Poetry – the Dada way

I had a rather long drive to make this last weekend (well, long by Boston standards, only moderate by Southern California standards – I have found the relative scales differ quite a bit) – and I wound up tuning into an NPR show discussing the history, definition, and variations of nihilism. The whole show was interesting, but what caught my attention was a description of a type of poetry advocated by the Dadaist Tristan Tzara – basically, he said that he could create a poem on the spot by cutting up a newspaper article and pulling words from it from a hat at random.  The Cut-up technique or Tzara Combinations have been with us ever since – and is one of many aleatory (introducing chance or randomness into the creative process) techniques. I was amazed to find a whole list of surrealist techniques, often aleatory, used to inspire creativity here! I am now seriously tempted to try some of these for illustrating-poetry-purposes (although my apartment is not equipped for some of them – see “bulletism,” for example).

But the Tzara Combinations was one I could comfortably try at home…


My “victim” article was a page from an old art book on El Greco (I figured you have to start with good material) – don’t worry – no art books were harmed in the making of these cut-up poems. The sheet came from a library sale where they sold off tattered and broken art books by the sheet to benefit the library. I asked for three random numbers from Matlab (to be precise, three pseudorandom integers from a uniform discrete distribution from 30 to 100) – and got 40, 59, and 95. These were how many words I was going to draw from the bag to make the poems. Without further ado, in increasing word-count order:

40wordcut_up 59wordcut_up 95wordcut_up


They are definitely random word assemblages – but there are a few gems in there I think I am going to try to work with – “National standards country” and “undoubtedly awkward Inquisition” are pretty priceless…It also sent me to the internet to look up who Laocoon and Charles Ricketts were and discovered that the Tzara combinations didn’t do a bad job of describing them!


  1. Unfortunately, I think those poems are long gone. My parents moved a few times after I left home, and they pretty much got rid of everything my brothers and I left behind. Although something might be in those boxes from my mother’s apartment in the storage room, if I ever get around to going through them. My memory is that of course they were related to the songs, we were obsessed with musical meaning at age 13.

    I’d like to try the tossing words poem too. Many things in line first, though…


  2. My best friend at age 13 and I used to write poems by starting with the first word of the next song that played on the radio. I also read about a technique where you throw the words up in the air and see how they fall. I’ve never tried it though! but I like randomness in art, and these are great. I agree about incorporating it into the artwork too.


    1. I read about that one too somewhere while researching Tristan Tzara – tossing the words into the air and seeing how they fall – I think the Dada poets also did or advocated that – that just might be next week’s aleatoric poetry activity!

      It would be fun to look back at those poems you wrote with your friend – I think it would be like a poetic Billboards top 10 hits! Did the poems tend to reflect or be influenced by the songs from which they derived their first word or were they completed unrelated?



  3. Yes, there are many such techniques, I used to use some in creativity classes that I used to run at the library where I worked, and to help some creative friends get creative again. Now perhaps you could take the idea one step further and combine the random cut out words into the texture of the art work that you create with it. Best wishes, and blessings Charles.


    1. I wish I had taken your creativity classes – I think these kinds of techniques would be a blast to do with a group of people (some of them are explicitly meant for it, as well)! The idea of incorporating some of the actual cut out words and “new found” phrases into an illustration is now definitely on the docket. 🙂

      Thank you! ~Marcy

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Marcy, the last one I did was really interesting, several very dear friends had lost their way creatively and were hurting, so we met up at one of the bigger rambling houses, and created together. I was interesting as not all were English speaking, not all were were even writers, but by understanding the different ways of creating, I got us all working together. I went to visit my parents in St. Albans, near London, and when I got back, they had all moved on and were creating again. Blessings and have a wonderful and creative weekend. Charles.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s