Although each of Picabia’s books or smaller collections of poetry, from Fifty-Two Mirrors in 1917 to Are We Not Betrayed by Seriousness in 1950, has its own particular tone or structure, there are really just two phases to Picabia’s poetry. He began writing the poems collected in Fifty-Two Mirrors in 1914 but achieved a furious productivity in 1917-20, following that first book with as many as three in 1918 and two each in 1919 and 1920. Picabia’s poetic production was then sporadic through the rest of the ’20s and apparently nil for the next decade until the breakout of another war in 1939, when a second phase began that would last nearly the rest of his life.
What characterizes the poetry of Picabia’s first phase, right from the beginning, is a degree of syntactic and semantic disjunctiveness utterly unique at the time, and certainly surpassing the collagelike effects found in other formally restless French poetry of this period, whether by friends such as Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars or by figures antipathetic to Picabia, such as Pierre Reverdy, each of whom adhered in his own way to Rimbaud’s momentous call for “a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses.” Moreover, some of this work gives every indication of having been produced by techniques of automatic writing that the Surrealists liked to think had entered literature with André Breton and Philippe Soupault’s The Magnetic Fields in 1920. Picabia was really a forerunner of both Dada, the movement he joined and later rejected, and Surrealism, from which he kept his distance, yet his writing could be far more unpredictable and emotionally pungent than that of most adherents of those movements.There has probably never been a poetry at once as massively energetic yet as coolly nonchalant as Picabia’s in this first phase.
But where is the fire-breathing nihilist of legend? His verse contains as much tenderness as fury, as much lyricism and sarcasm–though undoubtedly more bitterness than joy. Breton was on the mark when he wrote to Picabia in 1920, “What always amazes me about you is precisely the opposite of how you were always described to me, that is, your rare ability to love. I told a friend, rather clumsily, that your books have been written in the language of love.” Although Picabia had been feverishly devoting himself to poetry in these years, it was of a sort that never would have been written by anyone who considered himself a poet: the poetry of a dilettante. Picabia maintained his work’s freshness prepotently by making productive use of distractedness.
In the great essay he wrote to introduce his translations of poems by Reverdy, Kenneth Rexroth distinguished between Apollinaire’s collagelike technique, in which “the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes,” and Reverdy’s more extreme reduction of those elements to “simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction.” Picabia’s method differs as much from Apollinaire’s as does Reverdy’s rapt essentialism. In fact, it is impossible to generalize about the fundamental constituents of Picabia’s verbal structures. In his case, for that matter, these poetic molecules tend to be internally twisted or fractured: they have what poet Ron Silliman recently called torque, a tendency to veer off unpredictably, producing effects “of far greater power than referential”–think Apollinaire–“or abstract meaning”–as in Reverdy–“would lead one to suspect.”
Take a relatively simple poem like “Alas!” from Picabia’s second collection, Poems and Drawings of the Daughter Born Without a Mother (1918). It starts out with a sort of list whose world-weary tone seems not very different from that of some of Apollinaire’s lyrics, yet in its fifth line takes an unexpected turn that by line seven has become very sharp indeed:
A country ambitious
I love it when someone folds the eyes
Especially in the sea of the thorax
That seventh line is the pivot: proto-Surrealist, torqued sharply within itself, it lends a ricocheting motion to the poem as a whole, which then doubles back and begins critically taking apart the poetic voice he started out with, only to subside into his initial melancholy:
But I’m telling disinterested lies
It’s almost the same thing
The soul’s truth
Is the great cowardice of academic arrogance
Looking into your eyes
In my forgotten solitude
Other poems, even quite long ones, are much more densely packed, torquing from line to line or within each line the way only the central one of “Alas!” does. One might imagine the results could be exhausting, leaving the reader with no point of reference, but more often Picabia offers a remarkably vivid experience of such poetic turns as phenomena to be savored–poetic plasticity as an end in itself. This is particularly true of extended works like “The Mortician’s Athlete”–one better comprehends its highly charged disjunctiveness upon learning that its five “cantos” were composed by taking a quantity of short independent poems and mashing them together without their titles–and Picabia’s early masterpiece, “Purring Poetry,” over 800 lines of giddy, unpunctuated, uncapitalized, free-associative poetry on love and the gloom of the wartime that had just ended, to which is appended the following note: “This poetry has no beginning or end; imagine that there’s no cover and that it is bound with copper rings.”