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"Harpsichords Metallic Howl—": The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's Sound Poetry
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"Harpsichords Metallic Howl—":
The Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven's Sound Poetry1

Ildrich mitzdonja—astatootchNinj—iffe kniek —Ninj—iffe kniek!Arr—karr —Arrkarr—barrKarrarr—barr —Arr —Arrkarr —MardarMar—dóórde—dar —

Mardoodaar!!!

—Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, "Klink—Hratzvenga (Deathwail)"2

In March 1920, the era's leading avant-garde literary magazine, The Little Review, risked ridicule by publishing the controversial elegiac sound poem "Klink—Hratzvenga (Deathwail)" by the equally controversial German émigré poet and painter's model Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874–1927; figure 1). The poem appeared alongside her German poem "Irrender König," a eulogy dedicated to Leopold von Freytag-Loringhoven, her husband who had committed suicide just a year earlier following his release from five years as a prisoner of war. The publication of the poem was a provocative gesture, given also that in the very same issue, poet and editor Evelyn Scott criticized the Baroness's "strange and beautiful obliviousness," writing: "I call the Baroness a naked oriental in the sex dance of her religion."3 It was the corporality of her verse, as well as her [End Page 255]


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Fig. 1.

Else Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, decorated photograph. The Little Review, September-December 1920, p. [4].

Digital photograph courtesy Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre, Ryerson University, Toronto.

unbridled and uncensored emotionality, that aroused controversy and debate, but also fit squarely in the Dada aesthetic, as foreign editor John Rodker was the first to note in a mock review of "Klink—Hratzvenga (Deathwail)" in the magazine's July–August issue of 1920: "It is possible that Else von Freytag-Loringhoven is the first Dadaiste in New York and that the Little Review has discovered her."4 Corroborating Rodker's assessment in the spring of 1922, the magazine's coeditor Jane Heap proclaimed the Baroness, "the first American dada … the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada," while adding provocatively: "we do intend to drop the baroness—right into the middle of the history of American poetry!"5 In fact, this is precisely what The Little Review had done since 1918, when the New York magazine embarked on its Dada course, featuring the Baroness's poetry prominently alongside the installments of James Joyce's Ulysses. Like no other's, the Baroness's corporeally-charged [End Page 256] poetry embodied the Dada motto of The Little Review: "Making no compromise with the public taste."6 A maverick who consistently confounded the boundaries of life and art, the Baroness was known for her remarkable do-it-yourself art aesthetics, adorning her body with objects and self-made costumes, while also producing mischievously titled assemblages made from junk she found in the streets. But it was her sound poetry that provided a touchstone that created a neat division between mainstream critics who dismissed the Baroness as insane, and her admirers who championed her precisely because they recognized in her practice the promise of a new corporeal language.

Thus in the magazine's "Reader Critic" column (April 1920), New York writer Maxwell Bodenheim observed that "Else von Freytag Loringhoven's 'Klink—Hratzvenga' has the virtues of so many languages and the deficiencies of none, since she can create sounds for shades of meaning that have no dictionary equivalents." Chastising those who claim not to understand the Baroness's language, Bodenheim continues:

Her poem is a masterpiece of bitter simplicity, from its choked beginning to its satiated "Vrmm." Now, all together, boys: come on with your "impossible to understand it," "there's nothing to understand," "charlatan," "she's insane," and other rotten tomatoes. At your best you prefer the complex, intellectual sterilities of a Dorothy Richardson. Any new simplicity confounds you.7

Bodenheim was on to something. A simple glance at "Klink—Hratzvenga (Deathwail)" as sound text conveys how the Baroness's made-up constructions sensually evoke representational analogues, and in this case, echo a mourning cry for a generation that survived World War I. In the epigraph above (and, indeed, throughout the entire poem), the dominant construction is the word "Mardoodaar," a recombination of German word "Mord...