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Futurism: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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January 27, 2015

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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futurism: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) dramatically launched the futurist movement on February 20, 1909, with his “violently upsetting, incendiary manifesto” called “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (“We had stayed up all night, my friends and I”) and then bombarded Europe with his proclamations about the future. The word futurism had a startling success, and the new movement spread rapidly through Italy, France, Spain, England, and Russia. The hyperkinetic Marinetti, who christened himself “the caffeine of Europe,” the self-proclaimed “primitive of a new sensibility,” was the driving force of futurism. “I felt, all of a sudden, that articles, poetries, and polemics no longer sufficed,” he said. “You had to change methods, go down in the street, seize power in all the theatres, and introduce the fisticuff into the war of art.” The manifesto was his weapon, and he used it to praise danger and revolt, aggressive action, “the beauty of speed” (he famously proclaimed that “A racing car . . . is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace”), “the metallization of man,” the violent joys of crowds and cities. He also showed appalling innocence about war, which he glorified as “the world’s only hygiene.”

The Italian futurists include the poets Paolo Buzzi and Corrado Govani; the painters Umberto Boccioni, Gino Severini, Carlo Carra, and Giacomo Balla; the composers Luigi Russolo and Francesco Balilla Pratella; and Il Duce himself, Benito Mussolini. Even in Italy, there were a variety of futurisms, including Noisism or Bruitism, which wanted to join experiences and senses to each other (Carlo Carra called it “The Painting of Sounds, Noises, and Smells,” 1913), and Tactilism (the futurism of touch) and a Futurism of Woman (Valentine de Saint-Point, “Manifesto of Futurist Woman,” 1912). As Apollinaire noted in his parody manifesto “L’Antitradition futuriste” (1913), futurism was the first collective effort to suppress history in the name of art. There is no greater critique than Walter Benjamin’s summary judgment at the end of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936):

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while reserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into public life.

All efforts to make politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war. War and only war can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property systems.

Fiat ars — pereat mundus, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense of perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the con- summation of l’art pour l’art. Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a point that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.

Communism responds by politicizing art.

Russian futurism was an offshoot of futurism that was so rich, various, and contradictory that it became its own complex movement. The Russian avant-garde poets and artists did not think of themselves as futurists per se (the name was pinned on them by newspapers). The poet, painter, and publisher David Burliuk (1882–1967) organized the Hylean poets, as they first called themselves, and convinced them to issue the joint manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste” (1912), which he signed along with Alexei Kruchenykh (1886–1968), Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893–1930), and Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922). It announced that “We alone are the face of our Time”; it pledged “to stand on the rock of the word ‘we’ amidst the sea of boos and outrage”; and it predicted “the New Coming Beauty of the Self-sufficient (self-centered) Word.” Mayakovsky’s poetry faces the future and his defiant, revolutionary early work testifies to futurist energies. Khlebnikov was possibly the most radical experimenter in futurism. He cofounded with Kruchenykh the wildly imaginative, disruptive sound poetry called zaum.

There were four distinct Russian futurist groups: Cubo-futurism, ego- futurism, the Mezzanine of Poetry, and Centrifuge. What these groups shared was a dedication to modernism and a determination to denounce each other.

The Hylean Group developed into the Cubo-futurists, a group of painters who combined the Cubist techniques of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, and Juan Gris with the dynamism of the Italian futurists. Painters such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Kazimir Malevich were inspired by futurist poems, and they included various letters, at times even whole words, in their compositions. They treated words as material things.

The ego-futurist collective paid direct homage to Marinetti and introduced the word futurism to the Russian literary scene. The aristocratic poet Igor Severyanin tried to create a new trend within futurism in 1911 with his small brochure Prolog (Ego-Futurism) that attacked the extreme objectivity of the Cubo-futurists and proposed an alternative subjectivity, which included a more ostentatious egoism and sensuality. “All of history lies before us,” Graal-Arelsky (the pseudonym of Stepan Stepanovich Petrov) argued in “Egopoetry in Poetry” (1912): “Nature created us. Only She should rule us in our actions and efforts. She placed egoism inside of us; we should develop it. Egoism unites us all, because we are all egoists.”

Lev Zak introduced the short-lived movement the Mezzanine of Poetry, which consisted of Konstantin Bolshakov, Riuruk Ivnev, Vadim Shershenevich, Marinetti’s eager translator, and Zak himself. “Darling! Please come to the opening of our Mezzanine!” Zak wrote in his invitation to the movement: “The image of the Most Charming One, which each of us has locked in his soul, makes all things, all thoughts, and all passions equally poetic.”

Centrifuge was the last offshoot of futurism before the Russian Revolution. It was launched in 1914 by Sergei Bobrov, Nikolay Aseyev, and Boris Pasternak with the almanac Rukonog (a trans-rational coinage that meant Handfoot). Pasternak cosigned a scurrilous charter denouncing rival futurists. This led to a settling of accounts between the anti-Centrifuge futurists and the Centrifuge futurists at a Moscow café on a hot day in May 1914. But at the meeting, Pasternak was infatuated with Mayakovsky, his supposed enemy, and immediately opted out of the proposed feud. “I carried the whole of him with me that day from the boulevard into my life,” he said later. “But he was enormous; there was no holding on to him when apart from him. And I kept losing him.”


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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