Toward the New Futurism

The artistic movement which Filippo Tommaso Marinetti launched on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909 with his famous manifesto, which Guillaume Apollinaire would soon call le nouveau esprit, and which quickly spread throughout continental Europe as the last great art fashion, Il Futurismo, never took root in England or America. The explicit program of Futurism in every country which embraced it was an assault against tradition in all of its forms: political, social, and cultural especially. Thus it exercised an immense influence in the more tradition-bound and backward countries such as Italy and Russia, whose citizens watched the modernization of their more industrialized neighbors in jealous admiration. But it is not a coincidence that Futurism was least appreciated in those countries which had already experienced the Industrial Revolution; for the citizens of Manchester and New York, the future was already there, and it wasn’t pretty.

Marinetti traveled across Europe giving theatrical lectures on his new movement, inciting riots in some places and applause in many others. He never made it to America, but his English visit in 1913 impressed Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound enough that they promptly created the Vorticist movement that same year, and stocked it with Futurist themes. In the first issue of the house magazine, BLAST, Pound wrote:

The vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency…It is the picture that means a hundred poems, the music that means a hundred pictures, the most highly energized statement, the statement that has not yet SPENT itself in expression, but which is the most capable of expressing the TURBINE.

For the new magazine, Pound then promptly produced his first poems in a modern idiom. Futurism, in fact, was the hidden lever that transformed Pound into a Modernist poet and thus, through him, English poetry. It tempered the poet’s antiquarian obsessions. But this does not mean that Pound was a Futurist poet in the style of Marinetti. The poet who was busy translating Japanese Noh dramas when the first Futurist exhibitions opened in London could never be persuaded by the Italian’s calls for words-in-freedom and the destruction of past masterpieces. Futurist theories had a benign influence on English letters largely because England got Pound’s version of Futurism, and the poet always had an acute historical sense. T. S. Eliot attested to this when he said: 

 Pound has done more than anyone to keep Futurism out of England. His antagonism to this movement was the first which was not due merely to unintelligent dislike for anything new, and was due to his perception that Futurism was incompatible with any principle of form. 

Pound was so successful that he himself seems to be the only poet in England at the time significantly influenced by the movement. In fact only one other poet, in the whole English-speaking world, was affected by Futurism and then a decade later: Hart Crane. Incredibly, Futurism found no audience in the industrialized new world.

Of course, the darker manifestations of this new spirit were not co-opted, or restrained, on the continent. There, Marinetti preached a naive optimism concerning machinery, a love of warfare, and a hostility toward classical art, all of which had deplorable social consequences in Russia and Italy. It is little to be wondered that such an aesthetic found its political expression in totalitarianism, for the Futurists wanted rapid and revolutionary change most of all, and wanted it for its own sake. What they believed in was a modern world conjured, as it were, ex nihilo. And that is why Marinetti was soon applauding Mussolini, just as his Russian counterparts were the first to join the Bolshevik Revolution as the “Left Front.”

These dark conjunctions are not, however, the main interest of this essay, but rather the machine aesthetic which the Futurists idealized but which their literature only sporadically embodied. They were interested in the artistic possibilities of the machine, and with its alterations of human experience. They thought the arts should be mechanized as the world was being mechanized. Why did their art fail or, rather, why is their literature so embarrassingly slight? The answer is simple: two world wars, conducted with deadly machines and aided by industrial processes, made a mockery of these artists who had not only announced but advocated the Industrial Revolution. The Futurists were led astray because they romanticized the machine, even celebrated its dangerous functions, and no such appeal could survive Verdun.

Almost a century later, what remains vital in Futurist literature? The manifestos of Marinetti still retain their bombastic glory, though the poems of Palazzeschi, Govoni, and Buzzi do not seem to be of permanent interest. As for the members of the Russian Cubo-Futurist school, only Vladimir Mayakovsky retains his reputation. Unfortunately, the translations we have of him in English do not exhibit much subtlety of thought or expression. We must turn elsewhere for a Futurist poetry of any consequence. We must turn to Guillaume Apollinaire, who wrote the opening lines of Zone in 1913:  

 A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien
Bergere O tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bele ce matin
Tu en as assez de vivre dans l’antiquite grecque et romaine

It is not too much to say that these lines ushered in the new spirit in poetry. Behind them lies the Decadent and Symbolist movements, personified in such figures as Mallarme, Verlaine, and Swinburne; shortly after them appear T. S. Eliot (1917), the Ezra Pound of Lustra (1916), and Blaise Cendrars (1913). That Apollinaire was only partially conscious of his achievement is, I think, undeniable. The brash, modern quality of “Zone” is found nowhere else in his poetry, and the essay which defined and introduced this new spirit was written five years later, shortly before his death. It is to that unfairly neglected essay, L’Esprit Nouveau et les Poetes, that we must now turn.

What Apollinaire understood about this new spirit, whether described as futurist or modern, was that it amounted to a kind of vision, and that its object was the modern world. This vision, of discerning contemporary experience and accepting it as material for art, was one that he first discovered in Baudelaire; and what he wrote about the author of Les Fleurs du mal was equally true of himself: 

 It is true also that in him the modern spirit is for the first time incarnated. It is with Baudelaire that something was born which simply vegetated while the naturalists, the Parnassians, and the symbolists were going along without seeing a thing; and the naturists, having turned away, did not have the boldness to examine the sublimity and monstrousness of something new. 

Some twelve years later, T. S. Eliot was to praise this same quality in Baudelaire, and to identity it as his great contribution to modern poetry: 

 It is not merely in the use of imagery of common life, not merely in the use of imagery of the sordid life of a great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity—presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something much more than itself—that Baudelaire has created a mode of release and expression for other men.  

So the experimentation in verse forms, the freedom from the troublesome bondage of rhyme, and the passionate interest in novelties of all kinds were legitimate aims for the new poet, according to Apollinaire, because of the technological transformation of the world. About this he was explicit and prescient:

Marvels impose on us the duty not to allow the poetic imagination and subtlety to lag behind that of workers who are improving the machine. Already, scientific language is out of tune with that of the poets. It is an intolerable state of affairs. Mathematicians have the right to say that their dreams, their preoccupations, often outdistance by a hundred cubits the crawling imaginations of poets. It is up to the poets to decide if they will not resolutely embrace the new spirit, outside of which only three doors remain open: that of pastiche, that of satire, and that of lamentation, however sublime it be.  

What is left to be said, other than that Apollinaire anticipated the three major tones of poetry in the twentieth century? It is to the fourth, which Marinetti imperfectly birthed and Apollinaire educated, that we must now turn. For, today, the relationship of contemporary poetry to contemporary experience remains unchanged from what Apollinaire described in 1918; poetry must continually catch up with a world rendered new almost daily by technologies of which even Marinetti would not automatically approve. In poetry, as in everything else, nova ex veteris. Perhaps a Futurism stripped of its destructive impulses, and its more eccentric innovations, will prove congenial to a new generation of poets.

About Garrick Davis

Garrick Davis is the founding editor of the Contemporary Poetry Review, the largest online archive of poetry criticism in the world. The magazine was founded in 1998, and was one of the earliest literary reviews in the United States to be published exclusively on the Internet. His poetry and criticism have appeared in the New Criterion, Verse, the Weekly Standard, McSweeney’s, and the New York Sun. He is the editor of Praising It New: The Best of the New Criticism (Swallow Press, 2008) and Child of the Ocmulgee: the Selected Poems of Freda Quenneville (Michigan State University Press, 2002). His book of poems, Terminal Diagrams, is also available (Swallow Press, 2010). He served as the literary specialist of the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. from 2005-2008. He currently serves as a multidiscipline specialist responsible for the NEA’s Arts Journalism Institutes.
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