Prose from Poetry Magazine

Poetry Can Be Any Damn Thing It Wants

Introduction to a collection of eight manifestos commemorating the centennial of Italian futurists.

by Mary Ann Caws
In 1909, pamphlets were dropped over the town of Milan containing Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, the centennial of which we are celebrating. Everything about this piece was exciting, its pace, its over-the-top scenery:
We had stayed up all night, my friends and I, under hanging mosque lamps with domes of filigreed brass, domes starred like our spirits. . . .

An immense pride was buoying us up, because we felt ourselves alone at that hour, alone, awake, and on our feet, like proud beacons or forward sentries against an army of hostile stars.
Nothing is slow in this manifesto of speedy Futurism: “‘Let’s go!’ I said. ‘Friends, away! Let’s go!’” I love that kind of exalted certainty about a showy (manifest) endeavor. Of course, we have the right to ironize about the over-the-topness — who among us would so exaggerate the style and so magnify the substance as to make a larger-than-life-size poster, pointing at itself as a deictic genre? Look! Here! Now!

Tristan Tzara, Papa-Dada himself, lays down the rules in 1918, and not just for Dada: “To proclaim a manifesto you have to want: A.B.C., thunder against 1, 2, 3.”

Tongue-in-cheek or not: how nice not to know. There’s something about parody that’s immensely engaging. Look at a few passages from the grandly parodic manifestos written for this issue of Poetry: they are fun, funny, and somehow right on target. And, on top of that, reminiscent of other manifestos and events. Take this passage by Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr (for Hate Socialist Collective):
When we say the manifesto we mean poetry and Poetry and poets and our own pathetic selves.

And so like you, oh Poetry, we propose to reanimate the manifesto. We will first require the following things: a century of revolutions. Delight and terror. Shit on the curatorial. Shit on bankers and trusts. Shit on ourselves.
This call out for shit sends me right back to the beginning of Jarry’s Ubu Roi: “merdre” was itself revolutionary. And think how the Dada excremental emphasis decorated Mr. Antipyrine’s Manifesto of 1918: “We want to shit in different colors to ornament the zoo of art of all the consulate flags.” Imagine the time when André Breton visited Picasso’s studio, saw a small picture that fascinated him, with a spot of something indefinable in its center. What is that, he asked the painter, who replied that it was the excrement of children having eaten cherries and their pits . . . and Breton went home to dream about a mountain of gleaming brown stuff, with flies upon it. Glorious, he said. And at the Brooklyn Museum, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary with dung, a traditional form of homage—so offensive to then-Mayor Giuliani. How super to offend someone with an homage, especially an institutional someone.

Manifestos are not only bearers of opposition to other movements and bygone days. They bear within themselves an oppositional turn, characteristic of the genre. Michael Hofmann maintains: “Poetry is delayed, instant; unending, brief; electric, tiny. Each poem is an insurrection against the world before it existed—or a desertion from it.” All the contraries meet here, just as they did in Dada, where the yes and the no met on street corners, and in surrealism, where life and death, waking and sleeping, merged in the doors swinging back and forth . . .

Manifestos can do any damned thing they want: they can run on and on, stop short, be fragmented or in order, or in an order which they themselves mock. Joshua Mehigan enumerates the now-ness:
We are here now.
Our aesthetics is empirically grounded.
And continues with an against-ness to past-ness:
History will forget you and salute us.
Here you are, and here is oblivion.
This is the final manifesto, and the only one.
Whatever a manifesto claims, it has most surely to have the consciousness of being the only one, right now, forget the past—like Marinetti’s turning his back on Venice in “Past-Loving Venice.”

But the back-turning in no way rules out the comic use of reference, often depending quite simply on the reader. Try this one, which stands—or seems to, to this reader—in immediate salute to Frank O’Hara. It is D.A. Powell’s “Annie Get Your Gun,” which begins with the small fish we have seen swimming elsewhere:
The thing about sardines when you buy them in a can: they are fairly uniform in size and in flavor; their individual identities have disappeared into the general fishiness of the soybean oil . . . and one forgets a sardine quickly after one has partaken of it. . . .

Write a manifesto. Don’t you see that it’s too small to keep? Throw it back.
How can we not think of Frank O’Hara’s poem for Michael Goldberg, about sardines and oranges?
                                    My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.
Which leads us right over to O’Hara’s delicious “Personism,” mocking the grand style and the great moment: “It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959” (See, another lunch poem). Informality wins the day and the brass ring. Here’s to the manifesto: beginning with the manus, or Latin for hand — so, handcrafted — and then a fest (from festus) for its tight-fisted grip on whatever occasion it might be. Like this one.
Originally Published: January 30, 2009


On February 4, 2009 at 4:07pm wrote:
I give poetry foundation a right to publish this.

On February 5, 2009 at 11:36am just kibbe wrote:
because comments like poetry can be any damn thing they want to be, i have a comment that is not textual (or rather not only textual); how do i send you that?

On February 5, 2009 at 6:58pm Terry wrote:
Poetry can be anything it wants to be as long as it comes from a poet.

On February 9, 2009 at 2:34am Sean Smith wrote:
Clenched fists raised in air

we all shout "Manifesto!"

then we turn and run.

On February 9, 2009 at 9:48pm Elaine Parny wrote:
We will write

against the will

the want

the tide

rising to meet the sun

who glances carelessly at us

who's work will wake

the multitudenous eyes

peering back

a defiant hope,

each word counts for something

On February 10, 2009 at 11:50am LAINE COTE' wrote:
Poetry? Manifesto? Oranges?

Why bother!

Why bother!

With all this talk.

If we could figure out

what "poetry" is----or is not----

It would no longer be poetry!

Just a bunch of confused words

with faulty punctuation.

I don't know why I bother.

And I don't care.

Isn't that wonderful!

On February 20, 2009 at 2:47pm c wrote:
marinetti was a fascist, and poetry foundation is a reactionary bourgeois organization?

On February 24, 2009 at 12:25am Crescent wrote:
What is poetry?

Poetry provides titillation, at times even airy!

Bombs and stormy weather; enough sign of angry.

Fuzzy or unclear, some things; on occasions, are blurry.

Through-out times it had no boundary!

Hold on to your fury!

In life few things are clear: too many furry.

Excessive Misery!

Poetry is vigor let’s be merry.

What is considered normal is man’s worry.

Let’s release poetry; its character shan’t be weary…

By: C.Reid 02/24/09 1:17 a.m.

On February 24, 2009 at 12:01pm - wrote:
'marinetti was a fascist, and poetry

foundation is a reactionary bourgeois


hahah, yeah...i was about to's another quote of marinetti

from 1909: 'A racing car…a roaring

car…is more beautiful than the Victory

of Samothrace’. they asctheticized

violence and glorified warfare and

machinery, seeking to overwrite italy's

cultural and artistic past. they ran into

WWI and to their deaths with smiles on

their faces. those who survived were

eventually absorbed into mussolini's

national fascist party. how artsy!

On March 3, 2009 at 4:33pm Dan Williamson wrote:

does not

want to be.

It is!

On March 3, 2009 at 4:38pm Dan Williamson wrote:
Offensive language.




Free Sexual Expression!



And most despicable,

English Spelling!

On March 4, 2009 at 1:37pm wrote:

Poetry where has your dear one gone, O thou most beautiful among

Where has these dear ones turned, show thyself forward to throng

O thou most striking, you are comparable to good-looking breasts

Spices of the eyes come forth; let our brains feasts

Poetry thou are beautiful like fine art, Star-like companions’ center of my heart

I am afraid to turn my eyes from thee lest thou depart

Communicate your opinion I need to spread your fragrance

Once they behold thee your beauty is pronounced like romance

C. Reid /3/04/09/2:32 p.m.

On March 4, 2009 at 1:40pm Crescent wrote:

Poetry where are these dear ones gone, O thou most beautiful among

Where has these dear ones turned, show thyself forward to throng

O thou most striking, you are comparable to good-looking breasts

Spices of the eyes come forth; let our brains feasts

Poetry thou are beautiful like fine art, Star-like companions’ center of my heart

I am afraid to turn my eyes from thee lest thou depart

Communicate your opinion I need to spread your fragrance

Once they behold thee your beauty is pronounced like romance

C. Reid /3/04/09/2:32 p.m.

On March 9, 2009 at 9:14am Garman Lord wrote:
Shapeless! Shapely is too old-fashion

For poetry now. Today one gets the impression

That poetry can be, must be, anything now,

Except shapely.

On March 25, 2009 at 12:23pm lillyart wrote:
there is not, and should not ever be, a way to figure out a poet or poetry. it is free soul writing, if one is a poet. i love your magazine, by the way.

On April 11, 2009 at 10:53am Holly Caj Davis wrote:
Poetry's only requirement is to provide nourishment to the soul. You read poetry- yet it links your mind ,body,and soul. Poetry is born, lives, and dies. Poetry is an intangible oxygen upon which experience is drawn. Cherish poetry in all forms,despise poems you choose!!!!!!!!

On April 19, 2009 at 10:22am dominick parris wrote:
Tolerance is a bad word. It implies that
it matters what the masses will allow.

To say that a thing cannot be
something else, is to say, I am stuck in
time. I refuse to grow. How unlike
anything else real!

Poetry is permitted by the nature of
language, to be anything you can make

If you want to reign something in, turn
all the "off" light switches "on" go

Your rules will limit you. Not me. Not

On August 30, 2009 at 4:58pm Jean-Pierre de Villers wrote:
Good Marjorie, give them hell and publish whatever you want. They should perceive Futurism as liberation, a look at the newness of the universe. as a revolution. The rest, after 1920, is irrelevant. Let's keep inventing. JPde Villers

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This prose originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2009


 Mary Ann Caws


Mary Ann Caws is the author of many books on the relations between literature and art, and the editor of Manifesto: A Century of Isms (University of Nebraska Press, 2001). Her most recent books include Pierre Reverdy (New York Review Books, 2013), Surprised in Translation (University of Chicago Press, 2006), and Surrealism (Phaidon, 2004). She is a distinguished professor of English, French, and comparative literature in the . . .

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