Poetry News

Interviewing Marjorie Perloff About Italian Futurism & the 'Futurist Poetic'

By Harriet Staff


The Kenyon Review blog's Andrew David King hosts an in-depth interview with Marjorie Perloff on Italian Futurism--Part 1 of "Futurism Revisited" covers the cultural break in Marinetti's Futurism and those aligned with Mussolini, "the relationship of Italian Futurism to Fascism in general," Marinetti's advocacy of war, Zola's work and aesthetic desires, Blaise Cendrars's free form, criticism in an "ideally Futurist age," Eliot's The Waste Land as collage poem, and more. Great read.

Well, I suppose in an “ideally Futurist age,” criticism would have had a clear-cut target: the bourgeois Establishment as it had evolved from a past the Futurists wanted to escape. But of course this ideal was never realized. Still, what the Futurist Moment of the early 1910s, especially in Russia, did teach us is that art must be of its own time. As Malevich insisted about the new airplane travel, “If all artists were to see the crossroads of these heavenly paths, if they were to comprehend these monstrous runways and intersections of our bodies with the clouds in the heavens, then they would not paint chrysanthemums.”


MP: ...One could argue that the French Impressionists also understood the need to be of their time, but at the turn of the twentieth century, there was a real gap between salon art on the one hand, and the new Futurist work on the other. To see the conventional landscapes and portraits of the 1910s in Russia side by side with Malevich’s Black Square is to become aware of a startling rupture.

Not surprisingly, then, literary criticism born in the Russian Futurist age was one of the great theoretical movements—Russian Formalism. Roman Jakobson began his career as a Futurist poet and the questions he and Viktor Shklovsky and the others asked were a direct response to the poetry being produced by their contemporaries—the poets Khlebnikov, Kruchenykh, Mayakovsky.

KR: In your mind, what are the foremost differences between Russian and Italian Futurism, or between those and other Futurist movements? (I have in mind your 2009 comment that “the Russian ‘cubo-futurist’ variant” of Futurism is “the great futurism” for you.) Are there any significant recent incarnations of Futurism, and if so, how do they differ from their predecessors? The Futurist heritage of Robert Smithson’s proposal for the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport—in which he argues that art “is no longer an architectural afterthought, or an object to attach to a building after it is finished, but rather a total engagement with the building process from the ground up and from the sky down”—is just one intriguing example you offer. I ask while knowing that, in The Futurist Moment, you make clear your “distrust of ism studies.” But I was curious to hear your thoughts on these differences in terms of the tension between the “cosmopolitanism and a stubborn nationalism” of the avant guerre, and in terms of, for instance, Italian Futurism’s origins in a particular moment of European culture.

MP: The foremost difference between Russian and Italian Futurism—and the difference has become increasingly apparent to me over the years—is that the Russian variant was much more radical and much more coherent, in that its aesthetic and politics went hand in hand. Marinetti could talk a lot about revolutionizing the text but despite all the posturing and shouting, his ideas were hardly complex, and even his beautiful visual compositions retained a mimetic element. The Russians, by contrast, understood that form is meaning; they fused verbal, visual, and sonic elements to create new abstract compositions, and they made much greater demands on factura, on the materiality of the art work. Khlebnikov’s proposal for “The New City of the Futurians,” for example, with its account of glass modules moving about over the rooftops on their own tracks, is at once a blueprint, a prose poem, and a kind of manifesto: Smithson’s proposal which you mention above can be seen to emerge from this aesthetic.

KR: Another question related to heritage: what would you say has been the most profound effect of “Futurist poetic” or the Futurist tradition on American poetry? You mention Cage, Smithson, Derrida, and Anderson as examples of individuals who allude to such a poetic in their works, but I’m also interested in what seeped into the culture—and what remains there—on the level of maybe-unconscious technique, approach, or philosophy, especially given that you describe collage, manifesto, performance, and sound poetry as distinctively Futurist forms, to name a few; Martin adds “memory montages, kinetic, multi-material, and noise-making assemblages.” More specifically, how do you understand the role of Futurism in the tradition of American literary collage that one finds in, say, Pound’s Cantos (from he who was “right at the center of what we might call the Futurist vortex”), Eliot’s The Waste Land, Toomer’s Cane, and Williams’s Kora in Hell (this last work, along with works by Crane, Stella, and Man Ray, being emblematic of the American avant guerre)? And how much do today’s collage artists (or even someone as popular as Warhol, or a movement like Fluxus) owe to the avant guerre idea that collage captures an “intuitive grasp of how the world might be put together”?

MP: I am rather skeptical of these connections. The technique of Pound’s Cantos, as I argue in chapter 5 of The Futurist Moment, certainly owes something to Futurist collage, but I would be careful to make the same claim for The Waste Land or Williams’s Kora in Hell. The latter was influenced by Dada and Surrealism, and to my mind it’s an experimental prose poem that doesn’t quite work: it’s a bit cute and hasn’t worn that well because in fact Williams was neither quite comfortable with Dada, nor was he a collagiste. He did not want to juxtapose radically unlike things but, was, on the contrary, a Constructivist, whose brilliance lay in creating what Williams called “machines made out of words.”

Read the full interview here, and keep your eyes balmy for Part 2 of this talk.

Originally Published: September 27th, 2013