1. Home
  2. Poetry Magazine
  3. Poetry Can Be Any Damn Thing It Wants by Mary Ann Caws
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.
Introduction
"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."

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.

More from this issue

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

  • 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),...

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.
  • 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),...

Other Information

  • Browse Poems

    loading...