For William Carlos Williams Encyclopedia

Marjorie Perloff

The publication of F. T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, printed on the front page of the Paris newspaper Le Figaro on 20 February 1909, ushered in the first of the century’s great avant-garde movements. Marinetti, who was to make the manifesto an important modernist art work, propounded an aesthetic of energy, struggle, revolt, and especially the “beauty of speed.” “A roaring car,” he wrote famously, “that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace..” Museums, libraries—all the repositories of the past were to be done away with; instead, “We will sing of great crowds excited by work. . . . we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals. . . . factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts.” And in the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting (1910), Umberto Boccioni, Carla Carrà, Luigi Russo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini echoed Marinetti’s credo in their insistence that art must capture the speed and dynamism of modern life, the simultaneism of modern space-time, and the movement to subordinate the individual to the collective, man to the machine: “The suffering of a man is of the same interest to us as the suffering of an electric lamp.” As for poetry, Marinetti (the one important poet in the group), called for the “destruction of syntax” and “words in freedom.” What this meant in practice is that compound-nouns, often onomatopoeic, were placed in apposition (“imagination without strings”), with no verbs or other parts of speech intervening so as to diminish intensity. These noun strings were designed to create bizarre analogies between unlike images; if they were connected at all it was by mathematical symbols: plus, minus, and multiplication signs, and so on. On the page, this “multilinear lyricism,” as Marinetti called it, meant the resort to new typographical devices, the poet-artist using graphic elements to represent the noise and whirlpool of modern activity. In a Futurist text like Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tuuum (1912), the distribution of type of varying sizes into split columns, horizontal and vertical elements disposed at right angles to each other, and words fragmented into letters which amplify the onomatopoeic effect—all these were used with great ingenuity and visual imagination. At the same time, Marinetti, Luigi Russolo, and others more or less invented what we now think of performance art; the improvisatory “Futurist Evenings,” which often ended with the throwing tomatoes or eggs at the “actors,” were the first Happenings.

But Futurism had its dark side. In the 1909 Manifesto, Marinetti advocated war as the “world’s only hygiene,” and praised violence (as opposed to romance), militarism, and sexual conquest. By “war,” Marinetti seems to have meant some form of revolution; he and his fellow Futurists had, sadly enough, no idea what World War I would really be like. Two of the greatest visual artists of Futurism—Boccioni and Antonio Sant’Elia—were killed in the war; the others returned to a more realistic, conventional form of painting and sculpture so that the “Futurism” of the 1920s and 30s was really something quite different. An admirer of Mussolini, Marinetti was to become a Fascist by the mid-twenties, and the once charming manifestos and “words-in-freedom” became more strident. The association with Fascism has tainted what began as a Utopian movement ever since. The Dadaists, who in fact borrowed from Futurism notions of performance, experimental typography, sound poetry, and linguistic invention, denounced the parent movement and consequently, it has been only in the past few decades, that the astonishing contributions of Futurism have been recognized.

The impact of Futurism on Williams is only indirect. The Armory Show of 1913 included Futurist along with Cubist works—for example some paintings by Gino Severini. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for that matter, treated movement in Futurist terms, following closely the experiments of Balla and Etienne-Jules Marey. Alfred Stieglitz’s avant-garde journal Camera Work and its successor291 published the machine-drawings and visual poems of François Picabia and Marius de Zayas, both of them students of Futurism. But although Williams was very much aware of these experiments, they did not immediately influence his work. At the height of Futurist activity in 1913, he published his first book The Tempers, a volume still written under the sign of Keats and the Romantics. The new free-verse poetry of Al Que Quiere! (1917) owes little to Futurism: Williams’s intense interest in nature, for one thing, differentiates him from the Futurist cult of the machine. And by 1924, when Williams spent a few months in Rome and had a chance to have first-hand contact with what remained of the Futurist cénacle, the movement was all but dead. Stephen Cushman attributes Williams’s praise for “irregular spacing and capitalization of letters [and] size position on a page” to Williams’s reading of the Futurist journal Lacerba, but by 1924, Williams could have found experimental typography in many other places, especially in Dada. He himself cites e.e. cummings as an exemplar.

The link between Williams and Futurism was probably the example of Ezra Pound, whose debt to Futurism (reborn as Vorticism) I have discussed in The Futurist Moment. Spring and All, published in Dijon, France in 1923, embeds its short visually daring lyrics in a sometimes strident manifesto-prose, recalling Futurist rhetoric, for example: “we are beginning to discover the truth that in great works of the imagination A CREATIVE FORCE IS SHOWN AT WORK MAKING OBJECTS WHICH ALONE COMPLETE SCIENCE AND ALLOW INTELLIGENCE TO SURVIVE” (CP1199). Capitalization for emphasis is complemented by fragmentary sentences culminating in a dash. At the same time, Williams’s verb forms are almost never the imperatives of Marinetti; his prose is more meditative, more tentative. And although the poetry of the twenties explores the urbanism made fashionable by the Futurists, it retains its concentration on birds and flowers, on the sights and smells of the natural world.

Perhaps the most important Futurist legacy in Williams’s work, although I must stress again that it is quite indirect, is that of visual text, of layout. From “The Descent of Winter” (1928) to Paterson, Williams begins to introduce Arabic and Roman numbers into his lines, and plays with typography and cataloguing as in Book III of Paterson, where we find the use of “@” (“That don’t necess/y mean making / reading matter @ all,” [P 138]) and as in the tabular account of the specimens found in the Artesian Well at the Passaic Rolling Mill (P 139). The look of the page becomes central to Williams; no other American Modernist poet, with the possible exception of Pound, has paid so much attention to the placement of letters, words, and lines, the use of capitals and italics, the phonetic spellings and even the introduction of quasi-pictograms. The sequence “Hi, open up a dozen” in Paterson 3, Part III (P 137), with its diagonal lines, odd punctuation and spacing, and is use of broken numbers, signifying the date (January 11, 1949) is a good example.

Can we call Williams’s visual prosody “Futurist”? Not fully, because he might have derived his devices from Pound and the Dadaists as easily—in fact more immediately—than from Marinetti. But in his respect for everyday life, popular culture, advertising lingo, and the “poem as machine,” Williams exhibits an interesting côté futuriste that deserves to be explored further.

Bibliography: Germano Celant, “Futurism as Mass Avant-Garde,” in Futurism and the International Avant-Garde, ed. Anne d’Harnoncourt (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art,1980), pp. 35-42; Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); F. T. Marinetti, Selected Writings, ed. R. W. Flint (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971; rpt. as Let’s Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, with an Introduction by Marjorie Perloff (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991); Marjorie Perloff,The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); Henry M. Sayre, The Visual Text of William Carlos Williams (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Dickran Tashjian, Skyscraper Primitives: Dada and the American Avant-Garde 1910-1925 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975);; Dickran Tashjian, William Carlos Williams and the American Scene, 1920-1940 (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1978); Futurism and Futurisms, ed. Pontus Hulten (New York: Abbeville Press, 1986); The Futurist Imagination: Word + Image in Italian Futurist Painting, Drawing, Collage and Free-Word Poetry, ed. Anne Coffin Hanson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Art Gallery, 1983); Futurist Manifestos, ed. Umbro Apollonio (New York: Viking, 1973);