Ardengo Soffici—poet, painter, art critic—only spent a short time as a Futurist, but it was a particularly fruitful time. His initiation into Futurism was unconventional. As critic for the influential Florentine journal La Voce, in spring of 1911 he saw a number of Futurist paintings in an exhibition at La Mostra d’Arte Libera in Milan. In June he published the article “Arte libera e libera pittura futurista,” in which he negatively reviewed the Futurists’ work. Displeased, a delegation of Futurists led by the painter Umberto Boccioni went to Florence to confront him and physically attacked him and other vociani whom they found in the Giubbe Rosse Caffè. The resulting brawl was followed by painter Gino Severini’s diplomatic intercession, which eventuated in Soffici’s recruitment to the movement in late 1912. By February, 1915, however, Soffici had publicly broken with the movement’s leader, F. T. Marinetti, in the article “Futurismo e Marinettismo,” published in the journal Lacerba. Despite his disavowal of the founder of Futurism, Soffici was still in sympathy with the movement itself and continued to consider himself a Futurist, at least for the time being. It also was in 1915 that he published BÏF§ZF+18: Simultaneità e Chimismi lirici, a collection of poems embodying his interpretation of Futurist principles. The volume was originally published by La Voce in Florence in an edition of three hundred that attracted few readers; a facsimile edition was brought out in Italy in 2002. The work, translated by Olivia E. Sears, appears in English for the first time as Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms, in a beautiful edition that meticulously recreates the appearance of the original.
As its title indicates, the poems in Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms are divided into poems of simultaneity and “lyric chemisms,” or typographical poems. What they demonstrate is that while Soffici accepted some of the key general principles of Futurism, he only selectively followed the specifics of the program that Marinetti set out in the “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” of 1912.
“Atelier” is exemplary of the poems of simultaneity. It begins:
Five meters by seven carved from the amaranth of the sun
Radiotelephantastic booth open to all messages
Every painting is a window onto the frenzy of life
I am a thrower-open of windows
Sings like a bird
“The frenzy of life” here evokes the key Futurist notion of simultaneity. “Simultaneity” (“simultaneità”) referred to the purported collapse of time and space brought on by the speed of life in an industrialized society. Throughout the poem’s seventy-five lines he captures the simultaneity of urban life by describing the riot of sights and sounds pouring in through the open windows—a rush of multimodal stimuli impinging all at once on the senses, blending into the peculiar simultaneity of synesthesia (“Every color / Sings like a bird”). It is the verbal equivalent of Boccioni’s 1911-1912 painting The Street Enters into the House.
We can see Soffici’s conformity to, and deviation from, the demands of the “Technical Manifesto” in the poem. “Atelier,” like the other poems in Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms, is unpunctuated, as called for in Marinetti’s “Technical Manifesto.” Marinetti wished to banish punctuation from Futurist writing because its pauses hindered the line’s vital continuity—briefly, in the case of commas, and more substantially in the case of periods. But as Apollinaire showed in the unpunctuated Alcools, its elimination also could liberate the possibilities of meaning dormant in words by stripping them of their punctuation-enforced contextual boundaries, thus ambiguating their relationships in imaginative and suggestive ways.
On the other hand, while the coinage “radiotelephantastic” creates an image suggestive of modern communications technology, in its hybrid construction of noun-plus-adjective it pushes against Marinetti’s ideal of adjectives and adverbs being done away with, or being used “semaphorically” in isolation from nouns. In a sense, this aggregate noun epitomizes Soffici’s tendency to conserve the spirit while violating the letter of Futurist practice. Although “Atelier” contains its share of adjectives, it also shows Soffici juxtaposing nouns without conjunctions, as called for by point 5 of the “Technical Manifesto.” We encounter “Wineflasks toys newspapers”; “Ateliers ateliers / Compass roses / Joy beauty miseries”; “Smokestacks towers chimneys stars.” Soffici’s running together of nouns not only reinforces the poem’s impression of the rapid onrush of visual and other stimuli, but also points toward the Futurist concept of analogy, which Marinetti defined as “the profound love that brings together distant things that appear to be diverse and hostile.” (It’s striking how this anticipates the Surrealist theory of the image as the bringing together of distant realities.) Wine flasks, toys, and newspapers may share a physical space, but their differences appear along other axes—of the ages of those for whom they are made, their degree of purported seriousness, their effects on their users; joy and beauty on the one hand, and misery on the other, stand in opposition to each other, while the linkage between “compass” and “roses” is, admittedly, obscure.
This last point is a reminder that Soffici’s linkages reflect a Symbolist idea of correspondences, which was itself informed by an occult-inspired view of the holistic continuity of the universe. It was a view he expressed in the 1914 article “Raggio,” first published in Lacerba, the journal he edited, and soon after reprinted in the journal of the Roman theosophical group. For Soffici, the bringing together of diverse things through analogy was made possible not only by modernity’s speed-induced jumbling of experience, but by the hidden correspondences linking outwardly different things as well. We can see this play of correspondences in, for example, “Lights of Rome.” Here his Futurist analogies are built from largely conjunctionless juxtapositions of noun-images: “Distant regions landscapes horizons of blossoming souls”; “pregnant lights lush flora.” Each image in the sequence extends, by an association of qualities, the meaning of the one preceding it. “Distant regions …” links its images through the felt movement of a physical space receding to the edge of perception; “pregnant lights lush flora” is linked by association with an underlying notion of biological plenitude—metaphorical in the first instance, literal in the second.
Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms’ second part contains “lyrical chemisms,” or typographical poems. These are as much visual as verbal works. “Typography” is typical. Emerging from a clustered and skewed jumble of letters and numbers in multiple fonts and sizes, the poem sees in typefaces the “transubstantiation of infinite mysteries” and declares letters to be the “mortal attire of poetry” and the “ornaments of naked ideas.” If Marinetti, in his 1913 statement “Destruction of Syntax” called for a “typographical revolution,” then Soffici’s “Typography” certainly showed one development that revolution could take. Other typographical poems, such as “Stroll” and “The Apollo,” incorporate bits of the cityscape’s advertising signage—a device that would reappear a decade later in Louis Aragon’s Surrealist classic Paris Peasant.
Although Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms contains poems shot through with typical Futurist themes of urban life and modern technology, it also is pervaded in places by a profoundly un-Futurist air of nostalgia and melancholy. The typographic poem “Station Cafeteria,” although set in the prototypically Futurist venue of a train station, suggests not only the nervous tension of urban life, but its loneliness and desolation as well. In an echo of Apollinaire’s calligrammes, the poem’s lines are shaped into a figure suggesting a glass or cup on a saucer sitting by the edge of a table; in a rush of images they speak of a confusion of psychological states: “the grief of all the widowed and caressed nights of perfumes;” “indigo violet caravans of hysteria in our blood our nerves the brain;” “nostalgia for charlatan buddhisms;” “irony of the cigarette snuffed out in a drop of coffee;” and all of it culminating in a “BLACK TEAR OF MELANCHOLY.” “Station Cafeteria” recalls Boccioni’s celebrated States of Mind triptych of paintings not only for being set in a train station, but for the way it seems to imagine the invisible forces of thought and mood projecting themselves onto the visible reality of their surrounding environment; it dissolves anecdote in the solvent of affective atmosphere. Like Boccioni, Soffici saw the artist as a mediumistic personality—as “a privileged organism” of “powerful vital force,” as he phrased it in “Raggio.”
Along with Marinetti, Boccioni, and other Futurists, Soffici volunteered for the army when Italy entered the Great War in 1915. On his return at war’s end, he reassessed the state of art and his own position within it and concluded that the time for experimentation was over. In the September 1920 article “Apologia del futurismo” he acknowledged that Futurism had reinvigorated Italian art, but that its moment had passed. Soffici didn’t renounce his Futurism but rather thought the time had come to go beyond it. We are fortunate to have his Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms in Sears’ pitch-perfect translation to experience for ourselves something of the excitement and novelty the movement held for him, if only for a short time.
Simultaneities & Lyric Chemisms, by Ardengo Soffici. Translated by Olivia E. Sears. New York City, NY: World Poetry Books, September 2022. 120 pages. $20.00, paper.
Daniel Barbiero is a double bassist, composer, and writer in the Washington, DC area. He writes on the art, music, and literature of the classic avant-gardes of the 20th century, and on contemporary work, and is the author of the essay collection As Within, So Without (Arteidolia Press, 2021). Website: danielbarbiero.wordpress.com.
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