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What do we mean when we say a poem is a machine? Part 2.

January 5, 2012 \pm\31 7:46 pm

When Williams said, “A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words,” he wasn’t the first writer to latch onto the machine as a way to conceptualize what a poem is or how a poem reflects contemporary political and social movements. In manifestos and essays such as “Multiplied Man and the Reign of the Machine,” the ringleader of Italian Futurism, Filippo Marinetti, argued for the supremacy of an “idea of mechanical beauty” that would lead to an art “constructed for omnipresent velocity” with “courage, audacity, and revolt” as its essence. On the surface, this sounds pretty awesome, but the truth is that Futurism is a cool way of saying Fascist Modernism, so that Marinetti’s obsession with the metaphor of the machine as a way to reimagine art and, in turn, politics, and really all of Italian culture (see The Futurist Cookbook), was really the promotion of an ideology more than an aesthetic, and a violent, antifeminist ideology at that. Not that the brazen intensity of Futurism’s manifestos or its literary results should be dismissed because it wrapped itself into the political fabric of Mussolini’s regime, but in terms of asking what we mean we say a poem is a machine, Futurism has less to offer than an equally short-lived literary movement that took place in Russia in the late 1920s, the OBERIU (the subject of Part 3).

In Fascist Modernism, Andrew Hewitt describes “Marinetti’s insistent use of the machine as a metaphor both of social order and of potential economic (dis)order” as a way to reimagine the relationship between man and nature in the midst of a then-provincial Italy that Marinetti believed to be mistakenly in love with its own past:

“With Futurism and the advent of the avant-garde, the ambiguous antagonism that divides/unites Man and Nature finds its expression in the figure of the machine. In order for the simultaneous processes of opposition and reconciliation to be possible within the same relationship it is necessary that the principle of antagonism itself be ontologized. In this ontologization, the machine, as a social symbol of a natural antagonism, becomes crucially important as a figure for the unification of natural and social orders. The machine, which represents a struggle without protagonists, becomes the central organizing metaphor for Marinetti’s social vision; it is with reference to this overarching figure that one must read the political ideologies embedded in the Futurist texts. As a figure of both conflict and resolution, the machine offers a symbolic resolution of specific social tensions. To understand the political importance of Marinetti’s metaphoric configurations, then, it is necessary that one rethink the machine as a form of “translation” – a translation of one set of realities (political life) into another (aesthetic order).”

Marinetti used the machine as a controlling metaphor to promote efficiency politically, socially, and

from the 2nd page of google image results for "erection splendor throw piercing immensity"

individually. In hindsight, Marinetti’s obsession with the machine metaphor is naïve and rather misguided, mainly because using the metaphor as a glorification of an ideology rather than as an aesthetic principle ultimately idealizes the machine, not to mention that, like any war-machine, it inherently demands its own destruction. Marinetti’s poems do celebrate the machine overtly, such as the “To the Racing Car,” but his maximalist “Battle // Weight + Smell” comes closer to embodying the excessive, repetitive, war-obsessed qualities put forth in his prose. With its spam-like logic, the poem seems to resemble a random sampling of internet search results 80 years before the internet. The poem is over 3 pages long and reaches to the right margin:

“Towers cannons-virility-gun- / chases erection range-finder ecstasy tumb-tumb 3 seconds tumbtumb / waves smiles laughter cic ciac plaff pluff gluglugluglu hide-and-seek crys- / tals virgins meat jewels pearls iodine salts bromines little-skirts gas liquors / boils 3 seconds / tumbtumb official whiteness range-finder cross fire / drindrin megaphone rifle-sight-4-thousand-meters all-to-the-left enough still-all disbanding-7-grades erection splendor throw piercing immensity / blue-woman rape”

So where does that leave us with “poem as machine”? In his book-length essay A Thousand Machines, Gerald Raunig cites the “excessive literary machine fantasies of Futurism” as part of a continuum of interest that contributed to further conceptualizations of the machine by Marxists and Post-Structuralists. But in order for these ideas to be useful for thinking about “poem as machine,” we first need a different definition of what we mean by “machine.”

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6 Comments
  1. January 6, 2012 \pm\31 1:05 pm 1:05 pm

    But Marinetti’s poems are useful in thinking about machines, particularly as they obey sets of rules he composed in his manifesti (manifestoes?) and his writings reflect these changes like changes to any algorithm.

    Not sure how this doesn’t then relate to machines and how machines function.

    Can you elaborate a bit more?

    • January 6, 2012 \pm\31 1:54 pm 1:54 pm

      Hey Alex. I know way less about Marinetti than the other writers I plan on talking about so I’m glad you’re calling me out on this. I’ve read all the manifestos I can find and he does lay out A LOT of points about what he imagines Futurism to be, but I haven’t found anything that work like rules for writing. Was there a specific essay or manifesto you were thinking of? Is there a specific translation of Marinetti I should read?

      • January 6, 2012 \pm\31 2:24 pm 2:24 pm

        well, I’m basing this on what I learned while doing my master’s thesis, but I’d consider his Destruction of Syntax… from 1913 to be a set of delineations. I guess it’s true that he doesn’t give strict outlines, and that wouldn’t be the same as a true algorithm, but he does say the imagination without strings will be “unhampered words and with no connecting strings of syntax and with no punctuation.” he also advocated using verbs only in the infinitive form and adheres to that. so that could be more “design constraint” than a “machine” or something, but to me it’s definitely a precursor to Oulipo and that kind of writing.

        anyway, I wasn’t trying to be super nitpicky, these are good essays! I’m just interested in understanding what would define a “machine” for you.

  2. January 6, 2012 \pm\31 3:26 pm 3:26 pm

    DESTRUCTION OF SYNTAX was what I was thinking of as the closest thing, too. I agree with you, definitely, that him talking about a poem rendering experience the way a telegraph does, or comparing syntax and grammar to pragmatic architecture like dams and weirs, and then wanting to destroy that architecture, contributes to understanding “poem as machine” if “machine” is synonymous with “system” or “architecture,” which I think it is. I really feel it when he says “Man multiplied by the machine. New mechanical sense, a fusion of instinct with the efficiency of motors and conquered forces.” But what makes me put Marinetti at the bottom of the list is his literal conception of “machine.” When he says machine he’s thinking race car, airplane, engine, so that even a phrase like “mechanical sense,” which has a lot of potential to be opened up and analyzed, is lessened, I think, by his literalness. And that’s the big difference between Marinetti being obsessed with machines and wanting poems to function with the speed and destructive power of machines, and Williams saying a poem is machine and that machine is made of words; it’s not an actual machine. That leads into the next post, which work on a broader definition of machine and move into the OBERIU. Keep pushing me on this though. I need the help!

    • January 6, 2012 \pm\31 3:44 pm 3:44 pm

      Ah yes! I see what you’re getting at.

      I don’t know anything about OBERIU so I look forward to the next post.

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