These weights thicknesses noises smells molecular whirlwinds chains webs corridors of analogies rivalries and synchronisms offered offered offered offered up as a gift to my Futurist friends poets painters musicians and noise intoners. —F. T. Marinetti, the closing verse of Zang Tumb Tuuum (1914)1
While Futurism later expanded to include nearly all mediums, it was born as a literary school. F. T. Marinetti (1876–1944), the movement’s founder, was an Italian poet and author who sought to revolutionize art to address the realities of modern life. The movement began with his first manifesto, published in 1909, which called for the glorification of everything new—speed, factories, trains—and the destruction of everything old, even museums, and is considered to have ended with his death in 1944.
In the beginning, the Futurist writers experimented only with free verse and the new themes of machinery and progress. But by 1912, Marinetti had transitioned into a revolution in not just content but style. He called this new literature “words-in-freedom” (parole in libertà). Words-in-freedom destroyed syntax, used verbs in the infinitive, abolished adjectives and adverbs, suppressed punctuation, and employed mathematical and musical symbols. Marinetti exhorted writers to “destroy the ‘i’ in literature: that is, all psychology,” to give up on being understood by the reader, and to abandon aesthetic concerns by creating the “ugly” in literature. His prescription for Futurist writing was not only phonetic but also visual. He wanted to take advantage of the “typographical revolution” to use new fonts and arrangements of words.
In 1914, Marinetti wrote a book-length words-in-freedom poem called Zang Tumb Tuuum that one scholar, Jeffrey Schnapp, has described as “a text on a mission: to carry out a wholesale demolition of existing literary culture in the act of giving birth to a poetics consonant with the era of industry, wireless telegraphic networks, and mechanized mass warfare.”2 Schnapp says the poem functioned as the laboratory in which Marinetti carried out his experimentations with literature. Focusing on a pre–World War I battle in the Balkans in which Marinetti had served as a poet-war correspondent, the book demonstrates Marinetti’s desire to fuse the roles of poet and reporter. The title derives from mechanical noises: zang for the firing of an artillery shell, tumb for its explosion upon impact, and tuuum for the resulting echo. Marinetti used onomatopoeia like this in part to explore both the visual and performative possibilities of poetry.
Show: Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianople October 1912; Words in Freedom (1914)
- Look together at the cover of F. T. Marinetti’s book Zang Tumb Tuuum. What do students notice about the words? About the font and layout? How do these last elements compare to their own reports or papers?
- These are selections from a book of poetry written by the founder of an art movement called Futurism. The founder, F. T. Marinetti, wanted to revolutionize literature for a new modern era. What can students guess about his ideas just based on this image?
- The title of the book is Zang Tumb Tuuum. These are mechanical noises: zang for the firing of an artillery shell, tumb for its explosion upon impact, and tuuum for the resulting echo. The quote at the beginning of this section is the closing verse of the book and was followed by a chorus of zangs, tumb-tumbs, and tuuums. Read it together and think more about Marinetti’s ideas about literature.
- Marinetti wanted writers to give up on traditional narrative. He wanted writers to abandon syntax, punctuation, adjectives, and adverbs and experiment with font and placement as well as the sound of the poetry, such as onomatopoeia. Ask students what they think about these ideas. Do they think writers should give up on traditional linear narrative? Do they think writers should abandon all of these “rules” of literature? Why or why not?
- Paradoxes exist throughout Futurist mediums and time periods. Within words-in-freedom, one fundamental tension is that the text is presented as a score for a performance in which it is read or “declaimed” out loud, but also has rich typography for the eye to see. Ask one student to read the closing verse of Zang Tumb Tuuum (note: this is the opening quote in this section of the guide) and the class to repeat “zang, tumb, tuuum” several times together. Ask students how the writing lends itself to performance. Now, ask students to write a poem that can appeal both to the eye and the voice—with typographical and performative elements.
To scaffold this, ask students to create a list of words that suggest sounds (or, onomatopoeia). Next, have them create their own fonts to convey these sounds. Finally, they can cut and paste the words in an arrangement on paper that suggests how the poem should be read. Ask them to have another student read their poem aloud. Was this the performance they intended?
As a higher-tech alternative, have students record the onomatopoeia poems. Students should then swap the audio recordings with partners who have not seen their written poems and their partner should write or type what they hear. Compare the written poems. How has the partner reinterpreted the visual presentation of the orally delivered poem?
English Language Arts
- One scholar has described Marinetti as writing “like a man with a movie camera—zooming back and forth from the micro to the macro, from the molecular to the worm’s eye to the aerial view.”3 Discuss this idea and then challenge students to write about a topic (for example, a bad day) in this way.
English Language Arts
- One of Marinetti’s techniques for Futurist writing foreshadowed the automatic writing of the Surrealists, artists and writers from the 1910s and ’20s who sought to access the subconscious this way. “The creative mind,” Marinetti wrote, could be “freed” by several hours of writing, after which “the hand that writes seems to separate from the body and freely leaves far behind the brain.”4 Ask students to experiment with this kind of automatic writing. Challenge them to write without thinking until the hand leaves the brain behind. Ask them to compare the process and the product to their normal writing methods. What do they like or dislike?
English Language Arts