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Words-in-Freedom—“The Unique Colors of our Changeable ‘I’”

F. T. Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianople October 1912; Words-in-Freedom (Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianopoli ottobre 1912; Parole in libertà). Book (Milan: Edizioni futuriste diPoesia, 1914), 20.2 x 14 cm. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Courtesy The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

F. T. Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianople October 1912; Words-in-Freedom (Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianopoli ottobre 1912; Parole in libertà). Book (Milan: Edizioni futuriste di Poesia, 1914), 20.2 x 14 cm. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: Courtesy The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Fortunato Depero, Bells (Onomalinguistic Picture) (Campanelli [Tavola onomalinguistica]), 1916. Ink on paper, 46 × 36 cm. MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: © MART, Archivio Fotografico

Fortunato Depero, Bells (Onomalinguistic Picture) (Campanelli [Tavola onomalinguistica]), 1916. Ink on paper, 46 × 36 cm. MART, Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome. Photo: © MART, Archivio Fotografico

Paolo Buzzi, "Clandestine Typography" ("La tipografia clandestina"), from The Ellipse and the Spiral: Film + Words-in-Freedom (L'ellisse e la spirale: Film + parole in liberta). Book (Milan: Edizioni futurist di Poesia, 1915), 19 x 12.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Paolo Buzzi, “Clandestine Typography” (“La tipografia clandestina”), from The Ellipse and the Spiral: Film + Words-in-Freedom (L’ellisse e la spirale: Film + parole in libertà). Book (Milan: Edizioni futurist di Poesia, 1915), 19 x 12.5 cm. The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Photo: Courtesy The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles

Provocative, grandiloquent, disruptive, written, and oral, parole in libertàor words-in-freedom—was a poetic art form created by Futurism’s founder, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Words-in-freedom texts combined poetic elements with features characteristic of prose narratives and freely deployed sound, especially onomatopoeia (that is, words that sound in some way similar to the objects or events to which they refer), along with the unconventional use of fonts and characters and other typographic effects. Words-in-freedom also employed extremely simplified syntax, with brusque shifts from one idea or image to another, and could utilize unorthodox and spare punctuation. This word-based form was quickly followed by “words-in-freedom tableaux” (tavole parolibere), which privileged the graphic and visual aspects of words-in-freedom over oral and performative qualities.1 It is important to note a translation matter that bears on the meaning of “freedom” in this context; in English, the word can have ethical or political implications, but here the term refers instead to a text’s psychological and stylistic attributes and suggests freedom in the sense of “free words,” “free association,” or “free verse.”

The words-in-freedom art form reached its peak in a relatively short period of time, between 1912 and 1919, beginning with Marinetti’s intense prose poem “Battle Weight + Smell” (“Battaglia peso + odore,” 1912), which features such graphic characteristics as mathematical symbols and white space as well as the use of onomatopoeia. This was followed by his key manifestos “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” (“Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista,” 1912) and “Destruction of Syntax—Wireless Imagination—Words-in-Freedom” (“Distruzione della sintassi—immaginazione senza fili—parole in libertà,” 1913), and culminated with his book Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianople October 1912; Words-in-Freedom (Zang Tumb Tuuum: Adrianopoli ottobre 1912: Parole in libertà, 1914, a narrative poem that is not a propaganda tract (for that specific war, or for any war) or an invitation to a purely aesthetic spectacle. Rather it is an attempt—largely successful—to involve the reader in an integrated sensory experience (intellectual, visual, and oral) that plunges him or her into a world of simultaneous perceptions without losing sight of the basic narrative thread: the evocation of some episodes in a siege during the Bulgarian-Turkish war of 1912. Zang Tumb Tuuum was a poetic masterpiece whose fundamental role in the international history of contemporary poetry would perhaps have been recognized sooner if its version in French—the language then best known internationally for its intellectual prestige—had been published at the time together with its original Italian text, which, because it was less linguistically accessible, reached a more circumscribed readership.2

Words-in-freedom is first an expressive art form and second a technique and theory. Marinetti employed the traditional poetic term “lyricism” (lirismo) and made reference to biblical imagery—the transformation of water into wine—when describing words-in-freedom in the “Destruction of Syntax” manifesto: “Casting aside all stupid definitions and confusing professorial verbalisms, I declare that lyricism is the rarely found faculty of intoxicating oneself with life and with oneself. The faculty of changing into wine the muddy waters of the life that surround us and flow through us. The faculty of coloring the world with the unique colors of our changeable ‘I.’” 3 This definition is noteworthy for its rejection of intellectual and academic jargon and at the same time for its implicit recognition that avant-garde poetry, although new and disruptive, still develops within the general domain of the great tradition in poetry.

After its “heroic” period, from 1912 to 1919, words-in-freedom did not end, but rather was modulated. Significant from the literary point of view, the Futurists—and Marinetti, in particular—developed what has been properly defined as “attenuated words-in-freedom” (paroliberismo attenuato) in the 1930s.4 “Attenuated” was not intended to be a negative distinction, but instead characterized the skillful compromise that Marinetti adopted between experimental innovation and effective ways of communicating with all kinds of readers. (Though Marinetti appeared to be dogmatic and extremist, his artistic talent resided, in large part, in his ability to carefully balance different and potentially conflicting elements.) This prudent paroliberismo characterized the arc of Marinetti’s remarkable literary achievements from what may be called the prehistory of words-in-freedom—The Battle of Tripoli (La Bataille de Tripoli, 1912), which transfigures reportage from the Libyan front into a poetic narrative—to his great posthumously published novel written in 1943–44, Venezianella and Studentaccio (2013), which reads like an extended poem, in a brilliant combination of tender lyricism and wild imagination.5

Words-in-freedom theories led to a final and extreme development, that of “alphabet-in-freedom” (alfabeto in libertà).6 Its defining manifesto, “Aeromusica of the Alphabet-in-Freedom: Futurist Manifesto” (Aeromusica dell’alfabeto in libertà. Manifesto futurista), although not complemented by concrete realizations of this new style (Marinetti was at the end of his life), shows a truly prophetic vision for many future developments in international poetic practices, including so-called sound poetry. The lasting achievement of the Futurists’ words-in-freedom, as far as modern and contemporary experimental poetry is concerned, may well be their decisive contribution to the modern destruction of the distinct barriers between poetry and prose.

This is the final week of the Guggenheim’s exhibition Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe. To learn more about words-in-freedom, be sure to visit the museum in the coming days.

  1. See Luciano Caruso and Stelio M. Martini, eds., Tavole parolibere futuriste (1912–1944), 2 vols. (Naples: Liguori, 1974–77). Johanna Drucker’s comparative overview offers an analysis of Futurist practice: The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909–1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); for the semiotic implications, see Dario Tomasello and Francesca Polacci, Bisogno furioso di liberare le parole. Tra verbale e visivo: percorsi analitici delle Tavole parolibere futuriste (Florence: Le Lettere, 2010).
  2. See Paolo Tonini, “Il primo libro d’artista della storia: Zang Tumb Tuuum di F. T. Marinetti,” http://touchingideas.blogspot.com/2012/02/il-primo-libro-dartista-zang-tumb-tuum.html (accessed July 9, 2014), which also recalls the crucial role typographer Cesare Cavanna played in the manufacturing of the book. Additionally, the French version has been, up to now, made known only in part. See F. T. Marinetti, Selected Poems and Related Prose, ed. Luce Marinetti, trans. Elizabeth R. Napier and Barbara R. Studholme (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).
  3. See Lawrence Rainey, Christine Poggi, and Laura Wittman, eds. Futurism: An Anthology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 145 (italics in the original).
  4. See F. T. Marinetti, Teoria e invenzione futurista, ed. Luciano de Maria(Milan: Mondadori, 1968), p. lxiv.
  5. See my introduction to F. T. Marinetti, Venezianella e Studentaccio, ed. Patrizio Ceccagnoli and Paolo Valesio (Milan: Mondadori, 2013), pp. vii-cii.
  6. Amerigo Fabbri,ed.,“Aeromusica dell’alfabeto in libertà. Manifesto futurista,” in Yale Italian Poetry (YIP) 5–6 (2001–02): pp. 299–313. The text was written in collaboration with the artist Tullio Crali and is dated 1944, the year of Marinetti’s death.
  • MichaelJWilson

    Zang Tumb Tuuum was of course also the inspiration for the name of ZTT Records, the storied British avant-pop record label founded in 1983 by music journalist Paul Morley, record producer Trevor Horn, and businesswoman Jill Sinclair. ZTT enjoyed substantial critical and commercial success in the 1980s with bands such as Propaganda, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Art of Noise (whose own name was another steal from the Futurists, specifically from Luigi Russolo and his manifesto L’arte dei Rumori [The Art of Noises], which appeared in a 1913 letter to Francesco Balilla Pratella), and again in the 1990s with 808 State.