the suprise of the new

After reading thru a few of Marinetti’s manifesto’s, Apollinaire’s “The New Spirit and the Poet” (1917/8) is a glass of “heilignuchterne Wasser”:

“To explore truth, to search for it, as much in the ethnic domain, for example, as in that of the imagination — those are the principal characteristics of the new spirit.” In class, we talked about the influence of Whitman and the influence on O’Hara, particularly in poems that “sing of the city” such as “Zone”, “The Musician of Saint-Merry”, and “Vintage Month.” The New Spirit celebrates modernity. Just as photography freed up painting, A. claims that the phonograph and cinema will free up poetry to the investigation of new forms:

“Typographical artifices worked out with great audacity have the advantage of bringing to life a visual lyricism […] These artifices can still go much further and achieve the synthesis of the arts, of music, painting and literature.” A. mentions the freedom achieved by the futurists (both in Italy and Russia) in “serving their apprenticeship to this encyclopaedic liberty.”

One feels the influence of Marinetti throughout this essay, and sees this influence in the Caligrammes. We hear it clearly in this passage: “In the realm of inspiration, their liberty can not be less than that of a daily newspaper which on a single sheet treats the most diverse matters and ranges over the most distant countries. One wonders why the poet should not have at least an equal freedom, and should be restricted, in an era of the telephone, the wireless, and aviation, to a greater consciousness in confronting space.”

The idea that space is something “confronted” as well as the “cosmopolitanism” of the poet of modernity is right out of Whitman, to Rimbaud, into Marinetti, to Apollinaire. A. claims that poems are creating “new entities which have a plastic value.” The idea of plasticity is important in understanding Apollinaire’s calligrammes, but also relates to Marinetti’s “tactilism” and “words-in-freedom.” and carries over into Concrete Poetry and Visual poetry.

Beyond the mere plasticity of the signifier, I would argue that a “plastic value” can be applied to modernity as “self.” The self in Apollinaire becomes something not given, but shaped by the reflexivity of the poem. Two examples are “Mirror” and “Cortege.” This has roots in Whitman, in Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” where the I becomes something to be “disfigured” and “deranged,” becomes plastic, also in Pessoa, where the self becomes split and sculpted. It seems that the idea of persona partially depends upon an assumption of plasticity – thus transforming persona.

Despite the plasticity of both self and signifier, Apollinaire warns against taking this “liberty” too far. For one, A. believes deeply in national literature: “Poets must always express a milieu, a nation; and artists, just as poets, just as philosophers, form a social estate which belongs doubtless to all humanity, but as the expression of a race, of one given environment…From ethnic and national differences are born the variety of literary expressions, and it is that very variety which must be preserved.” This seems quite lovely to me. And he warns that “a cosmopolitan lyric expression would only yield shapeless works without character or individual structure, which would have the value of the commonplace of international parliamentary rhetoric.” This seems similar to both Zukofsky’s allegory of Babel, and to Dostoevsky’s resistance to foreign ideas because of the threat of destroying Russian culture, and to Hughes’s Mountain. Apollinaire rightly claims that “it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” This position, however, becomes dangerous if it turns into an essentialist nationalism or to cultural and aesthetic insularity (which i dont think it does in any of these writers).

Although Apollinaire is influenced by Marinetti, he does depart from Marinetti, particularly when he A. talks about literary “games” and “experiments” in onomatopeai (he is perhaps thinking of DADA here as well).

“The new spirit admits even hazardous literary experience, and those experiences are at times anything but lyric. This is why lyricism is only one domain of the new spirit in today’s poetry, which often contents itself with experiments and investigations without concerning itself over giving them lyric significance. They are materials which the poet amasses…and these materials will form a basis of truth whose simplicity and modesty must never give pause, for their consequences can be very great things.”

One thinks of Cage and MacLow and Antin and Flarf as some of the great things that have developed from these experiments. This openness allows for “every study of exterior and interior nature, it is all eagerness for truth.” This creates “a foundation of a new realism” where “even if it is true that there is nothing new under the sun, the new spirit does not refrain from discovering new profundities in all this that is not new under the sun.”

This exploration will create new works and new combinations. “In this sense, progress exists. But if it is held to consist of an eternal becoming, a sort of messianism as appalling as the fable of Tantalus, Sisyphus, and the Danaidae, then Solomon was right over all the prophets of Isreal.” This rubs right against Duncan and Pound. The danger of messianism is that is does not allow openness, but violence, pride, and closure.

A. argues that “What is new exists without being progress. Everything is in the effect of surprise…Surprise is the greatest source of what is new.” Surprise is the result of “good sense and of experience which have induced us to accept things and feelings only according to truth.” As we can see, Apollinarian “surprise” is different from Dadaist “spontaneity,” where “thought is made in the mouth” and truth is only relative. Surprise can be found in new combinations of the familiar, or in familiar combinations of the unfamiliar. It is quieter, wiser. Has nothing to do with the “shock” of the new.

Besides having “good sense” and a sense of exploration and openness, “poets will be charged finally with giving by means of lyric teleologies and arch-lyric alchemies a constancy purer meaning to the idea of divinity, which is so alive in us, which is perpetual renewal of ourselves, that eternal creation, that endless rebirth by which we live.” Apollinaire’s breadth rivals that of Whitman, and in this passage, finds parallel with Duncan and Rimbaud — the poet will take on prophecy as bearers of truth.

The New Spirit (which is both new and not new) “is the enemy of estheticism, of formulae, and of cultism. It attacks no school whatever, for it does not wish to be a school … if fight for the reestablishment of the spirit of initiative, for the clear understanding of its time, and for th eopening of new vistas on the exterior and interior universes which are not inferior to those which scientists of all categories discover every day and from which they extract endless marvels.”


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