What Sparks Poetry


What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our series focused on Translation, we invite poet-translators to share seminal experiences in their practices, bringing poems from one language into another. How does the work of translating feel essential to the writing of one’s own poetry? Our contributors reflect on inspiring moments as intricate as a grammatical quirk and as wide-ranging as the history or politics of another place. 

Olivia E. Sears on Ardengo Soffici’s “Rainbow”


When I first read the kaleidoscopic poem “Arcobaleno” (“Rainbow”), I had been studying and translating the poetry of war for decades. Rarely did I encounter poems about rainbows in those days. I also knew nothing about the author, Ardengo Soffici. But I was thoroughly intrigued by the colorful, surreal landscape of the poem, full of sensory stimuli from unlikely sources: the voice of the moon, the fragrance of nights drowned in topaz armpits, the sight of the Seine as a garden of blazing flags, the feeling of hands stained with the liquors of sunset.

I tracked down the book, Simultaneità e chimismi lirici, and discovered a 1915 volume of poetry dedicated to a radical renewal of art and culture in what Soffici termed an Italia dormiente (dormant Italy). Soffici’s approach to renewal was quite different from that of his Futurist contemporaries in the Italian avanguardia. Unlike other writers, Soffici came to the project as a painter and art critic steeped in the contemporary art of France, where he spent much of the prior decade working among the most influential Impressionist and Cubist painters (Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, and so on)—along with visual poets like Apollinaire—and introducing their work to Italy. He was trained in the power of the eye.

“Rainbow” performs a demonstration of Soffici’s manifesto for renewal, both urging the artist to wake up, revive, and take their place at the center of things, like a wizard or an alchemist, and doing so himself with the poem. Poets, like painters, he shows us, would need new techniques to respond to this radically new century. But rather than the aggressive techniques the Futurists advocated—the violent imagery and bombastic declarations designed to wrench Italy into the new century by force—Soffici chose color and expressive typography to reproduce the vibrancy, disorientation, and sensory overload of early twentieth-century life.

Central to his project is the “eye” of the artist, which is inextricably linked with the rainbow. The spectrum of colors is central both to sight and to painting, of course, but in Italian the eye and the rainbow are also linked linguistically. Throughout the book, Soffici alternates between two different words for rainbow: “arcobaleno” (rainbow) and “iride,” which can also refer to the iris (both botanical and anatomical). Soffici plays with this ambiguity in a later poem where he turns his gaze to a simple glass of water and enters a “pyrotechnical sphere of fantasy” where the word IRIDE (iris / rainbow) floats above an eye constructed with rainbow color names:

The eye of the rainbow. Almost every poem in the book features a panoply of swirling colors or a rainbow or both. While his Futurist contemporaries glorified struggle, Soffici wrote of color and sight.

* * *

Soffici opens “Rainbow” by declaring the date: it is the day after his birthday, in early April 1915. The poem appeared in his magazine Lacerba, a month later (May 8), on the eve of Italy’s entry into World War I (May 23). It was one of the final poems Soffici wrote before his own departure for the front.

In the spring of 1915, Soffici was strongly advocating for Italy to enter the war, and he would volunteer to fight as soon as he could. And yet, on the eve of the war, he did not write a call to arms, but a call to the artist to rise up, to “look around / and write as you dream / to revive the face of our joy.” No call for “regenerative violence,” no sanctified machines of war, no annihilation, as demanded by the Futurists, particularly as the war loomed.

It was striking to me that Soffici wrote this poem full of beauty and tenderness, while he was (simultaneously) preparing for war. After all, the rainbow is also associated with hope, what lies beyond our sight, at the other end of the arc. Soffici had written years before about existential dread and about his efforts to combat the void: “Art for me is the only way to escape the concept of nothingness that otherwise haunts and terrifies me.” In these poems, he filled that void with color, shape, sound, and alchemical transformation.

Sadly, Italy’s entry into war immediately killed the Florentine avant-garde and its ideals; there was no cultural renewal, and Soffici would return from the war “a changed man,” in his words. He denounced his prewar experimental work. Years later, in the face of the 1915 book’s popularity, he would republish the poems, but reworked in a new form dedicated to “order,” with punctuation introduced (to excess) and the concrete poems reduced to lines of text. The wild, colorful experiment was over.

Writing Prompt

Take a walk where you live and try to record everything that catches your interest: sights, sounds, smells, feelings, memories triggered, visions imagined, all at once. Relish the clamor. Be curious. Make of this complex world your own vision.

As you write, please follow the instructions Soffici provides, embedded in his poems:

1. The key is to open your eyes ever wider tunnels to the universe blowing in at high speed.
2. You need only look around / And write what you dream / To revive the face of our joy.
3. Place the colors of your eyes side by side / And draw your own arc.
4. The moonlight has gone off to war / We alone are left to here to sing / Of desperation.
5. The prism of the times and our sensibilities / Dies in the details.
6. There is no more time / Space / Is a twilight worm coiled in phosphorus.

Olivia E. Sears

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Olivia E. Sears

Olivia E. Sears is founder of the Center for the Art of Translation and the journal Two Lines, which she edited for more than a decade. As a translator of Italian poetry, her work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Kenyon Review, Poetry International, Lana Turner, The Literary Review, The Arkansas Review, and Jubilat as well as The FSG Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry. The majority of Sears’s translations focus on poetry by Italian women from the past 100 years, from early twentieth-century Dada poet Maria d’Arezzo to the 1960s and 70s avant-garde poet Patrizia Vicinelli to contemporary poet and dramatist Mariangela Gualtieri. Her translation of Ardengo Soffici’s 1915 master work, Simultaneities and Lyric Chemisms, appeared in 2022 (World Poetry Books). As a poet, her writing on the natural world has appeared in multi-media installations and performances in galleries in Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco, often in collaboration with visual artist Aline Mare and botanical fabric artist Samuel Spurrier. A graduate of Yale University, she holds a doctorate in Italian literature from Stanford University.