Velimir Khlebnikov and ‘Displacement’ as Poetics

By | 1 August 2014

The idea of liberation is central to the word – as a word was added to, expanded, it was liberated and displaced from the general constraints of what standard Russian allowed. It is not mere playing with language; in their translations of Khlebnikov’s notes and prose pieces, Vroon and Schmidt pay attention to the word experiments in his notebooks. They detail how a certain word was written down, creating ‘several neologisms based on the form of the word … adding a prefix, for example, or replacing one morpheme with another.’ As the following excerpt from the poem ‘Symphony of Love’ demonstrates, it is a vigorous attempt to try and challenge the boundaries – the tide of where and how language could go.

This manner of exploding and shattering the accepted parameters of language determined the path of future experiments. Khlebnikov’s scientific approach to language had been gestating for quite a while before he began collaborating with Kruchenih on the essay ‘The Word as Such’, where both writers tried to define the work of art as the art of the word: ‘прoизведение искусства – искусство слова’ [337].1 Moreover, Khlebnikov’s early creative works were already undermining certain expected usages of language – that is, they were displacing them. For example, in the poem ‘Incantation to Laughter’, the emphasis is on the word as the end ¬– not the means – to poetic creation. It is based on the common word of the Russian language, ‘laughter’, the root of which is given in multiple variations, appearing to conform to flexible rules of Russian word formation. This end product contradicts the rules of Russian, as the following forms of ‘laugh’ do not occur in standard Russian as they are formed here.

Written in 1909, ‘Incantation to Laughter’ is one of Khlebnikov’s most anthologised poems. This is a literal representation of the concept of the inner life of the word, buoyantly similar to a classroom exercise in alternative word formation. This poem is an experiment that tries to get back to the root meaning – its ‘arche-’ – of the word, or perhaps in more philosophical terms, to see and hear the word as the thing in itself. But in trying to go back to the origins or the ‘arche-’ of sense, this play with word formation also points to new projections of sense: a multiplicity of projections, a series of events in the formation and becoming of the word, pointing to the ‘future’ of the word. In order to create and be a part of the future, language also had to look back at itself. It also had to look as far back as possible, to its root, to its pre-linguistic forms outside of verbal language – a temporality that transgresses the authority of language, a mythopoeia of symbols and visual images at the poet’s disposal.

In fact, this poem connotes something rather non-verbal yet human: a laugh. And, within this breathless usage of different prefixes, and the creation of nouns and verbs from the one root, we are exposed to a passionate dedication more pronounced than any notion explained in the manifestos produced by the Futurists. Predictably, there is no classical metre used here; rather, it is a classic example of displacement as poetics, as something not mystical, but instead a linguistic element possessing the potential to become poetic. It also demonstrates that language is still not fully formed, neither syntactically nor semantically, and that the possibility of a possible ‘original’ reading of language could be undertaken and performed. Unlike Wittgenstein’s and Peirce’s theory of the sign as being arbitrary and subject to change within language, Khlebnikov attempts to assign some ‘original’ meaning to different phonemes, letters, and words, as his work is consumed with origins, and it will be explored in this article how Khlebnikov’s poetics are a displacement of those origins taken for granted within language, speakers and myth.

This view of the face expressed piece by piece in the poem discussed above, ‘бобэоби пелись губы’ is characteristic of Futurism in general, and especially Cubo-Futurism. This ‘canvas of such correspondences’ in the poem reflects a general rejection of mimesis, a distorted sense of perception deeply established within many different trends of Modernism in different parts of the world. For example, in the paintings of Natalia Goncharova, Pablo Picasso, and Joy Hester – three artists who represent three very different trends of Modernism – there is a dissociation of features on a canvas that we have known to be indissolubly united while on the human face. In Khlebnikov’s poem, ‘бобэоби пелись губы’, the face is made up of features that are sung into existence, a canvas created by accidental correspondences. Khlebnikov’s words themselves also become visual images: his theory of phonosemantics is related to how the letter is formed visually, as outlined in his essay, ‘Artists of the World’. In the essay the artist’s task is to conceptualise and create the alphabet as a spatial world, imagined by Khlebnikov as a body made up of different parts, and to ‘provide a special sign for each type of space … to designate ‘m’ with blue, ‘v’ with green, ‘b’ with red, ‘c’ with grey …’ The language of Khlebnikov’s poetic principles is a soundshape based on phonosemantics that cause synethesia.

Phonosemantics, as a branch of linguistics, is concerned with the notion of phonemes carrying a meaning within the written and vocalised form of the phoneme. Although in Saussarian and Chomskian linguistics there is the conviction that there is no correspondence between meaning and linguistic sign, and that semantics is abstracted from language (and the people of that language) itself for Khlebnikov, abstractions within language could not exist. Instead, like the rhizome, there could be networks and correlations of possibility. It is necessary to note that linguist Roman Jakobson in his book The Sound Shape of Language delves into the effect of form on content in poetry and, in his analysis of a poem by E.E. Cummings, notes that content and form (and especially, the sound shape) could not be clearly distinguished, and definitely not abstracted. Phonosemantics is the study of linguistics where parole is not subordinated to langue, and in Khlebnikov’s poetic treatises and creative works, we see that the phoneme carries a meaning rooted in its utterance, in its articulation – it is rhizomorphous, threatening to spill over with the fact that the linguistic sign is in fact not only not arbitrary, but polyphonic in articulating a possible meaning that may ordinarily be absent from the space of the word.

Although Khlebnikov is associated with Futurism in terms of always ‘making something new’, he was simultaneously also outside their framework as his Futurist inventions do not by any means entirely reject the past or demonstrate the desire to do so given the interrelatedness with the word and its connection to a people, their history, and the possibility of exploring and exploiting those meanings inherent within language. Although he was connected with a collective of artists who propagated the seeds of ‘newness’, Khlebnikov was not entirely subscribing to the following aesthetic trends either, which was a declaration of replacement, and not one of displacement.

The Khlebnikovian world is a trans-realistic world, complete with temporal scenes that displace the present, lack coherence, and are based on a systematic set of relations in which utopian futures and the destruction of the utopian past affirms the rhizome’s fascination with multiplicity.

Khlebnikov’s works lack linearity – they are not grounded in a model of chronology. Their structure thus corresponds to the crux of the rhizome, which has a diffuse relationship to temporality. According to the rhizome, which is a relational structure, and hence grounded in a distant simultaneity, time has no barriers – accelerating into the future and the past simultaneously. Mythological and historical figures and motifs such as Peter the Great, Marx, Zarathustra, Leila and Majnun, mermaids, Perun, Kava, Tzo-kabi, Jesus Christ, Shiva, Khrishna, Ra, Darwin, and self-catering tablecloths from fairy tales, as well as events and people from his surroundings, are drawn on to create something new: the future which can only be made by convoluting with the past. History is merely a façade of representations, where a word is inscribed as discourse, as form and content, where form has meaning. Khlebnikov’s conception of history repudiates linearity, and has been identified as ‘genealogy’ by Foucault. Likewise, the past can only be understood via the future, and thus, displacing time itself by endlessly contrasting, comparing and melding various periods of time – a poetic map of epic scale.

In Khlebnikov’s works, the word must always refer to what is not: consequently, his use of time and figures, which personify a particular timeframe, are also subject to the wide semantic shifts of time and space according to his principles where there is combustion of archaic and modern, of art and science, thus producing new calculations (and creations) of time. In explaining the relations between the birthdays of Virgil, Dante and Goethe, Khlebnikov reduces these figures to a mathematical unit – to a ‘Law of Generations’ as the essay is called, as the time that separates these famous people is reduced to a formula that has the potential to create language. It is a mere accident of parachrony that Leonardo was born in 1452 and Euripedes in 490 BC – the correlating factor is the time and space that inhabits them, as the epochs associated with these figures have been opened up and released into another world of signification.

In his essay titled ‘Proposals’, he also emphasises the need to restructure perceptions of time. Instead of war taking place within geography and space as we’ve come to understand war over time, instead we should come to an understanding of a war between time, that is, between generations. Time becomes a space that can be fought over and, within the Futurist conception of utopias, may even be conquered.

Admittedly, Khlebnikov’s originality regarding time was a key concept central to Futurist poetics. There was a general investment in a farcical time of history, when utopias – cosmic and linguistic – seemed entirely probable. In the desire to dismember one’s art, the world and the art of ‘seeing’ are central to Futurism. Futurism also represents a penetration into time: an expansion and violence that goes beyond the timed rhythm of the lyric poet prior, as ‘the body is no longer itself [. . .] a privileged object’ of representation, and this can be seen as a metaphor of how time is beyond representation in Futurism.

There is something persistent in this tone, an extreme desire for a new aesthetic almost apocalyptic and sublime in nature. Yet Khlebnikov didn’t reject these mystic ideals and, in fact, continued a mythological lineage by creating and adapting Futurist principles. Khlebnikov’s poetics are far more speculative than his contemporaries in style, producing a poetics where time is constantly displaced, referring to another time, knowing no borders, no ruptures and formulated by a profound, systematic movement.

An example of time exposed to and altered by space is found in the narrative play ‘Zangezi’. It is composed of three language forms expressive of Zaum: bird-language, star-language and gods-language, which portray a sense of endlessness. The play encapsulates many cultures and languages, underscoring the discord that arises within this cacophony – hence its timelessness. The space of life is conceived of as being at one with that of the dead – infinite and without end like Khlebnikov’s ‘zvukopis’ or the rhizome, as space is constantly exposed to the possibility of its own otherness.

In the poem ‘Asia’, the present moment refers to the past and back again to the present. It is addressed to a ‘you’, who appears to be an allegorical female who partakes in a performance of language, turning the pages of her own history with an invisible finger. The ink is ‘human’, a metaphor connected to the previous metaphor of the anonymous person in the poem: a mere human who is enslaved to the history of the book in front of her. This slave also carries tsars on her skin as if they are beauty spots (rodinoy tsarei); like ink, the tsars have also made their mark, but their mark is indelible.

  1. V. Khlebnikov. The Collected Works. In six volumes. Ed. R.V. Duganov. (Moscow: IMLI RAN, 2006), vi-2; 337.
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