Velimir Khlebnikov and ‘Displacement’ as Poetics

By | 1 August 2014

This poem is a stirring foray into how linguistic symbols themselves can connote history, especially for someone whom we may assume is illiterate (she is also turning these pages, not reading them). The historical significance of the assassination of the tsar deserves a shocked symbol of punctuation; armies are commas, the crowd a field of dots, and people’s anger bracketed by the gaps of centuries. Punctuation is visualised as a language; it is an object that is an end, and again, not a means. Thus, history is equated to syntax entwined at the meta-level of the poem: it is both the form and the content of the poem.

Despite their bursting energy, as exemplified by Marinetti, the Futurists were still involved in a dialogue with history, with the ‘West’, and with institutionalised forms of literature. Even in opposition to those institutions, they still inhabit them. Their heady aspirations to dispose of/with such traditions, as stated in the collective manifesto ‘A Slap in the Face of Public Taste’, emerges as an ideal that is also rather self-contradictory.

As outlined in the analysis thus far, Khlebnikov himself negated these ideals – relying upon known motifs and figures from Pushkin, creating adjectives from Dostoyevsky’s name, and relying upon folk motifs in his poetic world. It is worth noting that Pushkin’s language is also made foreign: an allegory of the uselessness and exotic form of a hieroglyph. It is also a textbook foray into the ‘arche-’ of language, an experiment which tries to get back to the root meaning – the ‘arche-’ – of the word, or perhaps in more philosophical terms, to see and hear the word as the thing in itself. This is quite similar to the endeavours of Khlebnikov and Kruchenih in the essay ‘Our Foundation’ as well, as was also demonstrated in the previous excerpts from Khlebnikov’s essays ‘Teacher and Student’ and ‘Artists of the World’. Letters of the alphabet – in this case, the vowels – are devised as forms that exist as a source from which poetic language can spring.

However, there are some differences too, as Khlebnikov and Kruchenih were attempting to outline the structure of азбучных истин (‘alphabetic truths’) – in other words, the truisms of consonants. And, unlike Burlyok’s, in their use of metonymy, they attempted to create a system to break or reduce the letter itself down to its pure form. Словотворчество (‘word-creation’) should be a language where the unit of a letter itself is deregulated. It is a disembowelment of all associations, thus developing a science of the letter. Writing during the period of Futurism, critic Tastevan is convinced that the governing principle of Futurism is ‘word-creation’, although in his view it is a continuation of Mallarme’s notion of the mystique of the word, and therefore, fails to break from literary history.

This pre-occupation with the base of the word – that is, the letter – to transgress the boundaries of language in order to critique it and the nature of the word, is evident in the next poem by Kruchenikh. The harsh vowel sounds in the poem, which signify a foreigner’s speech in Russian, is in a sense, Zaum, as it is a display of what Khlebnikov deemed as ‘word-creation [that] is an explosion of language’s silence, the deaf and dumb layers of the language’. Thus, Kruchenih’s narrator is drawing attention to the vowel sounds in typical Russian. It is creating a non-standard form of what Russian poetics is capable of, spawning a poetic language full of dissonance.

To the ordinary ear, the vowels fall far from standard poetic metre, as the words themselves define concrete meaning here, the ear is left unsure of how this construction adheres to how meaning is usually made. Like Kruchenih, Ilya Zdanevich also explored vowel sounds in the poem, ‘Ослиный бох’ (‘Oslini Bokh’), returning language to its inner flesh, and likewise becoming foreign in the process. The mono-syllabic vowels are a form of the word coming into being; language is not fully formed syntactically or grammatically, despite the fact that the language itself is a form that connotes something.

These vowel sounds also seem to be heraldic – this extolling force building up towards something sacred and mighty (god?) at the end. It is an amalgamation of high- and low-culture, as kakarus is rather close to the verb kakat (‘to do a poo’ – a play with words that Gogol uses for the hero in ‘The Overcoat’), referring to baby-talk or childlike rhymes, a principle of Futurism rather reminiscent of Bakhtin’s Carnival. Language is not used to denote; it itself is a denotation, hence the fascination to sweep away the dust from its pedantic, stale, institutionalised forms, and to bring it back to the culture of the people – whether they speak literary Russian or not. Language has turned full-circle on itself, subverting how meaning – poetic meaning – is made.

Indisputably, Futurism unyieldingly uses language to challenge the Judeo-Christian ideal that in the beginning was the word, and the Platonic idea that ‘Man is a being of the word’. The word is much more sacred and obtuse for the Futurists, demonstrating ‘the inherent power of the word stemming from its sacred origins, because of the knowledge that surfaces when thick layers of semantic convention are brushed away’. It is an eternal search for the sincerity of the word – where language is language only, ideally immune to human agency. The ensuing excerpt from Kruchenikh, assembling the most difficult sounds of Russian, is a work of genius that the poets believed to surpass the genius of Pushkin.

Khlebnikov was convinced that the future and past, together, were keys not only to the core of language, but also to human identity. Khlebnikov’s ideas regarding language, identity and culture displaced the aesthetic that he was to become a part of. The next extract reveals the vastness that facilitated the creation of his own brand of poetics within the artistic trend he found himself working within.

In the ideal world of Futurism, humanity will be looking forward, moving forward, and will be connected to that internal world of humanity. For Khlebnikov, that internal world is inseparable from the word, which is connected to the world: that world constituted of many cultures, languages, time frames and spaces. With reference to time and space, the East is a source that Khlebnikov refers to time and time again, in order to replenish these notions. In the poem, ‘The Oak of Persia’, Marx (a Western economist), jokes with Mazdak (a fighter for social equality during the Sassanid empire), in what is supposed to be 20th-century Iran, a comely kinship that is then contrasted with the pack of wolves in the background of the scene. Given the larger stock of Eastern motifs in the Persian poems, there is ‘transference of time and the spirited exchange of people and events from one period to another, resuscitating old myths with new meanings’.1

Khlebnikov’s own utopian dynamism as a poetics of displacement is energetic in a way that distinguishes his works within this canon of Futurism. The analysis of his Persian poems, boundlessly immune to the staid dichotomy of East and West, are also a space of the world (and the word) that Khlebnikov displaced. This displaced space inevitably undermines the system of poetic language and motifs, as the role of the ‘speaking subject’ is one that is inevitably divided, as the ‘Other’ cannot be eliminated from poetic discourse. Like the rhizome, the speaking subject is necessarily divided and, as expressed within Khlebnikov’s poetics, is caught within a network of desire where continual transformations redefine the terrain of language, metaphor and notions of the self. The speaking subject is a metaphor created by leaps of associations and what would at first prove to be seemingly unconnected relations: a metaphor of displacement.

  1. P.I. Tartakovsy. Russian Poets and the East. Bunin. Khlebnikov. Yesenin. (Taskent: Publisher of Literature and Art in the name of GafuraGulyama,s 1986), 175-6.
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