Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Velimir Khlebnikov, Futurian with a curse on his head - as meaning glows in language - I give you my divine white brain

Leafing through The King of Time: Selected Writings of the Russian Futurian (Harvard, 1985, ed. Charlotte Douglas,  tr. Paul Schmidt), I think, did I read this book.  Already I am forgetting it, not because Khlebnikov is too much like other poets but because his work is too strange, too nonsensical.  I mean too nonsensical to remember easily.  Aesthetically, it is exactly as strange as it should be.

Dostoeskimo snowstorms!
Pushkincandescence of noon!
Night resembles Tiutchev,
Filling the unfathomable full of the unknown.  (p. 30, ca. 1915)

Or how about “Incantation by Laughter,” just a bit of it:

Hlahla!  Uthlofan, lauflings!
Hlahla!  Uthlofan, lauflings!
Who lawghen with lafe, who hlachen lewchly,
Hlahla!  Uthlofan hlouly!  (20, ca. 1910)

The editor writes that this is among Khlebnikov’s most famous poems.  That’s what the translator is up against.  Khlebnikov called this “zaum” or per Schmidt “beyonsense.”  He wrote poetry starting not just at the level of the word but of the syllable or even letter, exploiting and enjoying all of the arbitrary and delightful random correspondences among words.  Word ladders as poetry.

Glitter-letter wing-winker,
Gossamer grasshopper
Packs his belly-basket
With water-meadow grass.
Ping, ping, ping! Throstle-whistle
Swan-wing wonder!
Nightlessness! Brightness!  (24-5)

In “O Garden of Animals!” (1909), Khlebnikov’s first major poem, Schmidt can abandon the wordplay because the imagery is good enough:

Where a camel knows the essence of Buddhism, and suppresses a Chinese smile…

Where the bat hangs sleeping, and its capsized body resembles a Russian heart…

Where I search for new rhythms, whose beats are animals and men.
Where the animals in their cages glow, as meaning glows in language.

A little Futurian manifesto snuck in there at the end.

Khlebnikov’s poetry darkens with the Civil War and its ensuing catastrophes.  The opening lines of several poems from 1920 and 1921:

They used to have a cow
but they killed her.
Roast mouse.
Hunger herded humanity.  (pp. 46-50)

Khlebnikov died in 1922, just thirty-six, of malnutrition and repeated illnesses, as I might guess from this set of poems.  Yet others from the same time continue his linguistic ideas, or expand them in new directions:

Russia, I give you my divine
white brain.  Be me.  Be Khlebnikov.
I have sunk a foundation deep in the minds
of your people, I have laid down an axis.
I have built a house on a firm foundation.
“We are Futurians.”
And I did all that as a beggarman,
a thief, a man with a curse on his head.  (53-4)

Only about 50 pages of The King of Time is poetry.  The rest has stories, manifestos (“Projects for the Future”), paintings and photographs by and of Khlebnikov, and other strange stuff, plus a timeline of great utility.  In 1912, for example, Khlebnikov “[c]ontributes to A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” which right there tells you why The King of Time – this entire period of Russian literature – is so exciting for readers with the patience for it.


  1. Have you read A.D. Hope? Sonnet V in his Sonnets to Baudelaire? both laughs at and acknowledges Khlebnikov and the Futurists'/Futurians' absursity ans admirability.

  2. I had not! Thanks for pointing out Hope's poem. Wonderful.

  3. Ah - so this is where you were going next! I'd heard of Khlevnikov in relation to A Slap in the Face... but not actually read anything else of his. It may be that some of his poems are lurking in the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (must check) but I rather like the sound of this book.


  4. I've always enjoyed Khlebnikov so was happy to see this post! Since I especially love "Incantation by Laughter," here's a read/performed version in Russian in case anyone's interested in hearing the repetition of sounds (it's here). I don't particularly like the way Schmidt renders the chunk you've posted but the Christopher Reid version in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, titled "Laugh Chant," feels just right to me, starting with "Laugh away, laughing boys!" When I read it out loud it turned into a wonderful tongue twister. And I laughed.

  5. Schmidt makes "Incantation by Laughter" unperformable. I suppose he has an idea how to perform it. I don't.

    A number of Khlebnikov poems are in Chandler's anthology, translated by Schmidt, Reid, and others.

  6. Schmidt makes "Incantation by Laughter" unperformable. I suppose he has an idea how to perform it. I don't.

    Yes, I think that's part of what I dislike, too: the Schmidt version doesn't feel inviting and performable and it should. To me, it sounds too much like an incomprehensible incantation and (ouch!) loses the sense of laughter. I think the Roman Jakobson reading is wonderful.

  7. Yes, he brings out the "incantation" - it is more like a magic spell.

    Thanks for the link to Jakobson's spirited reading.

  8. Hello. I stumbled upon your blog and posting via another blogger. May I say that I think you correctly point to a problem with poetry in translation; so many of the sounds (if not meanings) and effects can be damaged in the effort. I can only guess at some of the damage done to "Jabberwocky" in translation to languages other than English. But at least we who do not read anything but English have access to new and different voices. And do I detect an influence of the Imagists (e.g., Pound) upon Khlevnikov? All the best, Charles

    1. "I can only guess at some of the damage done to "Jabberwocky" in translation to languages other than English."

      You can check it here:

  9. The sounds, including rhyme, are so hard to keep, even as a suggestion. Or a translator can work on the sound and lose everything else.

    As far as Imagists go, you might be detecting the signs of a common influence, the Italian Futurist Marinetti.

  10. I'm glad you enjoyed Khlebnikov -- he is indeed exciting to read in Russian! (And no, he certainly wasn't influenced by Pound.) Here are the first four lines of the laughter poem transliterated ('laughter' is smekh and 'to laugh' is smeyat'):

    O, rassmeites', smekhachi!
    O, zasmeites', smekhachi!
    Chto smeyutsya smekhami, chto smeyanstvuyut smeyal'no,
    O, zasmeites' usmeyal'no!

  11. sme sme sme - so much fun.

    "Smekh" is an inherently funnier word than "laughter."

  12. An anthology of poems by the most brilliant of Klebnikov's followers, Zabolotsky, was published in France earlier this year: Le Loup toqué.
    Here's a refried englishing of one of them Zabolotsky's poems from that collection (see if you can spot the Nietzsche reference) plus an assessment of Zabolotsky's poetry by Nabokov:

  13. Spot the Nietzsche reference, who me? Unless it's the horse, I get that association.

    Thanks for the translation, regardless.

  14. Yes, you got it, Nietzsche saw the horse's divine face, embraced the poor overworked horse, and became mute, so to speak. Nietzsche even began finding human faces ridiculous: "siamo contenti? son dio, ho fatto questa caricatura".

    1. Completely off-topic, but had Nietzsche read Swift? You make him sound astonishingly like Gulliver after he'd come back from the land of the Houyhnhnms.

    2. Roger, that actually happened to Nietzsche while at Turin, on January the 3rd, 1888. Being a big fan of Swift, it pains me that I didn't recall the Gulliver parallel, thanks for reminding me. The same situation also takes place in Crime and Punishment's chapter 5. Raskolnikov has a dream in which some mujiks beat a poor horse to death. Raskolnikov then hugs the neck of the fallen horse and kisses it. Talk about eternal return...