To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, August 27, 2010

Ian Keenan: On E.E. Cummings, Velimir Khlebnikov, & Related Matters (A Response)

[Originally posted on Keenan's blog, Piri' Miri' Muli', for 08 August 2010]

Jerome Rothenberg just posted the meaty second part of a 1994 talk on e.e. cummings, ending it with an excerpt from a Navajo horse-blessing song he translated in the 1970s:

(Nnnnn N ghan) because I was the boynging raised ing the dawn & nnnn but some there are mine all (ghan) & some (gwing) there 'rrr mine there

The gerundization of “boy” and “raised” reminds me of Velimir Khlebnikov's “Там, где жили свиристели (Where the Waxwings Used to Dwell),” where Khlebnikov uses suffixes and formed words to convey specific meanings, with the word “momentwill (времирей),” a word he made up which sounds Bergsonian, relating to the joined words around it: “warblewingish,” “waxwings,” “beguilish.” Russian like German has larger words than English, so Khlebnikov is using this composite diction to combine two concepts generally kept separate: time and will, the will of the past enduring, befitting his wish for an eternal present and his belief that language has been a divisive force, which he set out to resolve by way of his zaum language, the sort of representation of cosmological unity that Foucault criticized in Les Mots et les choses.

In addition to works of his composed entirely in the zaum language, Khlebnikov uses made-up words in contexts of existing words that elaborate their possible meaning, as in “Grasshopper” and “Bo-beh-o-bi sang the lips,” assigning a non-connotive language to animals, objects, body parts, and sensory stimuli. Roman Jakobson said “The question of the interplay between speech sounds and letters and the possibility to utilize these interplays in verbal art, particularly on its supraconscious (zaum) level, vividly preoccupied me in 1912-14, and they were intensely discussed in my correspondence of 1914 with Krutchenyk and Khlebnikov."

In a way, the combination of cummings being the major figure of typographic innovation in America and that the content he used it for didn't inspire, may have had some sort of effect on the use of typographic effects thereafter. Creeley spoke of this in a 1963 interview (which I typed out for a conversation with Curtis Faville about cummings last April):

“Cummings' battle with the typographical set of the poem was one in which, once people were willing to admit typography could be variable and could have a useful effect, the particular value was lost... I like some of his earlier poems very much, both the uses of the sonnet and some of the straight wise-guy poems where you get this beautiful jargon and slang, but I feel that he's always been limited by being a real college boy, by which that his thinking, curiously, has never really gone deeper than the kind of, oh! let's say junior, sophomore, college wit... cummings, despite all his insistence on the single identity of the "i," is speaking for almost a class.”

As Creeley found cummings' content wanting, Joanna Drucker complains that Khlebnikov “was not interested in the contents of the individual psyche, but in himself as a priestly figure working in the service of profound truth,” though Julia Kristeva and Jakobson find a stylistic imprint of sexuality in Khlebnikov's frequent use of “mech-mjach” (sword-bullet) as in lines like “mecha stat' mjachom” “(Impatience) of the sword to become a bullet,” a psyche perhaps too impulsive and not sufficiently reflective for Drucker's tastes. Kristeva also credits Khlebnikov among others for the “resurgence of an ‘I’ coming back to rebuild an ephemeral structure in which the constituting struggle of language and society can be spelled out.”

Osip Manselstam said Khlebnikov wrote “one enormous all-Russian book of prayers and icons from which, for centuries and centuries to come, everyone who may will find something to draw on.” Included in everyone are the Soviets and their more religious successors. The Soviet association most likely caused Joseph Brodsky to brand Khlebnikov taboo to the poetic foot soldiers of Reagan-era Cold War triumphalism, but a Khlebnikov revival in Russia seems afoot in the music and theater worlds that see in him a spiritual guide. The composer Vladimir Martynov was recently asked to compose a fusion piece for symphony orchestra and the Tuvan throat singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu and decided to use as his libretto Khlebnikov's creation myth Children of the Otter, and the work premiered in 2009, based on the myths of the Altay region. Martynov states in an interview that he finds in this Asian music and Russian traditions a model for "the end of the era of the composer," the preservation of cultures without humanist authors, a far cry from the “resurgence of the 'I'” Kristeva found in the artist Martynov is adapting.

Martynov describes Khlebnikov's vison of the “super-saga” as “the synthesis of different planes, or as in Children of the Otter, “sails.'” Kristeva describes the drama as “a mother, coming to the aid of her children in their fight against the sun. The Otter's children are squared off against three suns, one white, one purple, the other dark green.”

Also there's a splendid trailer for a new production of Victory Over the Sun, with attempts made by the editor to incorporate the visuals of Kazimir Malevich and others as well as Malevich's costumes.

1 comment:

Aaron Beasley said...

Splendid post. I'm not yet read in Khlebnikov, but it reminds me of Gerard M. Hopkins' neologisms (yestertempest, shivelights, firedint) and the arguably limited content (perhaps overdetermined because the convention concedes to personal expression) therein. I wonder if this is why his (like Cummings') work is so rarely discussed today.