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chuvash neofuturism, or, blogging the msa, part 3

By Stephen Burt

Some other memorable pieces of poetry-criticism, poetry-describing, and poetry-introducing from last week’s conference in Long Beach: why Russians usually avoid free verse; what Robert Creeley has to do with English in China; George Oppen and vertiginous pictures of buildings; and Exile (not the punk band), all explained below the fold.


Brian Reed, who also wrote a good book about Hart Crane, introduced the Russian-language poet Gennadi Aggi, who does something rare in Russian, though common in English: he writes in free verse.
Why is it rare in Russian? Not only (says Brian) are the various traditions associated with various metres in Russian (e.g. tetrameter means Pushkin) much stronger in twentieth-century poetry than the analogoues traditions in English, but the language itself tends to fall into metrical patterns, the way English, in most of its dialects, falls into iambics, but far more so. You have to try to write in free verse, and when you do you are participating in a particular set of often mystical, religious or prophetic ambitions, associated either with Vladimir Mayakovsky and Revolutionary-period or early Soviet futurism, or with Velimir Khlebnikov, who also wanted to take apart Russian traditions.
Aigi came from Chuvashia, where his bloodline includes shamans– he’s interested in Central Asian shamanism; his Moscow circle in the 1950s admired the work of Khlebnikov, and he worked in the 1960s in the Mayakovsky museum, where he saw mystical works by Russian abstract artists, such as Malevich, not yet permitted on public display.
All this meant that Aigi wanted to write and did write a disorienting and overtly mystical kind of free verse. Free verse in Russian is (as it is not in English) “a repudiation of the way poetry works”: it is, has to be, self-conscious about what it makes its readers do. It’s also linked to visual and concrete poetry, to poems that make overt use of page layout and typography– as Mayakovsky did– and as most English and American free verse does not. Aigi (Brian says) became the first important writer of free verse in post-Stalinist Russia: his work deserves more and better translation, as well as more introductions for English-speaking readers, of the kind Brian gave.
If I try to cover all the other memorable papers by presenting their whole arguments, I’ll do nothing but blog all day, which sounds appealing but might get me in trouble. Instead, I’ll give more papers in less detail:
Did you know that Robert Creeley at one point aspired to write poems in Basic English, a simplified English developed by C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards and others as an international teaching tool and meaning-clarification device? Creeley used it in the early 1950s to strip his own poems of rhetoric and needless elaboration, the kind of stripping-down often recommended by Ezra Pound. Matt Hofer presented Basic as Creeley encountered it, then took us through an early poem (“As Now It Would Be Snow”) that came close to following Basic English rules: these rules (in which there is no such category as “verbs”) may help explain the style Creeley developed, which depends so often on the copula and on ascriptions of qualities to nouns, rather than on making arguments or pictures about people doing things.
Adelaide Morris looked at George Oppen’s early poetry and Berenice Abbott’s awesome New York photographs together; it turns out that the odd perspectives and the overlapping planes in the latter resemble, if indeed they did not inspire, some of the odd perspectives and overlapping planes in the former. Even an early poem that isn’t about New York City includes the cut-off points of view, the hard edges and angles, and the apparent humility Abbott’s pictures of what she called “Changing New York” convey– and certainly both were alert to the documentary ethos that suffused so much 1930s art.
Finally, Ravi Shankar, whom some of you know as the editor of the very good online journal Drunken Boat, talked about the meanings behind the word “exile,” a word that gets used and misused when discussing trans- or multi-national, or immigrant, poetics. Ravi himself got attacked when he used the word in a poem about his own second-generation immigrant outlook. (You can hear him read that poem by clicking here, or read an interview with him here.) Should we reserve the term “exile” for refugees, people forced by physical threat to pack up and get out of their first homelands? or does the word have broader, legitimate, emotional and literary use?

Comments (3)

  • On November 8, 2007 at 1:22 pm Don Share wrote:

    Gennady Aygi (who died in 2006) can be read in Peter France’s translations in the just-published book, Field-Russia.

  • On November 8, 2007 at 1:31 pm steve wrote:

    Yes. According to the paper I heard– and, again, I don’t read Russian, so I’m in no position to say– there ought to be more, and better, translation…
    More on Aigi/Aygi, and on his recent death, here.

  • On November 8, 2007 at 1:58 pm Don Share wrote:

    There’s an interview in the new book mentioned above in which Aygi says:
    “As I see it, free verse remains completely undeveloped in contemporary Russian poetry. The free verse you come across is essentially narrative or storytelling (like a sort of prose with traces of a kind of ‘poetic’ adornment – which looks extremely feeble). Or there is another type of free verse that crops up now and again – the intellectual-rhetorical. I have observed that free verse (in any language, I think) is subject to one main danger: the element of musicality, which is inherent in poetry, is liable to dwindle – to the point of completely disappearing.”


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, November 8th, 2007 by Stephen Burt.