Roots and routes: Mandelshtam on Khlebnikov

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June 12, 2017 by AK

To add to my recent note on Anselm Kiefer’s new Khlebnikov-inspired exhibition and to my earlier posts on the poet (Jakobson reading K.; Bobeobi 0, 1, and 2), two excerpts from Notes on Poetry by Osip Mandelshtam (1923):

Modern Russian poetry did not fall out of the sky but was foretold by the whole poetic past of our country – did not Yazykov’s clicking and tutting foretell Pasternak, and is not this example alone enough to show the way poetic batteries converse with each other by reciprocal fire, not caring at all for the indifference of the time separating them? There is always war in poetry. It is only in the periods of social idiocy that there is peace or a truce. Root growers, like army leaders, rise in arms against each other. The roots of words are warring in the darkness, taking away food and earthly juices from each other. The struggle of Russian, that is, secular unwritten speech, of domestic root-speak, the language of the laity, with the written speech of the monks, with the Church Slavonic, hostile, Byzantine written language, – the struggle is having an impact to this day.

Mandelshtam goes into much detail on the opposition between the language of the intelligentsia, of the monks, of “Byzantium,” and the conversational, colloquial language, the “Bible of the laity.” As a reminder, Mandelshtam is generally considered one of the first-rank Russian poets of the 20th century. His views on Khlebnikov might have changed later but he kept rereading the older poet’s work.

Back to the article, skipping several paragraphs:

When I read My Sister, Life by Pasternak, I feel that pure joy of worldly speech freed from outside influences, of Luther’s menial, day-wage speech. This is how Germans rejoiced in their tiled houses, opening for the first time their fresh – smelling of printing ink – Gothic Bibles.

Reading Khlebnikov can compare to an even more magnificent and instructive sight: this is how a righteous language could have developed, unburdened and unprofaned by historical misfortunes and coercions.

Khlebnikov’s speech is so secularized as if neither monks nor Byzantium nor the written language of the intelligentsia had ever existed. This is a perfectly secular and worldly Russian language, sounding for the first time in the history of Russian bookish literacy. If one accepts this view, there no need any longer to consider Khlebnikov a sorcerer and a shaman of some sort. He marked out routes for the development of the language.

Elsewhere, Mandelshtam compared Khlebnikov to a mole who had dug out tunnels for the future, enough to last a century. More on this later, I hope.


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