Edited and translated by David W. Seaman
Isidore Isou founded Letttrisme. At the beginning of the movement, he was its sole practioner. Others soon joined him. The movement evolved steadily, energetically, and at times perhaps confusingly from the late 1940s to the present. Its internal vocabulary has changed othen, and even its name has sometimes morphed into other names. Still, these basic writings by Isou make up a good introduction to Lettriste theory.
Excerpts from Introduction à une Nouvelle Poésie et une Nouvelle Musique. Paris: Gallimard, 1947.
MANIFESTO OF LETTERIST POETRY A Commonplaces about Words Pathetic I The flourishing of bursts of energy dies beyond us. All delirium is expansive. All impulses escape stereotyping. Still I An intimate experience maintains curious specifics. Pathetic II Discharges are transmitted by notions. What a difference between our fluctuations and the brutality of words. Transitions always arise between feeling and speech. Still II The word is the first stereotype. Pathetic III What a difference between the organism and the sources. Notions - what an inherited dictionary. Tarzan learns in his father's book to call tigers cats. Naming the Unknown by the Forever. Still III The translated word does not express. Pathetic IV The rigidity of forms impedes their transmission. These words are so heavy that the flow fails to carry them. Temperaments die before arriving at the goal (firing blanks). No word is capable of carrying the impulses one wants to send with it. Still IV WORDS allow psychic alterations to disappear. Speech resists effervescence. Notions require expansion to equivalent formulas. WORDS Fracture our rhythm. by their Assassinate sensitivity. mechanism, Thoughtlessly uniform fossilization, tortured inspiration. stability Twist tensions. and aging Reveal poetic exaltations as useless. Create politeness. Invent diplomats. Promote the use of analogies Substitute for true emissions. Pathetic V If one economizes on the riches of the soul, one dries up the left-over along with the words. Still V Prevent the flow from molding itself on the cosmos. Form species in sentiments. WORDS Destroy sinuosities. Result from the need to determine things. Help the elderly remember by forcing the young to forget. Pathetic VI Every victory of the young has been a victory over words. Every victory over words has been a fresh, young victory. Still VI Summarize without knowing how to receive. It is the tyranny of the simple over the long-winded. WORDS Discern too concretely to leave room for the mind. Forget the true measures of expression: suggestions. Let infrarealities disappear. Sift without restoring. Pathetic VII One learns words as one learns good manners. Without words and manners it is impossible to appear in society. It is by making progress in words that one makes progress socially. Still VII Kill fleeting evocations. Slow down short-cuts and approximations. SPEECH Is always vice-versa for not being identical. Eliminates solitary individuals who would like to rejoin society. Forces men who would like to say "Otherwise" to say "Thus." Introduces stuttering. Pathetic VIII The carpentry of the word built to last forever obliges men to construct according to patterns, like children. There is no appreciation of value in a word. Still VIII Words are the great levellers. Pathetic IX Notions limit opening onto depths by merely standing ajar. Still IX Words are family garments. Poets enlarge words every year. Words already have been mended so much they are in stitches. Pathetic X People think it is impossible to break words. Still X Unique feelings are so unique that they can not be popularized. Feelings without words in the dictionary disappear. Pathetic XI Every year thousands of feelings disappear for lack of a concrete form. Still XI Feelings demand living space. How remarkable the poet's disheartened absorption in words. Things and nothings to communicate become daily more imperious. Pathetic XII Efforts at destruction witness to the need to rebuild. Still XII How long will people hold out in the shrunken domain of words? Pathetic XIII The poet suffers indirectly: Words remain the work of the poet, his existence, his job. B Innovation I Destruction of WORDS for LETTERS ISIDORE ISOU Believes in the potential elevation beyond WORDS; wants the development of transmissions where nothing is lost in the process; offers a verb equal to a shock. By the overload of expansion the forms leap up by themselves. ISIDORE ISOU Begins the destruction of words for letters. ISIDORE ISOU Wants letters to pull in among themselves all desires. ISIDORE ISOU Makes people stop using foregone conclusions, words. ISIDORE ISOU Shows another way out between WORDS and RENUNCIATION: LETTERS. He will create emotions against language, for the pleasure of the tongue. It consists of teaching that letters have a destination other than words. ISOU Will unmake words into their letters. Each poet will integrate everything into Everything Everything must be revealed by letters. POETRY CAN NO LONGER BE REMADE. ISIDORE ISOU IS STARTING A NEW VEIN OF LYRICISM. Anyone who can not leave words behind can stay back with them! C Innovation II: The Order of Letters This does not mean destroying words for other words. Nor forging notions to specify their nuances. Nor mixing terms to make them hold more meaning. But it does mean TAKING ALL LETTERS AS A WHOLE; UNFOLDING BEFORE DAZZLED SPECTATORS MARVELS CREATED FROM LETTERS (DEBRIS FROM THE DESTRUCTION); CREATING AN ARCHITECTURE OF LETTRIC RHYTHMS; ACCUMULATING FLUCTUATING LETTERS IN A PRECISE FRAME; ELABORATING SPLENDIDLY THE CUSTOMARY COOING; COAGULATING THE CRUMBS OF LETTERS FOR A REAL MEAL; RESUSCITATING THE JUMBLE IN A DENSER ORDER; MAKING UNDERSTANDABLE AND TANGIBLE THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE AND VAGUE; CONCRETIZING SILENCE; WRITING THE NOTHINGNESS. It is the role of the poet to advance toward subversive sources. the obligation of the poet to advance in the black and burdened depths of the unknown. the craft of the poet to open one more treasure-room door for the common man. There will be a poet's message in new signs. The ordering of letters is called: LETTERISM. It is not a poetic school, but a solitary attitude. AT THIS MOMENT: LETTERISM = ISIDORE ISOU. Isou is awaiting his successors in poetry! (Do they already exist somewhere, ready to burst forth into history through books?) EXCUSES FOR WORDS INTRODUCED INTO LITERATURE There are things which are existent only in the strength of their name. there are others which exist, but lacking a name are unacknowledged. Every idea needs a calling card to make itself known. Ideas are known by the name of their creator. It is more objective to name them after themselves. LETTERISM IS AN IDEA THAT WILL BE LAMENTED BY ITS REPUTATION Letterics is a material that can always be demonstrated. Letterics seeds already existing: NONSENSE WORDS; WORDS WITH HIDDEN MEANINGS IN THEIR LETTERS; ONOMATOPOEIAS. If this material existed before, it didn't have a name to recognize it by. Letterics works will be those made entirely out of this element, but with suitable rules and genres! The word exists and has the right to perpetuate itself. ISOU IS CALLING ATTENTION TO ITS EXISTENCE. It is up to the Letterist to develop Letterism. Letterism is offering a DIFFERENT poetry. LETTERISM imposes a NEW POETRY. THE LETTERIC AVALANCHE IS ANNOUNCED. 1942.
Excerpt from Characteristics of the New Amplic Phase in Poetry
By emphasizing again the sound value of poetry, words in their printed form will not have any meaning that people need to labor over deciphering. Consonants will become empty, purely auditory, simple lines having physical meaning only in the listener's ears. By placing value on effects beyond their usual meaning (in words), poetry will create a new sensitivity. In the place of the cerebral beauty that was created in the chiseling style of poetry, one responds simply with direct auditory understanding. It is then a matter of discovering the unknown abundance of purely oral constructions; of untangling the intangible accents in vocabulary. Poetry is thus liberated from all prose (reading for meaning without regard for tones), to become an instrument of lyrical communication. Poetry realizes its mission which is precisely to broadcast local imperceptibilities and applied suggestions, because poetry was created by individuals who wanted to understand each other, sensing the linguistic vibrations against their palates. Verse is the result of a need to consider the phonetic effects produced in other people's imaginations.
Letterism intends to introduce this beauty, which is limited in the present system of oral communication by lack of rules and even of letters. This is why it is necessary to regulate the stability of auditory frequencies by constructing elements specially designed for the purpose. It is a matter of enriching the possibilities for denoting the changes that occur between sound values. These particles of language, still inferior and unexpressed, must acquire proper signs so that they can develop in their own category, the auditory.
On Recitation and the Reciter
Based on phonetic accents, the poem becomes dependent on the person recruiting. The return to what was valuable (sound) as compared to what was fallacious (signs) signals the final poetic route.
The author - or another person in the role of performer, with a suitable voice - leans on the expression and the linguistic inflections. A new manner of reading aloud is to be created, putting it in conflict with the reader.
In the chiseling period, the reader tended to meditate on the meaning. forced to read internally, focusing on what the author wanted to express. In the new amplic phase external focus is exalted, relying on the material, conceived by the voice and vocal interpretation. Poetry receives the stamp of whoever reads it and that person's dramatic talent, not of their intellectual understanding. In Letterism, effects are established by the expression of the existing verse and by its coloring. This is just as in music, where the symbols on a score are devoid of meaning. The notes sound false when there is a correct understanding but an erroneous interpretation. Henceforth the poem remains in a book only in gloomy inactivity. It acquires its value in performance, and each repetition imprints its value on it. The written poem - impounded in words - has no more meaning than a dead letter.
Excerpts From Claude Debussy to Isidore lsou
The destruction of musicality by musicians themselves continues up to the orchestra of pure and monotone sounds created by Russolo. The Italian futurist no longer seeks to evoke any emotions. His effort was to work with the huge number of sounds that did not yet exist as music and to make them musical. It is against music apparently to call on mechanical means. But these sounds were prior to mechanics, in primitive shouts. His ensemble of noise-makers is the anti-orchestra. The howlers, groaners, cracklers, shriekers, buzzers, gurglers, shouters, whistlers, croakers, and rustlers who made up the rumorharmonium can be classified in the same shrinking pathway that is pushing back towards its origins: the voice and noise.
In justifying this work, music today can be said to be in a phase of plodding in place. Just as with poetry, with music too people no longer know how to go forward nor what goal to go after in following this golden line which is the line of progress and artistic revolution. All that is needed now is to take the final step, which is the most difficult but the most substantial and rich in promise. Take up the shout and the voice which are at the origins of music as the primordial elements of art. After Satie, Schoenberg and jazz 1O the next step is easy.
From Les Champs de Force de la Peinture Lettriste (Paris: Avant- Garde, 1964).
Excerpts from "The Force Fields of Letterist Painting"
I recall quite well this period of experimentation which I passed through in a special way, thanks to a personal creative method: "doubts," "partial certainties," "perplexities...... disenchantments," "discoveries...... assurances;" in summary all those states of mind defined by an outmoded vocabulary and run over in a quick new way now come to mind.
I had been wondering how a letter could be just as beautiful as a figurative or non-figurative object in art, and how a work composed of Roman letters could touch or even overwhelm an ordinary viewer as much as the mass of works based on real "things" or qualities conventionally accepted in the minds of the refined.
For months at the beginning my whole concrete system consisted of the most banal alphabetic writing. This could naturally be raised up easily in theory - as was the case later with my first manifesto - by deep, provocative considerations or by metaphors, but in practice it was nevertheless limited to being a printer's specimen book or just pages filled with words - bound together by some theme, critical or poetic or whatever, which ignored my artistic effort.
No concern for the composition of the line of vowels and consonants, no care for the arrangement of sentences on the page, and naturally no interest in color - an easy and underhanded secondary value in my definition of painting - were present to disrupt my limited task as scribe, my arid research on the emotive powers of letters, pure letters, letters ripped out of all context, unimproved by extrinsic values.
For a certain period of time the only innovation came from my poetry, because instead of transcribing word-texts, I copied phonetic verses, which allowed me to put my arrangement in the middle of the page instead of filling up the whole page, isolating certain phonemes or clusters of phonemes according to the oral impulse, then adding some new signs from the Greek alphabet or my imagination, which corresponded to sounds that did not exist in the Roman alphabet. Naturally when I exhibited these pages and called them "works of art" all I got was disdainful or knowing smiles, as if I had pulled off a good joke. Not only in Bucharest, but even in Paris the defenders of "figurative" and "abstract" modern art always assured me that these creations "were not paintings." . . .
Metagraphics or post-writing, encompassing all the means of ideographic, lexical and phonetic notation, supplements the means of expression based on sound by adding a specifically plastic dimension, a visual facet which is irreducible and escapes oral labelling. . . .
Even from my first metagraphic efforts - because examples can be found in The Diaries of the Gods and then more conclusively in the self-portrait and painted photos of Amos - I had noticed that when held up among former 11 objective" or "non-objective" forms my original form was stronger, since it assimilates all the others.
Experiments on "the test of forms" demonstrate that the particles of the Letterist domain are stronger and more important than the particles of the figurative and non-figurative domains.
If one places an abstract composition - which is simply a fragmentary purification of the former object - in (or alongside) a figurative structure, this second composition digests the first one - transformed into a decorative motif - and then the whole work becomes figurative. However if one places a letterist notation on (or beside) a realist "form," it is the first one which assimilates the second to change the whole thing into a work of hypergraphics or super-writing.
Pursuing the experiments on the "test of the force of elements" one can affirm that "a little bit," or "a few drops" of figuration placed anywhere on a canvas can transform an entire abstract mass into a figurative work and that "a little bit," or "a few drops" of Letterism placed anywhere on any canvas metamorphose a whole figurative or abstract composition into a Letterist work.
These translations first appeared in Visible Language Vol. XVII, Number 3, 1983. Translations copyright 1983 bt David W. Seaman.
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