from Zaum:
The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism
by Gerald Janecek

from Chapter Nine
Zaum in Tiflis,

Part 2

We have already discussed Kruchonykh's autographic series through 1918 to the extent that the works were available. The series so designated in his bibliography continued well into 1919 with another 15 works, but only one of these, Zugdidi (1919b), was available in its entirety for study. One notes a shift in emphasis away from radical zaum to more usual Russian and to a theoretical, logical analysis of zaum. The first page states:

   At Zugdidi every day is a discovery.
   Thoughts subjugate me.  That hasn't occurred for a long time.
   The same thing with dreams.

Kruchonykh wonders whether this is because of his semi-mechanical work as a draftsman during the day or because of the countryside or the Georgian town of Zugdidi itself.

The second page contains two theoretical statements:

         In phonology the fundamental antinomy of the word: does each
   individual letter have a meaning or not?  Sound imitation relates to
   zaum as allegory to the symbol and as everyday life [byt] to

What follows is a series of pages with coinages interpreted to remove any doubt as to their intended meaning, e.g., "mirians" = upivayus' mirom" [=I revel in peace] (:6). Or a more anomalous interpretation:

   Curiosities of doubling texture: fi! = dissatisfaction
   fi-fi = cheerfulness
   bo, vo = big; bo-bo, vo-vo = small
   ko (ko-ko), cho (cho-cho-cho) (:8)


   phonology mainly about sound imitation (of nature and the soul)
   The soul is a headcold,
   (you spit it out-and ies gone) (:9) 

Some of this is certainly of doubtful validity and may, as in the last quote, be intended as epatage.

The remaining publications listed under 1919 are designated as separate from the autographic series, but several of them are nevertheless autographic in content, though they have typeset covers (which is perhaps Kruchonykh's reason for distinguishing them from the autographic series where even the covers are handwritten). Others are entirely typeset, sometimes quite elaborately. Two of these, Malokholiya v kapote [Malocholy in a Housecoat] (1918f, 1973:257-77), and Ozhirenie roz [The Fattening of Roses] (1918g), would seem in fact to have come out in 1918 (Zdanevich (ed.) 1919:184).

Malocholy in a Housecoat has a subtitle given on a second printed page: 'History AS Anal Eroticism" [Istoriya KAK anal'naya erotika]. This is a play on the work "kak" [as] and "kaka," the Russian (and international) children's word for feces. (One might consider why this word became so international, if not because its articulatory features were suitably expressive.) In this work Kruchonykh uncovers the presence of "kaka" in all sorts of places, some expected, such as the name of the hero of Gogol's 'The Overcoat," Akaky Akakievich, and in Zdanevich's plays, while others are unexpected, such as the initials K. K. (pronounced Ka-Ka, for Konstantin Konstantinovich) of the Petersburg critic Arsenev, the poet Sluchevsky, and the Grand Prince Romanov. Borrowing an idea, it seems, from Shemshurin (see above, Ch. 6), Kruchonykh proceeds to identify the "unconscious 'kak' (a sdvig woven into language)" (1973:260) in various lines of poetry, sometimes just noting their presence, sometimes giving them further interpretation. An example are the lines by Nina Vasileva: "With dark silk is held my waist / slender as a wasp's,' where the last three words kak u os are interpreted: "In reading aloud one gets: kakuoc= sweet sauce [sous] kak" (:260). Citations include lines from Tyutchev, Pushkin, Kblebnikov, Kuprin, Rukavishnikov, D. Burliuk, Vertinsky, etc., and go on to include other anal and/or erotic roots and further examples of sectarian glossolalia, folklore, and zaum.

One poem is an interpretation or elaboration of "Dyr bul shchyl":

               /BULYZH DYRU/
              SHISKOV (:269)

The second line, though syntactically distorted, would seem to be deciphering the first two words of the famous first line, bul as a syllable from bulyzh[nik] [= cobblestone] and dyr as indeed a form (acc. sg.) of dyra [= hole]. The word in the third line is the normal Russian word "he killed," which emerges parono-mastically from dyr + bul. If we take bulyzh as a non- existent shortened form of the masculine noun bulyzhnik, then lines 2-3 could form a sentence that reads: 'The cobblestone killed the hole," a possible, though distant metaphor. Shcheli would seem to confirm our earlier supposition that shchyl is a distorted form of shchel' [crevice, crack]. Given the fact that the second line is bracketed off from the third, shcheli might well be taken as the object of 'killed,' yielding the sentenced "He killed the cracks." The only evidently erotic aspect of the poem is Shish, the mildly obscene word / gesture that concludes Explodity, which is now associated with the surname Shishkov, presumably a reference to Admiral A. Shishkov (1754-1841), noted for his futile attempts to maintain the purity of Russian by substituting clumsy Slavicisms for the numerous European words that had crept into Russian at the time. Another, but less plausible reference would be to the Siberian writer V. Ya. Shishkov (1873-1945), whose early stories appeared in 1912-16. Pryg [jump, hop] continues the staccato rhythm and some of the previous sounds, but forms no obvious logical connection with the rest of the poem. Thus, this version, which had begun by seeming to be answering questions. Another, later variation of "Dyr bul shchyl" previously mentioned (Ch. 1, note 5) reads:

                    ZHLYCH! (1920b:n.p.)

It reiterates the interpretation of "dyr" and "shchyl," but gives a different one for 'bul" [bulava=mace], and has an entirely different continuation in phonetic zaum.

Another particularly eloquent poem in Malocholy (also by Kruchonykh himself, it seems) includes the line "F -- of forms of phallus" (:274), thus spelling out the sexual symbolism of the Cyrillic letter F(I), the suggestive significance of which has long been noted. By bringing to the surface in this way the hidden meaning of certain apparently zaum poems or passages, Kruchonykh is thereby destroying their indeterminacy and removing them from the realm of zaum. What he is doing instead is substituting the notion that certain combinations of sounds, even when embedded in ordinary language, have a subconscious suggestiveness. As Freud had already been discovering, since sexuality is often deeply repressed, it therefore acts as a powerful subconscious force. In this work, then, we can see Kruchonykh's move toward a deeper understanding of the theoretical foundations of zaum (for further discussion of Malocholy see Comins-Richmond 1994 and 1995).

The influence of Freud on Kruchonykh's thinking becomes overt at this time. The Tiflis mathematician and poet G. A. Kharazov was an active proponent of Freudian psychology. Although Kharazov was apparently able to read Freud in the original German judging by one such reference by him (1919:12)), the main Freud texts were already available in Russian translation: The Interpretation of Dreams [1900] in 1904, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life [1901,1904,19071 in 1910 and a second edition in 1916. Among the recorded contributions of Dr. Kharazov to the discussion of Freud and zaum were a lecture, "Freud's Theories and Zaum poetry," at the Fantastic Little Inn, April 5, 1918, and his participation in a debate "On Theater and Zaum poetry" at the Conservatory, May 27, 1918, in which Kruchonykh also took part (Gordeev 1918:136). His only publication on Freudianism in literature is an article on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, "Tatyana's Dream (A Freudian Interpretation)" (1919), which unfortunately does not discuss language per se (see also Marzaduri 1982:117). In any case, evidently Kruchonykh had read the two books by Freud as early as 1915, judging by a letter of Aug. 8 of that year to Shemshurin: "By the way: on sdvigi, incomplete statements, writing mistakes, etc. S. Freud The Pathology [sic] of Everyd. Life and Interp. of Dreams" (Ziegler 1982:240).

In The Interpretation of Dreams, the ideas relevant to zaum are the nonsensical content of dreams (1965a:89ff), connections in dreams that are sometimes made by the sounds of words (:91-92, 239, 570), and neologisms that are sometimes produced in dreams (:530ff). Of particular interest is Freud's contention that nothing in psychological life is ever purposeless: 'It can be shown that all that we can ever get rid of are purposive ideas that are known to us; as soon as we have done this, unknown -- or, as we inaccurately say, 'unconscious'-- purposive ideas take charge and thereafter determine the course of the involuntary ideas" (:567). This might argue that even zaum is not indeterminate, but determined on a subconscious level. Also intriguing is Freud's discussion of the absence in dreams of representations for conjunctions (if, because, either-or, etc.), whose sole content is to convey a logical relation of other elements (:347 ff). Freud compares this to the situation in the visual arts which "labor, indeed, under a similar limitation as compared with poetry, which can make use of speech" (:347). However, the same limitation would be present in phonetic zaum, since such words would have to be present in their dictionary form in order to be recognized and serve their function; otherwise they become ambiguous, lose their logical function, and become a part of the sound patterning equivalent to other words.

In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud underscores psychological determinacy even more strongly. In referring to a Viennese literary article which makes the same point, he states: 'It is impossible intentionally and arbitrarily to make up a piece of nonsense" (1965b:240), and he follows this by examples, finally concluding: "nothing in the mind is arbitrary or undetermined" (:242). This would validate the wildest experiments in zaum as inevitably based on a psychic reality of some sort, yet paradoxically it undercuts zaum's achievement of indeterminacy by inescapably binding it to that same psychic reality. While zaum might seem to be the ultimate manifestation of free will, in Freudian terms it would merely demonstrate the ultimate lack of free will. But this assumes that zaum is finally interpretable or resolvable at least in psychoanalytic terms. If so, then it ceases to be zaum.

Freud's contention that creating nonsense is impossible is directly echoed in Kruchonykh's "On Madness in Art," first given as a lecture at the Fantastic Little Inn, Feb. 28, 1918, then published in the Tiflis newspaper Novy Den'. May 26,1919:

    It is impossible to write nonsense.  There is more sense in nonsense
    than in anything else.  If each letter has meaning then any
    combination of letters has meaning.  If somebody, in an attack of
    jealousy, spite or love, starts to write words in an arbitrary 
    assortment (as happens when people are aroused) then what he is 
    really doing is to give a flow of words immediately (without his 
    reason controlling them), words which reflect this feeling and which 
    even outgrow it. Therefore, there are no completely irrational works.  
    And in our day this is being proven by the fact that now, as never 
    before, the work of savages, children, flagellants and the mentally 
    ill is being studied. And now we have the final conclusion -- to 
    leave reason aside and to write in a language which has not yet 
    congealed and which has not been labeled with concepts-to write in 
    metalogical language!  Let it be absurd, incomprehensible, monstrous. 
    (Nikolskaya 1980:305)

Combined in this one statement are traces of Marinetti's words-in-freedom (i.e., telegraphic and compressed expression caused by high emotion), the Freudian psychoanalytic technique of free word association as a means of gaining access to the subconscious, and even Bely's "word magic" vs. the congealed language of concepts, plus the usual connections to primeval, children's, sectarian, and insane languages, all marshaled to demonstrate that there is method in madness, or sense in nonsense. This rationalization of zaum will continue.

Ozhirenie roz [The Fattening of Roses] (1918g) is the joint effort of Kruchonykh and Igor Terentev, who emerged as a leading avant-gardist at this time. In fact, Kruchonykh turns him into the star of this collection by opening his initial essay with the question "what are the best lines about spring?" and then quoting four lines of Terentev. In the course of the essay, Terentev continues to figure prominently. The point of the essay is rather straightforward, namely, that the Futurists have refreshed the decayed gardens of metaphor by their various techniques, zaum in particular: "The move to zaum language has already been accomplished. Its poetry has already begun to futurize" (:10). Kruchonykh insists that it is time now for Mayakovsky to "futurize" too, and that he is showing signs of being ready to do so with, among other things, his use of "damp" Khlebnikovian coinages based on yu and I and of anal eroticism. Other new arrivals to print are Ilya Zdanevich, Olga Rozanova, and Nikolay Chemyavsky. He quotes from Zdanevich's "Yanko, King of Albania" and gives two of Rozanova's zaum poems from Balos [1917]. Kruchonykh mentions that Dr. Kharazov has adopted one of his coinages susten' for use in his lectures at the Tiflis Women's College to mean studenistaya sushchnost' [= chilly essence]. He concludes:

    In this way one notes the emergence of new art from the dead end of
         pastness not into zero and not into clinical insanity. 
    Earlier there was: sane and insane; we provide a third alternative --
         zaum, -- creatively  transforming and overcoming them.
    Zaum, taking all the creative values from insanity
         [bezumiya] (which is why the words are almost the same),
         except for its helplessness -its sickness.  Zaum has outwitted. . .
This formulation is very neat and effective, since it places zaum in the middle ground between pale, uninteresting sanity and true clinical psychosis. It identifies itself with the creative genius that is not far from madness, but is not madness. In a very reasonable way it recognizes the creative ingenuity of a psychopathological state and makes use of its discoveries without sharing the disease itself. The next section is a dialogue between Kruchonykh and Terentev dated April 3,1918 on the themes of Malocholy in a Housecoat. Terentev explains that 'Russian expresses everything unpleasant by the sound "rya" and gives a list of examples: dryan' [= trash], Severyanin, etc. The combination ka and rya "produces an impression of ridiculousness [... ] because here there is a mechanical joining of the good with the boiled" [sic] otvaritel'nym, an obviously intentional substitution for the expected otvratitel'nym= repulsive] (:16). Clearly this is all for satirical purposes (the Ego-Futurist poet Severyanin is identified as "unpleasant" and ka, with its anal associations, identified as 'good"). Kruchonykh chimes in with similar associations for f, to which Terentev adds ts, the latter, despite its harsh fricative qualities being characterized as "for expression of the pleasant" and to be found in words mean ing kiss, whole, sun, swell! (:17). Terentev then notes that the sounds of katsap [a Ukrainian nickname for the Russians (Dal II:99a)] are not there by chance, but "synthetically characterize the Russian person in sounds." He must mean by this, perhaps with tongue in cheek, that the Russians are anally erotic in a pleasant way.

The dialogue ends with Kruchonykh's surprising admission that there is a problem with extensive knowledge: if you know many languages you can discover obscene associations in them for any combination of sounds, and zaum also will not be able to avoid such an eventuality. This is an interesting tack to take: while maintaining the indeterminacy of zaum, it argues for its endless capacity for obscenity. On the other hand, in the context of an argument in favor of the direct meaning of sounds, if the claim is made that sounds can have obscene associations in some language somewhere, this defeats the idea that sounds are linked to specific expressive contents. The meaning is thereby shifted away from the sounds themselves to their associations with words (in which their presence may arguably be considered arbitrary). That is, if all sounds can have an obscene meaning then obviously that meaning is not inherent in the sounds themselves.

Following this dialogue is an interesting selection of Terentev's poems, ranging in technique from phonetic zaum to distant Mayakovskian metaphors. The most extreme of these is a poem titled "Toward the Occupation of Palestine by the English":

              K zanyatiyu Palestiny anglichanami.

              Soyneka zhyneyra
              Lipitaroza kuba
              Tuka stuka vey
              Oyok kyok Eb'

While there are a few Russian words that emerge (kuba= of a cube / Cuba; stuka= of a knock) along with other roots and parts of words, the impression is mainly of an unknown foreign language perhaps intended to be Palestinian. Earlier in this book, Kruchonykh had introduced another Terentev poem with the phrase "Twilight' of human speech":

              Politics! in a map of the world
              Wrap herrings
              Vedeyda mei'dira
              Cadets to England
              Socialists to Germany
              Swallow angels
              These mel'din of a yoke
              Veri boy naydiga 
              Ah -- these countries
              From a geographer's wall
              You ought to hang
              Not getting wet with blood
              That you ate at supper
              Eli gay day day met 
              That needs a bouquet of skippers. (1988:423)

The italicized words have been transcribed from the original rather than translated to reproduce the effect of inserting of foreign phrases into the poem. Some of the words could have Russian translations (boy = battle, day = give). The impression is one of protest against imperialist powers by victims. The "foreign" words are similar to some of those in the Palestinian poem, which may have a comparable message, but in zaum.

Finally, Fattening ends with a piece titled "From the plong by A. Kruchonykh..... Gly - Gly" (:26-30). The coinage 'plong' is used to translate the Russian coinage pesny, which I interpret as an amalgam of pesa [play] and pesnya [song]. This appears to be an excerpt from a work like Victory Over the Sun, in which music or singing were to be involved, though there is no sign of this in the excerpt provided. The piece is a scene in which some Futurists and a crowd confront each other at a train station. Malevich and Kblebnikov are specifically identified as speakers. Malevich has the opening line: Gamlet el' tetku tek [= Hamlet el his aunt (or any adult woman) flowed], a piece of syntactic zaum based on soundplay. The next lines are by a character designated as Khryashch [gristle, gravel], who is not clearly identified as belonging to the crowd but is not an identifiable Futurist. (The Futurists seem to be identified by their real names in this excerpt, so one must assume that the other characters are individual members of the crowd designated by tag features.) His first lines are a series of morphological zaum words ending in phonetic zaum: "vechnyakhu khlyundu onulil. nulevolpulevolkulevo. . dyzh". One can make out the root "eternal" in the first word and 'he nullified" as the third, followed by "zero" [adj.] and two coinages of the same pattern based on the roots for "bullet" and "bag." The last word does not suggest any interpretation, except perhaps as a contraction of dazhe [= even (adv.)]. The next three lines, evidently also Khryashch's, are given with the parenthetical notation "in the crowd:" "horses are falling from the sky / clods of earth / a meteor black as a stone of the kaaba." Malevich replies and other characters from the crowd, Vzvi, a Girl, Fingerless, Thin, Wine, and a Soldier contribute absurdities ranging from phonetic zaum (Wine: "kovo-bo" etc.) to suprasyntactic zaum (Girl: "I'm afraid-the building might crush my legs"). The only notable action or dramatic event occurs when the Girl says: "Take the bricks apart a fire showed," at which the women and children begin to scream and a panic sets in. At the end of the excerpt, Khlebnikov stands on his head and says: "no, you tell me, what are we to do? even Paris has yet to see such a scandal ... " (curtain). This is all richly absurd and inventive, though it does not demonstrate any new devices or advances over Victory Over the Sun, other than a number of letters printed upside-down. The title evidently comes from the word glyba [= clod], as in "clods of earth." Sigov interprets this piece as an amalgam of three themes, the revolt of things, zero, and "documental poetry," represented respectively by Wine, the Futurists, and the crowd. The conflict centers around the latter two groups. Wine, in Sigov's conception, suggests the Resurrection through its association with Christ the Savior and also Zeus the god of wine (1988:51).

That this work is indeed only a portion of a longer work is indicated by a separate series of illustrations and collages done by Varvara Stepanova in which other passages and characters (Rozanova, Matyushin, the composer Roslavets, Lady with a Golden Eye) appear (From Painting to Design 1981:211-13; Lavrentiev 1988:28-29). These illustrations may have been intended for a collaborative edition that never materialized.

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