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10 December 2014

Velimir Khlebnikov – pioneer of trans-sense language

Velimir Khlebnikov is the co-inventor along with his fellow Russian poet Aleksei Kruchenykh of trans-sense or transrational language (zaum). This new approach to poetic language adopted by the Russian Futurists aimed at liberating sound from meaning to create a primeval language of sounds.

Photograph of Velimir KhlebnikovPhotograph of Velimir Khlebnikov from Wikimedia Commons

One of the first examples of Futurist trans-sense poetry is Khlebnikov’s Zakliatie smekhom (‘Incantation by Laughter’). This poem performs its title. It achieves this by using the one word stem, smekh or smeiat’sia (Russian for laughter/to laugh) to which prefixes and suffixes are added to generate new words without any external references or associations, so the poem becomes just the sound of laughter itself. It was first published in Studiia impressionistov (‘Impressionists’ studio’).

Text of Khlebnikov's experimental poem 'Zakliatie smekhom' Zakliatie smekhom by Velimir Khlebnikov in Studiia impressionistov, ed. N. Kul’bin (St Petersburg, 1910), p.47. British Library C.104.i.14.

Here is part of it in transliteration so that you can see the almost musical patterns that are formed:

O, razsmeites’, smekhachi! / O, zasmeites’ smekhachi!
Chto smeiutsia smekhami, chto smeianstvuiut smeial’no,
O, zasmeites’ usmeial’no!
O razsmeshishch nadsmeial’nykh – smekh usmeinykh smekhachei!
O izsmeisia razsmeial’no smekh nadsmeinykh smeiachei! etc.

Amongst the Russian Futurist artists’ books that celebrate their centenary this year are Te li le and Igra v adu, both jointly written by Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh. The second half of the handmade lithographed Te li le is devoted to the poetry of Khlebnikov with drawings by Olga Rozanova and Nikolai Kulbin.

Title page of Khlebnikov’s section of 'Te li le' with an abstract design in black and pale blueTitle page of Khlebnikov’s section of Te li le (St. Petersburg, 1914).

In Khlebnikov’s section appears the seminal poem ‘Bobeobi pelis’ guby’ (The lips sang red). Khlebnikov shows in this poem how he not only wanted to give the roots of words new emotional meanings (‘the word as such’) but also wanted to extend this and assign independent meanings to syllables and letters (‘the letter as such’).  For example the first word ‘Bobeobi’ consists of several “b”s linked by vowels to make it pronounceable. As Khlebnikov associated the letter “b” with the colour red (perhaps because of the b in guby = lips), the word bobeobi is used to mean red in this sentence (not the normal Russian word for red).  This kind of synaesthesia where colour is represented in terms of sound is reminiscent of the poetry of French symbolists such as Rimbaud who also assigned colours to letters (notably in his poem Voyelles).  

Text of 'Bobeobi' written in purple and yellowThe poem Bobeobi by Khlebnikov as it appears in Te li le.

Another important Russian artists’ book published on the eve of the First World War 1 in 1914 was Igra v adu (‘A game in hell’). The text of this lithographed book which depicts a game between devils and sinners in hell, was begun by Kruchenykh and finished by Khlebnikov. This work recreates the unity of words and image found in medieval manuscripts often written and transcribed by different people at different times.

Cover of 'Igra v adu' with an illustration of a stylised devil Cover of Igra v adu designed by K. Malevich (2nd ed., St Petersburg, 1914). Cup.406.g.2.

In attempting to create a universal language of sounds Khlebnikov did not confine himself to experimentation with Russian. He arranged his zaum languages into various types of made up language, as for example, the language of the gods (this includes non-Russian words such as ‘gamch’ and ‘gemch’ spoken by Eros) or of the birds (mostly onomatopoeic words) which he used in his play Zangezi (‘Beyond the Ganges’, Moscow, 1922; C.114.n.42). Khlebnikov was also interested in creating new alphabets; this is reflected in the cover of Zangezi by Petr Miturich which consists of flowering loops like the patterns of letters in Khlebnikov’s astral alphabet.

Cover of 'Ladomir' with an abstract design in blue and red Cover of Velimir Khlebnikov, Ladomir (Kharkov, 1920). C.114.n.47

Another interesting late work by Khlebnikov is Ladomir. The designer of the striking cover of this book is not named but it has been attributed to Vasyl Yermilov. The copy held by the British Library (C.114.n.47) also has a dedication in Khlebnikov’s handwriting to a person called Sergei.

Peter Hellyer, Curator Russian Studies

Books with texts by V. Khlebnikov and A. Kruchenykh held by the British Library:

Bukh lesinnyi. [‘Forestly rapid’] (St Petersburg, 1913). [22] leaves. Lithographed text, handwritten by O. Rozanova. Lithographed cover and 5 lithographs by O. Rozanova. Includes lithographed portrait of A. Kruchenykh by N. Kul'bin.  Includes a few poems by Khlebnikov.

Igra v adu: poema. [‘Game in hell: a poem’] 1st edition (Moscow, 1912), 14 leaves. Drawings by N. Goncharova.

Igra v adu. 2nd enlarged ed. (St Petersburg, 1914). [40] leaves. Lithographed text, handwritten by O. Rozanova. Cover and 3 lithographs by K. Malevich and 22 lithographs by O. Rozanova. Cup.406.g.2. and

Mirskontsa. [‘Worldbackwards’] (Moscow: 1912.) [41] leaves.  Lithographed text, handwritten by M. Larionov, A. Kruchenykh and others. Illustrated by N. Goncharova, M. Larionov, V. Tatlin and N. Rogovin. Cover of each copy has a unique collage by N. Goncharova. Six poems each by Khlebnikov  and Kruchenykh.

Slovo kak takovoe. [‘Word as such’]( [Moscow, 1913]) 15p. Cover illustration by K. Malevich and one illustration by O. Rozanova. Futurist Manifesto on trans-sense language written by Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov.

Te li le  (St Petersburg, 1914). [14] leaves. Reproduced by colour hectography []. Text handwritten by O. Rozanova and N. Kul'bin. Illustrated by O. Rozanova and N. Kul'bin. Cover by O. Rozanova.  Four poems each by Khlebnikov  and Kruchenykh

Books by Velimir Khlebnikov held by the British Library:

Izbornik stikhov s poslesloviem recharia, 1907-1914 gg. [‘Selected poems with an afterword by a wordsmith, 1907-1914] (St Petersburg, 1914). 48p. Ilustrated by P. Filonov, K. Malevich and Nad. Burliuk.

Ladomir. (Kharkov, 1920). 30p. Lithographed handwritten text. Cover designer is not named. Dedication in V. Khlebnikov's handwriting. C.114.n.47.

Neizdannyi Khlebnikov. [‘Unpublished Khlebnikov’] Ed. by A. Kruchennykh. (Moscow, 1928-33).

Noch' v okope. [‘Night in the trench’] (Moscow, 1921). Printed poem occupies 11 unpaginated leaves. X.909/5086.

Otryvok iz dosok sud'by. [Fragment from the boards of destiny] (Moscow, 1922). 1 poem. Cup.408.i.28.

RIAV! Perchatki, 1908-1914 gg. [Roar! Gauntlets, 1908-1914] (Moscow, 1914.) 29p. Poetry and prose. Illustrated by K. Malevich and D. Burliuk. BL copy lacks the cover which bears the title.

Zangezi. (Moscow, 1922). 35p. Cover by P. Miturich. C.114.n.42.

Zapisnaia knizhka… [‘Notebook’]. Collected and annotated by A. Kruchennykh. (Moscow, 1925). C.114.l.

Useful Sources:

Compton, Susan P. The world backwards: Russian futurist books, 1912-1916. (London, 1978). X.981/21715

Hellyer, Peter W.  A  catalogue of Russian avant-garde books 1912-1934 and 1969-2003. London, British Library, 2006.

Janecek, Gerald. The look of Russian literature: avant-garde visual experiments, 1990-1930. (Princeton, 1984). X.955/3162

Markov, Vladimir. Russian futurism: a history. (London, 1969). X.981/1801

The Russian avant-garde book, 1910-1934. By Margit Rowell and Deborah Wye… New York, 2002. LC.31.a.179 and m02/26181


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