Offcourse Literary Journal
ISSN 1556-4975 

Anthology of Russian Minimalist and Miniature Poems; Part I, The Silver Age.

Introduction by Alex Cigale.


Russian literature's Silver Age, a period roughly ten years preceding and ten years following the Revolution of 1917, is by all objective measurements its golden age (that designation in caps is taken by the generation of Pushkin and Lermontov a century earlier, by the founding fathers of demotic Russian as a literary language).  As little as three months ago, I had no intention of undertaking this survey of the development of Modern Russian poetry through its Miniatures: I arrive at this juncture in reverse so to speak, through my concern with contemporary poetics, having worked on an anthology of the last quarter century of Russian verse (Crossing Centuries; Talisman House, 2000.)   My current project, an anthology of Russian Minimalist poetry, suggested to me a comparison with these earlier Miniatures, and I intend to use this as my starting point for an exploration of continuities, to use the evidence of these artifacts of the age for observations of relationships and developments, taking Pound's “artists are the antennae of the race” proposition seriously.

Though not yet Minimalism with a capital M, which emerges two decades after the Second World War, the roots of Minimalism, and I would argue to a lesser extent of post-Modernism, may already be found in the earlier Modernist example.  What is to be made of the conflicting tendencies between epic and miniature forms and of the continuing story of the rise and fall of Romanticism, of its Apollonian and Dionysian opposition?  A rejection of Russian Symbolism, first by the Acmeists in 1911, of its lyrical, mystical, ego-drenched, art-for-arts sake excess, yields an unlikely recursion in the form of Futurism, which in its utopianism worshiped not just machine but the individual, the so-called “budetlyanen” or man of the future.  A similar recursion to Neo-Romanticism in the post-war American context may be seen in the Beat and Confessional poetries and even in the  totalizing attempts of the second wave of Modernism, in Projectivist and Objectivist verse histories.  I suspect that the latest attempt at radical objectivity, Language poetics, has once again been subverted. The late 20th C. poetic dominants – the return of a kind of populist Romanticism in Performance, Slam, Rap, Spoken Word, and as evidence of the unfinished business of post-colonialism, the rise of ethnopoetics, creolized English, and hyphenated-American poetries – suggest that the various dichotomies are ever in play and the events in the wake of 9/11 have waken us from a REM-less phase and thrust us back into the nightmare of history, to use James Joyce's phrase.

Minimalism and post-modernism have been viewed as a radical departure from the Modernist example, to the degree of being the grave of history in the Hegelian sense, declaring further development an impossibility. I propose that we use these poems to evaluate such claims of discontinuity and a-historicity.  I am suggesting that Poetry is highly Historical, that its development pays close attention to those in philosophy, science, and in the other arts: pictorial, musical, and design.  It does not seem to me particularly difficult to read in Tyutchev, Turgenev, Fet, Solovyov, and Annensky nearly all the specifically modern and even contemporary dichotomies: conflict between Slavophiles (nationalist, nativist, colonialist) and Westernizers (globalists, post-colonialialist), between urban and rural, between and within Faith and Reason/Science, the  simultaneous centrality and insufficiency of Self and of Language.



In the words of the American Minimalist artist, Sol Le Witt, “Minimalism is not really an idea; it ended before it started.”  I would like to consider whether it also began before it began.  Never a Movement; under a strict interpretation, Minimalism approaches the void and is a null set.  It makes no sense in fact to speak of Minimalist poets, only of minimalist poems or more precisely minimalist strategies and approaches.  Why Minimalism?  I certainly do not intend to conflate here quantity with quality: the poetics of small forms are as old as art itself.  Miniatures are not necessarily minimalist, nor are minimalist, for example serialist works always small or short in duration. The tiny fertility fetish or the pocket-sized icon, as an object of personal veneration and contemplation, the traditional Western poetic forms of inscription such as epigram, epitaph, and motto, the classical Greek poetic fragments and Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty already exhibit a tension between functionality of commemoration and instruction on the one hand and the possibility of say self-expression on the other.  It would seem that both for the art object and for a short poetic form, the element of its portability, whether physical or mental (memorialized or memorized) increases its arti-fact-ness, if I may use such a word.  What we are really talking about when we talk about Minimalism seems to me to touch upon an entire range of ideas associated with historical development, in philosophy, sociopolitical culture, and art-making and the various dichotomies of subjectivity/objectivity, self/other, style/authenticity, progress/decay/recycling.  In fact, Minimalism has been interpreted to be just such a talisman, a sort of grave marker and burial crypt of History.  If nothing else, we aught to attend to the earlier evidence of the following elements of post-modernism, to its “Antis,” its “againsts:” Death to History, Death to the Author, Death to Language.

To begin, let us consider the following precursors of 20th C. Anti-Art, the Paris, Les Arts Incohérents shows of the early 1880s in which the first all-black square, predating Malevich's by a quarter century, was exhibited by the artist Sapeck (Eugène Bataille) in 1883, as was an “augmented” Mona Lisa smoking a pipe (Duchamp's date is 1919). Also shown was Alphonse Allais' empty frame, captioned “First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow.”  The latter would go on to exhibit a similar all-red work “Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea” (1884) and to “produce” the first entirely silent composition, predating John Cage's 4'33” by 55 years, his “Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man.” Eric Satie, in his late 19th C. rejection of Romanticism in music, was first to elevate repetition and boredom to an aesthetic. Just as Duchamp would in another two decades reject the label of artist for that of arranger and presenter, so Satie had rejected the label of composer, calling himself a “phonometrician.” I cannot fully delve here into the opposition of art (-making) and Art (as institution,) an absorbing subject in itself, but would only say that Le Monte Young, along with Cage an originator of Minimalist music and thus of Minimalism proper in 60s New York City, had always made it clear that he was working within the tradition.  Even Theodor W. Adorno, a sworn enemy of kitsch, jazz, and anti-art  understood that "...even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously."

The philosopher Arthur C. Danto, in his art criticism, nominated Andy Warhol's Brillo Pads as the end of Art in its historical, Hegelian sense, as a grave marker indicating the impossibility of further development and the beginning of eternal recycling (Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective; 1992).  He defined as central to post-modernity this convergence of Popular Culture and Art, of “high” and “low.”  I must say here that I love Danto’s writing, greatly value his observations, and am largely in agreement with his descriptive claims.  It is the prescriptive ones I am highly skeptical of.  First, it is arguable whether the low has adopted the high; every poll of popular taste has shown a highly conservative, entirely anti-Modern, let alone anti-Abstract, anti-Modernist bent.  “This is not art” is the vast majority's square response, as is consistent opposition against expanding our measly federal funding for the arts and for art education.  Even within the Art World, there has been a return to pictorialism and a reaction against Conceptualism.  Moreover, what I would contradict is the end-of-history, no-further-development possible scenario.  Neither State nor Art is in any immediate danger of fading away, nor has Language poetry succeeded in its positivist claims, if but only accomplishing yet another revolution from above and establishing its academic dominance (as the next “against?”)  The current post-avant label, as aesthetically unappealing and ill-defined as it may be, seems to fit, and I personally agree, immediately skeptical as I am of any avant-gardeist claims as careerist and forms of schooling. It would seem that Derrida's post-structuralist ghosts – hauntology, différance, and jouissance – remain, perhaps forever inscribed, like the Cheshire cat's disappearing smile, Carroll's Boojum.




Jean-Jacques Rousseau rejected the separation between performer and spectator, life and theatre. Karl Marx held art to be a product of the class system and concluded that in a communist society there would only be people who make art and no "artists."  This squares with Primitivist and naïve tendencies in both modernism and post-modernism, from Impressionistic and Expressionistic precedents, to Fauvism, Arte Brute, Pop, and beyond.  Everyone is born an artist and that state of social and individual innocence has been successively reclaimed through incorporation of Folk Art, the art of Children and the Insane, the anti-Art turn to Readymades and Assemblage, Pop's appropriation, and the “serious play” of chance operation.  Kierkegaard's emergent “Self” in an age of what he called “levelling” and Nietzsche's Übermensch, Will to Power, eternal recurrence, are the personal prescriptions against the Nihilism inherent in historical processes, a way forward between the Crisis of Faith on the one hand and the Crisis of Enlightenment on the other.  Impoverishment, boredom, despair, impossibility of development: then why not play, Pop and Minimalism as expression of yet another phase in the Hegelian dialectic?

In the Russian context, consider the meteoric rise of Futurist utopianism and its even more rapid self-implosion in the wake of World War and Revolution.  While the violence of Mayakovsky's lyricism retains much of it freshness, the more programmatic, willful, performative, ironic aspects of Futurism do not seem to have aged as well, and yet it is impossible to disregard the group’s relevance if not influence on post-modernist poetics: Dada, Theater of the Absurd, Fluxus, and so on.  Though Malevich's Suprematism and emergence of Constructivist design were crushed by the Soviet enforcement of Socialist Realism (a politicized Folk nativism) it was resurrected and spread to America by  the immigrants of Bauhaus.  Several other modernist themes seem to be ongoing, contemporary concerns.  A synthesis of newly available “translations” of Asian classics is evident everywhere in the work of Khlebnikov, Bely, and Mariengof, as is a turn toward a syncretic primitivism engendered by exposure to African and Polynesian art in Zaum, and a simultaneous turning inward and appreciation of Folk and Naïve nativist traditions. Finally, true classics, whatever the relative status of their accomplishments, never age: Mandelstam, Tsvetayeva, Akhmatova, Pasternak.

I will conclude by discussing several aspects of Minimalism and postmodernism in poetry (and art) that may be seen to have been engendered in the example of Modernism.  There is a clear and obvious turn toward plain speech in writing in Minimalist prose and poetry and a similar equating of high and low is evident in the turn of the arts toward the more pragmatic fields of architecture and design, and in Muzak, Ambient, Electonica.  This rejection of elevated poetic speech, a turn to Folk traditions and to real concrete or practical things is a theme that runs through 19th C. literary and pictorial efforts as well and form the basis of a rejection of Romanticism in the 20th.  Though progressively increasing, fragmentation and the self-sufficiency of incomplete statement is a strategy inherent in the writer's and painter's craft, requiring an audience or a reader to complete the work (as much the intention behind most of John Cage's compositions as it was for pointillists and impressionists.)  The juxtaposition of two elements of haiku served as the model for Eisenstein's montage: he, Dziga Vertov, and modern cinema had done as much as anyone to popularize the aesthetics of fragmentation (and synthesis). Vertov's Kino-Pravda or “film truth” and Man With a Camera, while far from the Minimalism of Warhol's static, extended takes of nothing, form the ground for cinéma vérité and such minimalists practices as shooting without script and with non-professional actors.  Fragments also arise as artifacts created unintentionally in the various phases of transmission, whether it is Sappho's extant texts or the chance survival in notebooks or in people's memories as in Mandelstam's case, or decisions of publishers to abridge and select as was true of much of Khlebnikov's work.

Irony, it must be noted is nearly absent in Modernism: humor, whimsy, mock epic, absurd, and (by 1910) shock value have a place, though a relatively small one, but the roots of that post-modern form of Nihilism and despair I think are already present (Jokes and the Collective Unconscious, applying Freud's ideas about humor as Ego defense to the field of culture is an entire fertile field in its own right.) I cannot here fully address Conceptualism other than to say that there is no art or poetry that isn't conceptualist first and foremost (the difference is only of purpose, degree, self-reflexivity, and execution.)  Conceptualism in poetry points to an essential impoverishment and emptying of language of all intention and reducing words to their abstract absolutes and this to my mind is already in play in the abstraction of the Futurist Buryuk, reference to popular political culture and slogans of Mayakovsky and Kamensky, the concrete treatment of words in Imaginism (Mariengof,) the concrete poetry of typography and sound (in Futurism and Zaum of Kruchenykh, Kamensky, and Gnedov,) and certainly in the not so coded references to Socialist reality and Realism in the last generation represented here, the two Russian Absurdists and the two members of the so-called Lianozovo group which served to re-constitute a post-war avant-garde in the sense of a union of non-conformist artists and poets (my subject in the next of three chapters of this anthology-in-progress.)

Lastly, it seems to me that Minimalism proper is essentially a spiritual practice and the purpose of reducing complexity and impeding reading is not with the intention of foreclosing it entirely but rather encouraging a closer reading, and an inscribing of self into the work.  I believe just such a spiritual practice is present both in the rational classicism of 19th C. poets-philosophers and the neo-Platonism of the Acmeists (Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Zenkevich) but also in the so-called “transrational,” Zaum “sound poetry.”  The via negativa, Keats' Negative Capability, being in uncertainty, has largely won out. 

In closing, I would point out that in the act of translation, some of that most poetic of qualities, the music of the words of Tyutchev and Turgenyev has been stripped away and in the process what is revealed here has become more conceptual (hence pragmatic and sociopolitical).  And this last point: the kind of complete erasure of Self that defines Minimalism and Conceptualism again seems to me associated with a particular historical moment and represents a strategy of opposition to power (whether communist, colonialist, religious, capitalist, or institutional) and there is evidence of this in the last movement of the pre-war avant-garde, in Russian Absurdism (please see link below to my Russia Desk monthly column @DanseMacabre for the prose works of Kharms and Vvedensky, who along with Khlebnikov and to a lesser extent the Zaum of Kruchenykh, represent the acknowledged predecessors of the Russian Non-Conformist artists and unofficial poets of the samizdat of the 60s and after.)  Most importantly, please come back to enjoy the poems again; and please spread word of this page.




POSTSCRIPT: I would add two conclusions this exercise has made apparent to myself and that I intend to pursue further. I would argue that inherent in the shift from modernism to post-modernism are creative strategies motivated by the efforts of successive generations to confront Nihilism which, rather than being ethically and morally bankrupt, is generative.  Lastly, I propose that Minimalism signals the shift to post-modernism (c. 1965) and may thus be construed as the concluding statement of Modernism.



To the translations

More references:


Photos and sound links



Comments? Tell us!

Back to Offcourse home page