N.I. Bukharin: Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the U.S.S.R.


It seems to me, comrades, that in considering the great problems of our Soviet poetry, we must have before us that picture of our life and that picture of world affairs which presents itself to our eyes at the present time. Our country now occupies a position of world-wide importance, a position of tremendous power. Our country is on the brink of mighty battles. Within the country, we have achieved enormous success, both in technical and economic respects and in the class struggle, thanks to that wise leadership which is embodied in our Central Committee with Comrade Stalin at its head. There has been a tremendous growth of culture in our country both extensive, in breadth, when vast sub-strata of new human beings are rising up to genuine cultural life, and an intensive growth of this culture in depth; - this is accompanied by an enrichment of all elements that go to make human working personality, which, contrary to all the slanders of our enemies, is much more highly differentiated at the present moment than it ever was before, and which is now entering the arena of world affairs as the embodiment of the hopes of all mankind, confronted by the great menace which capitalism is preparing for it.

This gives rise to a peculiar complication of those problems which we have to tackle on our literary front in general and on our poetic front in particular.

It is no accident that in our time, understood in the narrow sense of this word - I mean the period through which we are passing at present - the problem of quality on all fronts should have been stressed with extreme sharpness.

The problem of quality is the problem of diversity, of a multitude of different approaches to a question, of individualization, of attaining greater depth, etc. Such is the problem of quality in technique, the problem of quality in the sphere of economics, the problem of quality in the sphere of leadership, the problem of quality in the sphere of ideas.

And if we understand - as we all unquestionably dothat poetic creation is one of the forms of ideological creation, that poetic "production" is also a peculiar form of production, that poetry, no matter whether the poet thinks about this or not, is one of the most powerful factors in social development as a whole (we may note in passing that even the ancients, let us say the Greeks, perfectly well understood what some professional literary theorists of our time fail to understand - namely, the socially educative, the educationally militant role of all literature as a whole and of poetry in particular) - if, I say, we bear in mind this problem of quality, then for our poetic creation, too, the problem of quality, the problem of mastering the technique of poetic creation, the problem of craftsmanship, the problem of assimilating the heritage of past literature and culture is now being set in the forefront.

This is connected with those general problems which confront our country at the present time. While the capitalist world, stimulated by the growth of its contradictions, is pregnant with monstrous catastrophes, and all its social barometers point to storm and tempest, in our country the process of the maturing of the new, socialist man is going on at an almost fabulous speed, and all the problems involved in the building of socialism - including its cultural problems too - shoot up to new and much greater heights.

The worker of today is not the same as the worker of five or six years ago. The peasant of today, converted into a collective farmer, is already quite different in his mentality from the former peasant. That historical necessity which is leading us forward and onward, which is complicating, enriching, filling with fresh content the enormous human reservoir - those people who are now claiming their place on the historical arena with ever greater energy, with ever greater passion, with ever greater intelligence - these demand higher quality in all spheres and a more subtle approach to all kinds of literary production, poetry included.

The day is past when we could advance under the semiironical slogan of "A poor thing, but mine own." Today we must have the daring, the audacity to set genuine, universal standards for our art and poetic creation. We have to catch up and outstrip Europe and America in craftsmanship. This is what we must aspire to do.

Just because of this, the time has come for a general analysis in the field of literature, for summarizing experience, for defining orientations more exactly, for the statement of new problems commensurate with the great position held by the victorious proletariat in world history, and with the whole rhythm of this most interesting era in the life of mankind.

1. Poetry

The final subject of this report is that of the problems of poetic creation in the U.S.S.R. But before proceeding to an analysis of these problems, it will be worth our while critically to examine a number of general questions connected with poetic creation - the more so since there is still a great deal that is not clear here, and this lack of clarity is reflected above all in our literary criticism, which has a great task to perform and does not always perform it well.

Here I must ask my hearers to excuse me. For a certain period of time they may find it rather boring, but boredom, like evil, will the better set off the good that will follow in the latter part of my report, where it will not be so boring, and where I shall, perhaps, encounter violent objections. Here I may invoke the authority of the blessed Augustine, who said that evil exists only in order to set off the good. Having cited such a powerful authority as this, let me ask you to have patience for a little.

Let us first consider poetry as such. The Encyclopædia Britannica says: "Absolute poetry is the concrete and artistic expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language."

It is easy to see that this definition suffers from the fundamental defect that it defines poetry, that is, a concrete form of art, by means of artistic activity, which itself must be defined from the point of view of the specific character of art. The definition is therefore tautological. Moreover, it is obviously necessary somehow to differentiate the special properties of poetic speech, of poetic language and of the corresponding poetic thought, because thought is firmly and indissolubly linked up with language. Ancient Hindu poetics had already developed the Anandavardhana doctrine (tenth century B.C.) of the twofold, "hidden" meaning of poetic speech. According to this doctrine, language in which words are used solely anal exclusively in their direct, "customary" sense cannot be called poetic speech. Whatever such speech may convey, it will .be prose. Only when the words, by various associations, evoke other "pictures, images, feelings," when "poetic thoughts glimmer, radiate, as it were, through the words of the poet, but are not expressed directly by him," do we have authentic poetry. Such is the doctrine of the "dhvana," of the poetic innuendo, of the hidden meaning of poetic speech. Similar theories have often been associated with a mystic interpretation of poetry and poetic experience, as of something touching the fringe of "other worlds." In ancient China we find, for example, a whole brilliant poetic treatise, the poem Categories of Verse by Ssû - K'ung T'u (837 - 908 A.D.), on the theme of divine poetic inspiration, where the "True Lord," the "Prime Ancestor," the "Creator of Transformations," the "Spirit - like Transmogrifier," the "Heavenly Loom," the "Wondrous Mechanism," the "Highest Harmony" and, finally, the "Black Nothing" - the Great Tao - lives in a state of inexpressible poetic "inspiration." Having their roots deep in the idea of the magic of the word, such ideas often led to the direct deification of the word, which became a mystic essence. Thus, we find in one Arab philosopher the interpretation of the "Word" with a capital W, the Greek Logos, not as reason raised to the degree of the world's Demiurge, but as the embodiment of volition creating the world. Yet strange as it may seem, it is a highly characteristic fact that this magical or semi-magical interpretation of the art of words and the art of poetry, after a long cycle of ages, has once more gained currency in our own era; it was comparatively recently that we had a similar interpretation of poetry in bourgeois literary theory and bourgeois poetics.

In our own times Gumilev1) has expressed this idea in poetic form:

In days of yore, when o'er a world still new
God leaned his head, it was a word
Which made the sun stop in his course,
And towns were ruined by a word.

But we forgot the word alone is blessed
'Mid terrors that are sent us for a rod,
And in the Gospel that was writ by John
'Tis said the word - is God.

In his day Balmont,2) an unquestioned master of language, attempted to provide a "theoretical" basis for this fetishization of speech - reflexes in his book, Poetry as Magic, the very title of which clearly indicates the author's trend of ideas. "The world needs the creation of images," he declared. "The world has its magicians, who broaden and enrich the circle of existence by the magic of their will arid the music of their words." This poet, who was organically incapable of logical thinking, produces nothing to "prove" his argument but a long succession of carefully chosen and impressive images, which are intended to take the place of thought. Andrey Biely3), on the other hand, once made an attempt to give philosophic depth to the same subject, and word fetishism with him reached truly Himalayan heights. "If there were no words, there would be no world," he wrote. "My Ego, apart from its surroundings, does not exist at all. The world, apart from me, does not exist either. 'I' and 'the world' spring to life only in the process of their union in sound."

Thus, authors of various theories have lapsed into pure mysticism in their attempts to approach the problems of poetic speech. This, of course, had its causes - causes of a social and historical nature which ate not far to seek. But at present this does not concern us. We only want to point out the existence of such a way of putting the question, and that at different periods and in different countries.

Such points of view, inasmuch as they are idealistic and mystical, are of course unacceptable to us. They are a sort of refined barbarism, crudely contradictory to all scientific experience. But their very existence emphasizes the problem of the specific character of poetic thought and poetic speech, of that "mystery," "sorcery," and "magic," in which the mystics seek to envelop their readers' minds as in a veil, locking all the doors of rational perception.

But there is nothing mystic in phenomena themselves. The process of life, taken as "experience," has its intellectual, emotional and volitional sides. We make a conventional distinction between logical thought, thought in terms of concepts, and "thought in terms of images," the so-called "realm of emotion." True, in actual life the stream of experience is integral and undivided; nevertheless, in this very unity, we have the intellectual pole and the emotional pole, even though they may not exist in their "pure form," even though they may merge into one another. But it would be entirely and essentially wrong to make an absolute mechanical subdivision of the so-called "spiritual life" into water-tight compartments of feeling and intellect, or of the conscious and the unconscious, or of the directly sensory and the logical. These are not separate domains of abstract categories. They are dialectical magnitudes composing a unity. At one and the same time we are confronted with differences and even with opposites, though these opposites also merge into one another. This likewise gives rise to a certain difference in types of thinking.

Logical thinking employs concepts, which range themselves into a whole ladder of thought, with various rungs, or degrees, of abstraction. Even when we are dealing with the highest type of logical thought - dialectical logic - where the abstract concept includes its concrete attributes, the very concept, as such, causes sensory colours, sounds and tones to lose their vividness. Moreover, perceptive action oversteps the bounds of the senses, although it has its source in them; in summarizing human experience, it perceives, for instance,. the subjectivity of colour, and coming closer to a real perception of the world, of its objective nature, independent of the subject, it "replaces" colour by a light wave of definite length. In science, the entire qualitative diversity and multiformity of the world take on other forms, quite distinct from immediate sensation, but giving a much more adequate reflection of reality - that is, more true.

On the other hand, the entire world of emotions - love, joy, terror, grief, rage, and so on to infinity - the entire world of desire and passion, not as the object of research, but as experience, as well as the whole world of immediate sensations, also have their points of condensation - thought in terms of images. Here there is no abstraction from what is directly experienced. Here the process of generalization does not take us beyond its limits (as is the case in logical thought and in its highest product, scientific thought). Here this very sensory experience - doubly concrete and doubly "alive" - is itself condensed. Here we have, not a scientific reflection of real existence, but a sensorily generalized picture of a phenomenological series, not of the "essence," but of the "phenomenon." This does not by any means signify that we are dealing with an illusion or a dream. Nothing of the sort! This essence appears in the phenomenon. The essence merges into the phenomenon. The senses do not fence us off from the world.

But objective reality is here "reflected" differently. In science, it is reflected as a world of qualitatively diverse forms of matter; in art, as a world of sensory images; in science, as electrons, atoms, species, value, etc.; in art, as colours, odours, hues, sounds, images. The type of thinking here is not the same as in logical thought. Here generalization is achieved not by extinguishing the sensory, but by substituting one complex of sense symbols for a great multitude of other complexes. This "substitute" becomes a "symbol," an "image," a type, an emotionally coloured unity, behind which and in the folds of whose garments thousand's of other sensory elements are concealed. Every such unity is sensorily concrete. To the extent that such unities are selected and fixated, i.e., that these experiences are constructively, creatively reproduced, to this extent we have art.

The word itself is a highly complex magnitude. Being the product of many thousands of years of development, it embraces, like some cell of a "spiritual organism," all the problems of thought with both its principles - image and concept. In scientific terminology, it grows as a symbol of the "pure concept"; in poetical speech; it is imagery first and foremost. Consequently, the laws governing both the selection of words and their combination will differ, or, to express it otherwise, poetical speech will inevitably have its specific peculiarities. That remarkable investigator of these problems, Potebnia4), who while essentially developing the theory of Humboldt5)," arrived at a number of most original solutions, formulates the polarity of art and science as follows:

"Alike in the .broad and in the strict sense, all that pertains to thought is subjective; that is to say that, even though conditioned by the external world, it is yet the product of personal creation. But within this all-embracing subjectivity, we can distinguish the objective and the subjective, and refer science to the first ands art to the second. The basis for this is as follows: in art, only the image is the common property of all; it Is understood differently by everyone, and' the understanding of it can consist only of unanalysed (real and wholly personal) feeling, such as is evoked by the menage; in science, however, there is no image, and feeling cannot enter save as a subject of research; the sole building material of science is the concept, composed of symbols of the image already objectivized in the word. If art is a process of objectivized primary data of spiritual life, then science is a process of objectivizing art. The difference in degree of objectivity of thought ins identical with the difference in the degree of its abstractness: the most abstract of sciences, mathematics, is at the same time the most unquestionable one in its principles, the one that least of all admits the possibility oaf personal views.

It is easy to see that these formulations contain a number of errors. The author does not present any clearly defined ideas on the truthfulness, the objectivity of perception, and a loophole is left open for idealism; he obviously underestimates the social character of language, of the entire creative process, etc.; he draws too sharp a line of demarcation, metaphysically separating different aspects of thought. In consequence there is little that is dialectic here. At the same time there is much that is true and unquestionably deserving of attention. To continue the broken thread of our argument, we may say that the system of concepts proceeds outward through science: taking the sensations as our starting point, we advance further and further beyond their borders, where we perceive the objective character of the world, continually studying new facts and perfecting science, moving along the endless path of converting relative truth into absolute truth, destroying antiquated systems of science as we proceed on our way. In the field of art we do not go beyond the limits of the phenomenological series; here, as we said before, the objective world is reflected differently; here emotions are not made the object of scientific research; here even nature is "humanized." Here, therefore, the "warm," emotional, vivid! and metaphorical principle is placed in relative contrast to the "cold," intellectual, logical principle:

Water and stone,
Verse and prose,
Ice and fire. (Pushkin.)

Poetry is understood both in the broad and in the narrow sense of the word. All speech in terms of images is poetical speech; from this point of view Gogol's Dead Souls or Pushkin's The Captain's Daughter are poetical works. By poetry in the narrow sense is understood not simply the fixation of sensory images in words, but, in addition, rhythmical speech and even rhymed speech. It must not be thought, however, that there are any hard and fast lines of demarcation. The rhymed, rhythmical rules of arithmetic in India have only the sound image; they thus possess one element of poetry, but that does not make them poetry. The philosophical treatise of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), presents not only sound images but many others besides, and is therefore poetry. Here too, then, one element merges into the other.

Poetic creation and its product - poetry - represent a definite form of social activity, and are governed in their development, regardless of the specific nature of poetic creation, by the laws of social development. As we shall see later, when we go into this question in detail, the "verbal" character of poetic creation is no argument whatever against the sociological treatment of poetry. On the contrary: only by a Marxian analysis of poetry can we understand it in its full scale, in all the totality of its attributes. True, the Marxists have paid but little attention to the specific problems of language. But a deeper analysis of its phenomena inevitably leads to a sociological treatment of the word itself. And indeed it could not 'be otherwise. Examine a word, and you discover the palaeontology of language. Words are the depository of the whole previous life of mankind, which has passed through various social-economic structures, with diverse classes and groupings, different spheres of experience, labour, social struggle, culture. That which Potebnia calls "the heredity of words," and which can be developed into the evolution of language (or languages), is the reflection of actual social-historical life. Within the microcosm of the word is embedded the macrocosm of history. The word, like the concept, is abridged history, an "abbreviature," or epitome, of social-historical life. It is a product of this life, not a Demiurge of history, not a Logos creating a world out of nothing.

We have seen how poetry, as the fixation of sensory images in words, summarizes the world of emotion in its own peculiar way. But these emotions, these experiences are in themselves experiences of the social-historical man, and in a class society, of the class man. For even such emotions as have their roots in the fathomless biological depths of man, like emotions of an erotic nature, are modified in the course of the historical process. Fixated, selected images therefore cannot but come within the spheres of sociological analysis; they are social phenomena, phenomena of social life. Finally, thinking in terms of imagery is none the less thinking. The emotional element here merges with its opposite. On the other hand, a tremendous wealth of ideas, concepts, standards, ideologies, systems of philosophy enters bodily into poetic unity as an inseparable part of it. Here the intellectual merges with the emotional, that is, with its opposite. The poetic image, as an integral unity, is therefore not "purely" emotional; much less is the unified system of images purely emotional. Hence it follows that poetry, when considered from this angle, is a social product; it is one of the functions of a concrete historical society, reflecting and expressing in a specific form the specific features of its time and - in so far as we are dealing with a class society - of its class.

It is highly ridiculous how certain bourgeois theoreticians, giving a re-hash of idealist, philosophical æsthetics or æsthetic philosophy, which has been represented by very great names, by such giants of bourgeois thought as Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel, keep reiterating surprisingly vapid and tedious arguments to the effect that art in general and poetry in particular have no relation at all to practice, to "interest," to will. Kant, for example, in his Kritik der Urteilskraft, asserted this principle with all his force. Schopenhauer contrasts "disinterested" artistic contemplation to the ancillary character of science.6) According to Hegel, "the object of art should be contemplated in itself, in its independent objectivity, which, though existing for the subject, does so only in a theoretical, intellectual way, not practically, and without any reference whatever to desire or will."7) All this is utter nonsense. Take the art of ancient Greece. The comedies of Aristophanes are political journalism, but at the same time admirable works of art. There you will find the struggle of parties, definite political tendencies, ridicule of political opponents, etc. And the tragedians - Sophocles, Æschylus Euripides?

Everyone will understand the significance of the poetic contests that were held there, when the poets were awarded crowns by the crowd. If we went a step further, and if the crowd in the Park of Culture and Rest were to crown with laurels, let us say, Sasha Bezymensky, as the best popular bard, that would be something taken right out of the ancient Greek world.

The objective, and also active, significance of the social function of poetry - if we are to give it a more general formulation - is to assimilate and transmit experience and to educate character, to reproduce definite ;group psychologies. This peculiarly perceptive, peculiarly educative and peculiarly effectual function of poetry is truly tremendous, and at times it turns into that of an extraordinarily active militant force.

Here we must emphasize once again that the subjective experience even of a "purely scientific" worker may be just as completely disinterested, in the sense of its remoteness from all practice, as that of the creative artist; that "contemplation" of the astronomical map may, subjectively, be void of any element of self-interest or practicality. But objectively, in the total social relation, i.e., when regarded as a social function, both science and art in general and poetry in particular play, as has been pointed out, a tremendously vital and at the same time a practical role.

The cosmogonies of ancient India, the Gilgamesh Epic of Babylon, the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, the Chinese fables, Vergil's Æneid the works of the great Greek tragedians, the Song of Roland, the Russian folk-tales, etc. - were they not all mighty levers of a peculiar social pedagogy, forming people in accordance with their own commandments and canons? The ancient cosmogonies were veritable poetical encyclopædias. Homer was a fundamental subject of so-called "school" tuition. In Rome the verses of Vergil were crammed and scanned by no means as an empty pastime. The society of those times and its social leaders were thereby reproducing themselves in the realm of ideas, in an idealized form, inculcating their ideas, thoughts, conceptions, feelings, characters, ambitions, ideals, virtues. Even the Aristotelian catharsis (purging of the emotions) is a method of peculiar moral and intellectual hygiene (cf. Lessing's arguments in his Hamburgische Dramaturgie regarding the ultimate moral aim of tragedy). Horace knew what he was doing when he wrote that the aim of poetry was to mingle the useful with the pleasant "miscere utile dulci." The well-known Arab philosopher, Averrhoes, spoke of tragedy as the "art of praising" and comedy as the "art of censure."8) Contrary to idealist philosophy, Chernyshevsky,9) in his famous Dissertation, upheld the principle: "What is of general interest in life forms the content of art," and this somewhat crude formula is nevertheless infinitely closer to reality than are the pale shades of "disinterested" idealistic definitions, whose metaphysics carry us away into the almost airless void of an a-social "stratosphere."

The fact that words play a tremendous part in poetic creation, that the specific character of poetry is thought in terms of images, does not in any way run counter to a sociological treatment of poetry, because even the word itself is the product of social development and represents a definite condensing point in which a whole series of social factors find their expression. And for this reason we Marxists are faced with the task of subjecting this side of the matter, too, to a Marxist study, viz., the question of language, the question of words, the question of word creation, of the evolution of language, etc.; and it seems to me that quite a considerable theoretical foundation for such a study has been laid in our Marxist and near-Marxist literature.


1) Gulimev. Nikolai Stepanovich (1888 - 1921). Russian poet, prose writer and critic. Shot in 1921 for participation in a whiteguard plot. The verses here quoted are from his last book, The Pillar of Fire. - Ed.

2) Balmont, Constantine Dmitrievich (b. 1887). Well - known Russian poet. One of the foul chief representatives of Russian symbolism - Bryussov, Blok, Balmont and Biely. Emigrated after the October Revolution of 1917. - Ed.

3) Russian poet, prose writer and critic (1880 - 1934). The passage quoted is from an article entitled "The Magic of Words" in his book Symbolism. - Ed.

4) Potebnia, Alexander Aphamasyevich (1835 - 1891). Russian linguist, philologist and writer on the theory of poetry. The passage here quoted is from a work by him entitled Thought and Language. - Ed.

5) Humboldt, ,Karl Wilhelm von (1767 - 1835). German philologist. Author of The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind. - Ed.

6) Schopenhauer: World as Will and Idea, Section 36.

7) Hegel: Werke, Æsthetik Dritter Teil: Das System der einzelnen Künste, Berlin, 1843, Vol. X(2), pp. 253-4.

8) Cf. Ign. Kratschkovsky "Die Arabische Poetik im IX Jahrhundert" in Le Monde Oriental, No. XXIII, 1929. Upsala.

9) Chernyshevsky, Nikolni Gavrilovich (1829 - 99). Great Russian scholar and critic, publicist and revolutionary. - Ed.