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


2. Poetics as the Technology of Poetic Craftmanship

Here again we shall have to settle some theoretical scores with the formalists, at the same time assigning them to the place they have merited among researchers in art theory, and also with those in the sociological (including the Marxian) camp of literary theory who tend to over-simplify the question. We shall take our examples from comparatively early works written when the formalists were still such in the genuine sense of the word. The formalists were - guided by considerations of the following nature: Poetic language, i.e., in the final analysis, the word, is a constituent principle of poetry. It is therefore necessary to elucidate the laws of poetic word combinations (from various angles). Since "poetry is language in its aesthetic function," "language methods" represent "the sole hero" in the science of literature.1) In other words: the specific nature of poetry requires the study of these methods, which constitute the only object of literary theory. From this point of view the Marxian way of putting the question becomes sheer nonsense - an irrelevant intrusion of alien problems and utterly inadequate methods. The question has been much more subtly dealt with by Zhirmunsky,2) but in the final analysis even he did not deviate very widely from his colleagues. "Poetics," we read, "is a science which studies poetry as an art. ...What is now the subject of the most animated scientific interest is not the evolution of a philosophical view of life or of the 'feeling of life' in the great monuments of literature, not historical development, and the changing of social psychology in its interaction with the individual psychology of the poetcreator, but the study of the poetic art-poetics, historical and theoretical."

The theoretical basis for this conclusion is provided by the author's argument regarding the real coalescence of so-called "form" and "content" in art. "In actual fact, such a division of the what and the how in art represents only a conventional abstraction. Love, grief, tragic struggles of the soul, philosophical ideas, etc., exist in poetry not by themselves, but in that concrete form in which they have been expressed in the given work." "All facts of 'content' also become phenomena of form." This is both true and not true. Not true, because the author sees only the unity, but does not see the contrariety; he regards the entire complex only from the angle of formal logic, and not dialectically. This is the first point. Secondly - and this is much more important in the present case - the author's reasoning is vicious at the root. In reality, we are here dealing with a science whose duty is to understand poetry (historically and theoretically - we will not here discuss the question of the arbitrariness of this antithesis) as an art. This vital ands original unity, which is developing and evolving, contains elements of "love, grief...philosophical ideas." They are put into definite (poetic) form, but in their transformed aspect, they have entered into the "whole." How is this "whole" to be understood without touching on the genesis, origin, development, etc., of all these elements?

Evidently we must draw just the opposite conclusion to that arrived at by Zhirmunsky, namely, that since all the elements enumerated have entered into some synthetic whole - a work of art - then, in order to understand this whole in all its aspects, we must go beyond its borders and reveal the sources of the entire morphological process. One cannot understand law without going beyond the borders of legal formulae. One cannot understand religion without going beyond the borders of dogmatic theology. One cannot understand art without analysing its connections with the entire life- activity of society, because art must not be transformed into a metaphysical "thing - in - itself." Furthermore, as we have seen above, the very "form" of the word itself "possesses content," and that not only as the morphological factor in every new poetic work. It "possesses content" in another sense as well-namely, as the condenser of socialhistorical experience. The selection of metaphors in their concrete form "comes" not as a result of the immanent logic of words: it is taken from the surroundings of life, just as is the genre, the style and a thousand other things.

The narrowness and one-sidedness of "pure formalism" compel Zhirmunsky to criticize, quite rightly, the theoretical structure of Eichenbaum's3) arguments. However, he lapses from his position and inevitably begins to contradict himself. In another work, analysing tile presence of "extraneous elements" in art, he concludes: "All these examples raise the question of the limits of historical (and, we may add, not only historical. - N.B.) poetics and the delimitation of its problems within the bounds of a broader science of literature." Very good. But in that case we are faced with the following conclusion: either this "broader science" deals with art - in which case the whole fundamental structure of the author's argument collapses; or it is a science whose object is much broader than art - in which case the author's argument regarding the coalescence of the so-called form with the so-called content falls to the ground, that is, the author's conception collapses at the other end.

Finally, Zhirmunsky makes a desperate attempt of a dualistic nature. He subdivides art into two sorts: 1) "pure, formal, objectless arts, like ornaments, music, dancing," where "the very material of which they are built is conventional to the core, abstract, ęsthetic, not burdened (!! - N.B.) with meaning, material significance, practical tasks," and 2) arts "with an object or theme," "like painting, sculpture, poetry, theatrical art," "burdened with meaning" where "the material of art is not especially ęsthetic . . . ." This attempt, however, is doubly fatal to the author. It is fatal because such a subdivision simply does not fit the facts. The ornament is an image of things, people, plants and animals, symbolized to a very high degree, or else it is directly and intimately connected with "practical life" in another way (e.g., pictures on clay vessels). Music, as such, is by no means "objectless" - it is enough to mention Beethoven, Wagner, church music; there is even such a thing as philosophical music-Scriabine, for instance. The dance possesses a very great vital significance (and even a purely practical one) - war dances, erotic dances, etc. Secondly, this attempt is fatal to the author because it derisively contradicts his ideas, for this time he quite inequitably tears away a number of elements from the ęsthetic whole on the grounds that they are "burdensome" and unartistic.

We have selected Zhirmunsky because he is one of the subtlest art critics of the formalist or "near-formalist" camp. His spiritual confrčre beyond our borders, Professor O. Walzel, flounders in the toils of approximately the same contradictions in his search for "synthetic literary research" (synthetische Literaturforschung).4)

The foregoing analysis gives us the clue to the positive solution of the problem. An integral science of literature must include the elucidation of the laws of literature as a whole, as an active function in the life of society, as a "superstructure" of a peculiar kind, and this should include the laws, conditionally speaking, of the "formal elements" as well.

As a sub-species of such a literary science, as a conditionally specialized branch, we may have also a science of these formal elements, which must likewise have its sociological basis. Allthis does not preclude the possibility of special researches within limited and perhaps even narrower bounds. Hence valuable results can also be derived, for example, from work done to elucidate the special laws governing the technique of verse construction, or work devoted exclusively to the problem of imagery, or to the problems of sound in its relation to the image, etc., etc. These would all be special "branches," furnishing material for an integral science of literature. The tendency, therefore, which can frequently be observed in our own Marxian ranksnamely, a purely nihilistic attitude to the problem of form as such - is entirely wrong. In such an event literary research resolves itself into nothing but a superficial social-class characterization of the so-called ideological content of the poetic work, which, in its bare, rudimentary and over-simplified form, is carried over into the characterization of the poet as a poet. As we have seen above, however, form and content constitute a unity, but a unity of contradictions. Moreover, such an attitude leads people to understand by "content" what is, properly speaking, the ideological source of the content, and not its artistic transformation. Needless to say, this leads to quite incorrect conclusions.

It should be clearly and distinctly understood: that there is a tremendous difference between formalism in art, which must be emphatically rejected, formalism in literary criticism, which is equally unacceptable, and the analysis of the formal elements in art (which is not formalism at all) - an analysis which is exceedingly useful and which at the present time, when we have to "master technique" in all fields, is absolutely indispensable.

Formalism in art denotes the self-emasculation of the art in question, the utter impoverishment of its component parts - a phenomenon connected with the extreme contraction of the circle upon which such soi-disant art exercises its influence. It is individualism bordering on solipsism, where sound almost ceases to be a form possessing any "content."

In poetry we have such a phenomenon in the shape of "irrational language." When one reads:

Lulla, lolla, lalla - goo,
Leeza,, lolla, lulla - lee,
Pines, shoo - yat, shoo - yat.
Gee - ee, Gee - ee - oo - oo -

then the purely sound content (the musical melody of the verse) is in direct contrast to individual "human" words. The word ceases to be a word, because it is devoid of all meaning. All the living wealth of poetry disappears. Shklovsky5) concluded his article "On Poetry and Irrational Language" with the "prophecy" of Slowacki6) that: "A time will come when only the sounds in poetry will interest poets." This hope, expressed by one of the foremost theoreticians of formalism, fully explains why he has played such a negative role in regard to poetry as an art. When Paul Verlaine, that brilliant master of verse, poet of the subtlest and most delicate moods, demanded "de la musique avant toute chose" ("music before all else"), he never even dreamed of adopting the language of "Dyr bull shirr - ubeshur" ą la Kruchenykh.7)

The formalists have a peculiar logic of development. If the so-called "content" is to be considered as an "extraneous element," if all "meaning" is nothing 'but a "burdensome magnitude," if this meaning "blocks the road" of ęsthetic emotion, then, of course, poetry's main line of development can be expressed in the slogan: "Down with Faust and long live 'Dyr bull shirr'! " Thus, the theoretical "emancipation" from "meaning" leads in practice to "irrationality." It must be borne in mind that we are not here speaking of "wordbuilding" and that our standpoint is by no means that of the notorious Admiral Shishkov.8) What we are discussing is a tendency to do away with the word as such, to destroy all concepts, to debase imagery - in other words, to annihilate poetry as a verbal art. The dialectics of formalism develop as follows: they begin their "Gospel according to St. John" by promulgating the thesis: "In the beginning was the word," and define the essence of poetry by the word and the word alone - only to end by doing away with that word altogether, and thus demolishing their central principal. The extreme individualism of these arguments is also indicative of their social roots. They have their origin in abject fear of the flood of new "content" accompanying the revolution, which overturned the tea-tables in so many drawing-rooms, in the going into hermitage of "proud" bourgeois-intellectual "individuals," who want to creep away into the burrow of the professional anchorite ("And we, the poets wise"...).

It is interesting to trace the evolution of formalism in art as the evolution of decadence in bourgeois art. I have already had occasion to show once in print how in the epoch of universal decadence in which all bourgeois humanity is now living, the latter casts away the element of content from all art, i.e., in the last resort, destroys art itself.

So it was with painting, when bourgeois artists, continually impoverishing the elements of "content," brought painting to the verge of a "pure," "decorative spot"; all that remains is the "spot" as a principle, and further progress is barred. The same thing happened in sculpture, through expressionism, when nothing was left but a curved lineand that was all. In architecture they began to be afraid of superfluous "content," reduced themselves to absolutely simple geometrical forms, and here too ended up in a blind alley.

The impoverishment of the elements of content brings its nemesis in the suicide of the given form of art. When the decadence of art reaches its last limits, there begins a process of frenzied casting around in different directions, and this will continue until the other half of mankind - the proletariat, the toiling population - succeeds in creating a synthetic art, which will gather together all the riches of human society and will create masterpieces of integral humanity; and this will have nothing in common with either physical or spiritual eunuchs, but will regard them with contempt and abhorrence.

Formalism in literary theory, as we have seen, is closely linked up with formalism in art itself. Its most glaring error is that it attempts, on principle, to tear art from its vital social context. It creates the illusion, or the fiction, of an entirely independent "series" of phenomena in art. The specific nature of art it confuses with its complete autonomy. As for the laws of art's development, it sees them only in the immanent laws of its morphology, quite avoid of any connection with the most important morphological problems of social life in general. This dry, vapid, lifeless conception must emphatically be rejected.

All this must not be confused with the task of analysing the formal elements in art. The latter, as we have seen above, is necessary and useful in the highest degree. The formalists considered this partial work to be everything; they deduced general principles from this material. This is wrong and harmful. But an analysis of the formal elements in art, a profound study of all problems of the structure of poetical speech, is an indispensable part of the broader field of work. And in this respect there is something to be learned even from the formalists, who investigated these problems, while Marxist literary critics have regarded them with complete disdain.

This question acquires a special importance and actuality just now, when the problem of the cultural heritage in general and the problem of mastering the technique of art in particular have been raised anew and in a serious light. But before discussing this question, it is first necessary to say a few words about the general problem, viz., to answer the question of how, in general, it is possible to learn from the "old masters," the "classics," the "predecessors," etc.

This question is by no means an idle one, and clarity here will obviate many mistakes. The essence of the whole matter can be briefly summarized as follows: Every poetical work is an integral unity, in which sound, ideas, imagery, etc., are component parts synthetically united. On the other hand, it is also a unity from the sociological viewpoint, since all the component parts and their synthesis, taken together, are "ideological reflexes" of a definite period and a definite class. How, then, under such circumstances, is it possible to learn? :Should we not, on the contrary, utterly reject all previous "contents," "forms," "methods," etc.? As is well known, such conclusions have actually been drawn, although their absurdity is self-evident. The general answer to this question has been given by materialist dialectics, according to which "negation" is not sheer destruction, but a new phase in which "the old" exists in aufgehobener Form,9) to use Hegel's terminology. In such a type of "movement" we have the possibility of a succession which will dialectically combine both a rupture with the old and a peculiar continuation of it. A number of elements, when carried over into another combination, into another context, begin to live a new life, and thus a new "unity" is obtained. The reason for this is that a unity is not a monolithic magnitude, but contains inner contradictions. We may observe similar things in the field of material life: when we import a new machine, we introduce it into a new complex of technicaleconomic organization, and the "meaning" of the machine thereby becomes different. Approximately the same thing happens in the realm of ideas - mutatis mutandis, of course.

There is another and quite different side to this question. Is it possible to learn to be a poet at all?

A perfectly correct answer, as it seems to us, was given to this question by Valery Bryussov. "Ability for artistic creation," he said, "is an inborn gift, like beauty of face or a powerful voice; this ability can and should be developed, but by no amount of effort or study can it be acquired. Poetae nascuntur (poets are barn)." The development of poetic ability is achieved with difficulty. "Truly great poets, endowed with a genius for creation, achieved technical mastery only by means of slow probation and long, patient labour." We are thus brought face to face with the problem of poetics, as the technology of poetic creation. In other words: elucidation of the laws governing the so-called formal elements can be presented in the form of definite standards. Poetics then appears not only as a part of the theory of literature but, when transposed to another logical key, acquires the significance of a system of rules. What we have in mind is not, of course, a school-book exposition of the subject, although even this is useful with a view to raising the general level of poetic culture, but a conscious understanding of the full importance of this factor too. Without a study of the technology of poetic creation, one cannot learn the specific "craftsmanship," "the poet's trade," as Bryussov expresses it, not very accurately, in his Experiments. Of course - and this seems to us axiomatic, - the "studies" cannot and should not on any account be limited to this "technology." Even that part of the studies which relates to the problem of the "cultural heritage" cannot be confined within such limits. For the wider our horizons are in all directions, the more fruitful will be the process of making this heritage our own. Nevertheless a solution of this most elementary problem is quite indispensable, and this must be stressed with especial force, because the problem in question somehow or other has not and does not come within the range of vision of our poets and - which is also extremely important - of our duly impanelled critics. Problems of rhythm and metre, problems of verbal scoring, of stanza construction, etc. - all these must enter into the sphere of careful study, and the poet really must not resemble that character in Dmitryev10) who

"Forgets his lack of knowledge when he passes into raptures."

Such, in our opinion, is the problem of poetics, as the technology of poetic creation.

It seems to me that our most serious attention must now be turned to this side of the matter. And this applies to criticism, too.

At the present time one of the main tasks of criticism is not only to give an exact social-economic and social-political equivalent for the various poets, poetic tendencies, etc., but also to analyse these carefully from the viewpoint of the specific character of poetic creation, from the viewpoint of language, imagery, stanza construction, verbal scoring, etc.

Without such an analysis, literary criticism at the present time is not of full value. In the days when we were vanquishing bourgeois society, our criticism was a battering ram which smashed the enemy. We picked out the main thing, the sharpest point, viz., the social-political factor, and this, in our hands, was a shaft which we shot against the bourgeois antagonist.

But when we ourselves are building, when we need to learn craftsmanship, when we know that a definite number of poets have already taken their stand on a definite political platform, when we know perfectly well that, ideologically, they are already close to us (of course, there will be backsliders, and we must be ruthless towards all enemies, nor must we relax our vigilance for an instant) - this, of course, is not everything. We must at the same time raise the problem of craftsmanship as never before, and criticism, in analysing the objects of its critical attention, must lay this very important and essential side of the matter under the microscope.

Such criticism, unfortunately, has not as yet grown up among us in its full stature. But this is one of the tasks confronting us at the present time on the literary front.


1) R. Jacobson, Latest Russian Poetry. Prague, 1921, p. 11.

2) Zhirmunsky, Victor Masimovich (b. 1891). Contemporary Russian literary critic, adhering to the formalist school of thought. The passages here quoted are from essays in his Problems of Literary Theory, Leningrad, 1928. - Ed.

3) Eichenbaum, Boris Mikhailovich (b. 1886). Literary critic. One of the leaders of the formalist school in Russia. - Ed.

4) See O. Walzel, Das Wortkunstwerk. Mittel seiner Erforschung. Verlag Quelle u. Meyer, Leipzig. See especially pp. 20 - 21.

5) Shklovsky, Victor Borisovich (b. 1891). Contemporary Russian critic. - Ed.

6) Sdowacki, Juliusz (1809 - 49). Polish poet of the romantic school. Ed.

7) Kruchenykh, Alexey Eliseyevich (b. 1886). One of the first Russian futurists. Inventor of the "irrational language." - Ed.

8) Shishkov, Alexander Semenovioh (1754 - 1841). Reactionary writer; vice - admiral in the Russian fleet. Opposed the linguistic reform of Karamzin. Maintained that the Russian language was identical with Ecclesiastical Slavonic. - Ed.

9) Literally, "in suspended" or "abrogated form." - Ed.

10) Dmitryev, Ivan Ivanovich (1760 - 1837). Russian poet, satirist and writer of fables. Ed.