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


5. The Level of Poetic Work in the U.S.S.R. and the Tasks of Poetry

In raising the question of the tasks which confront our poetry, we must begin with the problem of our epoch
. We are now living at an altogether exceptional time. We, the U.S.S.R., are the watch-tower of the whole world, the "skeleton army" of future mankind. This fact must be grasped, thought out, felt. Our vision extends over thousands of years. The great idea for which we stand is penetrating to all ends of the globe. We are not living an existence on paper, in a manifesto, nor in the speculative dreamland of great minds and hearts. We are living as a real force - real if there ever was one. Potentially, we are everything. We are the heirs of thousands of years, of all culture handed down from age to age. We are continuing the struggle of hundreds upon hundreds of generations of fighters - those who have tried to throw off the yoke of exploitation once and for all. We are the glorious vanguard of the workers who are changing the world, a grim army which is getting ready for fresh battles. We are the soul of historical reason, the main triumphant driving force of world history. On the topmost ranges of human will and action, we build and struggle, suffer and triumph. Our tasks are ones of colossal magnitude. Our responsibility before history is unbelievably tremendous.

It is from this point of view above all that we must regard the level attained by our poetry. And when we regard it from this angle, we see that we are exceedingly backward, that we are only making our first steps towards the creation of a new poetic culture in world history. The poetic material now collected in the treasury of our poetry - is it not jejune, is it not squalid when compared with the colossal content of our life? Do we succeed, even in the slightest degree, in depicting the catastrophic collapse of the old culture in the East and in the West? Is not the marvellous book of history closed with seven seals to our poets? Has our own history, the history of late years, been comprehended in all its diversity' with its heroic working days and its workaday heroics, in the live dialectics of thousands upon thousands of the most varied problems, tormenting experiences, joys of creation, collisions and solutions? Have our poets assimilated to a sufficient degree the splendid heritage bequeathed us by the old masters of all times and peoples, the right to receive which has been given them by the triumphant proletariat, whose sons they now are? No, and yet again no! Crude, uncultured provincialism still prevails among us. Our poetry has not yet risen to an understanding of the full significance of our era. It does not yet understand where it stands. It does not yet see that "Roof of the World," those "Pamirs" about which Bryussov wrote and which have now already been "discovered."

The poet's business is not to paraphrase a newspaper article or to show a standard knowledge of political science, in which the general level in our country has now become very high. What is needed is breadth and depth of knowledge; one must be able to feel a thing through and through, to bring it out to the light of day, to put it into form. But for this there is a lack of imagery and means of expression generally. They are lacking, because the entire level of our poetic culture, when compared with the problems that face it, is terribly low, both in its content and its "formal" attributes. Which of our poets has such a feeling for the era we are living in that a great universal canvas opens before his mind's eye? Which of our poets really feels to the full the historic place which we hold in the living stream of modern history? There are no such poets as yet. We have not yet reached that stage. We snatch at scattered fragments, in which the whole co-exists only in the form of declaration. Hardly any of us even face the problem in its full scope. It would, of course, .be absurd to demand that these requirements be immediately and fully met. But that is not the point. The point is that we must systematically raise the level of poetic self-knowledge. This means that the poet must study not only the facts of the past and of the present but also the problem of expressing them in poetry.

There is also another question, closely connected with the above - namely, the question of synthetic poetry-making, of monumental poetic works. Our era now demands thisnow above all. If we trace the evolution of our poetry, taking the type of poetic production as our criterion, it is not hard to distinguish three periods in this process of evolution.

The first period was a time of new slogans, the first flush of struggle, the promulgation of new principles of life to the workers of the world, the beginning of a new era. The poetry of this period was declarative, spacious in its ideas, verging on the cosmic. All this, however, without flesh and blood, resembling rather a poetical blueprint. Poetry consisted to a great extent of abstract heroics - in so far as the word "abstract" can be applied to poetry at all.

The second period. Feverish activity. Construction. The time requires concrete knowledge and skill, the highest practical ability, attention to detail, the culture of the small which goes to make the great, specialization. Poetry makes a right-about face towards portrayal of the minutiae of life.

"To discover the world revolution in every detail" - that was how Bezymensky put it. "Cosmism," "World Sovnarkoms"1) etc., gave place to the minutiae of empiric description. Poetry entered the phase of dialectical negation of the previous period. Universalism passed into its opposite. The minutely concrete, the part of the whole, analysis - such were now the dominant ideas.

The third period is that upon which we are entering at the present time. Our life has developed tremendously, grown infinitely more complex. The problems of mastering the technical side of our work have not yet been solved, but much has already been done. Cultural requirements have grown to an extraordinary degree, interests have become immeasurably more diversified. There is a tremendous thirst to know everything, a tremendous desire to generalize, to rise on a new basis to an understanding of the process as a whole. Hence the need for synthetic poetry and synthetic literature in general. This period is the prelude to a phase in which poetry will summarize life, in which our epoch will be presented not in fragments of the whole, but, in so far as is possible, in all its connections and settings. This is not a mere return to the starting point, not a reversion to declarative schematic poetry, but a synthesis which can only arise on the basis of previous analytical work.

Needless to say, this division into periods must not be taken too literally. The features noted above do not by any means cover the whole content of each period - to assert this would be sheer unreason, or denote an elementary ignorance of the facts. In particular, we are far from having exhausted all the problems of the concrete type. But however diverse maybe the types of poetic work, certain dominant tendencies nevertheless stand out above the rest. And it is these tendencies we have in mind. Hence we must draw a second conclusion (the first was the necessity of raising poetic consciousness to the level of our era and of doing away with provincialism). And our second conclusion will be that, while continuing to employ the concrete and the individual as our subject-matter, we must proceed to the task of summarizing life in poetry; on the basis of the concrete and individual, we must proceed to the portrayal of the universal, richly variegated and dissected whole.

Here we come up against a further problem, namely, that of the diversity and unity of poetic material.

Karl Marx once wrote in biting ridicule of bourgeois political economy that it is the most moral of sciences, that its ideal is "an ascetic but usurious miser, and an ascetic but productive slave." "Its main dogma," he wrote, "is selfabnegation, the renunciation of life and of all human wants. The less you eat, drink, buy books, the more seldom you attend the theatre; dances, the café, the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fish, etc., the more you save, the greater grows your fortune which neither moth nor rust can corrupt - your capital."

This apt characterization throws light on Marx's positive views. Marxian communism aims at an infinitely diversified development of human wants. Its aim is a full-blooded human being with all-round development, not a wretched onesided creature, emasculated in this respect or that. Loving, theorizing, painting, thinking, fishing - it was doubtless with intention that Marx placed such incommensurable magnitudes side by side with one another - are not only no "sin." They are all glorious functions of vitally active man, to whom labour itself becomes a "prime necessity of life." This is the goal to which we are advancing - overcoming tremendous difficulties on the way, battling every step, but advancing nevertheless. From this follows the quite definite conclusion: The entire diversity of life can and should serve as the material for poetic creation. Unity does not mean that we must all sing the same song at the same time - now about sugar beets, now about the "live man," now about the class struggle in the countryside, now about a Party membership card. Unity does not mean the presentation of the same ideal types and the same "villains," nor the abolition - on paper - of all contradictions and evils. Unity consists in a single aspect - that of building socialism. All the richness of life, all tragedies and conflicts, vacillations, defeats, struggle of conflicting tendencies - all this must become the material for poetic creation.

The better we are able to show the diversity of this life, the more thoroughly we grasp these fundamental historical arteries - and this will be achieved by the point of view, not by impoverishing the content - the better and the higher will be the standing of our literature and our poetry.

It seems to me that precisely at the present time, when we are faced, let us say, with the problem of depicting types, it will be possible to take and depict isolated types as wellsay, the isolated worker of a Political Department, the isolated pilot of the Red Fleet, and so forth. This tendency is very rapidly gaining ground among us. But I consider that the pilot must be shown in such a way that he forms a unit of this life. The Political Department worker must be shown as the focus of this life - in such a way that all the rays may radiate from this focus and, intersecting one another, show the whole multiformity of our life. Then we shall obtain a multiform art.

If we do not do this, we shall be threatened with the danger of poetic work becoming departmentally alienated from life and bureaucratized, orders being issued by the People's Commissariat of Education, by the People's Commissariat of Ways of Communication, by the Transport Workers' Trade Union, by the Wood-Working Industries Trade Union and so on.

This, of course, is not art at all. In any case there is a very grave danger of this kind of art ceasing to be art. It is not along these lines that the way forward lies.

I repeat once again: I do not deny that even this kind of portrayal may be possible, but this is only a starting point. From here we should advance further. Through these figures we must show the whole mighty flourishing of our onward moving socialist life. We must show all the vital wealth, all the conflicts, waverings, defeats, struggle of tendencies, not simply present an elementary portrayal, resembling a beam to which a red flag is nailed. Down with the beam in the domain of poetry! We must show the whole struggle of tendencies, the whole multiformity of life.

But no man can "embrace the unembraceable." People approach a problem from different angles until sufficiently broad generalizations are found. "Prohibitive" measures are therefore absurd. If, for instance, the idea of "portraying the live man" was one-sided, it does not follow from this that, with the change of leadership on the "critical front," this sort of portrayal should be relegated to the scrap-heap and virtually prohibited.

And so we arrive at our third conclusion: All the diversity of our remarkable era, with all its contradictions, should serve as material for poetic creation. Unity should be achieved through the point of view from which this material is handled by the poet, not by impoverishing the material itself. This point of view is that of the triumphant struggle of the proletariat.

And if that is so - as it unquestionably is - then the solution of the further problem is also clear, the problem of the unity and diversity of form. The general problem of form and content we have already solved in the first part of our report, showing the correlation of form and content, their dialectic unity on the one hand and their dialectic contrariety on the other. At present we are dealing with the unity and diversity of form. It is not hard to see that, if a diversity of poetic material is essential to us, then - by virtue of the interconnection between form and content - we must also have diversity of poetic form. The rhythms of an elegy and a war-song cannot be the same, because the sound aspect of the image is at one and the same time the aspect of its emotional content. But if we admit and consider desirable the greatest variety of poetic material, and consequently also the greatest variety of poetic form, what is then the unifying, "morphological" factor? Indeed, if there is a unity of form and content, then unity of material (diverse unity) must have its counterpart in unity of form (diverse unity). The answer to this is that the unity of this diversity is achieved by unity of style or unity of method.

We thus arrive at our fourth conclusion: The forms of poetic creation should be the most diverse, unified by the one great style or method of socialist realism.

But here we come to the problem of socialist realism itself - a problem which must be analysed separately and in somewhat greater detail.

First of all, we would consider, in this connection, the question of poetic method and of style. It seems to us that in this field, at any rate, the two coincide. Let us take some instances. In the field of logical thought we have, for example, the positivism of August Comte; and this had its counterpart in art in the naturalism of Emile Zola. Comte's positivism is a method and, if you wish, a scientific-philosophical system at one and the same time. Zola's naturalism was an æsthetic interpretation, a translation into the language of art, of the scientific-philosophical methods of positivism. For art, this was both a method (because in the very process of creative work it provided guiding and regulating ideas) and a style, because both in the content and in the form, and also in the whole, that is in their unity, this method, materializing and taking literary shape in the completed work, became a "morphological," constructive principle, shaping form and content. In the completed work (or works) unity of method becomes unity of style. In so far as the poet is guided by a definite method in his work, he selects his material accordingly (because he can never embrace the whole in the exact sense of the word, he always "picks and chooses"); he selects images, words, sounds, rhythm, which blend into a single poetic whole - one thing involving another, in compliance with very intricate laws. Rut when the work is completed, its structural principles become a "congealed" method, or, to express it otherwise, the method has found its other form of existence in the structure of this work. If, then, we have a number of works, united by common structural principles, that is, a definite trend in art - in this case, in poetry - the more common (we underline: more common, that is, not all, by far) of these structural principles are typical for the entire trend. And this is style in the proper sense of the word.

We have quoted Zola as an example. Another case in point is our own Russian symbolism. Its philosophical basis, that is, its general trend of thought, was a peculiar mystic idealism, a cross between Kant and Vladimir Solovyev. Symbolism was the counterpart of this in poetry. Mystic idealism sought for a mystic other-worldly essence beyond the world of phenomena and beyond the world of reality generally. Symbolism, as a method, was a translation of this regulative idea into terms of poetry. It meant that reality had to be turned into symbols of the beyond; this, in its turn, involved a choice of images, visual or musical, a selection of components, logical and emotional, such as would conform to this methodological requirement. But no sooner had this work been done, no sooner had a poetic trend arisen on this basis, than the method assumed a form, became a style. Symbolism arose as a literary phenomenon: the poetry of symbolism became a fact.

Let us now revert to the question of socialist realism. Its philosophical basis is dialectical materialism. From this point of view, socialist realism is a distinct method in art, the counterpart of dialectical materialism, the translation of the latter into terms of art. (Parenthetically, let us note that it does not by any means follow from this that every good poet must first become a good philosopher; the connection is more complex, but this is a separate question.) What does this mean? What is socialist realism and what are its peculiar features? In what respects does it differ from realism generally?

Socialist realism cannot set out to solve the same problems as dialectical materialism in science - a fact which follows from the very essence of the difference between science and art. From the analysis given in the opening part of this report, it is clear that in describing nature, for instance, socialist realism does not set out to think of it only in terms of electrons, light and heat waves, rays, etc., as against sounds, colours and other directly sensory elements. In depicting society, it cannot set out to employ categories of value, basis and superstructure, and so forth. It employs sensory images first and foremost, and even intellectual elements receive a definite emotional tinge. Without this, there is no art in general or poetry in particular. But realism generally and socialist realism in particular, as a method, is the enemy of everything supernatural, mystic, all other-wordly idealism. This is its principal and definite attribute.

"Omnis determinatio est negatio" - "All definition is negation," said old Spinoza. The negative definition of realism is that it is not idealism, not mysticism. But this negative definition is at the same time its positive definition. This means that sensory reality and its motion, and not its fictitious sublimations, that real feelings and passions, real history, and not various versions of the "world spirit," provide the material which it portrays. In conformity with this, the elements of form will also be other than is the case, let us say, in symbolism. The combination of images, the verbal scoring will serve not to conjure up the supernatural but to reproduce reality and the real motions of the feelings with the greatest possible vividness. It does not, however, follow from this that realism, from the point of view of form, precludes the employment of metaphors, including personification. Everything that enhances the sensory effect can and does find a place in the poetic lexicon, because it is perceived as a metaphor. "Terek's stream like a lioness leaping" does not contradict realism just as the reverse metaphor: "He lay like a rock," with its transfer of a dead image to the living, does not contradict realism either.

What distinguishes socialist realism from realism in general? It is distinguished, first of all, by the artistic material it employs. We have on several occasions pointed out that unity of form and content does not preclude their contrariety. As old Trediakovsky2) wrote: "In Poetry generally, it behoves us to note two things. Firstly: the matter, or thing, which the Poet undertakes to write. Secondly: versification, that is, the method of composing the Verses." Socialist realism is distinguished from other realism by the fact that it inevitably focuses attention on the portrayal of the building of socialism, the struggle of the proletariat, of the new man, and all the manifold complexities of "connections and settings" of the great historical process of our day. We must always bear in mind that within poetic unity there co-exist intellectual, emotional and volitional elements, forming a single indivisible whole. Certain guiding and evaluating factors - the class token, the aim - form an element which is present in every work, even if only in a very subtle and sublimated form. The point of view of the proletariat's victory is, of course, a constituent trait of all works of socialist realism; it gives them their "social meaning."

Is this distinction, however, the only one? Or are there methodological, and consequently also stylistic, peculiarities of socialist realism, distinguishing it from bourgeois realism?

Of course there are such features.

These features are most intimately connected with the content of the material and with purposefulness of a volitional order, dictated by the class position of the proletariat. In the socialist society which is coming into being, the difference between physical labour and brain work is gradually being effaced. A new type of man is arising in whom intellect and will are not cloven in two: he really knows the world in order to change it. Mere contemplation, mere portrayal of the objective, without elucidation of the motive tendencies, without reference to the practical alteration of the objective world, are here receding into the past. Hence, socialist realism cannot base its views on the naturalism of Zola, who proposed to describe reality "telle, qu'elle est" ("such as it is") and nothing more. Neither can it accept his other slogan: "L'imagination n'a plus d'emploi" ("imagination is no longer needed"). Socialist realism dares to "dream" and should do so, basing itself on real trends of development.

In connection with this, we must also consider the question of revolutionary romanticism. If socialist realism is distinguished by its active, operative character; if it does not give just a dry photograph of a process; if it projects the entire world of passion and struggle into the future; if it raises the heroic principle to the throne of history - then revolutionary romanticism is a component part of it. Romanticism has usually been contrasted to realism. This was because romanticism in the majority of cases has been connected with idealistic soarings into metaphysical dimensions and "other worlds," and its exalted emotion of the "sublime and beautiful" led beyond the confines of the objective world. This was also because realism expressed a narrow and contemplative so-called "objectivism." Narrow, because it did not educe the tendencies leading to the future. Contemplative, because it limited itself to registering what exists, though not, of course, "in its pure form." In our circumstances romanticism is connected above all with heroic themes; its eyes are turned, not on the heaven of metaphysics, but on the earth, in all its senses - on triumph over the enemy and triumph over nature. On the other hand, socialist realism does not merely register what exists, but, catching up the thread of development in the present, it leads it into the future, and leads it actively. Hence an antithesis between romanticism and socialist realism is devoid of all meaning.

The old realism was to a certain extent anti-lyrical, while the old lyricism was - also to a certain extent - anti-realistic. Socialist realism is bound to have its eyes fixed on man. In the final analysis, socialism means the genesis of new human qualities, the enrichment of spiritual content, the development of many-sidedness, the end of squalid misery among people torn asunder into classes, narrow professions, city and country dwellers.

Here I must make one observation on a point which might perhaps have escaped the notice of the other comrades here. It relates to the letter from André Gide which was read out at this congress. In my opinion the wording employed by André Gide is incorrect. He speaks of Communist individualism. To my mind, Communist individualism is a contradiction in terms, an "oxymoron," a logical solecism. But Gide's idea on the portrayal of personality is correct. He is confusing two concepts - the growth of personality with the growth of individualism, the growth of the individual with the growth of individualism, the enrichment of the personality's content with the growth of that which divides one man from another. Individualism in its development has a tendency to divide people. When, let us say, a decadent poet converses with a shoemaker, the shoemaker does not understand the poet, and the poet does not understand the shoemaker. This is an expression of the deepest division of labour, of the individualism of capitalist society. We, on the other hand, want to understand each other without any difficulty; at the same time we want each one of us to be, not a blockhead or a eunuch, but a real good fellow who can do anything, who understands everything, and who can develop still further, unfolding his inner consciousness to infinity. Here there are no boundaries, no barriers between the wealth of growing personalities and the splendid triumphal progress of the common collective wealth of communist society-economic, technical and cultural wealth.

The new man that is being born and the whole world of his emotions, including even "new erotics," if one may so express it, are therefore the province of socialist art. Lyric verse does not conflict with socialist realism, because we are not here speaking of an anti-realistic form of lyric, seeking for a "world beyond," but of a lyric which gives poetic shape to the spiritual experiences of the socialist man who is now coming into being. Socialist realism is not anti-lyrical.

Here we may touch upon yet another question, closely allied to this. Socialist realism is not anti-lyrical, but it is anti-individualistic. This does not mean that it fails to portray human personality and that it does not develop it. Socialism, as is well known, means the flourishing of personality, the enrichment of its content, the growth of its selfknowledge as a personality. But the growth of individuality is by no means equivalent to the growth of individualism, i.e., of that which disunites people. On the contrary, the feeling of a collective bond between people is one of the principal traits of socialism, and the poetized form of this feeling must inevitably be reflected in the distinguishing stylistic traits of socialist realism. Thus, socialist realism is antiindividualistic.

The type of poetic work which presents a period in its more general and universal attributes, embodying them in peculiar images concretely abstract - images of extreme generality and at the same time of colossal inner richness - ran counter to the old conception of realism. Take Goethe's Faust, for example. This, in its form, is not a portrayal of a concrete historical process, but the struggle of the human spirit. And at the same time Faust is a philosophic-poetical conception of the bourgeois era establishing itself. An analogous type of poetry, of another calibre, can be seen, for instance, in Verhaeren's Dawns, in which he describes the "symbolical" city of "Oppidomagne," where the socialist revolution is taking place. It seems to us that poetry of the type of Faust, with a different content and consequently of a different form, but still maintaining the extreme generality of Faust, must unquestionably find a place as a component part of socialist realism, and that it will create the most monumental form of socialism's poetry.

Such are the basic and distinguishing traits of socialist realism. And thus we come to our fifth conclusion, namely: Socialist realism is a method of poetic creation and a style of socialist poetry depicting the real world and the world of human feelings, a style differing from bourgeois realism both in the content of the objects which poetry depicts, and in its distinguishing stylistic features.

We must now retrace our steps a little. We have seen above that the whole manifold diversity of our era should serve as material for poetic creation, unity being provided by the socialist point of view. We have seen that the forms of poetic works may be the most varied, unity being attained by singleness of style. Hence we may conclude that this style forms a single inseparable whole with the material. Such is the genesis of the poetry of socialist realism.

We have seen that the development of our poetry presupposes a much higher level of poetical culture generally. We must say outright: Our poetry is sometimes elementaryand this happens all too often in the case of people whose ideas are closest to ours. Incidentally, one of the distinguishing marks of a significant work is the wealth of associations and feelings, thoughts and innuendoes which it evokes. If you compare a number of our poets' works with those of Verhaeren, for example, you will see how many thoughts, often even philosophical ones, how many problems, comparisons, images, how much culture the tatter's work contains. Whereas we often accept a rhymed slogan as poetry. You may men. tion Mayakovsky. But time has set its stamp on him, too: because life has grown infinitely more complex, and we have to keep moving forward. Culture, culture and yet again culture; It is time to put a stop once and for all to Bohemianism and the squabbles of literary cliques. Take the really great masters, even those who "do it with ease," like our great genius Pushkin, who, "careless" and "light-minded" as he was reputed to be, was nevertheless an erudite scholar and hard worker, occupying a commanding position in the culture of his time. It is absurd to require all poets to be firstrate philosophers and critics. It is no accident that some men become philosophers and others poets. Academician Pavlov's latest works explain the physiological side of this phenomenon. But this does not mean that we must abandon our demand for a marked rise in the general culture of poets and in poetical culture along the whole front. To stop at the present level is impossible. And those who really want to create "Magnitostroys of literature," having purified their ideas in regard to art, must do their best to make themselves masters of all the treasure-houses of the world's culture.

I wish to make one further observation. I have often had to listen to complaints, from poets, and from literary men in general, to the effect that someone or other will not let them y"expand" and so forth. I think this quite absurd, because no One is at any time or under any circumstances preventing anyone from, let us say, learning languages, with which our ,poets are almost entirely unacquainted; or from studying foreign literature or the literature of the national minorities inhabiting our country, with which our poets again are almost entirely unacquainted; or from knowing our life, and not only ours, but that of Western Europe too, as it should be known. And if we take as an example such a man as Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, every one of us knows that even at the age of fourteen he displayed extraordinary erudition, knowledge of contemporary life both in Russia and abroad. Whereas ours, comrades, could be put under a threepenny bit! We must put a stop to this! I will therefore ask you, comrades, not to take offence at any hard words that I speak to you here. Together let us not only fill ourselves with a sense of the grandeur of this most mighty epoch in the history of mankind, but let us also draw the conclusion for ourselves: we must advance towards a great literature, towards a tremendous literature, towards a literature mighty in its content, towards a literature of action, towards a liter. ature whose craftsmanship, too, will place it on the mountain peaks of greatness in the history of mankind and in the history of art!

I conclude my report with the slogan: We must dare, comrades!


1) Sovnarkom: Council of People's Commissars. - Ed.

2) Secretary of the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg in the eighteenth century. Author of A New and Abbreviated Method of Composing Russian Verse.