New Currents in Russian Poetry:

Conceptualism, Metarealism, and Presentism[1]


Mikhail Epstein

Published in the book

Mikhail Epstein. After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture (a volume in the series Critical Perspectives on Modern Culture), Amherst: The University of  Massachusetts Press,  1995, pp. 71-97.

As the century ends, we are amazed to find ourselves returning to its beginnings. The poetic currents that were formed in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century--symbolism, acmeism, futurism--have unexpectedly reemerged as a new poetic triad: metarealism, presentism, conceptualism. This is not to say that those original movements have simply been renewed; rather, there has occurred an expansion of poetic boundaries, a restructuring of the figurative space of sign systems. In their time, symbolism and futurism delineated two opposing means of relating the word to its signification. In the case of symbolism, the signifier is almost withdrawn, giving full precedence to the signified. This is a poetics of supra-signification, through which the mythological nature of the image comes to indicate another world, a world that is eternal and whole. Futurism, on the other hand, was the world of the signifier itself, where the word, the "self-sufficient word" (Khlebnikov), is the authentic reality, rescinding everything otherworldly, everything beyond the bounds of its own sound properties. Between these two movements, or rather stylistic boundaries, we find acmeism, which stands for the golden mean, for the customary and direct meanings of words.[2] 

And now, we find before us another three poetic movements, located at the same historical distance from the end of the century that those were from the beginning. And it seems that in a like manner the new developments have transcended a flat, quasi-realistic, social-realistic picture of the world, restoring the former breadth and depth of poetic space that once prevailed in Russia. At the risk of oversimplification, we can nonetheless trace paths of succession from symbolism to metarealism, from futurism to conceptualism, while presentism makes a new attempt to define the mean. Metarealism endeavors to return to the word the fullness of its figurative and transcendent meanings. To the same degree, conceptualism tries to wrench out of the word any meaning whatever, leaving an empty, echoing shell: a senseless cliche that says nothing. 

Presentism, like acmeism before, strives to avoid Scylla and Charybdis, the excessive pretentiousness of archetype and the excessive banality of stereotype, by turning to the world of visible, tangible surfaces, which are the ultimate depth, in their own right. Thus, we do observe a process of succession, but I describe it as such only to show more clearly the striking shifts and ruptures manifest within this very process. It is these changes that radically distinguish the end of the poetic century from the middle years; precisely for that reason, the end becomes a link to the beginning.



1. A Time of Ripening


For quite some time, almost since the end of the 1980s, criticism has been searching our poetry for a new generation, has awaited and summoned it--but it did not appear. There were greater and lesser individual talents: Alexander Kushner, Iury Kuznetsov, Oleg Chukhontsev, Igor Shkliarevsky and others, but in no way did there come about a commonality, or rather, mutuality, as when an idea originating with one poet finds its echo and augmentation with another, when the poetic air takes on that certain resonance, a broad responsiveness, that indicates the presence of a whole generation.

Criticism had become accustomed to the "pointal" or "intermittent" reality of the seventies, that impelled us to delve into the poets' individuality, but freed us from the need to search for a unifying idea. Has the situation changed since the mid-eighties, with the appearance of books and large selections of poetry by such authors as Alexander Eremenko, Ivan Zhdanov, Aleksei Korolev, Ilia Kutik, Marina Kudimova, Aleksei Parshchikov, Mikhail Sinelnikov, Oleg Khlebnikov, and others? Can it be that the generation long-awaited through the seventies has finally found itself in the eighties and is now searching in turn for a criticism to grasp and receive it as a whole?

Unfortunately, in considering the creative work of young poets, our criticism is often inclined to restrict itself to didactic tasks of pointing out what is good and what is bad in their poems, making assessments in relation to some normative standard. Meanwhile, the young poetry--if it has emerged from the apprenticeship of versification to be worthy of that name--is primarily a new poetry, whose youth is determined not only by the ages of its authors, but by its creative freshness, its position at the forefront of literature. What is wanted is to look at this poetry not from the standpoint of "still" unripened, not yet achieved and trudging along towards finality--but from the standpoint of "already"--as having risen above the level of yesterday's ripeness, and, precisely for that reason, young today. It seems to me that the poetry of our 30-year-olds (roughly speaking) is not just a promise for the future but already an embodiment deserving of scholarly investigation, whose object must be the creative metamorphosis, the succession of aesthetic precepts, that has gradually unfolded throughout our poetry, but which shows itself with the young poets as a shift or break in the slow evolution of styles.

It is no simple matter to define the conditions of life that formed the new generation and summoned it forth into poetry. There is no one event that could easily be recognized as determining the fate of poets, like there was for the war generation or the generation that came of literary age after 1956.[3] Perhaps it was not a single event, but the very pace of day to day existence in the seventies, so oppressively measured and retarded, that exerted a defining impact on the poetry of those who were young then, setting down in that "ordinariness" a moral and aesthetic significance, whose value they found themselves ready to defend, albeit with a stoical sadness. Precisely this experience of the stubborn, patient flux of days through a particular historical period brought the new poets into literary activity, and because of this they've entered it, as a rule, not so very young themselves, and literature has had to wait so long for the new generation. But what matters is the enriching result of this drop by drop accumulation of experience, the readiness to sink down into the slow flux of life, its fitfully ripening meaning. The new sense of life is highly sympathetic to past epochs, as it lovingly reaches through the thickness of historical time to reveal life even in time's most stultified layers. Mikhail Sinelnikov has created a significant image for the new generation in "Excavation":


As a fish with spawn, the overlayerings of the earth

With damp bitterness are full down to their very grounding.


The friable night of a long vanished ethos

Is packed to its depth with the implosiveness of soils.


And the broken banks of ravines and shoals,

Like layers on words, spring back, recoil.


The experience of living through a retarded and saturated elongation of time has conditioned not only the thematic turn toward history, but also a historical approach to contemporary times; it has lain down in our poetry as a series of images, compacted into polysemy, as though pressed down beneath the weight of time like "implosive soils," packed to the limit with different cultural layers. The works of many new poets do recall excavations into the depths, where beneath one layer of meanings there lies another, still more ancient, reaching down to the eternal foundations of life. Revelation of the most enduring, recurring patterns from which "ordinary life" is made, has become one of the main endeavors of the new poetic generation that has grown up under the "normal" conditions of direct cultural succession, without the disruptions of wars, revolutions, mass repressions, and other historical upheavals. The accumulated layer of culture laid down in the soil of reality itself comes to the surface in complex, introspectively saturated, poetic images.



2. The Self-Awareness of Culture


At different times the life of our poetry has been accompanied by various batteries of critical bywords. In the late fifties and early sixties we heard a preponderance of such words as "sincerity," "openness," "the confessional," "boldness," "freedom from inhibition." Behind the use of such terms stood the discovery of the individual as a subject with full rights--the hero of creative works and the most interesting and inexhaustible element in the self-expression of reality ("I in great diversity can be seen by myself"--Evgeny Evtushenko).  But then this self-sufficient "I" began to irritate, to seem empty and proud, and poetry was drawn to the bosom of fields and meadows, to the humble wisdom of nature in order to contemplate that pure and distant "star of the fields" (Nikolai Rubtsov).  At that time a new group of key words came into use: "memory," "origin," "nature," "warmth," "kinship," "nativity." However shifting these half-concept, half-images may be, they clearly delineate the boundaries of periods and generations.

If one had to trace out such a group of terms for the new poetic generation--and in my opinion it has indeed matured to the point of requiring such critical thought and formulation--one could include the following: "culture," "meaning," "myth," "custom," "mediation," "reflexivity," "polysemy." Reality, as it has repeatedly been felt and lived through in its "ordinary" manifestation, comes to be perceived as the sum total of customs, rules and habits that regulate the behavior of man and even nature, not so much as physical data or emotional conditions, but rather as a system of culturally established significations.[4]

And what is the sea?--a dumping ground for                                                     handlebars,

and the earth beneath your feet rides away.

 The sea--it's a dumping ground for all dictionaries,

 only the land has swallowed its tongue.


For Aleksei Parshchikov, the author of these lines, even the simplest and most ancient things, such as the earth and sea, enter into a sign system of representational coordinates: the tongues of waves recall multilingual dictionaries as well as the wavelike shape of bicycle handlebars--that fill the whole world to its very horizon. The heaving first element from which life emerged is reinterpreted as secondary in relation to culture, the site of concentration of vast material and verbal supplies, or more precisely--by-products. This type of "secondary," culturally mediated vision had already been formed by certain poets of the first half of this century: Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky, Pasternak--and yet, at that time, this was as yet only relatively "originary," as in Pasternak's "Waves"--


Before me are the waves of the sea.

There are so many. They are countless.

They are a swarm. They roar in a minor key.

The surf bakes them like waffles.

All the shore is trampled as by cattle.

They are a swarm, the skyscape drove them out.

In a herd, he set them down to pasture

And went to bed beyond the hill, belly down.


Pasternak's waves of 1931 are a part of production, but still, so to speak, on the level of "cottage industry," inseparable from the doings of nature itself that bakes them like waffles or herds them like cattle. Half a century later a young poet sees waves as sediment from the cultural activity of man; billows are transformed into the ridges of a worldwide garbage dump. Not a word is said here about the ecological revolution or the ecological catastrophe, but these notions enter into the image system of contemporary poetical thinking, forming the basis of many clusters of metaphors.

If one were to search for a common artistic idea, uniting the new poets on a level above all of their stylistic differences, then the closest approximation might be precisely this idea of culture. Needless to say, this is not an abstract idea, but the primary, self-evident reality through which the young poets--the most principled and responsible of them--cast their ideas of nature and man. The principal innovation lies in the fact that this poetry is enriched by a second, self-reactive layer of perception directed at that cultural matter of which poetry itself is a part. Previously, poetry had developed by assimilating all possible new levels of reality: society, individuality, nature and so on; but suddenly a leap of self-awareness, self-doubling, occurred when a powerful system, such as culture, embracing all sides of reality, entered into the realm of assimilation. All that culture can take in and refract within itself--and that is, in fact, everything--is now reflected and interpreted anew by poetry, this time transfigured as an intra-, rather than an extra-cultural reality. Poetry becomes a self-consciousness of culture, in the relativity and diversity of its sign systems. Here, for example, is nature in a sonnet by Alexander Eremenko:


. . . In the dense metallurgical forests,

where chlorophyll production was in progress,

a leaf fell. Autumn had already arrived

in the dense metallurgical forests.


And in the skies forever

a tank truck and a drozdophilus fly are stuck.

Pressed down by the resultant force,

they're stranded in a flattened clock.


The last hawk-owl is broken and sawed up.

And with an office push-pin he's been tacked

to an autumnal bough, head-down,


he hangs and ponders in his head:

why, with such an awful force,

has a field glass been mounted into him!


A poem like this one could hardly have come into being in the previous poetic epoch; it is contemporary to the extent that it demands of criticism an understanding of its language, rather than a discussion of whether or not it is well written in that language. In the seventies it was common to counterpose nature, chaste and unfortunate, with the rapaciousness of technology, to delight in the primordial, pristine purity that cried out for preservation. This was a predictable reaction to the excessive demands of a rapidly developing technological civilization. In Eremenko's work we find neither the single-minded cult of nature, nor wild enthusiasm for the power of technology. For him both one and the other are essential elements of culture, parts of a single whole, that can be translated from one language to another, so that signs belonging to nature (a leaf, a fly, an owl) enter into an indissoluble combination with technological signs (metal, a tank truck binoculars), forming a sort of flickering picture: now it seems to be about a natural forest, now about industrial scaffolding.[5]

At the same time, we hear in this sonnet a note of irony on this strange blend of elements, as when the hawk-owl ponders the binoculars mounted in his head in place of eyes, and indeed, when it embraces so much, culture cannot and must not try to hide its own "seams"--the artificial and eclectic overlayerings, by which it tries to achieve unification--and the paradoxes without which it could not move. This irony of pure doubling is emphasized by the odd rhymes: forests/forests and head/head, where--contrary to our usual expectation--words rhyme with themselves, as if demonstrating the duality of every object, the state of belonging, at one and the same time, to two opposing worlds. 

Eremenko is generally a highly ironic poet, although he does not resort to blatant mockery; he stands firm on the border of the serious, casting a somewhat skeptical glance at irony itself. In this way, poetry begins to pass through a stage of cultural introspection unheard of even in the recent past. One could name several poets, harking to the traditions of the Oberiuty[6] -- Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Mikhail Sukhotin, Timur Kibirov--who achieve effectiveness of imagery through the artificial and distinctly ironic pressure of cultural signs or conventional codes that weigh upon contemporary consciousness. Technological, aesthetic, social and everyday stereotypes are all the superficial shell of culture, blocking off its complex, living content; thus conceptual-grotesque poetry carries out an important task by sweeping culture clean, turning up and sloughing off its dead layers of cliche and kitsch.

But there is also another current in the new poetry. It makes its revelation of culture not in the conventionality of persistent stereotypes, but in the deepest archetypal foundations of culture that cast their light through daily life and concerns even as they are one with the organic existence of soul and nature. To comprehend these foundations is perhaps the arch-task of poet Ivan Zhdanov, whose collection "A Portrait" (1982) drew numerous complaints for being puzzling and indecipherable. If Eremenko specifically demonstrates the artificiality of various cultural codes, incorporating them into a context of anomalous, heterogeneous material, then Zhdanov searches for a natural co-placement of material and code that seems to sink down to the level of a deep subtext, nowhere directly manifest, but making way for careful reading and a slow but striking solution.


There, behind the window, is a shabby little room,

and with scarlet thunder on the throne

of the floor plays an infant, and the gray abyss

languishes like dry brush in a corner.


As a poetic theme, reminiscences of childhood have been popularized, almost trivialized, in contemporary poetry, but here the theme acquires a new scope. Through the worn, tiresome scene of daily life ("shabby little room"), there suddenly appears the reality of a higher power and significance: a child as god of thunder sits on his "throne of the floor" and, playing with a shiny rattle, scatters thunderclaps--who among us has not felt this majesty of childhood? Zhdanov does not bring to the surface of the text those specific mythological names and plot-formulae that his treatment brings to mind: the infant Zeus and his father Cronus, the grey "abyss"--all-consuming time. All of these images remain in the depths of intercultural memory, where reader meets poet on equal ground and is not subjected to enforced associations. Here lies the distinction between "culture," which has always nourished poetry, and "culturedness," that settles out in a heavy sediment of names, allusions and bookish borrowings in need of a spiritual sorting-out. Here the main criterion is how organically the "eternal" combines with our "own"--the past with the present.

Many of the new poets use a particular cultural prism, close to their own sense of life, through which they recast images of the reality around them. For Mikhail Sinelnikov, author of the collections Clouds and Birds and Argonautics, it is the East: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Georgia. His gift is to re-create the dry tangibility and entrancing, ethereal quality of this world, where "clouds are as of stone" and "mountains are of air." For Elena Shvarts of St. Petersburg, the lyrical heroine takes on an image of the ancient Roman Cynthia, whose antique surroundings now and then let filter through traces of a northern city with its damp winds, frost and hoarfrost on the walls of Classical style buildings--altogether a successful attempt to resurrect "maiden Rome on the banks of the Neva" (Mandelshtam). Olga Sedakova finds kindred the world of the European classics--Tristan and Iseult, Francis of Assisi, Dante and Petrarch, whose passionate and long-suffering aspiration to higher things brings measure to her lyrical concerns, leading to the symbolic depths of such images as "garden," "rose," "road," or "gates."

The scope of imagery displayed by contemporary poetry has considerable breadth. It extends from extreme conventionality on one end, to total unconditionality on the other, from ironic play to high pathos, from the grotesque to the mystical. Somewhere in the middle of this scale lies the work of those poets--Aleksei Parshchikov, Aleksei Korolev, Ilya Kutik--who strive to reduce as far as possible the distance between lofty and low, the everyday and the triumphant, to endow with the poetic importance of odic or elegaic mood such phenomena and words as "anthracite" and "motorcycle," "foam rubber" and "tile floor," "breaststroke" and "barge." In so doing they attempt to reveal within a new, untraditional and strictly technical materiality an appropriate weight of unchanging meaning, to elevate terminology to metaphor. Kutik devotes his "Ode" to ultracontemporary impressions of the Sea of Azov; Korolev writes his "Stanzas" on cinematography; Parshchikov--an elegy on coal, and another on the toads that live in the estuary of the Dnieper:


In girlhood--they knit, in married life--they go about with                                                                                  roe,

suddenly, they join in fatal battle, and again the rustling                                                                  dies down.

Or, as in Dante, they freeze in the ice in winter,

Or, as in Chekhov, they talk the night away.


Some may see in this an abolition of hierarchical values, but first it is essential to grasp the positive meaning of such equalization as movement through all levels of culture for the purpose of their momentary contact and interpenetration, for bringing into being that highest principle of poetic thought--"everything in everything."

In the work of the young poets we also see a striving to make maximal use of words in their culturally saturated, enduring aspect. Aleksei Korolev carries this tendency to its extreme; the basic element of his poetic language is the turn of phrase, the saying, the idiom: a closed linguistic unit seemingly ready-made by speech traditions themselves. The titles of his collections are prime examples: "The Apple of the Eye" (Zenitsa oka) and "A Bird in the Bush" (Sinitsa v nebe).  Needless to say, all of these idioms and colloquialisms are not at all the language we hear at home and on the streets; rather it is precisely the culture of conversational speech, embodied as a phenomenon of contemporary poetic language. This is in no way intended as a reproach to the poet, for whom language is as much an integral part of the reality around him as are buildings or trees, not only a means of expression but also an object for depiction. Outside of language man could not live any more than he can live without shelter: speechlessness and homelessness become the indicators of extreme degeneration. The orientation towards language in its culturally stamped, traditionally worked-out forms, a striving to speak not only in it, but also about it, as one would speak about the "house" of memory, hearing, thought--all of this is essential to the young poetry for the fullest exploitation of the semantic potential that lies in its most basic verbal material. At the same time, of course, moderation is needed in such work to guard against lapsing into ornamental exercises, arranging well-cast and minted, yet hollow, rhetorical figures.

One could name other poets as well who assimilate the full range of culture from the borders of the profane to those of the sacred: Iury Arabov, Vladimir Aristov, Evgeny Bunimovich, Sergei Gandlevsky, Faina Grimberg, Alexander Lavrin, Tatiana Shcherbina, Alexander Soprovsky,  . . . For all the variety of manner and inequality of talent represented among them, the style of a generation is nonetheless worked out: a fabric of imagery so tangible it cannot be dissolved in an outpouring of emotion or a lyrical sigh--that songlike romance or limerical intonation found in many works by poets of the previous generation. Here one must disentangle the most intricate knot of associations harking back to different planes of culture, particularly those most sensitive to its mythological foundations. Each image has not one, but an entire "enumeration of reasons," behind which feeling itself often cannot keep pace as it longs for an immediate and unmistakable clue. This poetry is reserved, as a rule, unsentimental and tending towards an objective plasticity of forms, rather than subjective expression of moods; it demands material clarity, completion, and it calls upon reason more strongly than feeling, or, more accurately, it calls for discipline and inter-distinction of feelings themselves.

In the poems of the young, times and countries enter into intense dialogue with one another; nature and technology, archaeology and astronomy, art and daily life are all component parts of culture, cast out across different epochs, habitats, origins and genres, entering into cross-callings with each other, realizing that they are fated to unity. Needless to say, it was neither immediately nor suddenly that poetry ventured upon such a responsible and all-encompassing task; the generally high level of culturological research in our country has certainly been influential, particularly Bakhtin's idea that the essence of a culture lives on its borders with other cultures--an idea that has found many-sided affirmation and development in the works of Iury Lotman, Sergei Averintsev, Viacheslav Ivanov, Vladimir Toporov, Boris Uspensky, Vladimir Bibler, Georgy Gachev, and other scholars in the humanities. The fact that such growth in the cultural layer of poetry should find its stimulus or parallel in corresponding theoretical inquiry is in no way an embarrassment, precisely as--to give a classic example--Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain deserves no reproach on account of the author's prior acquaintance with Frazer's Golden Bough and other works on mythology. As if one could toss culture and intellect out of the spiritual life of mankind, reducing this life to the "gut level," of purely instinctive comprehension! How can one see lilacs with new eyes if we forget that "Konchalovsky has been here before us, touched the twigs and narrowed his eyes" (Alexander Kushner)?[7]

The poetry of the young graphically demonstrates that when we attempt to bypass culture and inscribe directly, as it were, intuitively, the "world as such," while remaining, nonetheless, within culture ourselves, we tend to sink to its lowest level. For example, these lines (by a certain author, but essentially anonymous): "You were like a green grove along my path, /so long-legged, /so radiant. . ." were clearly written with a sincere heart, in a state of lyrical outburst, when one wants to speak in the simplest of words. But banality rather than natural expressiveness is the result: a cut-rate romance or popular song--contemporary urban folklore. Life is not equal to itself; it grows insofar as it is transformed and made more complex by culture, and the most lively poetry of today is just that-- cultural to the utmost, not in the sense of culturedness as evident knowledge, but in the sense of culture as the accumulated memory or spiritual continuity, that broadens the content capacity of each image.

I must emphasize that culture today is not only memory, but also hope--the hope that nourishes poetry no less than does life itself: the hope of survival. As we stand before the threat of destruction of worldwide civilization, the need is entirely natural for compression of all the layers of civilization into a profoundly indivisible nucleus of human spirit. Turning once again to Eremenko's lines that were presented above, we can better grasp why technology and nature, the tank truck and the drozdophilus fly should be collapsed into each other: 


Pressed down by the resultant force,

Stranded in a flattened clock.


A flattened clock: the time of history at a standstill. . . Such is the threat before which culture cannot fail to reveal its unity as the "resultant" of all the forces of mankind.[8]



3. On Conceptualism


If in the previous sections we spoke about tendencies common to all of the new poetry, then now I wish to more clearly define contrasts. Literature moves by internal contradictions, by the variety of its own stylistic currents. As a "single stream,"[9] to use the slogan that was current in our lexicon for quite some time with its attribution of total homogeneity and cohesion to all artistic groups, literature stops "flowing" altogether, contrary to expectations, and turns into stagnant waters despite their oceanic proportions.

It is a sign of our time that notions defining the heterogeneity of literature have returned, along with the precept of competitiveness--"stylistic currents," "artistic directions," "poetic schools," and "creative collectives." These notions do not erase such customary, tenacious categories as the "literary process" and "authorial individuality," but they do mediate them, filling a vacant, intervening area. An artistic direction is a collective individuality: "individual" in relation to the literary process as a whole, "collective" in relation to individual authors. The negative experience of the past decades shows that without such an intervening link creative individuality easily loses its special place in the literary process, which subordinates it to generally accepted standards, ideologically and aesthetically "socializes" and mediocritizes it, so that the process itself loses its dynamism, dependent as that is on the diversity and energy of the creative contradictions that comprise it.

By the seventies and early eighties, it was already impossible to contain the growing and essentially fertile stratification of our literature within a few ideological-stylistic currents. Deprived of the possibility of openly announcing themselves, however, of defining their creative positions, these currents often degenerated into short-lived groupings, brought together by mercantile or regional, rather than properly artistic, aspirations.

Only very recently have some of the "submerged" currents of our literature begun to surface and are now being favored with the attention and interest of society. Among the most clearly defined, artistically intentional currents are conceptualism and metarealism; they are represented in the visual arts as well, but we will confine ourselves to the sphere of poetry.

Virtually nothing has been written on conceptualism in our country,[10] although representatives of this current have, on several occasions, presented their works before large audiences that not only heard them out, but discussed them with great interest. I recall one evening in particular--June 8, 1983 at the Central House of Art Workers. It was officially called "Stylistic Searching in Contemporary Poetry: on the Dispute Over Metarealism and Conceptualism." At this event, for perhaps the first time since the 1920s, a vocal and theoretically formulated demarcation took place between two stylistic currents of our poetry. The process of artistic differentiation made itself clearly felt, and without this the threat of stagnation and repetition of generalities hangs over literature.

What is conceptualism? We will attempt to explain this without making evaluations, but rather by describing the principles that this stylistic current recognizes as pertinent to itself, and by which it must therefore be judged. Almost any artistic work (with the possible exception of the purely ornamental or decorative) is conceptual insofar as there lies within it a certain conception, or the sum of conceptions, which the critic or interpreter draws out. In conceptualism this conception is demonstrably separable from the live artistic fabric and even becomes an independent creation or "concept" in itself. In place of a "work with a conception," we see before us a "conception as the work."

It would seem that there have been and are being produced in our country more than enough of such pseudoartistic compositions from which the ideological formula protrudes like a bare stake from the back of a scarecrow. Precisely this break between the idea and the thing, the sign and reality is created--but in this case with complete intentionality, as a stylistic principle--in the works of conceptualism. The petrification of language, which brings forth ideological chimeras, becomes nourishing soil for this process. Conceptualism is the workshop for making scarecrows, ideologically figurative formulas, which are hastily covered with a slovenly sackcloth of linguistic fabric.


The outstanding hero--

He goes forward without fear

But our ordinary hero--

He's also almost without fear

But first he waits to see: 

Maybe it'll all blow over

And if not--then on he goes

And the people get it all.


Behind these lines by Dmitry Prigov we easily recognize the formula that lies at the basis of numerous pathetic works about the fearless, all-conquering hero and his slightly backward but devoted comrades in arms. The typical problem with such odic writings is how to reliably hide the formula behind the clothing of linguistic beauty, so as to make it frighteningly similar to a live person. The poet-conceptualist, on the contrary, drags the formula out into the open from the sum of its aesthetic imprintings and changes of form, placing it as an independent fact before the reader's perception.

From this there develops a peculiar aesthetic (or, if you prefer, anti-aesthetics of tongue-tiedness. Since the detached formula turns out to be primary in relation to all of the "highly-low-artistic"[11] means of its embodiment, the more arbitrary, inorganic, unsanitary the language, the better for demonstrating the self-sufficiency of the formula, its extraneousness to art as such. Conceptualism in this sense comes forward as criticism of artistic reason, unmasking beneath the covering of lyrical soulfulness or epic picturesqueness, the skeleton of an idea-engendering construct.


Here flows the beauty of the Oka

Through the beauty of Kaluga

The beauty of the people

Toasts its legs-arms in the sun


By day it's off to work he goes

To the beauty of his blackened lathe

And in the evening he comes back

Again to dwell by the Oka's beauty


Perhaps this is, just incident'ly,

That same beauty we've expected

In a year--two at the most--

To save the world through beauty


How many lyric songs and pompous poems have been composed along these plot lines, stunning in their monumental simplicity? Prigov's concept is a generalization of numerous stereotypes free-floating in mass consciousness, from the idyllic- benevolent "beautification" of our native landscape, to a parodic deflation of Dostoevsky's prophecy "beauty will save the world." Conceptualism puts together a primer, as it were, of these stereotypes, removing from them the aura of creative mist, lofty animation, revealing their vulgar nature as signs called forth to stimulate the most elementary reactions of love and hate, "for" and "against." In so doing, they use minimal linguistic means to demonstrate the depletion and deadening of language itself, degenerated to the formulation of best-selling ideas. Tongue-tiedness turns out to be the alter ego of grandiloquence, the exposure of its quintessential emptiness. Conceptualism unequivocally reflects the reality of that milieu from which it arose and spread, or, more precisely, its apparent, empty "idealness." Much of what Prigov was writing about in the late seventies and early eighties is now openly discussed in publicistic literature; back then this was all kept quiet, and we must give the poet his due for such courage:


It doesn't matter that the dairy yield recorded

Is unequal to the dairy yield for real

Whatever's written down--is written on the heaven

And if it doesn't come true in 2-3 days

Then in some few years it will  come true

And in the highest sense it has already become true

And in the lowest sense it soon will be forgotten

And in fact it's just about forgotten now


In these lines we see the characteristic conceptualist intergrafting of "journalistic" and "mystical" jargons: one grows over into the other ("written" in account books/ "written" on the heaven), revealing the very process of mystification as it takes place in everyday reality, which itself then turns into something loftily incomprehensible, portentously unavoidable-- until what little that remains of actual reality is so negligible as to be easily forgotten. Many of Prigov's poems are constructed in precisely this way: starting out with some sort of ordinary, topical fact, they go on to wildly exalt it, raise it to the level of a rhetorically providential plan, while, along the way, exposing its basic typicality, its insignificance. . . Then they conclude with a rythmical faltering, a weak gesture of some sort, or a muttering of the initial fact within the frame of workaday consciousness for which it doesn't matter how or of what one thinks or speaks--reality has already become so disembodied as to lose its significance and substance: "And in fact it's just about forgotten now."

Conceptualism draws upon the entirely respectable traditions of twentieth-century Russian literature: the poetry of the Oberiuty (Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Oleinikov, the early Nikolai Zabolotsky and others) and the prose of Mikhail Zoshchenko.[12] Nevertheless, we must also note a shift of the stylistic system that the conceptualists have achieved in contrast to their predecessors. In the works of Zoshchenko or Oleinikov, mass consciousness is personalized within a concrete social layer (the petty bourgeoisie, NEPmen,[13] and etc.) and in the image of a concrete protagonist, usually speaking in the first person. Conceptualism eschews this kind of localization, be it social or psychological. The structures and stereotypes that are singled out do not belong to any one concrete consciousness, but rather to consciousness in general--the author's as much as the character's. For this reason conceptualist works cannot be placed in the category of humorous or ironic pieces, in which the author maintains a certain distance between himself (or, which is the same thing, the realm of the ideal) and the reality that he is mocking. 

While it may be seen as either a strength or a weakness of conceptualism, the values of its world are uniform and admit of no privileged points of view whatsoever, no zones free from conceptualization. This is a world of objects from which the subject is absent, or else he himself with all of his acute existential misery falls into line with the rest of the objects fabricated by the "existential" rubber stamps of language--as, for example, in Lev Rubinshtein's composition "Life is all around us," in which sayings are set down of the following type:


-Life is not given to man in a hurry.

He doesn't even notice it, but he's alive. . .

-Right. . .



-Life is given to man when he's barely alive.

It all depends on the likes of his soul. . .

-Hold it!

-Gentlemen, by the way, the tea's getting cold. . . 



-Three--four. . . 

-Life is given to man for a lifetime. All our life we must remember this. . .

-Alright, next. . .


Various positions on life and sayings about life as such are used here as ready-made objects placed by the author in his museum of linguistic models. The author's own position is lacking, as something inappropriate, even impossible, quite as if a tour guide in the process of showing us around a museum should suddenly offer up his own personal things as part of an exhibit.

Rubinshtein has developed his own version of conceptualism, a much more rigid version than Prigov's. Prigov's poems are monocentric, pronounced by a single voice that sounds from the idiotic depths of the collective unconscious, while still preserving a certain gravitational lyricality, a dull-witted seriousness of world view. Prigov intentionally reduces his poems to rhyme-scheming, graphomania a la Dostoevsky's Lebiadkin, beyond which emerges the tragedy of entire generations condemned to speechlessness, having swallowed their tongue; like the "cannibaless Ellochka,"[14] who demonstrates that cannibalism is at one and the same time "tonguebalism"--the destruction of language down to its elementary signal systems.[15] In Rubinshtein's works rhyme-scheming falls away like yet another, final mask with its frozen, aesthetic grimace, and the skeletal constructions of our daily language are uncovered in their almost algorhythmical predictability. Rubinshtein writes his texts on cards, which he files through almost mechanically at his public readings, habitually, like a bibliographer filing through the card catalogue (this is, in fact, Rubinshtein's profession); a system of summarization, of enumeration prevails. Various linguistical misunderstandings and microdialogues arise, continually pointing to one final goal: to reveal that our words denote no one-knows-what, perhaps nothing, although they continue to be pronounced; the very habit of living boils down to this verbal persistence.


-The air burst aloud. . . 

-What say? Allowed?

-Not allowed, aloud. 

-But I heard "allowed."  That sounds even better. 

-Maybe it's better, but I said? "The air burst aloud."

-I already understood what you said, but "allowed" is still better. (Pause) [16]


This excerpt from the catalogue "A Little Nighttime Serenade" (1986) is only a tiny snag in the endless linguistic red tape that Rubinshtein draws out, now tangling it in petty paradoxes, now untangling it in tawdry tautologies, but always reproducing with diplomatically dispassionate precision the tirelessness of our verbal practice, ambling through "pauses" from laugh to laugh, from banality to banality. Rubinshtein is a master of displaying the tawdriness of tawdry speech formations, a certain lack of willfulness of our speech operations: no matter what is said, it all appears as merely an imitation of someone--no one--else's speech; it is not we who speak this way, this is how they speak "us." Ordinary conversations stand next to literature, penetrating judgments on life and everyday remarks--it's all drawn into a speech-engendering mechanism, stamping its cliches onto library file cards or punch cards. 

After hearing Rubinshtein's catalogues, one begins to perceive one's own utterances differently--they seem to become a continuation of these phraseological enumerations, sloughing off dead layers one after the other, leaving them for catalogues yet to be written. Thus, there occurs a liberation from speech; it must now begin anew from a source as yet unknown, from which first arose the Logos. Rubinshtein's texts undermine our faith in the independence of our own judgments, as they open the door on another author standing behind them, thereby posing the difficult question of our linguistic identity. In order to speak for ourselves, we must overcome "the Other" in ourselves, but this is not at all simple to do. "The Other" has already managed to say so much--all of our oral and written literature, teeming with self-repetition and multitudes of tautologies, all that has been accumulated over the millenia of "speaking man" belongs to him. In the flood of speech stretching from Homer to Rubinshtein, an authentic "I" can no longer find a place, except as another mask for the speaker.

It would be superficial to reduce all the work of conceptualism to the level of a social criticism of language. Both Prigov and Rubinshtein deal not only with the newly formed linguistic "stamps" of the past few decades, but also with the evaluative capability of language itself to stamp and register as it makes use of us, exploiting our speech organs for the production of "surplus value," filling up the world with ephemeral significances, pseudomeanings, ideological garbage. Conceptualism is a canal system, draining off all of this cultural garbage and scrap into cesspool texts where the garbage can filter out from the non-garbage--a necessary function for any developed culture. Conceptualism is the auto-representation and self-criticism of language, which, having lost the second dimension of being able to speak about itself, risks identifying itself with reality and proudly abolishing the latter--an entirely imaginable event, as our recent history shows with its rhetorical "achievements."[17]  The culture that does not allow its conceptions to be brought out into the open and changed into "concepts," into the objects of conceptual art, is a one-dimensional culture, condemned to decay.

Finally, there is the question of answerability which readers unaccustomed to such texts love to pose to conceptualist artists. "Here you are," they say, "writing and writing, but, after all, those are not your words. What is it you yourself wish to say? What is your authorial position, where is your answerability for the word, without which there can be no serious art?" At this point, one must recall that the realm of a writer's answerability is not some abstract "authorial word," but the object of concrete, writerly work. And if a writer, as in the case of Gogol, Leskov and the skaz writers[18] of the nineteenth century, works with someone else's--or no one in particular's--word, then he answers for its precise reproduction, in the same way that the compiler of a dictionary answers not for the "sincere expression of his own convictions," but for the fullest possible representation of the laws and potentials of the language itself. It is, in fact, the position of compiler which appears more productive, and therefore more morally responsible, as regards contemporary conceptualist texts, than does the position of a composer. The dictionary is a genre no less significant and responsible than a text consisting of the direct utterances of an author. If contemporary literature is becoming increasingly "dictionaric" (not scientifically, but creatively dictionaric), then this has been conditioned by the laws of development of literature itself, which is entering upon the phase of self-description, self-interpretation. Conceptions are becoming concepts--artistic designs and objects of study; in this lies the essence of the conceptual revolution that places before art the need to analyze and criticize its own language.



4. On Metarealism


Along with conceptualism, another stylistic current has formed in our poetry since the beginning of the seventies, which also long remained unknown to the broader reading public. It did not fit into the normative framework of the "middle" style,[19] which alone was acceptable to publishing houses and editorial boards by virtue of moderately combining characteristics of "live conversational" style and "high poeticality." Any attempt to disturb this balance met with an administrative-aesthetic protest. A decidedly low style, incorporating elements of street slang in the tawdry, literarily unpolished manner of plebeian conversation, was classified as "hooliganism"[20], calculated for shock effect. High style, conscientiously freed from conversationality and all marks of everyday life, oriented towards the most highly authoritative spiritual traditions, was regarded as "secondary" and "bookish." Poetry stays alive, however, precisely by going beyond the bounds of prevailing norms, through the counterbalances of its stylistic foundations. Establishing the middle style as a precept, in part conversational and in part literary, led to the dominance of mediocrity--a grayness that swallows up contrasts. The other two styles, the "low" and the "high," were pushed out into the realm of unofficial existence, where they both gained popularity with a single audience, primarily the youthful readership that has been oriented towards alternative forms of artistic thought. 

The stylistic current opposed to conceptualism and directed not towards simplification and primitivization, but towards the greatest complexity of poetic language, has become known in recent years under the name of metarealism. Metarealism is not a negation of realism, but its expansion into the realm of things unseen, a complication of the very notion of realism, revealing its multidimensionality, irreducible to the level of physical and psychological verisimilitude and including a higher, metaphysical reality, like that made manifest to Pushkin's prophet.[21]  That which we are accustomed to call "realism," narrowing the breadth of that concept, is the realism of only one reality, the social reality of day to day existence that directly surrounds us. Metarealism is the realism of multiple realities, connected by a continuum of internal passageways and interchangeabilities. There is a reality available to the vision of an ant or the wandering of an electron, a reality of which has been called "the lofty flight of angels,"[22] and all of these enter into the essence of Reality. The prefix "meta" would not be needed if "realism" were not understood in an abbreviated form. "Meta" merely returns to realism that which has been left out from the all-encompassing Reality, when it is reduced to any one of its many subspecies.[23] 

Such a broadened and deepened contemplation of Reality appears in the works of Olga Sedakova, Elena Shvarts, Ivan Zhdanov, Victor Krivulin, Dmitry Shchedrovitsky, Vladimir Aristov, Arkady Dragomoshchenko, and other poets of both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Of particular significance for their work are the traditions of "sacred" and "metaphysical" poetry of the European Middle Ages and baroque styles. The image is reborn in its archetypal significance, penetrating through the density of cultural overlayerings, to the mythological, originary basis. If conceptualism consciously reduces the image to its simplest ideological scheme, tearing from it the mask of artistry, then metarealism raises the image to the level of supra-artistic generalizations, giving it the generality and semantic dimensionality of myth. In both instances there is a noticeable pull towards the construction of supratemporal models of reality that lower the veils of history to reveal the stereotypes of mass consciousness or the archetypes of collective unconsciousness. This generation, spiritually formed under the conditions of historical stagnation, cannot help but feel the retarded flow of time and respond with a heightened sensitivity to the eternal, recurring patterns of being.

Olga Sedakova, author of several collections of poetry, achieves such a rupture with the standardized norms of contemporary "literary" language. Sedakova's poems are unusually dark, yet nonetheless transparent; their meaning slips away among a mass of details in order to then make clear the animation of the whole.


Maria, can it be,

                         that frames alone do creak,

that panes of glass alone do ache and tremble?

If this isn't the garden--

then let me turn back,

to the quiet, where things are thought out.


If this isn't the garden, if the frames are creaking

because it can't get any darker,

if this isn't The Garden,

where under the apples hungry children sit

and forget the fruit they've tasted,


where a flame can't be seen,

but breath is more dark

and more hopeful are herbs of the night . . .

I know not, Maria, this sickness of mine.

It's my garden that rises above me.


It is impossible and scarcely necessary to offer one unified interpretation of these lines, but clearly they lead us toward the higher reality of which the human soul inquires, for which it sickens and by which it is healed. The soul stands on the eve of its embodiment in an earthly life which it sees as if through rippled glass. It tries to make out the distorted image of a sequestered garden--an allusion to the loss of paradise--while struggling but not daring to be born, now pulling back "into the silence, where things are thought out," now moving forward on the promise of bliss, now sinking down into the murkiness of being, as into an inescapable disease. 

One recalls (no doubt according to Sedakova's design) Tiutchev's[24] poem "O clairvoyant soul of mine. . ." in which the soul, "resident of two worlds," stands in turmoil on the threshold "of being as if doubled," then concludes with lines that evoke the name of Maria. The fact that in Christian legends Maria is the comforter of the sick and intercessor for sinners, "opener of the gates of heaven," gives this image its supratemporal dimension, setting it in the context of an enduring spiritual tradition.

In several of their characteristics Sedakova's poems show an affinity with symbolism their highly generalized verbal significations, abstract distance from mundane daily concerns, their striving toward the world of the spiritual and eternal. Nevertheless, the metarealist poetic differs from that of symbolism, even when they seem to approach each other most closely, as in the case of Sedakova's works. The artistic principle of "doubled worlds," the clear boundary between "this" and "that," between "here" and "the beyond," is lacking. For symbolist poets the symbol is a juncture of two sharply differing meanings, the literal and the figurative, with an emphasis on the very duality of these two planes, the gap and rupture between them. Each word is a clue pointing to the heights and the distance. A rose is not simply a flower; it is the idea of womanliness, the symbol of the world soul. A boat does not simply sail along the river; it unites two shores and two worlds, appearing as the symbol of spiritual ascent. 

Such duality is not acceptable to the contemporary poetic consciousness, which considers alien any intensification of the "otherly" in opposition to the "here and now." Metarealism arises from the principle of "one world," presuming an interpenetration of realities, not a dispatch from one "apparent" or "functionary" reality to another "authentic" one. The artist's contemplative powers are focused on a plane of Reality where "this" and "that" are one, where any clue or allegory becomes almost obscene, since everything of which it is possible to speak must be said, and that which cannot be said, it makes no sense to talk about. In metareal images it is impossible to separate the direct from the figurative meaning, to relate them according to principles of metaphoric similarity or symbolic correspondence; the image means just what it means, and dividing it in two would contradict its artistic nature. Sedakova's garden is Eden, not a symbol of Eden.

Instead of symbol or metaphor, the metarealists put forward a different poetic figure, which is not easy to place in a traditional classification of tropes. This figure is close to that which the ancients understood as "metamorphosis":  one thing is not simply similar or corresponding to another, which presupposes an indestructible border between them, the artistic predication and illusory quality of such a juxtaposition; rather, one thing becomes the other. All of the similarities which poetry has loved to seek out--the moon and a frog, lightning and a photographic flash, birches and the keys of a piano (metaphors from poems by Esenin, Pasternak, and Voznesensky)--these are only the signs of metamorphoses that have not taken place, and in the course of which things really--not apparently--exchange their essences. Metarealist poetry seeks intently for that reality wherein metaphor is again revealed as metamorphosis, as an authentic intercommonality, rather than the symbolic similarity, of two phenomena. Metarealism is not only "metaphysical," but also "metaphorical" realism, insofar as it is the poetry of that reality which is hidden within the metaphor, uniting its divergent meanings, the literal and the figurative.


You will unfold in the expanded heart of suffering, wild rose,


wounding garden of earth`s creation!

The wild rose is white and whiter than any. 

He who will name you would out-argue Job. 

I am silent, I vanish in mind from the beloved gaze,

not lowering my eye

nor dropping my hands from the fence. 

The wild rose comes like a gardener, stern and

heedless of fear,

with the crimson rose,

with the hidden wound of care beneath a wild blouse.


In Sedakova's poem "Wild Rose" there are neither similarities nor correspondences, but there is the continuous flow and transformation of an image. The wild rose is an image of all the universe, in which a thorny path leads to the secret garden; suffering leads to salvation. The essence of the image begins to grow through its own broadened, transformed being; it does not refer to something other than itself: the nature of the wild, universal garden is revealed in the flourishing rose bush, simultaneously with the higher nature of the gardener, whose sufferings till the soil of the garden and turn a "hidden wound" into a "crimson rose." The precise position of the lyrical heroine is also poetically defined: she is by the fence, awaiting a meeting which already transfixes her gaze and, at any moment, will seize all of her being. The unfolding of the image--planting, the garden, the gardener (for whom the risen Saviour was mistaken, according to legend)--brings to mind the germination of a seed, within which the future plant is already contained, through the organics of transformation, rather than the technique of comparison. All of Sedakova's poetry could be called, if we select for it the most concise single term, poetry of transfiguration.

The world of Ivan Zhdanov's poetry is also metareal, extended into the realm of the transparent, where pure prototypes of things are made manifest. Wind, mirror, memory, atmosphere, melting, reflection--these are the motifs that pass all through his book, consistently disembodying the substance of objects:


Does a house die, if afterwards there remain

only smoke and space, only the immortal scent of habitation?

How the snowfalls protect it,

bending as before, above the roof

that is long gone,

parting at the point where the walls once stood. . . 

More like itself in dying than in life.


The essence of a thing comes out in its return to the original or predetermined model; death utters the secret, all-clarifying word on life. Zhdanov is a master of depicting forms that seem already to have lost their substance, but regain themselves in memory, in times of waiting, in the depth of a mirror or the shell of a shadow. Often the essence that has survived its own existence is singled out in a crisp formula. We are accustomed to the fact that a river has depth, while objects have weight; but for Zhdanov, "depth floats on the autumn water/ and weight flows on, washing things all round." Properties of things are more primary than the things themselves, and "flight flies without birds."

Zhdanov's poetic intuition emerges at the vanishing point of things and leads us away to a world of pure essences, but then these essences acquire a visible outline. The very first line of one of his collections presents the principle of a new vision: "and they're plowing the mirror. . ." The field where his father is at work becomes a mirror which dissolves the past, while at the same time acquiring a substance in which memory can drive its plow. Zhdanov seems to be depicting non-being: shadow fading into darkness, wind fading into emptiness, a reflection fading into a semblance; but his depiction conveys  the precision of some mathematically verifiable knowledge. After all, form itself has no body; nor does a number, but for this very reason it is precise. At the boundary of a disembodied state there arises high seriousness and absolute knowledge.

From "An Ode to the Wind":


Your ripple delves the mirrors,

branches changing places

sketch you like a needle.

And if a mirror falls

it will pour out my face

and into mortal veins will go

a prescience of light. 


Here, the melting of substance is described almost with the inexorability of a physical law: with their "place-changing," branches reveal the wind's flesh; with its rippling, the wind reveals the mirror's flesh; with its reflection, the mirror reveals the flesh of a face, and with its death, the face reveals the flesh of light. One flesh enters into something less fully embodied until, on the border of its own disembodiment, it reveals another, obviously resurrected flesh: the flesh of those essences in which it died.

Zhdanov's poetry draws a fully visible, three-dimensional state of being for things that have faded away into their own reflection and then find themselves there with greater obviousness than in that passing state of being from which they came. The same act by which a thing sinks into the depth of its own essence brings this essence to the surface where it becomes apparent to us: death is equal to resurrection.



5. From Metaphor to Metabole


The special quality of this new stylistic current is sometimes seen in its penchant for metaphor; Zhdanov and Eremenko, for example, have been called "metaphorists." As we can see, this is not simply a terminological misnomer, but a misunderstanding of the essential nature of the new poetry. It was under the banner of metaphor that Voznesensky's generation entered poetry, adorning the dull fabric of everyday reality with the magical designs of likeness and similarities, leaving great numbers of refractive prisms and mirrors along the way. 

Nonetheless, through metaphor reality merely finds its likeness in another reality--the two remain separated, mutually untransformed, like reality and some illusion that has cropped up within it. Here we see deer gliding through the forest, and suddenly, for just an instant, a ghost of city traffic flashes before our eyes, right there in the depths of nature, only to fade immediately: "deer, like trollies, draw their current from the skies" (Voznesensky). Metaphor or comparison is just such a flash, of varying brightness but inescapably fading, since it is brought into reality from somewhere outside, to illuminate it for just an instant, in order to inscribe it. The new poetry seeks the source of light in the illuminated object itself, expanding the borders of its reality from within, revealing its simultaneous and unconditional belonging to two worlds. A poetic image such as this, in which there is no division of the "real" and the "illusory," the "literal" and the "figurative," but rather an unbroken continuity from one to the other, given their authentic intercommonality--this we will call metabole (from the ancient Greek for "transference, transformation, turning over"), as something distinct from metaphor.

Let us juxtapose two images, outwardly similar in their material motivation, but profoundly different in structure--one metaphoric, the other metabolic. First, from Voznesensky's "Autumn in Dilizhan":


As cupolas are gilt

in the light scaffolds of construction,

the orange mountain stands

in its deserted forests.


Metaphor divides the world into comparing and compared, into a reflected reality and a reflective similarity. Voznesensky clearly announces the point of reference, the object to be described--the natural surroundings of Dilizhan ("the orange mountain"), and in relation to this, the ascribed similarity--the towers of a church--are spectral and symbolic, seeming to float above reality without entering into it, remaining a separate layer as befits a colorful, picturesquely selected correspondence. The autumn foliage resembles a gold tower. The forests reaching up Dilizhan's mountains resemble scaffolding set up around a church. Voznesensky is a brilliant poet in the area of metaphoric similarities, of associative flashes between doubled, alternating groupings of images. But now let us consider how the same basic objects are transformed in the verses of Alexander Eremenko, one of the new poets quoted above: 


In the dense metallurgical forests,

where chlorophyll production was in progress. . .[25]


Here we have a metabolic image: the "forests" show us now their natural, now their industrial side, without any division into "basic" reality and the "superstructure" of illusion; rather we confront a wholistic reality fraught with transformations. 

The metabole is an image which cannot be divided into the two halves of literal and figurative meaning, of an object described and the similarity ascribed to it; it is the image for a doubled and yet unitary reality. Nature and industry are transformed one into the other through the medium of forest-like structures that grow according to their own incomprehensible laws; technology has its own organics, and they comprise, along with nature, a single reality, in which the traits of both plant life and metallurgy are recognizable, while frightfully intertwined. Is this not the reality in which we live--the reality of our industrial landscapes, where a wire can grow directly through the trunk of a gnarled tree, and a tree--through a rusted girder? This is a fantastical, baroque reality a la Hieronymus Bosch, which is itself unreal, but the artist doesn't dare to specify within it a privileged point of reference--to derive technology from organics or organics from technology--or rather, he does not usurp that right. (Not coincidentally, Eremenko has dedicated an epic poem to Bosch.)  Metabole works toward the self-discovery of reality in all the miraculousness or monstrosity of its transformations. If metaphor, reintroduced into our poetry by the generation of the sixties (Voznesensky, Okudzhava, Akhmadulina, Matveeva, Rozhdestvensky), is the willingness to believe in miracles, then metabole is the ability to feel them.

For the generation of the eighties, or at least for those poets who are called metarealists, a non-dualistically structured image is characteristic? in place of a representational likeness of things, there comes about a complicity of different worlds, equal in their authenticity. Significantly, the movement from metaphor to metabole may develop within the bounds of a single poem, reproducing the general poetic shift. 


This homey beast which came from rustlings

and the forest path--here is a cozy table.

In its heart it mixed the wild way of life

with a jostling of roots, secret and obscure.


In the first two of these lines by Zhdanov, we find the hint of a traditional metaphor: a table resembles a four-legged animal. But this is only the visible similarity, behind which the poet makes out the deeper commonality of the table with the primeval life of forests, as that life is preserved in the wooden composition and makes itself known, now with a hollow creaking, now in the grain that shows from under a tablecloth. 


And sometimes from its surface,

to the sounding of branches, entangled in a creak,

as a cloth of hands, slips down a triumph

of bears' eyes that halted the lindens,

their tender honey running down the trunks,

through bees' feet, through the chilling scent.

And in that instant live in all tables

mute faces on bears' paws.


Simplifying somewhat, one can say that here the essential thing is not a likeness, but the direct contact, a state of actual belonging, which is absent in metaphor. The qualities of bear and bees and wood form a single world, united in the alluring smell of honey: thousands of "sticky" glances, touches that mawl the surface of the trunk--these animate the essence of this world. Beasts large and small prowling near the roots, or swarming in the crown have entered into the being of the table, so that their primordial faces show through its clouded grain.

Metaphor is born of the mythological image of metamorphosis, which embodies the unity and interchangeability of all things. This unity breaks down as a result of the historically necessitated pattern of separation into "reflected" and "reflecting," "literal" and "figurative" meanings, between which a symbolic link of likeness is established. But this type of dualism, with its artificial isolation of the image from reality, ceases to satisfy contemporary creative consciousness which strives for "realism in the highest sense." So now metaphor is itself being overcome from within, moving back from dichotomy to a complicated unity, from the external similarity of distant objects to their necessary co-presence in one expanded reality. Of course, this is not to say that we have a return to ancient syncretism, but rather a striving to overcome the symbolism of metaphor in a progressive manner, by moving forward. Metabole as image is a path of searching for a kind of wholeness that is not reducible to the simple identity of all phenomena as in the case of metamorphosis; nor does it separate them through the semblance of a single trait, as in the metaphor. The metabole brings us to a new level of poetic consciousness, where the truth of myth is soberly and almost scientifically founded by the fantastical nature of reality itself![26]



6. The Scale of Poetic Styles


In art, as in science, there occurs from time to time a replacement of creative paradigms, with the difference that in the case of art, the new does not cancel out the previous. Indeed, in searching for continuity we often overlook the birth of the new. In the sixties and seventies, a paradigm reigned throughout our poetry that was determined by the interrelation of symbolic-metaphoric and lifelike styles. On one flank stood Voznesensky, A and Sosnora; on the other--Rubtsov, Sokolov, Zhigulin and other "quiet" or "rural-style" poets. In the middle of the scale were found the poets who sought a harmonic interrelation of the symbolic and the lifelike, the intellectual and the emotional: Kushner, Chukhontsev, Leonovich.

In the eighties, a new paradigm enters poetry, one determined by the interrelation of the conceptual and metareal currents. Between their representatives there has developed that total opposition which occurs only between contemporaries. Time breaks down into extremes in order to reach the fullest extent of its potentials. Conceptualism is the poetic of bare ideas, of self-sufficient signs abstracted from that reality which they would seem to be called upon to denote, the poetic of formulas and stereotypes, that shows the falling away of forms from substances, of words from things. Naive mass consciousness serves as the object for self-reflective reproduction and fission, for criticism and analysis. The "concept" (kontsept) is a devastated or perverted idea, one that has lost its real content and calls forth by its absurdity an alienating, ironic-grotesque effect.

Metarealism is the poetic of multidimensional reality in the full breadth of its potentials and conversions. The figurative nature of metaphor is overcome in the unconditionality of metabole as it uncovers the intercommonality--not merely the similarity--of different worlds. If metaphor is a shard of myth, then metabole is an attempt at restoration of wholeness: an individual image appointed to draw near to myth, to the interpenetration of idea and realia, insofar as this is possible in contemporary poetry.

Within one and the same cultural situation, conceptualism and metarealism fulfill two necessary and mutually supplementary tasks: they slough away the false, habitual, tenacious meanings of words while giving them a new polysemy and fullness of meaning. The verbal fabric of conceptualism is slovenly, artistically undervalued and torn to rags, because one of the tasks of this current is to show the dilapidation and infirm helplessness of the vocabulary through which we make sense of the world. Metarealism creates a solid and lofty verbal structure, seeking out the limits of transformation of things, of association in meaning. Therefore, it turns towards eternal themes or eternal prototypes in contemporary themes, and it is saturated with archetypes: word, light, death, earth, wind, night. It draws upon nature, history, high culture, and art of various periods as the material for its creative works. Conceptualism, on the contrary, reveals the deceptiveness of all value designations; it is overtly associated with the themes of today, of the ephemeral, the communal lifestyle of mass consciousness and the lower, vulgar forms of culture. 

At recent public discussions disputes have broken out between metarealist and conceptual poets. From the viewpoint of the former, conceptualism is not even art, but simply a phenomenon that reflects the lower strata of contemporary culture, aesthetically impoverished and transitory; when the banal realia of contemporary life pass away, conceptual poems will likewise loose their meaning. From the conceptualists' viewpoint, metarealists merely repeat the artistic systems of past epochs, indulging in the bombastics of well-worn poeticisms, rather than groping their way to a new position, such as that of conceptualizing and objectifying the very language of poetry. The authorial personality behind a metarealist poem is nothing but a character in a poem by a conceptualist.[27]

I wish to emphasize that metarealism and conceptualism are not so much closed groups as they are the poles between which contemporary poetry remains in motion: the stylistic boundaries, between which there exist as many intergradations as there are poetic individualities. The most consistent and extreme metarealism is that practiced by Sedakova; a transparent and almost disembodied archetypal foundation emerges through her poetry. Zhdanov, while sharing with Sedakova a striving for the eternal, "Platonic" prototypes of things, gives his image system dynamism by turning to contemporary realia. In such of his works as "Radiator Rhapsody," a tense relationship is created between traditional and pure archetypes such as "water," "rose," and "Orpheus" and the incongruous elements whimsically inserted into this transparent world as kenotypes,[28] the prototypes of a new age: "cast iron gutters," "newspaper," "canopener."

Farther along in the space of transition from metarealism to the opposite pole, one finds the stylistic realm of such poets as Aleksei Parshchikov, Ilia Kutik, Alexander Eremenko. They are similarly drawn to the kenotypal level of contemporary civilization, abounding as it is in new objects and ideas, whose starting point was not assigned by prehistory and mythology, but which demands an equally generalizing, structuring approach. In their poems, such technicisms as "dual molecular spirals," "tactile contact," "hypothetical medians" and "Kragstein construction" are used not only as details of daily life in the era of the nuclear technological revolution, but also as the mysterious prototypes of a world that is to come, like the signs of an unknown civilization, its eschatological indicators, arising out of darkness. While harking to the traditions of futurism, with its taste for contemporaneity and the technological plasticity of objects, the new poetic lacks social-aesthetic aggressiveness and evangelistic utopianism; delight in the future is excluded by an intent, visually gripping attention towards the present, towards data itself, the extent and endurance of objects. Such poetry cannot be considered futuristic; rather it is presentistic--a poetry of presence, of the present (from the Latin praesens).

Presentism affirms the presence of an object, its visibility and tangibility, as the necessary and sufficient conditions of its meaningfulness. Between the extremes of poetic monism--the merging of object and sense--and dualism--their separateness--a medial approach to reality is sketched out, close to a phenomenological description. A poetic work is built as a succession of different views of the object, different ways of perceiving and inscribing it, which form in their totality the manifestations of its actual essence. Such is Parshchikov's "catfish"--the sum total of perceptions? in water and on land, waking and sleeping.



It seems as if he's dug out in the water, like a trench.

Surfacing, he thrusts out a wave above his head.

Consciousness and flesh compress themselves more tightly.

He's altogether like a backway from the bedroom to the moon.


And if you dip your hand into the underwater byways

they'll turn and speak to you, telling fortunes by your palm.

A king-fish on the sand flounders ringingly

and goes cold, like a key in its thickening lock.


An object is the apparition of an object, the sum of its refractions through different visual media and signal codes. The thing is neither united with the idea nor opposed to it, but is an "idea" itself, that is, in the ancient Greek meaning of this word: "appearance," that which presents, "makes itself present." Parshchikov expresses the principle of such a view of the world, which from within itself is the world: "I became the habitation for vision of all the planet." And Kutik does something similar in his "Ode on visiting the Belosaraisk sand bar on the Sea of Azov": "designs and colors are shuffled,/ while all are but  a hypostasis of vision."

In this medial stylistic diapason between the poles of metarealism and conceptualism, we find the poetry of Alexander Eremenko, Mikhail Aizenberg, Tatiana Shcherbina, and Nina Iskrenko. Moving farther along the stylistic scale, we eventually cross over into the realm of conceptualism, where the shift has been demonstrated above on the example of Prigov's work, in which all of reality, even its deeply archetypal layers, becomes the field of a conceptual game, albeit one conducted according to the rules of a more or less traditional, vaudevillian-idiotic rhyme-scheming. Farther on in the direction of the conceptualist limit we encounter Rubinshtein, the most extreme and consistent representative, with his use not even of words but of ready-made verbal blocks, formulas like catalogue cards, points in a service manual or commands in a computer program. 

From archetype, through kenotype, to stereotype, through all the subtle shifts in the relation of idea and object, the broad field of image potentials is covered. Individual style is actualized not as membership in one or another group or trend, but as inclusion in the field itself, where the dialectic of the artistic image unfolds through an opposition that strives at one end towards myth, at the other towards concept. Metarealism and conceptualism, along with the intermediary zone between them that can be designated as presentism, together trace out new image formations, among which there remains adequate open space for yet another, however greatly talented poet.



The expression "ecology of culture" has gained popularity in

recent times. As a rule, it is understood as advocating the protection of the cultural heritage of the past, a worthy task that cannot be postponed, if we consider the colossal lapses and destruction in the history of our culture that have already taken place, from the years of the Tatar-Mongolian invasion to the Bolsheviks' devastation of our "tsarist past."

But ecology is more than a preservationist discipline; it is also a creative one, a system of the interrelations of man with the living medium that nourishes him--such is contemporary culture, in the given instance. The greatest lesson to be learned from our latest losses is to be protective of the present. Otherwise, in our delight over the monuments of the past, we might fail to leave our descendants any monuments of our own time. Nihilism has many faces: yesterday it demanded the destruction of ancient sacred treasures in the name of the bright future; today, having donned the face of conservativism, it demands an end to the "modernist outrage" and "avant-gardist escapades" in the name of a bright past.

The ecology of culture demands the recognition of all types and varieties of creativity as worthy of existence, since they form, in their interaction, a multiply complex cultural system: if we remove some elements, others will come apart, deprived of nourishment and meaning. The example of biocide is telling: destroy the "harmful," and valued, "useful" species will also be lost. If in relation to plants and animals our knowledge and power are not omnipotent, then much less is it for us to decide who among ourselves is "harmful" and who is "useful"--our descendants will figure this out, if only we leave them the item and opportunity for figuring: the live cultural medium that we inhabit. If we throw out one or another contemporary current from the sphere of readership--the channels will be broken that connect us to symbolism, acmeism, futurism, the Oberiuty, and without this our poetic heritage would be irredeemably impoverished. The egocentrism of one or another current wishing to squeeze out the others must be set against eco-centrism, the self-preservation of culture in the fullest variety and complementarity of its components. 


1983, 1987


Translated by Anesa Miller-Pogacar



[1]This study, published in Mikhail Epstein, Paradoksy novizny [Paradoxes of the New] (Moscow, Sovetskii pisatel', 1988), is a revision of two earlier articles which first appeared in Voprosy literatury, [Issues in Literature] 1986, no. 5 and Oktiabr', [October] 1988, no. 4. Portions of the translation by Anesa Miller-Pogacar appeared in Kent Johnson and Stephen Ashby, eds. Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992). In the present version, the original text has been slightly abridged and revised by the author.


[2] Thus, for the symbolists, "rose" means the blossoming of the Eternal Feminine; for the futurists--a euphonic consonance (too euphonic and therefore aversive); for the acmeists, "rose" is simply a flower, neither more nor less. Mandelstam wrote in the manifesto "Utro akmeizma" [The Dawn of Acmeism], "A=A: what a beautiful poetic theme." Osip Mandelstam, Sobranie sochinenii in 3 vols., vol. 2 (New York: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1971), 324.


[3]Translator:  The year 1956 was the height of Khrushchev's thaw, when the 20th Communist Party congress acknowledged and repudiated certain crimes of the Stalin era.


[4] Translator:  Elsewhere, Epstein has written of the distinctiveness of the new generation as follows:  "The new poetry arouses in the reader a feeling of aesthetic unease, a loss of orientation.  There are many complaints of secret coding, extreme complexity. . .  This is not a matter, however, of a complexity in the language, but rather of the fundamental absence of any stable center, which used to be identified with the lyric 'I'. All complexities could be cleared up in correlation with the centered system of self-reference:  'I am thus-and-so. . .  I see the world as so-and-so.' No matter how demonically terrifying or cynically demoralized, fantastically cruel or naively dull-witted (as in the poetry of the early years of this century, the 20s, the Oberiuty and others), reference to the poetic 'I' nonetheless gave readers the happy chance of transforming themselves, of moving aside their own 'I' in favor of another's. But now there is no one with whom to identify. Poetry ceases to be a mirror for the self-infatuated ego; there remains only a murky blot of banalities, left over from his final lyric sighs. Instead of a multiplicity of reflections, there is the crystalline structure of rock that leads the gaze away, not back to the self. A poetry of Structure has come to replace the poetry of the self, because at a decisive breaking point in poetic history, the 'I' revealed its unreliability, inauthenticity, it traitorously evaded all responsibility, so that responsibility was taken up by structure:  social structures, sign structures, atomic and genetic structures." Quoted from Epstein's "Kak trup v pustine ia lezhal . . ." [I lay like a corpse in the desert], in Den' poezii, 1988 [Day of poetry, 1988] (Moscow: Sovetsky pisatel', 1988).  An English translation by John High has appeared as "Like a Corpse I Lay in the Desert," Five Fingers Review, 1990, no. 8/9: 162-167.


[5] Translator:  an untranslatable pun on the Russian lesa, which means both forests and scaffolding.


[6] Translator:  The Oberiu, or Oberiuty, was a Leningrad group active in experimental art from 1927 to 1930; members included Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Konstantin Vaginov, Nikolai Oleinikov and others. Their work was theatrical, iconoclastic, and in some cases futuristic, involving experiments with transsense language and non-objectivity. 


[7] Translator:  Petr Konchalovsky (1876-1956) was a well-known painter of landscapes and still lifes. 


[8] Translator:  "resultant" is a mathematical term referring to a single vector, which represents the sum of forces or velocities of two or more vectors.


[9] Literatura edinogo potoka, a "single stream of literature," was a fashionable slogan of the 1930s, when Stalinist aesthetics attempted to unite all "progressive" literature of the past and present on the bases of "realism" and being "for the people."


[10] Translator:  This statement dates to 1983.


[11] Translator: "Vysokomalokhudozhestvennyi" is a descriptor borrowed from Mikhail Zoshchenko (1895-1958), best known as the author of numerous satiric and humorous fuilletons and short stories.


[12]Translator: See notes 6 and 12.


[13] Translator:  NEPmen, were entepreneurs of the early Soviet period when small-scale capitalistic ventures were allowed under Lenin's New Economic Policy, 1921-1928. 


[14] Translator:  Lebiadkin is a character in Dostoevsky's The Possessed (1872), a bufoon who pens trite and pompous verse; the "cannibaless Ellochka" appears in The Twelve Chairs (1928), a humorous novel by Ilia Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (pen names of Ilia Fainzilberg and Evgeny Kataev).


[15] Translator:  In Russian iazyk means both "tongue" and "language."


[16] Translator:  Quoted from the translation by Gerald Janecek in Johnson and Ashby, Third Wave, 142.


[17] Translator:  a reference to the whitewashing of reality through official proclamation in the Stalin and Brezhnev eras, falsification of production quotas, etc. See also Chapter 6, "The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism."


[18] Translator:  a technique of rendering dialectal and vernacular speech characteristics in Russian literature.


[19] Translator:  Epstein alludes here to the three styles codified in Lomonosov's eighteenth-century poetic theory ("high," "middle" and "low").


[20] Translator:  A typical pejorative term of the Soviet era, "hooliganism" (khuliganstvo) has been used to describe all manner of undesirable social behavior, from assault to swearing.


[21] Translator:  This refers to one of Pushkin's best-known short poems, "The Prophet," which describes poetic inspiration in terms of a profound religious experience. Epstein has also emphasized the themes of mortality and dehumanization, predominant in post-communist culture, in relation to this work by Pushkin as well as to contemporary poetry; he writes: "Re-reading Pushkin's 'The Prophet' with today's vision, the inevitable dying of the human hero strikes us for the first time. He is given a snake's bite in place of a tongue, a burning coal in place of a heart--all his humanness is sundered and put to death.  What is this monster that lay in in the desert . . . ! It was a prophet, with all in readiness to answer the Lord's call:  'I lay like a corpse in the desert. . . ' Contemporary poetry sometimes reminds us of a corpse which has already lost the traits of the living and the human--here and there protrude some kind of sharp fangs, membranes, angular bodies. But try to feel it: all of this unimaginable aggregate is ready to rise up and announce the truth with one word from above. . . The seraph has already completed the down and dirty work of preparing a new superhuman organism for life. And people who see in it only an inhuman monster or an assortment of mechanical parts--they don't know that from these alone will they hear the thought and will of God. We live in an unknown and perhaps very brief pause, before: 'And God's own voice was heard to me. . .' All we can do now is to wait and listen, so as not to miss the voice in the wilderness where a prophet in his loneliness, appears to be a corpse." From "Kak trup v pustine ia lezhal . . ." See note 4.


[22] Translator:  another reference to Pushkin's "The Prophet."


[23] Despite the similarity of their prefixes, "metarealism" has little in common with "surrealism," in that it is concerned not with the subconscious, but with a super-consciousness; it does not intoxicate, but sobers creative reason. "Surrealistic images are like the images induced by opium. . ." (A. Breton's, "Surrealist Manifesto"). The surrealists were repelled by soberly plebeian, reasonable bourgeois reality and brought into it the whimsy of intoxicating dreams. Metarealism is repelled by the monstrous senselessness, the drunken haze and fogginess that has covered the historical horizon of the Soviet epoch, and, for that reason, it calls in every way possible for an awakening, for an emergence from the hypnotic drunkenness of this single reality into a multidimensional perception of the world.


[24] Translator:  Fedor Tiutchev (1803-73) was one of the greatest nineteenth-century Russian poets and an originator of philosophical lyricism.


[25] Translator:  see full translation of this poem on p. 51.


[26] In his article "Chto takoe metabola? O 'tret'em' trope" [What is metabole? On the 'third' trope], Epstein defines metabole as a type of mediation between the two types of tropes conventionally called metaphor and metonymy: "From the poetic and stylistic standpoints, it seems helpful to designate as 'metabole' the kind of trope which reveals the very process--the intermediate steps--of transfering meaning, the hidden foundation on which the closeness and likening of objects takes place. . . [and] from which emerges the fullness of their encompassed and assimilated reality." (Stilistika i poetika [Stylistics and poetics], Moscow, 1989, pp. 75, 76, 77.) Thus, for Epstein, metabole completes a triad of tropes including metaphor and metonymy. If metaphor is a transfer of meaning through similarity, and metonymy is its transfer through contiguity, then metabole functions through an inner commonality.


[27] It is curious that polemics between metarealists and conceptualists reproduce the logical essence of the long-past and irreconcilable arguement between realism and nominalism (whose moderate version at one time was also called "conceptualism") in medieval philosophy. This conflict centered on the question: do general ideas (such as "love," "the good," "beauty") have the fullness of reality, or are they limited to the sphere of words (nomination) and concepts? This conflict proved difficult to resolve by logical means and continues to be resolved variously in contemporary poetic practice: one side of an idea merges with reality, while the other separates from it. The striving for complete merging reaches its limit in metarealism, and in conceptualism--the striving for complete separation.


[28] "Kenotype" (from ancient Greek "kainos," meaning "new") differs from archetype in that it offers a figurative formula, or generalized schematic eidos, of a historically new phenomenon, such as "metro," "beach," or "newspaper." For more detail, see Chapter 10, "Theory and Fantasy," section 4.