A Catalog of the New Poetries

Mikhail Epstein

In the book: Russian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp. 145-151.

[also, in the book Re-entering the Sign: Articulating New Russian Culture, ed. by Ellen Berry and Anesa Miller-Pogacar, University of Michigan Press, 1995, 208-211; in the translation of Anesa Miller-Pogacar]


While contemporary Russian prose is in the main trying to settle accounts with history, the new Russian poetry is paving the way for a new aesthetics. Poetry is thus the experimental hustings of the future Russian democracy - opening up possibilities of speaking in different languages, not mutually intelligible perhaps, but nevertheless allowed to be spoken without interruption. Thus out of the ruins of social utopia, the utopia of language is being born. It is the Tower of Babel of the word , in which multiple cultural codes mingle with diverse professional jargons, including that of Soviet ideology. The ideal of mystical communism is at last being realized in the sphere of speech practices, as an expropriation of semiotic systems of all epochs and styles and as a dismantling of their hierarchies of value. Supra-personal levels of consciousness are thus assuming priority, while lyricism is devalued as a remnant of ego-ideology and anthropocentrism.

Never before has Russia produced such a multitude of similar poets and such a quantity of varied poetries.

This once normative concept, like that of culture itself, can now be used legitimately in the plural. In this new form, the noun poetries indicates the heterogeneity of the contemporary poetic household, in which various stylistic epochs coexist comfortably: the intonations of the patriarchal popular chastushka are heard alongside the deconstuctionist procedure of a deliberate desemantization of the text. I shall take the liberty of compiling a list of these new poetries, which distinguish the poetic scene of the 1980s from all preceding ones:

1. Conceptualism

- is a system of linguistic gestures, drawing on the material of Soviet ideology and the mass consciousness of socialist society. The official slogans and cliches are reduced or augmented ad absurdum, revealing the split between the signifier and the signified. The sign is whittled down to a naked concept, the kernel of meaning, which is separated from its real content - the signified. This poetry of devastated ideologuemes is close to what is called sots-art in painting. Its exponents are Dmitry Prigov, Lev Rubinshtein and Vilen Barsky.

2. Post-Conceptualism, or the New Sincerity

- is an experiment in resuscitating 'fallen', dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm, as if to overcome alienation. If the absurd dominates Conceptualism, Post-Conceptualism moves in the direction of nostaligia: a lyrical intonation absorbs anti-lyrical material, comprised of the wastes from the ideological kitchen, errant conversational cliches and foreign loan-words. (Timur Kibirov, Mikhail Sukhotin).

3. Zero Style, or the "Great Defeat"

- is the reproduction of ready-made language models, such as, for example, those of the Russian classics of the 19th century or the avant-garde of the early 20th century, through a verbal medium of maximum transparency. This textual practice lacks any distinguishing features which might identify the author's individuality and appears as an unacknowledged quotation from someone else's text. The author recognizes his "great defeat" in the face of the overabundance of preceeding cultures. (Andrei Monastyrsky, Pavel Pepperstein).

4. Neoprimitivism

- uses a childish and philistine consciousness for its games with the most stable, familiar and surface layers of reality. All the other layers are metaphysically unknowable, and hence prone to ideological falsification. "A little knife" (nozhik), "table" (stol ), "lolly" (konfeta) are non-substitutable words, and hence cannot be exchanged for counterfeit signs of general ideas (Irina Pivovarova, Andrei Turkin).

5. Ironic and Grotesque Poetry

- hovers around the stereotypes of everyday life, the oddities of the life of the 'typical' citizen of a 'model society'. Unlike Conceptualism, which works with languge models, Ironic Poetry works with reality itself at the level of the concrete utterances and ideolects, not at the more abstract level of their grammatical description. It is designed to provoke laughter rather than the feeling of metaphysical absurdity and emptiness. Hence the authorial position, which is absent in Conceptualism, is explicitly present in this poetry: irony, sarcasm, humour, caricature (Victor Korkia, Igor Irten'ev, Vladimir Salimon).

This represents, so-to-speak, the left faction of contemporary, and in a broader sense Conceptualist, poetries, which gravitate towards anti-art and the subversion of language.

Now let us look at the right and, in a broad sense, Metarealist faction, which aspires towards a super-art and a linguistic utopia.

6. Metarealism

- is a poetry embracing the higher levels of reality, the universal images of the European literary canon. The emphasis is on a system of gestures of reception and authorization, enacted by the present in relation to the 'high' culture and cult poetry of past ages, from Antiquity to the Baroque and from Biblical times to Symbolism. Archetypal images such as "garden", "wind", "water", "mirror", "book" tend towards the absolutness and atemporality of mythologuemes. There is an abundance of echoes from classical poets and variations on the 'eternal themes'. (Olga Sedakova, Ivan Zhdanov , Victor Krivulin, Elena Shvarts, Olga Denisova).

7. Presentism

- is correlated with Futurism but without being directed towards the future. Instead, it is a 'technical aesthetics' of objects, focused on the present, extolling the magic of the object's visual and material presence in human life. It is based on a phenomenological approach: the world of phenomena is captured in its appearance, as a given, without any reference to 'another', 'transcendental' essence. The gaze is emphatically de-humanized, it emanates straight from the eye's retina and is anterior to any psychological, emotional refraction. Presencing is oriented towards systems of signs, which are the currency of exchange in contemporary science and the technological environment. It presupposes the metaphoric usage of special terminology and of professional jargons. Even nature is described in terms of the contemporary civilization, as a totality of artefacts (for instance, the sea as a "dumping ground for handlebars" ). (Alexei Parshchikov, Ilya Kutik).

8. Polystylistics

- A multicoded poetry, uniting various discourses along the principle of collage . The 'low' discourse of everyday life, the heroic-solemn ideological discourse, the language of traditional landscape painting and of technological instruction manuals - these collages make play with the heterogeneity of the intermingled discourses (for example, the "metallurgical scaffolding", which breeds "chlorophil"). Unlike Presentism, which achieves a unity of different codes through a total, 'encyclopaedic' description of objects, the poetry of polystylistics plays with the incongruity of objects in its collages and with the resultant catastrophic disintegration of reality. (Alexander Eremenko, Nina Iskrenko).

9. Continualism

- is the poetry of fuzzy semantic fields, voiding the meaning of individual words. This poetry is designed to make meaning dissolve and disappear. Deconstruction - the methodology used in contemporary (Post-Structuralist) literary criticism to de-semanticize the text under investigation - is raised here to the status of an artistic method. The word is placed in a context which ensures its maximum indeterminacy of meaning, its 'free associativeness'. The word ceases to be a discrete unit of sense, but is stretched out in an uninterrupted set forming a continuum with the meanings of all other words (semantic waves rather than atoms). The yoke of meaning is removed, making way for an epiphany of indiscriminate, unsegmented signification. (Arkady Dragomoshchenko, Vladimir Aristov).

10. The Lyrical Archive, or the Poetry of the Decentred "I"

- This is the most traditional of all the new poetries, having retained a psychological centre in the form of a lyrical "I". But this lyrical "I" is unstable, its objectness is elusive. It appears in the mode of the impossible, an elegiac yearning for the individual Self in a world of reified and aggravating structures. There is realism in the decsriptions of the contemporary milieu, but not as a living byt. Instead, this milieu is revealed as a stratum in the zone of future archeologial excavations, to be labelled "Moscow culture of the eighties of the 20th century". Emotionally nostalgic, this realism is archeological in subject matter. (Sergei Gandlevsky, Bakhyt Kenzheev, Alexandr Soprovsky).


The current list of categories could be illustrated by another score or even a hundred new poetries, because many of these categories coexists happily in the work of a single poet. A case in point is Vsevolod Nekrasov, whose poetic work fits into both categories No 1 and No 4. Or better still, one could create a new category for him, since ultimately each poet and even each work constitutes a new poetry.

Moreover, even the list presented here can be regarded as an integral part of the new poetries, since it belongs to the currently productive genre of the poetic catalogue . As such, the present work would fit into category No. 11 of our list, which would be the category of Paradigm Poetry, enumerating and systematising the remaining categories.

This symbiosis of poetry and criticism demonstrates to what extent contemporary poetry and contemporary critical theory impregnate each other. The point is that contemporary theory converges with poetry to the same degree that poetry embraces theoretical procedures. Both share a common distinguishing feature, namely a paradigmatic structure of the text which in these theoretical 'stanzas' "projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination," to use Roman Jakobson's famous definition of "the poetic function." This structure does not produce a message in a language already known to the audience but formulates the rules of a still unknown language, setting out declension and conjugation tables of new poetic forms. The old-fashioned reader is soon bored by this material because he is like a pupil who has been presented with a foreign language textbook instead of experiences to be shared in his own native language.

To paraphrase the Russian revolutionary writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who proclaimed that literature is "a manual of life", contemporary poetry can be declared to be "a manual of language", generating models of possible syntactic and semantic worlds. Russian literature, which had been engaged for such a long time in restructuring life and in teaching its readers how to live, is ready at last to restrict itself to the domain of language and to embrace language as its limit.

This limitation not only allows poetry a breath of new life but allows life itself to breathe freely.


Trans. Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover



Translator's note: I have used the English plural poetries to render the timbre of aesthetic innovativeness conveyed by use of the Russian noun poeziia in the plural in Epstein's original.

A short rhymed folk lyric, mostly of a humorous nature.

For a detailed analysis of Prigov's and Rubinstein's poems, see Mikhail Epshtein, Paradoksy novizny, pp.153-158; After the Future, 31-36.

In the previous manifestos, Conceptualism and Metarealism were discussed as broad stylistic zones or poles of contemporary poetry. In the course of time, with the growth of stylistic diversity, it becomes possible to demarcate specific trends and categories within these two zones. Thus, Conceptualism, in a narrow sense, may be classified as only one specific trend in a broader conceptualist zone (subversion of language), which includes also 'Post-Conceptualism', 'zero-writing', 'Neoprimitivism' etc.. In the same way, 'Metarealism', as a specific trend, is a segment of a broader metarealist zone (utopia of language), along with Presentism, Polystylistics, Continualism etc..

For a detailed analysis of Sedakova's and Zhdanov's poems, see Mikhail Epshtein, Paradoksy novizny, pp. 145-147, 161-166, 168; After the Future, 25-26,38-43,45.

Alexei Parshchikov. For a more detailed analysis of Presentism and Parshchikov's poetry, see Mikhail Epshtein, Paradoksy novizny, pp. 142-143, 147-148, 172-174; After the Future, pp. 23, 27, 48-49,84-85

This poem of Alexander Eremenko is cited more extensively in "What is Metarealism?" For a more detailed analysis of Eremenko's poetry, see Mikhail Epshtein, Paradoksy novizny, pp.143-145, 173-174; After the Future, pp. 24-25,44.

Roman Jakobson. Language in Literature, ed. by Krystyna Pomorsky and Stephen Rudy. Cambridge (MA), London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987, p71

The author of the famous novel What is to Be Done? (1863) and numerous critical pieces proclaiming realism and didacticism as functions of progressive art.


Mikhail Epstein's Virtual Library Catalog