Great word-creator. Phenomenon of a genius

In 1908 Khlebnikov experienced his literary debut: “The Vesna” (Spring) magazine published his short novel “Temptation of a sinner”. What were Vasiliy Kamenskiy, the editor-in-chief of the magazine and other contemporaries struck by in it? Here is the beginning of the story:

«And there were a plenty of things and creatures: there were crows with the voice “death!” and wings of the nights, and a truthflowered fern, and dilapidated little house, and an old woman’s face in the scull-cap of eternity, and a vicious dog on the chain of days with the tongue of thoughts and a path with day-and-night running along and footprints of the day, evening and night on, and heaven-barked tree infected with sawflies and a young lake, and eye-horned goats, and face-legged maidens, and eagle-like virgins with sadlings instead of wings, and a boy who cheerfully laughing launched one world after another through his straw, and there also was a baby-like stone bed where evil and violent water streamed, and doubtwinged swallow flew low over the land, and moisture-faced nightingale sang on the biting-looked wild-rose bush, and there stood a fence of temporary boards, and griefbranched sufferling drooped over the water and there was a lake with time instead of stones and timeshes rustled instead of rushes. And sadbushes stood unsteady near the lake. And truthtailed cat-fish   drifted and equalitytoothed pike made circles on the water surface and clawed crayfish – justice –moved backwards pushing quickly and imperceptibly.    

Ingenious double of this unusual prose is in his famous poem:

На озера береге,
Где каменья временем,
Где время каменьем.
На берега озере
Времыши, камыши,
На озера береге
Священно шумящие.

Natalya Bashmakova who is known to have written one of the best books devoted to Velimir in her native Finland once admitted: “I began to understand deeper when I came to the Volga delta for the first time and saw rushes as tall as three men (it was not European reed – which hardly grows higher than a man’s shoulder! And I understood Khlebnikov’s verses in another new way)”:

Времыши, камыши
На озера береге
Священно шумящие.

Well, Khlebnikov’s compositions are read not from the book page but from the space that begot them. “Space sounds through the alphabet”, – Khlebnikov taught.

Khlebnikov’s manuscripts are unique phenomena. As Benedict Livshits told he “had seen the language come alive. The breath of prehistoric word blew onto my face. And I suddenly realized that I had been numb since the day I was born. All the Dal with his numerous sentences emerged in the midst of boiling surf like a tiny island. It overflowed him, turned upside down language layers we used to step on as if they were a solid ground <…>. I was standing face to face with incredible phenomenon”.   

It was occurrence of a genius that just few his contemporaries noticed.  

In 1909 Khlebnikov created astonishing writing “Menagerie” laying between poetry and prose (researchers have not determined yet what genre it can be referred to).

О, Сад, Сад! <...>
Где орлы сидят подобны вечности <...>
Где верблюд, чей высокий горб лишён всадника, знает разгадку
буддизма и затаил ужимку Китая <...>
Где обезьяны разнообразно злятся <...>
Где нетопыри висят опрокинуто, подобно сердцу современного
русского <...>
Где в лице тигра, образованном белой бородой и с глазами
пожилого мусульманина, мы чтим первого последователя
пророка и читаем сущность ислама.
Где мы начинаем думать, что веры – затихающие струи волн,
разбег которых – виды.
И что на свете потому так много зверей, что они умеют по-
разному видеть бога <...>
Где смешные рыбокрылы заботятся друг о друге с
трогательностью старосветских помещиков Гоголя.
Сад, Сад, где взгляд зверя больше значит, чем груды
прочитанных книг <...>
Где в зверях погибают какие-то прекрасные возможности, как
вписанное в часослов Слово о полку Игореве во время пожара

According to one of the contemporaries, after reading “Menagerie” Vyacheslav Ivanov exclaimed: “Only a man of genius could write that!”. K. Chukovsky thought that Khlebnikov wrote “Menagerie” under the influence of Walt Whitman’s “Song of myself”. However Khlebnikov declared that he written “Menagerie” long before his acquaintance with Whitman’s poetry. And Chukovsky later admitted that “Khlebnikov had had a right to dissociate himself from that American bard. Each line of “Menagerie” that characterizes a single animal is, so to speak, Khlebnikov’s creative invention. Figuratively speaking Khlebnikov took a framework for his picture from Whitman but painted his picture himself without emulating anybody”.     

Meanwhile Khlebnikov didn’t succeed in university studying at all. He searched for himself: left the Faculty of Physics and Math and joined The Faculty of Foreign Languages (he is interested in learning Sanskrit) but there and then he applied for entering The Faculty of History and Philology. However he studied without any zeal and gave absolute preference to poetry still being misunderstood and alone.

By 1910 Khlebnikov had left the circle of symbolists and actually revolutionized literature laying down the ground for the new aesthetics and developing principles of the new artistic method. But it took critics more than thirty years to comprehend it.

In 1910 David Burliuk (who would later dubbed himself “a father of Russian futurism”) introduced Khlebnikov to his companions. It is curious that when Burlyuk first encountered Khlebnikov (he took him to his place in Chernyanka) he noticed a sheet of paper which had fallen out of Khlebnikov’s pillowcase with manuscripts and now was lying on the floor sad and lonely. It was “Spell by laugh”, Burlyuk said – “shocking and historically significant composition”.  

О, рассмейтесь, смехачи!
О, засмейтесь, смехачи!
Что смеются смехами, что смеянствуют смеяльно,
О, засмейтесь усмеяльно!
О, рассмешищ надсмеяльных – смех усмейных смехачей!
О, иссмейся рассмеяльно, смех надсмейных смеячей!
Смейево, смейево,
Усмей, осмей, смешики, смешики,
Смеюнчики, смеюнчики.
О, рассмейтесь, смехачи!
О, засмейтесь, смехачи!

This poem published by Burlyuk in the digest “The Impressionists’ studio” caused a great deal of jibes and delight over Khlebnikov. The poet and critic Ivanov-Razumnik wrote: “It was easy to mock at. It was much more difficult to foresee power and truth of eternally born word in that painful language intransigence”. Korney Chukovskiy in his turn suggested erecting a monument to Velimir, “the liberator of poetry” for that poem.   

In this poem Khlebnikov acts as the first Russian poet ever who demonstrated volume of a word Not without reason he won fame as “a Lobachevski of word”.

In 1911 the third group of Russian futurists named “cubofuturists” was established in Petersburg. It was organized by David Burliuk and headed by Khlebnikov and Mayakovski. It should be pointed out that in 1909 in Italy there existed a group of futurists with the poet P.T. Marinetti at the head. Khlebnikov suggested to substitute the term “futurism” for “budetlyanstvo” (Russian literally meaning of “futurism”) and thus underline Russian manner of the movement, however his companions didn’t support him.   

D.Burlyuk's lecture "Pushkin and Khlebnikov"

In June 1912 Velimir wrote in his letter to his parents in Astrakhan: “I’m sure you may be proud of <…> the magic tablecloth I have spread for the feast of mankind spiritual lips”.

Here is the first confirmation to it: futurist digest “Slap in the face of public sense” half full of his verses which had never been before in Russian poetry: 

Крылышкуя золотописьмом
Тончайших жил,
Кузнечик в кузов пуза уложил
Прибрежных много трав и вер.
«Пинь, пинь, пинь!» – тарарахнул зинзивер.
О, лебедиво!
О, озари.

Here Khlebnikov described a little blue tit (Parus major) nicknamed “Grasshopper”. Khlebnikov (a worthy student of his father) knew voices of birds very well. In his superstory “Zangezi” which he wrote in the end of his short life he started using soundgraphics (“the birds language”). The adaptation of this superstory made by Alexander Ponomarev dubbing Velimir Khlebnikov’s “birds language” with real voices of birds won a Grand-Prix of Berlin festival!

Бобэоби пелись губы.
Вээоми пелись взоры.
Пиээо пелись брови.
Лиэээй пелся облик.
Гзи-гзи гзэо пелась цепь.
Так на холсте каких-то соответствий
Вне протяжения жило Лицо.

At first sight this unusual verse looks like gobbledygook, however Khlebnikov himself gave a clue to it: “As far back as Mallarmais and Bodler spoke of sound accordance of words and eyes of hearing visions and sounds which have their own dictionary. In my article “Instructor and disciple” <…> I explained these accordance in some way.

B, is a bright red color, that is why lips are called bobeoby, veeomy is blue and that is why eyes are blue, piieo means black. It is not surprising that Toporkov at his wits’ end laughed <…> and looked at the verses like wild Caucasian donkey looks at a steam engine without understanding its sense and meaning”.  

Well, what about mysterious words – “bobeobi”, “veeomi” etc.? And there seems to be no fancy language here. For some time Khlebnikov lived in Mordovian villages Pomaevo and Alferovo. He was fascinated by Old Russian incantations and legends as well as by Mordovian legends, and Permyanian songs and fairy tales.

Bobe, bobe! Kytche, vetlyn?
(Sweetheart, sweetheart – Where did you go to?)

So there is no senselessness here, Zyryanian “bobe,bobe” transformed into “bobeobi” and mysterious sounds mean:

Sweetheart, sweetheart lips were singing[1].


Khlebnikov asserted that the verses had a right of being misunderstood: “Verses can be easy to understand and may be difficult to understand, but anyway they must be good, they must be veracious” (“About poetry”).  

After all those who complain than Khlebnikov’s verses are difficult to understand should remember that experimental poetry exceeds about 1/20 of all his creative works. The rest is written in clear, precise, extremely rich and PLAIN Russian language. If it will not persuade, then:

Точно спичка о коробку,
Не зажжёшься об меня.
(Велимир Хлебников)

It is David Burliuk who may be credited with his having been courageous enough to deliver a lecture “Pushkin and Khlebnikov” on November 3, 1913 in the hall of The Tenishev college in Petersburg. It created an immense sensation with a huge amount of listeners literally banged into the hall. The audience chiefly consisted of young people was attracted not by aspiration after scandal and not even by indolent curiosity but searching for some new ideals to replace old ones which had already been discredited and out-of-date.    

As one of the critics recalled the mood of the audience was “seldom protesting, often pleasantly mocking, but sometimes really sympathetic”. Suffice it to say that the audience again assaulted the entrance in the futurist evening on November 11, 1913 in Moscow Polytechnic Museum where Burliuk was reiterating his report.  

Somehow or other the names of two great poets for the first time now appeared in one bunch.

[1] Evg. Lukin. “Bobeobi”. Taina odnogo stihotvoreniya Velimira Khlebnikova [“Bobeobi. The mystery of one of the Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem”]// Literature Russia, 26-th of April 2006 P.14 (rus.)

Sinister number (1917). «War-death»

Simultaneously with poetry creativity he became more and more interested in numeric investigations. There was a book titled “Our neighbors” in the home library all covered with his mathematical treatments in which he discovered two key numbers for his “law of time” – 317 and 365. “I’m feeling intoxicated by the numbers”, – Velimir admitted later.

Я всматриваюсь в вас, о числа,
И вы мне видитесь одетыми в звери, в их шкурах,
Рукой опирающимися на вырванные дýбы.
Вы даруете единство между змееобразным движением
Хребта вселенной и пляской коромысла.
Вы позволяете понимать века, как быстрого хохота зубы.
Мои сейчас вещеобразно разверзлися зеницы
Узнать, что будет Я, когда делимое его – единица.

In November 1911 Velimir was dismissed from the university for non-payment. His father seemed to give up on the problem child and didn’t want to grant him material support. Velimir foresaw it and kept on going ahead his own way – a way of innovative poet and a prophet-scientist. And there came his first significant discovery: in his first brochure “Instructor and disciple” published in 1912 he gave one of his equations and inquired: “Shall we expect the collapse of the state in 1917?” (he couldn’t add the word “Russian” from censorship perspective). Five years later autocracy of the tsars fell.  

Velimir repeated the horrible number “1917” in two other literary works warning his contemporaries of the danger to come. Alas! “A prophet has no honour in his own country”. No one believed Khlebnikov.

1913 was the last year on the threshold of the great tragedy – World War I which would move not only boundaries of countries but the entire course of the World history and would dramatically change the humans' consciousness. Resolute, absent-minded and always deep in thoughts Khlebnikov seemed not to notice it. However he, like nobody else, as if he was an experienced seismologist, caught even the slightest progress of events, like nobody else he felt Time. It was why his fellow-poets later would nickname him not only The King of poets (V.Mayakovski) but The King Of Time (O.Brik).

Having a presentiment about terrible event Velimir wrote the poem titled “War-Death” consisted of neologisms only. The only way for the poet to express the whole tragedy, the whole horror of war was to select new words, tune people’s ear on a new soundgraphy, speak about incomprehensible things in incomprehensible language – about war that would a common thing but not at once.

Немотичей и немичей
Зовёт взыскующий сущéл,
Но новым грохотом мечей
Ему ответит будущéл.
Железавут играет в бубен,
Надел на пальцы шумы пушек.
Играя, ужасом сугубен,
Он мир полей далёко рушит.

Mayakovski brilliantly commented this quatrain:

«… The word “cruelty” means nothing for me while “zhelezavut” (ironcalling) is something more sufficient. Because the latter resembles sounds of chaos as I imagine a war. This word contains iron thudding and at the same time one can hear somebody calling someone and see the one being called rolling somewhere».

It should be added that Khlebnikov used the method of “live sound writing”.

Вселенночку зовут мирея, полудети...
И умиратище клянут.

Horrible words! The war kills young people 18-20 years old who, “halfchildren” indeed, who begin their life with death. Deathfield shows no mercy.   

На небе бледном виден ужасчук
В мечавом и величавом на челе венце.
А на земле страдало мук,
И ни кровинки на лице.

«Horrorknight» is a symbol of triumphing death, - a researcher Ronald Vroon notes, - he wears a crown of crossed swords instead of crown of thorns; he has a bloodless face of The Pale Horseman and his name is War.  

Autograph Autograph
Autograph "Conjuration Through Revelry"
The books from the family library with V.Khlebnikov’s remarks The books from the family library with V.Khlebnikov’s remarks
The books from the family library with V.Khlebnikov’s remarks
The lecture “Pushkin and Khlebnikov” The lecture “Pushkin and Khlebnikov”
The lecture “Pushkin and Khlebnikov”