This Essay copyright of Seumas Macdonald, 1999. May be reproduced freely if this Copyright notice is included.
“Riffaterre and Khlebnikov: A Semiotic Study” by S.J.Macdonald
“[P]oetry expresses concepts and things by indirection. To put it simply, a poem says one thing and means another.”1 This quotation from Riffaterre forms the foundation of his poetic theory. Poetry works on two levels – the mimetic and the semiotic; the shift from one to the other, semantic indirection, is what demarcates poetry as poetic text.
Riffaterre identifies three modes of semantic indirection, all of which can be demonstrated through examples from the Futurist poet Khlebnikov’s works. Firstly, “Displacement, when the sign shifts from one meaning to another, when one word ‘stands for’ another, as happens with metaphor and metonymy.”2
This is obviously the case in “The Tangled Wood”3 where the hart, later metamorphosed into a lion, stands for Russia in a discourse about East-West politics. Elsewhere, in “Once more, once more”4, where the predication of the poetic pronoun as a star serves as a metonym for the concept of ‘the measure’ to which things are compared.
Secondly, “Distorting, when there is ambiguity, contradiction, or nonsense.”5 For an example of this, take the punning couplet:
The eyes of the Black
sea into the distance6
In the English translation the distortion trades on eyes/see/sea. In the Russian “the Black” refers to the river Oka, linked by folk-etymology to oko, eye;
Thirdly, “Creating, when textual space serves as a principle of organization for making signs out of linguistic items that may not be meaningful otherwise.”7 An excellent example of this is the longer poem “Venus and the Shaman”8, where Khlebnikov makes rhyme a strong feature of the poem thus giving a second, non-narrative, dimension to the meaning of the poem.
The point of all this semantic indirection on the part of poetic texts is to “threaten… mimesis.”9 The destruction of mimesis poeticises the text, creating a second level of meaning. Riffaterre distinguishes between the two levels of meaning by reserving ‘meaning’ for “the information conveyed by the text at a mimetic level”10 whereas “[t]he ungrammaticalities spotted at the mimetic level [i.e. things that don’t make mimetic sense] are eventually integrated into another system.”11
This system is the semiotic code of the poem, and Riffaterre uses the term ‘significance’ to demarcate the formal and semantic unity or the poem. It is a formal unity, because the poetic text as a whole expresses the significance; a semantic unity, because the text constructs a single invariant meaning. This is contrasted with the meaning, which is a “continuously changing semantic sequence”, based on “variation and multiplicity.”12
If “the unit of significance is the [whole] text”13, then there is of necessity two stages involved in the reading of a poetic text. During the first reading, meaning is apprehended, that is the mimesis of text is decoded, with the input of linguistic and literary competence. The second stage of reading involves the reader in a “structural decoding”14 of the text. What occurs here is that the reader, having noted all the ungrammaticalities, is in a position to integrate them into another system, and thus to uncover the significance of the poetic text.
Moving on, Riffaterre indicates how the significance comes to translate itself into a poetic text. Take this cryptic statement, “The significance is shaped like a doughnut, the hole being either the matrix of the hypogram or the hypogram as matrix.”15 To understand this, one must first be initiated into Riffaterre’s linguistic community. By ‘matrix’, Riffaterre refers to the invariant concept, which is the significance of the poetic text at an abstract level. This is contrasted with the ‘model’, which is the first or primary actualisation of the matrix within the poetic text. The text itself is a sequence of variations derived from the model, based on the matrix – it is a sequence of variants of an invariant.
So, to return to the cryptic statement, Riffaterre is starting that the text essentially says what it means by saying what it doesn’t. The matrix of the subtext, or the matrix as subtext, is unrealised, but made present by the realised stuff about it.
To invoke a different, parallel image: The significance of the poem is a submerged land formation, and the text is the wave and current patterns formed by wind blowing from each direction – variants revealing and invariant.
Before moving on to examine a selection of Khlebnikov’s poetry, it will be valuable to digress into examining Riffaterre’s ideas concerning the overdetermination of poetic texts (the rest of his book is just commentary on the above). He makes three points.16 Firstly, overdetermination makes mimesis possible; secondly, it makes “literary discourse exemplary by lending it the authority of multiple motivations for each word used”17; and thirdly, it compensates for catachresis (the use of a wrong word, or the wrong use of a word)
All that is to say that a poem cannot be other than it is, unless it is other than it is. The determination of the matrix gives more than necessary justification for each actualisation, and this compensates for any catachresis. This further serves to confer monumentality on a text, rendering it “relatively impervious to change and deterioration of the linguistic code.”18
With the preliminaries foundations laid in their reticulated frames, we can began to examine some of Khlebnikov’s poetry. A note is made that of course this paper is unable to delve into the technicalities of Russian (because the author doesn’t yet speak Russian), so if the pedants prefer, the examination is not of Khlebnikov’s poetry, but rather Paul Schmidt’s (mainly his) transformation of Khlebnikov’s poetry.
Anyway, take this poem:
The streams of time
on stone dreams,
the rush of streams
on time’s stones.
at the lake’s edge –
The first thing noticed in the text is the extreme alliteration and rhyme. Take the following table of the poem:
st eams own on
st r sh eams
st own on
r ever ush
r ever ush
One can see that not a single line fails to echo the others, a tribute to the translator indeed. This creation is not without reason though, because the basic sign-markers are also interlinked. ‘Streams of time’ is a sign indicating the passage of life, this is contrasted in the second line with ‘stone dreams’, which is life –‘dreams’, turned to death – ‘stone’.
Lines three and four vary the pattern, repeating the idea:
line 3 ‘rush of streams’ – passage of life;
line 4 ‘time’ – life moving to death, ‘stones’ – death.
The key to understanding the first four-lines turns on the preposition, ‘on’, which marks the ‘life’ of the first two lines in each couplet, dominating the ‘death’ of the second two lines. The final four lines, shifting the phonetic resonances, repeat the life-death dichotomy.
Line 5 ‘Rustling sedge’ indicates activity within the stationary, life within death. Line 6 further reinforces this, at the ‘lake’s edge’ – and a lake is nothing but a stationary body of water. Lines 7 & 8 reverse the order while repeating the idea: the ‘reverent hush’ of silence is a further variation of the stationary idea of the lake and the sedge, while the ‘reverberant rush’ is its inversion, the bustle and activity of life.
Thus the poem is a series of variations on the struggle between life and death, also between sound and silence (a conflict which will recur in a earlier poem, below), between the basic duality present in the world. The matrix could be written as ‘life overcomes death’ or some such thing; in fact this dual conflict will be seen as a recurring matrix in Khlebnikov’s poetry.
For the second poem to be analysed, take “The Tangled Wood”2:
The tangled wood was full of sound
the forest screamed, the forest groaned
to see the spear-man beast his spear.
Why does hart’s horn hand heavy
with the moving mark of love?
Arrow’s flash of metal hits a haunch,
and reckons right. Now beast is broken
to his knees, beaten to the ground.
His eyes look deep at death.
The horses clatter, snort, and chatter:
“We bring the Tall Ones. Useless to run.”
Useless only your exquisite motion,
your almost feminine face. No action
can save you. You fly from rack and ruin,
and searching spear-man follows fast.
Panting horses always closer,
branching antlers always lower,
twangling bowstrings over and over,
nor help nor hart from hurt and hazard.
But he rears abruptly, bristles, roars –
and shows a lion’s cruel claws.
With lazy ease he touches, teases –
teaches the trick of terror.
Acquiescent and still,
they fall to fill their graves.
He rises rampant. Regal roar.
And around him everywhere lay beaten slaves.
On a first reading of this, the reader easily translates the meaning of the text with reference to a hunting code. However, it is clear that some of this is unconsciously translating things, as one goes, to the semiotic level. In the first stanza, it makes only some mimetic sense to imagine forests screaming with fear; in fact, the whole poem is full of images that make partial mimetic sense but serve as metonyms and metaphors.
The forest, for example, is a metonym of the world, the cosmos, because it stands as a backdrop to the drama. Similarly, though it is easy enough to visualise a hart with lowered head, a heavy horn – it is a further step to recognise the horn as a signifier of strength.
All this is uninteresting, until it is put into the literary context of the author, who, when republishing it in Izbornik (1914), added this note “The hart metamorphosed into a lion is an image of Russia.”20 This transfers the whole text to a political discourse. Now Russia is being pursued by inescapable, unrelenting foes (stanza 5), in Khlebnikov’s context this is inevitably the West, Europe, esp. Germany. The last two stanzas reverse the struggle, and Russia destroys its assailants, leaving them dead.
Again the matrix is of the reversal of power structures – here hunted becomes hunter, Russia triumphs over the West.
Consider this further example, which also exemplifies Khlebnikov’s occupation with East-West relations, without recourse to extra-textual information:
Wind whose song,
wound whose wrong?
Sweat of sword
to turn to word
People fondle death
like a flower.
The East now plucks
the strings of power.
A shining-mountain magus
may refurbish our pride:
sheathed in reason like an iceberg,
I became the people’s guide.21
Similar to “The streams of time”, this poem has strong formal features, creating a second thread of meaning. The sword/word trick is paralleled in the Russian by mech (sword) and miach (ball).22 Examine how the first stanza works, by marking everything positive and negative:
Wind (+) becomes wound (–), i.e. why does the +
song (+) becomes wrong (–), become the – ?
Sweat of sword (–) i.e. something – is needed
to turn () to word (+) to return to +
Thinking back to the earlier analyses, this poem continues the poet’s pre-occupation – why has the + become the – ? This situation needs to be reversed.
The second stanza effects this – + transformation:
People fondle death (–) – +
like a flower (+)
The East (–) now plucks The disempowered East
the strings of power (+) (Russia) becomes the
empowered (+), replacing
So, the + Russia has been disempowered in the past (stanza 1), but will now be re-empowered, over the West. But how?
The third stanza reveals the poet’s proposed plan for this:
A shining-mountain magus (+)
may refurbish our pride: may – +
sheathed in reason like an iceberg,
I become the people’s guide.
Thus the poetic “I” proposes a prophetic figure, himself, to lead the change, empowering Russia to reverse the decadence of the world. The ‘how’ is revealed. What leaves the reader perplexed, perhaps, is how the “I” is “sheathed in reason like an iceberg”? This is how: icebergs are a destructive force – ice expands and breaks open. The speaker, identifying himself as ice, propounds to sheathe himself in reason – to pour himself inside reason as water, freezing to ice, and break it open. Irreason will be the tool of his victory (Admittedly, iceberg ice is not a necessary move, but it’s quite in line with the concept being generated). So this poem again actualises a conflict, politically identified as Russia and the West, and expands the victory of Russia to include the role of the ‘magus’ figure, the warrior of irreason (cf. zaum).
Continuing the political theme, consider this poem, (marked already with positive and negative indices,):
Harsh hush bends bow (–)
against the clamor-call of dawn. (+)
Night nests in dark souls, (–)
scatters shouts of “Burn!” (+)
Clamor-call began to shudder, (+)
took up silence as a shield; (+)
stalking into dark to slaughter– (+)
hundred-hacker, hundred-head. (+)
Bow falls, felled from hands– (– –)
stillness speaks of what will be, (–)
and through clash of power welter (+)
flies away. (– –) 23
On a mimetic level, the poem makes little sense, how does a ‘harsh hush’ bend a bow? It doesn’t. But through displacement and distortion, the poem encodes a conflict between silence and sound. The first couplet has silence attacking sound. The second stanza responds, sound takes up silence as a shield against silence, and proceeds to a slaughter. The final stanza has silence felled, and fleeing, beaten by sound (power welter).
This struggle is reflected in the phonetic qualities the translator has chosen, but there is a second subtext to the conflict between sound and silence. “One of the neologisms Khlebnikov uses to designate silence is nem’, derived from nemoi (“dumb, mute”), which in turn is linked etymologically to nemets (German).”24 Thus the significance of the poem – the triumph of sound over silence, is merely a model of a greater matrix, the triumph of Slav over German. Indeed, if the scope of this project expanded to all of Khlebnikov’s poetry, each matrix can be seen as a model of a deeper subtext; essentially this idea is what Khlebnikov is building on with his supersaga, as evidenced by his words introducing “Zangezi”.25 Although all the examples so far have reflected a Slavic nationalism, a feature prominent in Khlebnikov’s early works, this is only one dimension of the conflict of principles (not just nations – they are mere manifestations of cosmic, but not airy-fairy, principles). One might hazard a guess that this deep hypogram is the triumph of the Temporal over the Spatial.
Turning then to the second last poem of this delightful day-trip of structuralist analyses:
Once more, once more - the star is a metonym for
I am a standard to measure by.
Woe to the sailor with level - woe to him who measures
and compass false
whose angle is false;
he will wreck on rocks - he will fail
and hidden shoals.
Woe to you without love - measuring false is a result
or compassion of rejecting the standard
who angled me false.
You will wreck on rocks - he will fail
and the rocks will laugh
the way you did
The notes on the right hand side serve as commentary (by me) on the text: the speaker identifies himself as the standard of things, the star by which ‘sailors’, a sign displacing to ‘those seeking the way’, should ‘measure’, should guide themselves. However, because he is rejected, ‘without love or compassion’, by those seeking the way, they will fail, ‘wreck on rocks’, in seeking the way.
And then they will suffer as the star has suffered. The whole poem exalts the speaker as prophet, as the guide of the people, comparable to “Wind whose song” above, except where the significance there is the triumph led by the magus, here it is the defeat of those rejecting the magus. There is no need here to enter biographical speculation – it is irrelevant to the current project (though not uninteresting, given the overlap in prophetic personage between Khlebnikov and his poetic texts, e.g. “Zangezi”).
Now, lastly, “Incantation by Laughter”, one of Khlebnikov’s most famous poems (first a transliteration, then a translation):
INCANTATION BY LAUGHTER
O laugh it out, you laughsters!
O laugh it up, you laughsters!
So they laugh with laughters, so the laugherize delaughly.
O laugh it up belaughably!
O the laughingstock of the laughed-upon – the laugh of belaughed
O laugh it out roundlaughingly, the laugh of lauged-at laughians!
Laughify, laughicate, laugholets, laugholets,
O laugh it out, you laughsters!
O laugh it up, you laughsters!27
Now it’s obvious to anyone, that this poem is mimetic nonsense, and nonsense is of course a form of semantic distortion. The model of this poem is ‘laugh’ (smekh - laughter). This model is repeatedly actualised in a myriad of variations, all derived from the model. In fact, the whole poem is one big joke! This is because it’s laughing at the idea of semantics – both mimetic and semiotic. Mimetically, it’s laughable nonsense, significantly, it’s non-sense, nothing, a big joke actualised primarily as a laugh. Consider the purpose of a joke – to evoke laughter. Similarly, Khlebnikov here entitles his piece an ‘incantation’ – a linguistic piece of magic, which by the repetition of laugh-derived words, seeks to evoke laughter in its audience. It differs from a joke in its means, but not its end.
Concluding, we might note that Khlebnikov’s long poems and supersagas have been left to the side. This is for two reasons: long poems tend to generate their own mimetic narratives; and the supersagas are too involved for interesting analysis in such a small space. Regardless of this, three concluding comments can be made Firstly, the application of Riffaterre’s esoteric science of poetry relies not so much on meticulous observation and picking poems apart, as on intuitive understandings of underlying structures of poetic texts, allowing the reader to grasp how the text actualises the matrix in a multiplicity of ways. If reading “is a dialectic between text and reader”,28 then the more difficult the poem, the greater the leaps to be made between the thrusting ungrammaticalities of the poem, and eventually these flying leaps of semiotic integration will become leaps of faith.
Secondly, Khlebnikov’s main aspect of interest for Riffaterrians is his use of creation and distortion as forms of semantic indirection. His creation involves breaking standard forms of non-linguistic semantic construction, to create new and interesting ones. His distortions, which have much in common with the difficult French poets Riffaterre picks apart in The Semiotics of Poetry, involve lots of nonsense, ambiguity and contradiction, indeed the field of Khlebnikov’s poetry is the field of ‘word-play’ – puns, phonetic frolics, palindromes, neologisms, etc..
Thirdly, there remains the large field of Khlebnikov’s supersagas for fruitful investigation, and it would yield a great deal of insights to conduct such a study. For now, though, it is enough to take comfort in the not so impenetrable nature of Khlebnikov’s verse.