Velimir Khlebnikov, who died in 1922 at the age of thirty-six, is one of the great, untranslated Russian poets of this century. Hailed by his contemporaries and by later writers and scholars as the creative genius behind the Russian Futurist movement, Khlebnikov is famous more for his inaccessibility than for the excellence of what he actually produced. Even Russians are generally baffled by him.
Now, in a powerful American rendition, we are given access to the strange and beautiful world of Khlebnikov, “the word’s wild highwayman.” Trained in the natural sciences and mathematics and by temperament an artist, Khlebnikov thought he had discovered the Laws of Time and Tables of Destiny, by which enlightened humans could live in harmony with themselves and with nature. He coined the terms “Futurian” and “Presidents of Planet Earth” for himself and his friends, and he devoted all of his short, restless life to finding a language appropriate to his vision. Experiments with words became magical paths to a reinvigorated future, and produced some of the most extraordinary poems in the Russian language.
These goals and researches were variously embodied as well in stories, plays, and visionary essays in which Khlebnikov advances architectural plans for mobile cities, a new alphabet based on universal meanings of sounds, and communication by way of vast television networks. The result is poetry of startling originality, modernity, and linguistic virtuosity—a true challenge to translators and one that has been met brilliantly here by Paul Schmidt and Charlotte Douglas.
The King of Time is a representative sampling of Khlebnikov’s writings, taken from the translation of his complete works prepared under the auspices of the Dia Art Foundation. It includes many pieces, among them the full text of the astounding poem-play Zangezi, never before translated. General readers will be introduced to the legendary Khlebnikov, and cognoscenti will applaud the inventiveness of the rendering.
At times [Khlebnikov’s] verse sounds like what birds presumably heard from St. Francis. Under his pen, nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions undergo mutations as mind-boggling as those of a cell hit by immense radiation. Beautiful or grotesque, the results are often memorable…diamonds of an unparalleled splendor.
[Khlebnikov] was surely one of the most remarkable practitioners in language who has ever written. He seems to inhabit the very heart of his language, exploring its roots, making it send up new and wonderful growths… The foreigner who knows Russian can glimpse this and admire the marvels of Khlebnikov’s language, though never with the inwardness of the native speaker. But what of those who approach him through translation? Can they come to see the importance and beauty of his work? This is the challenge taken up by Paul Schmidt, the translator of the proposed complete works, and he rises to it nobly… In this volume we are given the extraordinary ‘supersaga’ Zangezi, in which the languages of birds and of gods, of prophecy and of street banter, join with ‘beyonsense’ sound poetry (zaum), and large visions of historical change to produce a summa, a kind of crazier Zarathustra. That Schmidt can deal so confidently with this bodes well for his larger enterprise… A fine achievement.
Aiming to produce a ‘new text’ rather than an imitation of the original, [Schmidt] has explored his own language in the same spirit in which Khlebnikov burrowed like a mole into the Russian word. Schmidt’s inventiveness often rivals the Russian of the original.
The King of Time…represents a deft feat of translation… It offers readers the chance to imagine, experience and restore the full analogy between pictorial and verbal creation.
Modern Russia’s most brilliant, imaginative, and eccentric poet, Khlebnikov produced a body of literature that still amazes. Combining features of the avant-garde (which he vigorously promoted with the Cubo-Futurists) and a scholarly interest in ancient Slavic roots and folklore, his work is a complex fabric appealing to the intellect, the imagination, the Russian national tradition, the ear (and often the eye), and the reader’s sense of humor and the bizarre… Paul Schmidt [has] produced a brilliant tour de force—a collection of poetry, prose fiction, declarations, and the theatrical ‘supersaga’ Zangezi, that gives both the general reader and the specialist (especially those interested in modern poetry) a very good idea of the range of Khlehnikov’s extraordinary creativity.
- 270 pages
- 5-1/2 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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