A Quiet Voice of Futurism: the Poetry of Grigorij Petnikov

Karen Evans-Romaine, Ohio University

In his landmark study of Russian futurism, Vladimir Markov characterized Grigorij Petnikov as “an interesting minor poet of futurism.” Though not a member of the Centrifuge circle with which Pasternak, Sergej Bobrov, and Nikolaj Aseev were associated in the 1910s, Petnikov shared with that group the eclectic and primarily Western-oriented literary interests for which it was known. Markov has noted Petnikov’s strong interest in the work of Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis). As I have written elsewhere, Petnikov was important to Pasternak as a translator of Novalis, whose work was of fundamental importance to Pasternak’s oeuvre and world view. Petnikov published translations of a selection of Novalis’s Fragmente in 1914, followed by a translation of his Lehrlinge zu Sais in 1919. Pasternak drew not only on the Novalis originals, but on Petnikov’s translations, as subtexts for his own work.

The recent republication, in a Futurist anthology, of a selection of Petnikov’s poetry, previously published only in collections now considered rare, has made possible a study of Petnikov’s original work. This paper will examine a small group of Petnikov poems, with an emphasis on subtextual analysis according to the models of Taranovsky, Ronen, and Smirnov. I intend to show the impact of Petnikov’s translations of Novalis texts on his own poetry. Petnikov’s poems draw on subtexts both from his translations and from the Novalis originals, including his novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, of which Petnikov and Bobrov began, but never completed, a translation. While lacking the sophistication we find in the poetry of Pasternak or Xlebnikov, of whom Petnikov was considered a disciple (Markov, Al′fonsov), Petnikov’s poems provide the reader an opportunity to see a kind of futurist workshop, in which Novalis’s Naturphilosophie undergoes a transformation into poetry strongly reminiscent of Xlebnikov’s work. Marks of Novalis remain more obviously on the surface than is generally the case with Pasternak who, as Fleishman and others have pointed out, was highly skilled at covering his literary “tracks.” Petnikov’s poetry reflects subtexts from Russian Romantic poetry as well, particularly that of Tjutčev, one of whose famous lines appears in anagrammatical form in a Petnikov poem on spring. Finally, Petnikov’s verse reflects literary conversations with his colleagues in Centrifuge; I intend to show, in particular, intertextual links between his work and that of Bobrov.

While heavily laden with references to the work of his literary predecessors and contemporaries, Petnikov’s poetry has a quiet voice of its own. His literary interests reflect those of his era and thus shine additional light on the reading tastes of the time; yet his poems are also worthy of study in their own right.