Image Writing: Interpreting Contemporary Russian Visual Poetry

Tatiana Nazarenko, University of Manitoba

The interaction between visual and verbal media is not an invention of twentieth-century poets. However, it has become a major hallmark of the twentieth century's experimentation and galvanized the development of visual poetics, theoretically and practically. Early twentieth-century Russian Futurists Velemir Xlebnikov and Aleksej Kruchenyx, in their collaborative essays "Slovo kak takovoe" (The Word as Such, 1912) and "Bukva kak takovaja" (The Letter as Such, 1913) expressed a belief in the visual power of the language. In 1926, Russian Constructivist Aleksej chicherin in his theoretical work Kan-Fun advocates a literature which resorts to pictograms and graphic images in combination with mathematical and typographical symbols, musical notations, emblems and other visualized symbols, used either with or without linguistic signs. chicherin's radical ideas towards reforming the poetic means were partially realized in his own poetic compositions. However, they could not be further developed in the Stalinist Soviet reality that condemned all artistic experimentation. Nonetheless, they have not been forgotten. The search for new informative and condensed means of expression corresponding to a new technological era, have been continued in experimental Russian literature since the 1970s. As the twentieth century concluded, it became apparent that visual poetry has gained an audience and contributed considerably to the renewal of modern Russian poetic resourcefulness, as well as continuing and developing its experimental nature.

Visual poetry utilizes dual signs, comprising of two sets of signifiers and signified (verbal and visual). Following Roland Barthes' semiological concept (Barthes 1982: 222), Williard Bohn suggests that this literary product employs a linguistic sign, which constitutes a complete system in itself, functioning simultaneously as the first term of the visual sign. The latter then expands to encompass a second signified at the visual level (Bohn 1986: 5). These relationship between the visual and the verbal signs exemplified through various patterns, have remained a matter of scholarly dispute. It would be relevant to suggest that in a visual poem the iconic elements convey the semantic message, which is crucial in deciphering the work as an integral entity. Pictorial elements form meaningful units. These units are semantically related to the verbal ones, provided that the work has a verbal component. However, the concept of the privileged status of the verbal over the visual is by no means applicable to visual poetry, irrespectively whether the visual elements form a simple pattern or constitute a complex design. In the absence of the verbal component the pictorial elements assume the total responsibility for conveying semantic meaning. This meaning may be somewhat vague and obscure, or it may be intelligible.

The proposed paper investigates representative relationship patterns between the linguistic and iconic dimensions of the most current visual poetry by Russian practitioners (Dmitrij Babenko, Dmitrij Bulatov, Aleksandr Fedulov, and others). It is proposed that, although the balance between visual and verbal elements varies significantly from one composition to another, visual poems can be perceived as literary works with a high degree of interactivity and the possibility of multiple reading. The question of the aesthetic response to this literary product is discussed in the light of the theory of aesthetic response to a literary text and the theory of visual art perception. It elucidates the reception mechanism of the works with integrated textual and pictorial components, which are being produced in increasing numbers.

The importance of theoretical contribution lies in the structural and semantic analyses of largely unknown works of contemporary Russian visual poets. This approach will facilitate better understanding of the relationship between visual and verbal signs which remains a matter of dispute. The paper will have important implications for the practical and theoretical aspects of visual poetry's interpretation and aesthetic response to works with integrated textual and visual components. It can also provide a focal point for further research in the reception of contemporary visual literature, including such new forms as holographic and kinetic poetry.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. by Annette Lovers. NY: Hill and Wang, 1982.
Bohn, Williard. The Aesthetics of Visual Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.