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  • Russian Postmodernism: An Oxymoron?
  • Marjorie Perloff

In the wake, first of perestroika, and now of the wholesale dissolution of the Soviet Union, the temptation has been great to align the “new Russian poetry” with its American postmodernist counterpart. And since the poets who have taken the most active role in translating this hitherto samizdat poetry are those associated with the Language movement, most notably Lyn Hejinian, Michael Palmer, and Jean Day, as well as Hejinian’s collaborators (Michael Davidson, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten) on the extraordinary travel book Leningrad (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991), there is naturally a feeling on the part of the Russian poets themselves that there are serious links between the Russian and the American postmodernist avant-garde, whatever these much contested terms really mean. At a reading at New Langton Street last year, for example, when the question was put to Alexei Parshchikov and Ivan Zhdanov, “What American poets have influenced your work?” the immediate reply, I believe from Parshchikov, was “the language poets.” The same point is made by Andrew Wachtel and Parshchikov in their Introduction to Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby’s new anthology The Third Wave. “For both groups,” they write, “the source of poetic production is found in language itself, and it is with this group that, for the first time, the former underground poets have entered into active poetic dialogue . . . in the last few years these contacts have increased as the Soviet poets are actively translating and being translated by their newfound American poetic soulmates.”1

The new rapprochement between our two poetries has already made a difference, especially on this side of the globe. The influx of energy, enthusiasm, and daring, as well as a new range of source and thematic materials, surely stands behind such recent books as Lyn Hejinian’s Oxota, a long “novel in verse” on the model of Pushkin’s Evgeni Onegin and Clark Coolidge’s forthcoming Russian Nights. At the same time, the question remains, at least for me, whether the homologies between the two poetries are really as prominent as they are claimed to be. And a related question would be: given the enormous political, social, and cultural differences between our two countries over the past century, and given the long midcentury hiatus of the Stalinist years, which largely suppressed the “Modernism” to which recent developments are supposedly “post,” can we expect to find comparable poetic paradigms?

Take Dmitri Prigov’s discussion of Conceptualism in his manifesto “What more is there to say?” and Mikhail Epstein’s elaboration on it, both included in The Third Wave. The Conceptual Art movement in the U.S. dates from the late sixties; as Ursula Meyer explains it in the introduction to her handbook by that title: The function of the critic and the function of the artist have been traditionally divided; the artist’s concern was the production of the work and the critic’s was its evaluation and interpretation. During the past several years a group of young artists evolved the idiom of Conceptual Art, which eliminated this division. Conceptual artists take over the role of the critic in terms of framing their own propositions, ideas, and concepts . . . . An essential aspect of Conceptual Art is its self-reference; often the artists define the intentions of their work as part of their art. Thus, many Conceptual artists advance propositions or investigations. More specifically: the Conceptual art of Joseph Kosuth and Vito Acconci, of Hans Haacke and John Baldessari took up the challenge presented by Duchamp, “preferring the ideational over the visual” and rejecting the notion of a predominantly retinal art, where “meaning” is hidden by a set of visual signs. Art as idea, art as information or knowledge: in practice, this meant that the catalogue could become the exhibition, or indeed, that there would be no exhibition at all, only a series of writings and blueprints.

Now compare this aesthetic to Epstein’s account: What is conceptualism?. . . . Almost any artistic work . . . is conceptual insofar as there lies within it a certain conception, or the sum of conceptions, which the critic or interpreter draws out. In conceptualism this conception is demonstrably separable from the live artistic fabric...

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