Lissa Tyler Renaud
Editor, “Kandinsky Anew” series
The world of early 20th century experimental poetry was lively indeed. The Cubo-Futurists caused a scandal in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1913; the Dadaists caused a scandal in Zurich, Switzerland in 1916. The Italian Marinetti, later the German Schwitters, and a host of other individual poets, painter-poets, sculptor-poets, musician-poets, dancer-poets—all these wanted to challenge conventional language in one way or another within a few years of each other. They variously stretched, dissolved, fractured, fragmented, abstracted, condensed, purified, sped up and tore down words, their meanings, their sounds, their rhythms, and more. They each had strategies, priorities, philosophies that were different from, the same as, overlapping with, or all or none of these. They each started earlier than some and later than others.
But Kandinsky stands alone. His poetry influenced countless others but he was most influenced by his own inner voice—a voice he experienced as having far more reality than most people experience theirs. Whatever it was, what he called his inner voice has now been widely heard for over a century, not least through his singular poetry.
The poems appear here in English for the first time, in translations or renderings done for this entry.
Peace and War: Some Unknown Poems by Kandinsky
Jelena Hahl-Fontaine and Lissa Tyler Renaud
I. A NEW POETRY
Kandinsky wrote poetry that was new when he wrote it and is still new now. He approached the matter of breaking ground in language from a variety of directions, some of which we highlight below.
Between 1909 and 1911, Kandinsky wrote a series of 38 groundbreaking poems, to appear with 56 woodcuts, together creating a “musical” unity. These were entitled Zvuki. They were meant to be published in Russia in 1911, a publication that has been described as “ill-fated.” The Russian title for the volume was translated to Klänge for the 1912 German version, published in 1913 with the final, more “abstract” poems added. This is the version we have come to know, in the title’s English translation, as Sounds.
Here is one of Kandinsky’s daring prose poems from Sounds, a remarkable departure from Russia’s 19th century “Golden Age” verse poetry. Already he is looking for language that will do something other than “generate meaning.”
Everyone lay on his own horse, which was unsightly and indecent. It is in any case better if a thick bird sits on a not-his skinny twig with the little trembling living leaf. Anyone can kneel (whoever cannot, learns how). Can everyone see the spires? Open the door! Or the tissue-fold will blow the roof off!
In the following final section of a longer poem in Sounds, “Chalk and Soot,” we see one example of Kandinsky’s experiments with the repetition of a word. In his 1910 treatise, On the Spiritual in Art, he famously noted that “the frequent repetition of a word… deprives the word of its original external meaning.”
CHALK AND SOOT
How slowly he walks.
And every spring the violets grow. Scented, scented. They always have a scent.
Will they never stop having that scent. Or they will?
Would you prefer it if he had a white face and black lips, as if they had been smeared, drawn, made up with soot? Would you, prefer that?
Or is there someone who will say to the man, is perhaps already saying: Faster, faster, faster.
Faster, faster, faster, faster, faster.
It is interesting that later this “scent” returns, with Kandinsky’s clear allusion to Baudelaire’s 1857 “Les Fleures du Mal” (“The Flowers of Evil”). In what appears to be the outline for a new poem cycle, the first line, “Flowers Without Scent,” is followed by five words, each underlined.
Flowers Without Scent
Kandinsky did not publish or date the following three short poems, but they were certainly all written in early 1914. They were published in Russian and German for the first time in 2007 (Gesammelte Schriften, Munich). Here he is playing with the non sequitur and the enigmatic.
It’s not wise if everything is wise. Something has to be wrong there. And when everything is right, then it is certainly not wise. Many people stand while walking.
To open a door is easy.
To close a door is difficult. Especially
when there is a draft.
And when is there no draft?
From here to there three and a half.
From there to here four and one-eighth.
Oh, the pain! The pain of it!
Why measure the sun?
From here-in to there-in seventy-nine and three-elevenths.
In other experiments: there is a “poem” with the nonsensical, alliterative title, “Umestny um,” which features an accumulation of Russian words all with the first letter “u.” They make up such a cockamamie sequence that one can only imagine how much fun Kandinsky had selecting and combining them.
Later in 1914, he mirrors in language the same “reduction” he employs in his paintings of the time: words become syllables, then single sounds. In one poem, we find several words with the “s” sound—mässig, Essig, and so forth—and then the last line is nothing but a single “s.”
We have two examples of his taking words apart, under the title “Syllables.” We are quoting the first one in German, but it serves very well as a “sound poem”—that is, enjoyable without knowing what it “means.”
Ei! Eichhörnchen! Ei - eich - Hörnchen.
Ei - ei ! - ch - - h - örn - chen!
Ei - ei - ch - h. - örn - ch - en!!
In English, it would be something like this:
Sq [Sk]! Squirrel! Sq – squir – uirrel!
Sq! – sq! – uir - - r- rr- rel!
Sq – sq - ui - r- rr - e - l!
In the second poem, the words are almost identical in German and English, so it needed only a slight adjustment to make it an English version:
Lily! Look: a Lilliputian!
Lily! Lilli - putian!
Lily - Lilli - pu – tian.
Lily ! Do you guess “pu” lily? Tian?
Li - li - li - li - pu! - tian!!
An: n - n - n - n - n …….. !!!
II. POEMS IN DARK TIMES
It is clear from poems Kandinsky wrote in the months leading up to World War I that he felt the threat of some catastrophe. It is little known that, in the spring of 1914, Kandinsky threw his weight behind a group of people working to influence leading political and cultural figures to prevent war. Central to the group were the Serbian Dimitri Mitrinović and the German Erich Gutkind (pseudonym “Volker”). In her magnum opus, Kandinsky (Rizzoli 1993), our illustrious co-author, Jelena Hahl-Fontaine, quoted a July 1914 letter Kandinsky wrote to drum up support for this organization, “committed to peace and international understanding”:
… Mitrinović is planning a widespread international association—not in any officially recognized sense of course—with the aim of putting important people in touch with each other; those who live in the present but are concerned about the future, whose souls and minds are fixed on “tomorrow.” All the forces that have achieved something significant… should be involved in this great and organically founded effort.
Kandinsky goes on to describe the group’s plans for an almanac, conferences, lectures, and a journal to be in French, German, and Russian. Just days later, in another letter, he wrote saying “the whole of Europe [is] under the imminent threat of war.”
Around that same time, Kandinsky wrote poems that have a current of tragedy coursing beneath the words. He dated these poems with more than usual care, even recording the exact day for poems he wrote between February and May 1914.
In the “Three Rooms,” here in English for the first time, there is a palpable sense of dread, but the source of it is unknown or unstated. A cat sleeps as if dead; a canary is caged in a room with an overturned table; a mouse is in a room with a crippled table, frightened for its life in a trap:
In one room, in the middle, stood a square, heavy kitchen table. Lying on it was a gray-yellow striped cat, with her legs stretched long as if stuck into her body. She slept as deeply as if she were dead. In another room next to it, hanging high from the ceiling, a small cage where a canary was sitting. He fluffed up his feathers and looked like a ball. In front of the window a table varnished black was lying on its back.
Next to it in the third room was a light mahagony table leaning against the wall on three legs. The fourth leg was lying not far off. In the middle of the room stood a braided mousetrap. In it was sitting a mouse, totally still, wet with the sweat of fear.
When the war started in the hot summer of 1914, as a Russian citizen in Germany, Kandinsky became an enemy alien. Like all foreigners at the time, he was given 48 hours to leave the country. Specifics of his ordeal have not made it into the Kandinsky literature, but we have one anecdote from what occurred, recorded by a witness: Lyubov Gurevich was a longtime friend and editor traveling with the illustrious theatre pioneer, Konstantin Stanislavsky, who was on tour in Germany with his company. When war was declared, Stanislavsky’s entire group was forcibly ejected from Germany at gunpoint. In Elena Polyakova’s Stanislavsky (pub. in Russian 1977, in English 1982, USSR), Gurevich tells this story of the harrowing ordeal that Stanislavsky and Kandinsky endured together:
The train slowly meandered from the Eastern border to the Southern—Swiss—border, where there were yet more grueling delays, more questioning, searches, a meeting with a group of Russians detained there which included the abstractionist Kandinsky, a long-time resident of Munich. As the Russians were about to be dispatched by ship to Switzerland, a dapper pastor had the embarkation canceled by holding forth to a German officer about a dinner for thirty ordered on behalf of the Russians, which would be wasted if they left as planned. As the precise Germans could not allow food for thirty to go uneaten, the departure was postponed. It transpired that the pastor, a friend of Kandinsky’s, had invented the meal on the spur of the moment so that the Russians would be transported not on a German boat, which the Swiss might reject, but on the neutral Swiss vessel that followed.
Knowing that this experience was on Kandinsky’s horizon makes this next poem, “Secret Meaning,” even more prophetic in its tragic tone, written as it was just months before the war inflicted panic and disruption on the hordes of people who were displaced. Orders, tears, gatherings, preparations and provisions on the fly, “trembling in clumps,” general uncertainty, disorientation and dehumanization—these are the world of this unsettling work:
Thousands of worms gave in to the way one did things. They obeyed the new order with tears. Here some of them move in pairs to the right and left and also up and down. Many gather in sausage-like masses for the walk. In long sausage-like masses others are able to make many circles in the air and grab some necessities. And not so many tremble in clumps and measure time in beats. And the others, not so numerous, grind good nourishment into sackforms. They like to do that. They do not care what they make. Whither leads them the pressed new order. Is that the crown or the prison?
III. POEMS AS ART
Kandinsky’s support for Mitrinović’s peace group was important and meaningful, but it would be misleading to suggest he was overall very politically involved. He was a citizen of a historical moment in which heightened political awareness was an unavoidable given, but the nature of his struggles remained in the realms of art and the spirit. His brief, three-part poem “Springtime” in Sounds ends with this glimpse into battles not fought on the battlefield:
Dip your fingers in the boiling water.
Boil your fingers.
Let your fingers sing of pain.
In December of 1913, Kandinsky sent a painting to collector Sir Michael Sadler, who named it “War in the Air.” Theda Shapiro quotes Sadler in her 1976 Painters and Politics: “A year later, by which time we had got only too familiar with bombs and fighting planes, I wrote to Kandinsky in Sweden to ask whether, when he painted the picture, he had foreboded war. ‘Not this war,’ he replied, ‘I had no premonition of that. But I knew that a terrible struggle was going on in the spiritual sphere…’” When the painting was later bought by Arthur Jerome Eddy, Kandinsky said again that the sense of violence in the picture “could probably be explained by the constant war talk that had been going on throughout the year.”
He struck the same note in a letter to Mitrinović about his increasingly tenuous participation in the peace initiative activities. In Hahl-Fontaine’s Kandinsky: “A few things have become clear to me. This ‘becoming clear’ about being an artist has little to do with reason. It belongs in the domain of the spiritual life, which needs the most favorable environment so that what has ‘become clear’ can become corporeal. Otherwise it is a waste of time and reduces the artist to a criminal.” Underlining his point, he wrote: “My inner voice will… let me know what I have to do.”
Ultimately, the wars that Kandinsky fought were carried out in the non-material world, the landscapes and textures of which we find expressed in his utterly unique poems.
* * *
Poem translations by Hahl-Koch and Renaud.
“Flowers Without Scent,” translation by Philip Gerstein with Hahl-Fontaine.
The last two poems benefitted from consultation with Lee Edgar Tyler.