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This review is taken from PN Review 67, Volume 15 Number 5, May - June 1989.

Raymond Cooke, Velimer Khlebnikov, a critical study (Cambridge University Press)
'A scholar! A genius! But he doesn't understand a thing about our bustling, everyday life. He's like some sort of saint... Why, for instance, hasn't he got a voice...?'

So Mayakovsky - the poet with the splendid voice and presence - once said of his fellow-Futurist Khlebnikov. In those days, the days of civil war and industrial breakdown when books were a rarity and poetry-lovers crowded into cafés and theatres to hear their bards, to be a poet without a voice was to be out of sight and out of mind. It is enough to recall descriptions of Khlebnikov's contemporaries: the ego-Futurist, elected 'King of Poetry', Igor Severyanin, crooning melodiously over swooning fans; Akhmatova's 'Spanish' shawl and contained contralto; Tsvetayeva with her White officer's kit-bag, hurling defiance; the tense figure and hollow, inward voice of Aleksandr Blok; Esenin, golden-haired blasphemer, shouting down the crowd in the open street; Andrey Bely dancing; Mandel'stam, head thrown back like a drinking bird, intoning 'the blessed words'. Against this background, it is less than surprising that Khlebnikov was considered a poets' poet. He mumbled. According to Mayakovsky, he had even been known to finish a recital with a dismissive wave of the hand: 'Well - er - yes...et cetera'.

Quite apart from his unimpressive record as a performer, Khlebnikov was indeed a difficult poet, a genuine Futurist, ahead of his time, an innovator, a creator and renewer of language, a man whose course was set towards the eventual dissolution of poetry ...


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