Pavel Arseniev: Poetry and Prose

by Pavel Arseniev, translated by the Cement Collective

READY-WRITTENS (2009-2015)


Translator’s Note

The connection between these words was, perhaps, made at another time. -L. Wittgenstein


King’s College is on fire.

Don’t talk nonsense.

What is the object of your desire?

I want Mr. Smith to walk into this room.

Are you sure that that is exactly what you want?

Of course, I am bound to know what I want.

Don’t talk nonsense.

I want for this and that to happen.


That which you believe in is not a fact.


I feel fear.

I am afraid of something, but I don’t know what.

Wherever you were, you must get

from wherever it was

to the place from which you left.


Why do you assume that your toothache corresponds to the fact

that you hold your cheek.


There most certainly exist entirely determined actions,

ideas about

another person sensing pain.


I was never taught

to correlate the depth of water underground

with the sensations in my hand,

but when I feel a certain tension,

the words “3 feet” immediately appear

in my consciousness.


Well, of course red exists,

and you are bound to see it,

if you are capable of imagining.


An increase in pressure on my eyes

produces red images.


King’s College is on fire.

Don’t talk nonsense.


I want this and that to happen.


In that case what a strange mechanism

our desire must be,

if we can desire that

which will never be fulfilled.


Of course, that’s not all,

but you can come up with more

complicated cases, if you want.


But we are bound

we will speak further

of the significance of the expression

“forgetting the meaning of a word”


Translator’s note:

This was actually never







Artem Aleksandrovich

at an unidentified time

in an unidentified place



without intent to distribute

for personal use

acting willfully

aware of the unlawful character of his actions




from an unidentified person

for an unidentified sum

a plastic bag

with a substance

of vegetative origin

and green

which was the narcotic drug marijuana

the total dry mass of the substance was eleven point zero grams


which is in fact a large amount


after which

putting it in his carrier bag

in the same way



without intent to distribute

carefully keeping on his person

an illegally purchased narcotic drug

Artem Aleksandrovich


to travel

across the territory of the Dzerzhinksy neighborhood



Slightly Edited (from the article of a critic)


I am a poet and an activist,
desperately resembling S in the movie “ Sh-Sh”:

“So young and already (or despite it?) trying.”
One ought to be, of course, the most lonely
or the most miserable

to respond so critically.
Especially because in our case,
they don’t talk at all about the “artist”
but exclusively about the young activist,
the citizen, and of course, the poet—
although the texts for the show tell the opposite story.

It’s unclear whether I really have artistic ambitions.

It wouldn’t be a bad thing, of course,

why not and who cares,

if there really are very few young artists.

And I, whose articles are full of the words “now” and “today”
at the beginning of almost every paragraph,
rather pragmaticly use
any chance for Applications.
The life of Noam Chomsky, clearly, has become a reference point for me.

My art is becoming a space for large-scale installations,

as a rule, with an eye to a certain socio-political topicality.

Between the white foam letters unevenly cut by me
you could walk and take pictures; it’s effective.
The carving style resembles the most famous Soviet font,
but the first line, the biggest “THAT”
greeting the audience on the threshold, of course, brings to mind
the classical techniques of Erik Bulatov.

I am a young poet-activist-citizen,
and I hasten to use any airspace
for language exercises,
asserting the need for a direct link
between life and art,
and I choose for my exhibition
cute lines from the work of Soviet art-dissident,
whose works would fail to inspire tenderness
in only the most indifferent and callous child.

“The machine of irony,” surfacing in relation to my poetic texts,
rounds off the traces of megalomania of the Soviet past.
Here, in a highly witty and ironic form,
I declare my guilt in this and that.
This kind of pretentiousness evokes a smile,
evoking indulgence—for both the author and ourselves.



In Response to a Provocative Exhibition of Contemporary Critical Art


an occupiers’ exhibition

exaggerating the inferiority of Russians

and humiliating on national grounds,

impressing upon Russians that we don’t exist,

that we are nobody

that those blockhead occupiers are better than Russians

and that Russia doesn’t belong to Russians

and that Russian shouldn’t have their own country,

all these blockheads were blockheads before and stayed that way

because that hyped-up Dzhugashvili Pushkin

recognized by somebody as the founder of the Russian literary language

I’m not hot or cold,

for me that language

is fuck all necessary,

because I’m pure-blooded Russian, a native speaker

and I don’t need any of his contrived variants 

from some kind of dirty troglodytes,

because anyway that Pushkin

had no right to mangle my language

much less tell me how to speak it,

and in general all those phony blockhead celebrities 

took the places of really talented Russians

whose names those lumps in power try as hard as they can to erase or just opress

like for example the artist Vasilyev

their presence or absence won’t make Russians any poorer,

we’re a full-fledged independent nation

we don’t need

any of those nits

phony geniuses

much less people who deform and suppress our identity

and national consciousness,

it’s like they’re trying to take Russia away from Russians

liquidating our identity and subjecthood

declaring us a brand, some non-existant thing

for the use of parasites from other nations

when it suits them pretending to be useful to us,

why the fuck would I consider Pushkin a talent

if that carrion hyped up by Jews

is presented in every way as an argument

for my national inferiority and in order to erase my identity,

what other talent, that rotten carrion

like all these combined anonymous liars,

telling us lies straight to our faces

in a few words alone, contradictory facts,

we Russians don’t need anything from all these perverts

bloating their perversion into culture cults,

Russians will only get clean morally and grow intellectually

by getting back to their own consciousness

if all that Russophobic parasitic abomination gets wiped out,

the pus, ballast, and shit of Russia



My Friends’ Words (cycle)


Oleg’s Words

on the one hand it’s clear

that we were unripe

but now we’re so-so

which is why one should decide once and for all

one should be marginal

every possible bonus that can be expected

intellectual life

has already been sampled by all of us

not in full measure, but enough,

a taste of it

and so it’s time to be marginal

i’m sure, yes, marginal


Lisas words

can you imagine,

she just has to this day a sore neck,

and she goes to a fortune-teller,

who says to her: “Go

get an MRI fast,”

and she asks her:

am I talented or not,
I have to work in theater

or not, you know,

and she just needs to fix her neck


Oleg’s Words (2)

but you would have liked a confession

well i think there should be a book

at the very least from harvard university press

so that it would legitimize everything

and a prize, say, in honor of hannah arendt

which was last received by zygmunt bauman

never to receive one again

these are the signs of distinction which

would finally allow me to behave

utterly without compromise


Sveta’s Words

sometimes we get together with our friends

and suddenly one suggests we get a little drunk

and watch some kind of arthouse film

and then another one of us

says that he has some grass,

and after this begins to cite the poems of auden

and then another one begins to cut a line

and puts on this music, you know, the postunderground type

and at that point sveta finally says:

don’t you think that’s enough

and I too sometimes want to say

don’t you think that’s enough



The Pragmatic Paradox as a Means of Innovation in Contemporary Poetic Speech


Is the evolution of poetic forms at all legible to prosody, when the new forms are in no way based on rhythm, but borrow their effects from the domain of speech? A feeling of guilt on the part of the traditional poetry scholar forces him “to open up to the contemporary,” to misspeak about rock poetry and internet poems as the exceptions that prove the rule (which boils down to the corpus of M.L. Gasparov). But of course, in these domains, versification is actually preserved in its most inertial forms. What is to be done with those specific (and hence harboring the very possibility of specification) cases in which poetry openly and deliberately refuses to collaborate with rhyme and other traditional formal indicators of verse, and intrudes into an area fundamentally outside of the grasp of traditional prosody? If even Gasparov admitted that it would be better to translate the numerous traditions in different epochs of European poetry into free verse, that means that he acknowledged the existence of some poetic substance that can’t be apprehended by quantitative poetry studies; which, incidentally, it is entirely possible to conceptualize. The point is not novelty alone. As is well known, many experimental forms, like combinatorial poetry for example, are perfectly amenable to “digitization,” soothing the ego of the expert in quantitative methods of prosody. But if we are able to recognize that the loosening of meter towards freer verse reflects significant trends, and that certain fundamental changes are taking place in the very nature of the poetic, isn’t it time to finally stop tallying, and to start worring about  how verse theory will survive once everything is not only completely shattered (as in free verse), but based more generally on some other grounds?

And what if this transformation will take place, not according to the soothing scenario of elite detachment, justified by the need to invent a future language in laboratory-like conditions, where all others will also be invited (although, unlike the number invited, that of the select will remain small, as we know from Dmitry Kuzmin’s anti-democratic argument about the identical print runs of poetry books across time), but through the dissolution or the mixing of poetic with everyday speech, whereby the former becomes more and more comprehensible to non-specialist consumers of verbal productions. For the interesting cases are less those in which it is not clear “who speaks,” how the “subject is constructed,” or how the proverbial aphasic speech is syntactically arranged, etc., but those where we face something that can be evaluated simultaneously as verse and as everyday speech.

Since the time of the Formalists, a central literary task has been to find a way of differentiating “poetic” language from everyday speech, which confronts it remotely, resists it in every utterance, or even threatens to overwhelm it in certain extreme experiments. There have been several kinds of solutions to this task—ranging from the absorption of marginal thematic and stylistic zones into a thereby galvanized high literature, to attempts to grant linguistic competence to the “tongueless street” itself,[1] to delegate to it the right of expression. What remained inviolable was the very division into material that needed to be made literary, in one way or another, and the method used to do so; and therefore the carriers of poetic and everyday language always remained divided.

Contemporary Russian poetry in its normal aggregate state produces a consistent defense of its institutional boundaries, accompanied by a regular violation of formal boundaries. Newly grasped domains of social speech and modes of expression (street language, internal or egocentric speech, the paratactical language of numerous special states of consciousness, etc.) are co-opted in the process. At best, this practice is described as “implicitly political”: liberating the text itself; multiplying ways of reading and means of understanding; disavowing the repressive construction of the addressee; dissipating its intentionality as—once again—repressive; and in the end, as soon as it becomes completely literary, directed at nobody.

Today, common sense casts poetry as a wager, still primarily constituted through maximum distancing from the profane speech of everyday life—a scenario of privileged language that has been proven across the centuries, having lost in the last century some stability of reference and subjectivity of speech, but not priestly ambitions and their related social habits. Consumers of such language behavior can always be found—at the very least among those who were oriented towards the same thing, but have been less successful in establishing their right to produce privileged language. An opposing practice demotes poetic utterance to the very bottom of the verbal and medial mainstream; performs lyrical work with linguistic and intellectual cliches, hoping to move right through them into the present or even future of language. Within these coordinates there exist two tendencies that have most clearly declared their resistance to the status quo: for convenience, let’s call them the analytic and the synthetic.

The analytical tendency focuses on dismantling “obvious meanings” by breaking up conventional syntax. The synthetic tendency, by contrast, consists of overturning “the Other’s” “finished” words, or free indirect discourse, turning to social heteroglossia as productive material. These two tendencies, respectively, aspire to develop the “zaum” (trans-sense) or conceptualist lines of the Russian-language poetic tradition (which seem to harmonize with OBERIU poetics in between avant-gardes), and constitute the coordinate axes within which contemporary Russian-language poetry already exists (although this is not yet universally acknowledged).

The analytical tendency appears more reflexive, thanks to its distance from the immediacy of political struggle and social heteroglossia (N. Safonov); the synthetic requires advocacy in the form of substantial cognitive enterprise—on the part of the author, or from critical authorities (R. Osminkin). But whether in the division into enigmatic and meta-language, or in holy foolery, instrumentally legitimized by means of theoretical commentary, we again see a kind of division of linguistic labor into the properly poetic and the critical, which at any rate resembles a pastiche of the first and second avant-gardes.

Thus, in my view, the poetic texts that have the largest stock of novelty today are built on what can be called the pragmatic paradox, which gives a poem the properties of a speech event, a self-fulfilling prophecy, or an archive that unpacks itself. It is not enough for such a poem to be an herbarium of words, marking the author as the adept of prestigious discursive usage, nor to simply “delegate the word to the Other/oppressed.” This situation requires (self-)critique of the utterance’s ability, included in its very production; we need sessions of verbal action and their subsequent exposure; today there isn’t enough (self-)referentiality about the utterance’s own means of production. These are the experimental problems that are to be resolved by pragmatic poetics and texts that rebel, as it were, against being read in traditional institutional circumstances. Only texts that invent anew each time a pragmatic frame for their realization, that are estranged precisely from this level of speech’s function, have the right to be called experimentally poetic. We can cite as an example—among those we’ve already analyzed as examples of pragmatic artistic expression[2]The Debut Book of a Young Poet by Nikita Sungatov, which at the level of title already manifests a new, provocative, direct, and tautological means of action. Characteristically, not only the name (i.e. the very first speech act that confronts the reader), but also the book’s last text has the character of pragmatic paradox.  It is a single-line poem that for obvious reasons can only work as the last in a book or a poetry reading:  


And then one more poem.


A leaflet read at a poetry reading instead of verse, and causing a scandal namely in that context (but noticed by no-one at a rally—see the Osminkin case study[3]); a poem reporting on the circumstances of its reading and criticizing either the speaker or the listeners (see the Nugatov case study[4]); a poetic text, disguised in a utilitarian context, but displacing and rendering it schizophrenic with the help of an indivisible poetic remainder. The repertoire of subversive speech acts is fundamentally open.

We’ll add a few reflections, dangerously close to the genre of self-case. The common recourse to political material, which cannot go ignored, rejected, is balanced by the pragmatic tendency to subject itself to a specific method of verbal distancing and rhetorical processing, thereby preserving a critique of ideology as derivative of the combination of signs. The difference between pragmatic poetics and conceptualism consists then of the first’s materialized address to a measure of political passion, reconstructed from the rubble of text bricolage; i.e., an attempt to preserve a measure of the political, so too a measure of rhetorical sophistication (which may have been lacking on the level of dispatch in the poetics of direct speech). If you will, these are speech paradoxes and ambiguities in the service of revolution. Unfortunately or not, neither the “final truth,” nor nominalist skepticism alone are capable today of firing up the mechanism of estrangement.

When taking such a manifesto-like tone, it is always necessary to question one’s own poetic practice—how does it fare in relation to the dialectic of method and material? Or, in other words, exactly how documentary and how fabricated are ready-writtens? As much as is necessary in order to preserve the material’s flagrant quality, having demonstrated the presence of a methodological shift, the reworking of the text. Sometimes it’s enough to simply break a certain text into lines, so that in a given pragmatic situation it becomes poetic; sometimes it requires more laborious work or speculative effort.

However, there still remains here a fundamentally unavoidable element of chance, born of a reckless passion for the material, as well as resistance to it, and consequently with the same hopes as in the avant-garde’s rejection of instrumental reason. And although, as Valery put it (and as Debord would have been ready to agree), “an accident can be arranged” or accompanied by heightened attention, which is also a form of its production (in surrealism), in general it “renounces the constructive principle in favor of passive-expectant susceptibility, and thus cannot be accepted by avant-garde theory.” It also cannot be entirely rejected, however, as it contains a huge potential for flagrantness in the material. For this reason, we need a materialist theory of accident.[5]

The illusion of hazard objectif, spontaneously existing in the world and only perceived by the artist, is opposed to the concept of the produced accident—as in the case of its immediate discovery in Tachisme or Action Painting (in which the  arbitrariness of empty subjectivity appears in the place of the dialectics [of freedom] of vision and [the resistance of] material); so too in the case of the indirectly produced accident. The latter is based on a most precise calculation; however concerning only the means (method), but keeping the result of the material processing unforeseen. This allows us to see that serial music or concrete poetry in Adorno’s description are thereby heirs to the Literature of Fact as described by Tretyakov and Vertov’s Kino-Truth, catching “life unawares,” but applying “dialectical montage” to it. This “dialectical montage,” inherited by the neo-avant-garde as well, differs from the composition techniques of the past in that it introduces accidental material into the work, like pierced holes in a representational system based on the “realistic reflection” of reality, thereby giving the entire prouction a different status—no longer references to reality, but pieces of it.[6]

By this means, the establishment of an inorganic production (Bürger) suggests a technique of working with the material that allows for the manipulation of meanings, arising in concrete life situations, as empty signs, acquiring (anti-)artistic value only through use, in a gesture of assigning. The decontextualization and re-combination of isolated elements, parallel with granting them meaning that isn’t derived from their original context (what is usually called montage), does not mask the fact of the production’s constructedness, its status as an artificial formation, but nonetheless insists on the facticity of the used material.

Thus, in the case of the ready-written, the pragmatic paradox arises at the moment that the “weed” Internet text begins working, aesthetically framed by its use, but at the same time—at the level of speech content-—it continues to bear utilitarian signs, creating a double map of discursive distribution. The communicative intention of first authorship sloughs off and what emerges is an unsolicited artistic effect at the level of the speech act (or, we might say, located in the eye of the beholder). Or conversely, it forces the communicative value of fragments of poetic texts onto banners at a demonstration, while preserving the smell of art.[7] As a regulatory ideal, we might admit the creation—-by dint of that very rattling—of an infrastructure for opening up the aesthetic; absorbing into the world of cultural values ​​potentially any speech product or media language, instead of producing attractive or mysterious, but one way or another exceptional (and for that reason alone preserving the auratic effect) objects of linguistic design. Such a statement is not, strictly speaking, utilitarian; it retains all the attributes of the artistic, to be sure: closed in on itself, or more precisely, on the pragmatic situation of its reading, it includes the recipient’s reaction, [8] but for all that sooner exposes itself to dismissal than allow narcissism.

The subjective, the safety of which it is common to worry about when claims are made to the innovative use of language, solidifies in the given case into the very gesture of assignment (poetic subjectivity has always existed in very specific forms—whether “cursed poets” or authors of the Language School tradition). The flip side of such a transformation of poetic subjectivity, however, is the growing attractiveness of meta-reflection about the language of poetry or the creation of poetic objects (as a practice opposed to the writing of yet another cycle of lyrical poems). A wager on the production of the methods of speech production themselves inevitably leads to less inclination towards normative creativity, which is limited by the parameters of publication.

The intuition of pragmatic poetics is fueled by the fact that, today, such a large number of poetic texts are produced as will never be read (regardless of their so-called quality). This renders expedient the refusal to participate in the quantitative competition in favor of arriving at a qualitative method that will let us break out of this “waste-paper Auschwitz,”[9] pushing to the surface some new method of speech production, which at the same time will pull the voices of many people into the future, and not only the usual person of the artist.


–translations by the Cement Collective



[1] Cf. Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Cloud in Trousers.”

[2] Arseniev P., “The Contemporary Russian Poet Emerges and as if Nudges Us: Towards a Pragmatics of Artistic Expression.” New Literary Review 124 (2013).


[3] “Roman Osminkin chose a text that he said had affected him most in recent years. It turned out to be a leaflet demanding rights for ‘mental laborers’ and for the educational sphere in particular. It’s important to note that the rules behind the “Tell-Tale Heart” readings in no way specify the nature of the texts to be read by poets during the course of constructing their readerly backgrounds; accordingly, the text read by the poet Osminkin did not claim the status of a poem, which in this case could have been assigned the calming formal designation of ‘found poetry.’ Thus the usual question during discussion about ‘artistic processing’ is  rendered meaningless, as estrangement took place not at the level of the thematic and rhetorical resources of the text itself, but at the level of the event. “Artistic processing,” if you will, in this case consisted of what was chosen for reading where....A similar situation of using resources in the context of speech events renders meaningless the question that we still have to deal with: is it a work of art or political agitation. Here political subjectivization consists not of personalized instances of knowledge and expression, but rather flickers as an opportunity thanks to the displacement of the pragmatic framework of poetic expression’s realization.” Arseniev, Ibid.

[4] “For a long time, Nugatov was aiming at the destruction of not only conventional literary devices, but the established rules of the literary behavior, the modes of action in contemporary poetry....Nugatov sarcastically described this world as an industry not devoid of the contradictions of production, one whose ability to generalize itself rests on very shaky ground . Thus, if aestheticism usually dresses in the clothes of political non-conformism, but in fact perfectly adheres to the ideological consensus, Nugatov, shocking and insisting on the primacy of aesthetics, takes an uncompromising stance, exposing the unspoken rules of the game within literature.” Ibid.

[5] For example, in the version Yoel Regev suggests under the name of “coincidentalism.” See Regev J., “Relations from the Battlefield: Art and Conflict.” Translit 15-16 (2014): 153-156

[6] In theory, automatic writing itself can be seen as an example of a strong method imposed on absolutely random material.

[7] As it is alleged to have taken place in the case of the project “Workshop of street poster”:выставка-голос-улиц/

[8] See the lecture “More/Less than Poetry?” by Mikhail Makeev, Professor of Philology at Moscow State University”:

[9] Shalamov V., “About my Prose”:

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