THE MINUTES FROM THE MEETING OF THE MOSCOW LINGUISTIC CIRCLE
on 26 February 1923
Edited, preparation of the text and notes by M. I. Shapir
The Moscow Linguistic Circle (MLC) was the most significant body of Russian philologists in terms of the constellation of outstanding talents, its influence (although often indirect and oblique) on the development of philological thought, and in terms of its intellectual potential which remains untapped to the present day. The contribution of the Circle to the linguistics and poetics of the twentieth century, both Russian and world-wide, cannot be compared to any other. The absence of its own journals and publishing houses, plus the lack of any avant-gardist self-advertisement in the organization of the everyday intellectual life of Moscow scholars, led to the Petrograd Opoiaz becoming the symbol of Russian “Formalism”, whereas the fundamental work of the creation of the new philology was going on in the heart of the MLC. The minutes of the discussion of Maksim Maksimovich Kenigsberg’s paper entitled An Attempt at an Analysis of the Concept of “Verse”, gives us a vivid impression of the atmosphere of intellectual polemic, within which facts were interpreted and theories cast, which determined the fate of scholarship for virtually a century ahead.
In his paper Kenigsberg attempted to draw a qualitative line between poetry and prose. His main idea was that “a verse is an aesthetic and, moreover, compositional and supragrammatical form of language. It follows from this that the verse may destroy the syntagmatic, morphematic and the lexeme structure of language. Its specific feature is verse unity, which is graphically expressed by an individual line and acoustically expressed by the intonational manifestations of the line-ending”. The role of the main opponent here was filled by Boris Isaakovich Iarxo. In his opinion there are no qualitative differences between verse and prose only quantitative ones; “it is not possible to draw a sharp line between verse and non-verse, just as it is not possible to draw such a line between animal and plant. One must take into account hybrid forms”. For Iarxo, enjambements are not the rule, but the exceptions. From the point of view of both Aleksandr Il’ich Romm and Vladimir Il’ich Nejshtadt, argumentation from the graphic boundaries between verses is not sufficient to objectively differentiate between poetry and prose, inasmuch as the division into verses itself is subjective. In many cases the possibility arises of various lineal divisions of one and the same poem. Grigorij Osipovich Vinokur accepted the propositions of this paper with the greatest sympathy. He only remarked that the study of poetry graphics must be worked out in finer detail, otherwise “it may turn out that everything broken down into lines is poetry” (as Romm quipped, “a price list is also broken down into lines”).
In his conclusion Kenigsberg did not acknowledge the existence of “hybrid phenomena” and repudiated in principle the “natural science approach to language in general and in particular to the verse”, “because language is an historical phenomenon, which should not be understood through its material, but in relation to its meaning”. In the case of rhythmical and metric ambiguity the choice of one of the theoretical possibilities has to depend on the historical context.