M. I. SHAPIR
CONCERNING ONE INTERPRETATION
OF SO CALLED INFINITIVE WRITING
Prof. Alexander Zholkovsky has called my interpretation of Shershenevich’s two poetic lines into question, and this necessitates that I explain my position in more detail than has been done by my esteemed colleague.
In a way, his hermeneutic strategy is the reverse of the creative strategy of Shershenevich, who consciously admitted a partial degrammaticalization of the poetic language. Moreover, in such cases not only verbal, but also nominal inflection suffered, as in his The Song-of-Songs (1920): Bez nego ia, kak v obruche kloun, // Do utra izvertet’sia v krovat’ = Without him, I, like a clown in a hoop, // Till morning to roll over in bed (where the last noun is in the accusative case instead of the prepositional). Apparently, in Shershenevich we find attempts at “nominative” as well as “infinitive” writing; this is why his experimental poetics can be called “the poetics of the initial forms”; cf. his Muscovite Verona (1922): Lezhat’ sugrob. Sidet’ zabory. // Vskochit’ v ogne tvoe okno = The snowbanks to lie. The fences to sit. // Your window to jump up burning. With actions, agents and circumstances presented in an extremely abstract way, such expressions allow several morphological and syntactic interpretations.
The above can be all the more applied to the lines from The Principle of Poetic Grammar (1918), which prompted the discussion: Lech’ ulicy. Sest’ palisadnik. // Vskochit’ neboskreby do zvezd = To lie down the streets. To sit down a front garden. // To jump up skyscrapers star high. Here I see three “wrapped”, syntactically distorted sentences, each of which may be “unwrapped” at will in one way or another. Their grammatical deficiency is partly recompensed thanks to their semantics and phonics. The infinitives which designate three bodily poses, correspond to the three levels of the urban landscape: to lie down the streets (lower); to sit down a front garden (middle); to jump up skyscrapers star high (upper). Moreover, the elements of each pair are linked by consonances: i) lech’ ulicy ([l’], plus a front vowel, plus a voiceless affricate); ii) sest’ palisadnik (a paronomasia, supported by folk etymology: polu-sad-nik); iii) vskochit’ neboskreby ([sk] at the beginning of the roots).
In contradistinction to Prof. Zholkovsky, I consider the analogy between Shershenevich’s To jump up skyscrapers and Kushner’s To love means firewood unjustified. In Shershenevich, the grammatical subject, if any, is expressed by a substantive, rather than an infinitive: ‘The streets is to lie down’ (rather than ‘To lie down is the streets’). The infinitives to lie down, to sit down, to jump up are even more universal than the corresponding streets, garden, skyscrapers. The particular is defined by the general, rather than vice versa: one can say that the dove is a bird, but it is impossible to say that the bird is a dove.
Prof. Zholkovsky’s main argument against my interpretation is the reference to other cases of agrammatical uses of infinitives. But the reference itself does not prove anything until one ascertains that the infinitive constructions in Shershenevich’s The Principle of Poetic Grammar and his other poems are syntactically and semantically identical. It is not easy to do so: the three sentences under discussion have important distinctive features.
Firstly, only in the example from The Principle of Poetic Grammar is there a dash between the infinitive and the nominative the only punctuation mark, which expresses the idea of occasional “equalization”. Secondly, “correction” of agrammatical constructions in accordance with the common norm produces a drastically different effect in different cases. In Shershenevich, the grammatical “correction” usually leads to syntactic, as well as semantic transparency: Na gubax pomada krasneet (< krasnet’) zareiu = On the lips the lipstick blushes (< to blush) like a dawn; Polnoch’ stiraet (< stirat’) polumraka rezinkoj // Na stranicax bul’varov proxozhix = The midnight rubs out (< to rub out) with the eraser of twilight // The passers-by on the pages of boulevards (The Song-of-Songs) and so on. But in the lines which became the subject of our polemic, the substitution of the finite forms for the infinitives does not clarify their meaning. Prof. Zholkovsky’s paraphrases are no clearer than the initial text, and the reservation concerning “virtuality” does not redeem the position: “The streets virtually lie down, a front garden virtually sits down, the skyscrapers virtually jump up”. At the same time, a reading of infinitive constructions in The Principle of Poetic Grammar as a system of grammatically abstract correlations, which are motivated semantically and phonetically, seems to facilitate understanding of Shershenevich’s passage.
Finally, it should be pointed out that I consider the proposed interpretation only one of those possible, and I am still not sure that Prof. Zholkovsky is right to deny this possibility.