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QOQQOON is an open access journal for visual art and materialist philosophy published on unceded territories (Vancouver, Canada) since 2018. Submissions are accepted on an ongoing basis. Edited by Leigh Tennant and Steven Cottingham.

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QOQQOON//The So-called “Formal Method”

The So-called “Formal Method”

“Opayaz” and its so-called “formal method” has become the bug-bear to the literary pontiffs and priestling dabblers in literature. This imprudent attempt to approach the poetic icons from a scientific point of view evoked a storm of indignation. A league of resistance to the formal method was formed, or, to be more exact, a “league of resistance to the removal of poetic values.”

This would not be worth mentioning, were there not several Marxists, albeit motheaten ones, among the “resistors.” This calls for an explanation.

“Opoyaz” maintains that there are no poets and writers—there is just poetry and writing. Everything that the poet writes is meaningful as a part of his general work, and is totally worthless as an expression of his “I.” If a poetic work can be comprehended as a “human document”, like an entry into a diary, it is interesting to the author, to his wife, relatives, friends and maniacs of the type who passionately seek the answer to the riddle “was Pushkin a smoker?”—and to no one else.

The poet is an expert of his own business. And that is all. But to be a good expert you must know the needs of those for whom you are working, you must live one life with them. Otherwise your work doesn’t come off and will be useless. The social role of the poet cannot be understood from an analysis of his individual qualities and habits. A mass study of the devices of the poetic craft is necessary, these devices to be distinguished from the estimative areas of human labour; also the laws of their historical development. Pushkin was not the founder of a school, but simply its leader. If Pushkin had never existed “Eugene Onegin” would still have been written. And America would still have been discovered without Columbus. We have no history of literature yet. There is just the history of the “generals” of literature. “Opoyaz” will make possible the writing of this history. The poet is an expert of the word, a word-creator, serving his own class, serving his own social group. What to write about is intimated to him from the consumer. Poets do not invent themes, they take them from the surrounding milieu. The work of the poet starts with the processing of a theme, with finding a corresponding linguistic form for it.

Studying poetry means studying the laws of this linguistic processing. The history of poetry is the history is the history of the development of the devices of linguistic fashioning. Why poets have taken this or that actual theme, and not others, is explained by their belonging to this or that social group, and has no connection with their poetic work. This is important for the poet’s biography but the history of poetry is not a book of “the lives of the saints” and must not be like one.

Why poets use certain devices and not others in the processing of themes, what causes the appearance of a new device, how an old one dies off—this is the subject of the most thorough research of scientific poetics. “Opoyaz” marks off its work from the most adjacent scientific disciplines not in order to “go out of this world” but in order to establish and expand a series of the most vital problems of man’s literary activity in the neatest way possible.

“Opoyaz” studies the laws of poetic production. Who will dare preventing it doing so?

What does “Opoyaz” contribute to the proletarian construction of culture?

  1. A scientific system instead of a chaotic accumulation of facts and personal opinions.
  2. A social evaluation of creative people instead of an idolatrous interpretation of the “language of the gods.”
  3. A knowledge of the laws of production instead of a “mystical” penetration into the “secrets” of creation.

“Opoyaz” is the best educator for the young proletariat writer.

The prolet-poets are still afflicted for the thirst for self-revelation. They constantly tear themselves away from their class. They do not want to be simply prolet-poets. They look for “cosmic”, “planetary” or “deep” themes. They think that in his theme the poet needs to leap out of his milieu, that only then will he reveal himself and create—the eternal.

“Opoyaz” will show them that everything great has been created in answer to the question of the day, that the “eternal” today was then the topic of the time, and that the great poet does not reveal himself but simply carries out the social command.

“Opoyaz” will help its comrades the prolet-poet to overcome the traditions of bourgeoise literature, by scientifically proving its moribundity and counter-revolutionism.

“Opoyaz” will come to the aid of proletariat creation not with hazy little chats about “proletariat spirit” and “communist consciousness”, but with the exact technical meaning of the devices of contemporary poetic production. “Opoyaz” is the grave digger of poetic idealistics. It is useless to fight it. And all the more so for the Marxists.

–Osip Brik, 1923

Originally published in LEF 1 (Moscow: 1923): 213–15. Translated by R. Sherwood.