Connoisseurs of Chaos: Whitman, Vertov and the "Poetic Survey"

By Singer, Ben | Literature/Film Quarterly, October 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

Connoisseurs of Chaos: Whitman, Vertov and the "Poetic Survey"


Singer, Ben, Literature/Film Quarterly


Walt Whitman spoke with more foresight than he knew when, in 1872, he declared, "I say a modern Image-Making creation is indispensable to fuse and express the modern Political and Scientific creations."1 He was, of course, referring to poetry, but in coining the phrase "modern Image-Making creation," and in granting that creation the function of presenting and conjoining new political and technological forms, Whitman came remarkably close to characterizing the medium of film. His comment evokes, in particular, the type of film devoted to social observation and analysis whose paradigm is found in the works of Dziga Vertov. Conveyed throughout Whitman's prose writings, especially his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, and embodied in his poems, are ideas about the sensibility and function of the "great poet" (a thinly veiled euphemism for his own poetic practice) that contain striking relevance to Vertov' s project of forging a new film practice in a fledging socialist society.

Whitman's affinity with Vertov was first suggested during the period of critical discussion just after the release of Vertov's masterwork The Man With a Movie Camera. In a 1929 issue of Sovetskii Ekran, N. Kaufman (no relation to the kino-Kaufmans) declared, "Vertov - he is the Soviet Walt Whitman ... he sees more and further than Whitman."2 Given the extraordinary warmth of Whitman's reception in post-revolutionary Russia, this comparison represents a major critical endorsement and defense. It is understandable that Whitman should have been evoked in a partisan attempt to contextualize this iconoclastic film. The Man With a Movie Camera serves as a virtually diagrammatic representation of the dominant Soviet perspective on Whitman, here offered by Prof. Vladimir Friche in a 1917 review: "[Whitman] is the singer of equal value and equal rights of men ... He sang the big city, the hurly-burly of its streets, the ceaseless labor of machines, the working people and the folk mass, the busy life of an industrial-democratic society."3

Before turning to a detailed analysis of parallels in the works and rhetoric of Whitman and Vertov, a brief discussion of Whitman's reception in the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century will indicate the historical feasibility of positing a direct influence on Vertov by Whitman. Whitman has had an enormous impact on the history of Russian letters, most significantly during the 1910s and 1920s. He was introduced primarily through the efforts of Kornei Chukovsky, a literary critic who was also among the first to bring popular attention to Futurist poetry in Russia. Between 1914 and 1922, Chukovsky 's translation of Leaves of Grass went through five editions of about 5,000 copies each, and one edition of 50,000 copies issued two years after the revolution by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Red Army Deputies.4 Vertov's early thinking about film took form, thus, in a period when Leaves of Grass was literally a best-seller in Russia, and when Whitman's innovations in style and subject matter were at the forefront of literary discussion. Whitman's influence on Vertov's Futurist milieu is widely recognized. In particular, his formative effect on Vladimir Mayakovsky, for whom Vertov had great admiration, has been acknowledged. Chukovsky recounts that Mayakovsky was able to recite entire Whitman poems from memory when the two first met in 1913. 5 Mayakovsky's call for "the poetry of facts," his use of free verse (which has always been a rarity in Russia)6, and the candor of his expression, all suggest a sensitivity to the innovations and transgressions contained in Whitman's work.7

An important confirmation of Vertov's familiarity with Whitman was received in a 1976 interview with Mikhail Kaufman, Vertov's cameraman and brother.8 Specifically, Kaufman acknowledged that the style of Vertov's intertitres was directly influenced by Whitman's poems. The most forceful example is found in One Sixth of the World (1926), where the reiteration of "I see" in the beginning portion of the film, and the repetition of direct-address namings of ethnic groups in the middle portion, precisely echo the construction of Whitman's poem "Salut Au Monde! …

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