Word Play: Experimental Poetry and Soviet Children’s Literature
By: Ainsley Morse
Ainsley Morse and Ilya Kukulin discuss Morse's book, Word Play: Experimental Poetry and Soviet Children’s Literature (Northwestern University Press, 2021). Watch here on the SHCY Youtube Channel, or listen to the conversation as a podcast. Other episodes of the SHCY podcast are available at our podcast website, or you can subscribe on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Ainsley Morse is Assistant Professor in the Department of Russian at Dartmouth College. Ilya Kukulin is a research fellow at Amherst College.
This review was originally published in Children's Literature, Volume 50, 2022, pp. 301-304:
Word Play: Experimental Poetry and Soviet Children’s Literature
Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2021
Ainsley Morse’s Word Play offers a thought-provoking and detailed study on the intertwined relationship between experimental aesthetics in unofficial Soviet poetry and official Soviet children’s literature. Examining the avant-garde origins of the “childlike aesthetic as it appears in literature and art of the Soviet era” (18), Morse notes that Soviet children’s literature was very often written by experimental writers, “[s]craping by as children’s authors,” who “meanwhile wrote unpublished adult poetry that was both densely philosophical and rife with childlike elements.” Morse explains that this was not an uncommon practice, as writing children’s literature and translations “became established from the early Soviet period as an economic and political refuge for writers unable (or unwilling) to publish in other areas” (5). Her study examines several writers who fit this model and places them into historical context among other Soviet writers. While she notes that the central subject of her study is “marginal in relation to mainstream Soviet literature,” the groundbreaking poetry she examines reveals “the subtle interrelations among Soviet institutions, aesthetics, and politics during the given period” (6).
The first half of the book provides the historical and formal contextualization necessary to understanding what Morse terms the “childlike aesthetic,” as well as Soviet poetry and Soviet children’s literature. The introduction, “Living Backward: The Childlike in Unofficial Poetry,” and prologue, “The Dictionary as a Toy Collection: The Avant-Garde Origins of the Childlike Aesthetic,” provide a definition and explanation of the childlike aesthetic, noting that its origins can be found in “well-established modernist and avant-garde interest in primitivism: children were appreciated . . . for their apparent ignorance . . . and for their apparent proximity to the mythic origins of human perception” (7). Morse argues that in Soviet-era children’s poetry, the childlike aesthetic can be seen in both the formal and stylistic presentation and the language and worldview of the child (8). Emphasizing the presence of the childlike lyric speaker, Morse further identifies elements such as lexical inventiveness, antilogic, naïveté, silliness, and nonsense as prominent in the childlike aesthetic.
Chapters 1, 2, and 3 examine early Soviet children’s literature and experimental poetics, the OBERIU (an acronym for The Union of Real Art) poets, and later Soviet experimental unofficial poetry and children’s literature, respectively. In chapter 2, “Detki v kletke: OBERIU as the First Unofficial Children’s Poets,” Morse notes that the OBERIU poets were a collective of young men who came together in the mid-1920s and were “the Russian avant-garde formation most directly involved in children’s literature.” She also argues that they can be “considered, in hindsight, the ‘first Soviet underground’” (48). The three members central to OBERIU poetics—Daniil Kharms, Aleksandr Vvedensky, and Nikolai Zabolotsky—employed the following “childlike elements” in their work: “unmotivated wordplay, made-up words (linguistic zaum, per Janecek), and disrupted grammar and syntax; apparent naïveté; absurdism, nonsense, or meaninglessness . . .; humor (dark, juvenile, and generally silly); and literary and behavioral buffoonery” (49). The childlike aesthetic was often much more evident in these poets’ unpublished adult writings than in their poetry for young readers, possibly because of the substantial editing of the latter.
Chapters 4 through 8 each provide a case study featuring a single significant poet and children’s writer—Vsevolod Nekrasov, Leonid Aronzon, Igor Kholin, Oleg Grigoriev, and Dmitri Prigov—who published children’s literature but also wrote unpublished poetry that utilized the childlike aesthetic. While the early chapters in the book are useful in assisting a reader unfamiliar with Russian or Soviet-era literature, the case studies in the second half of the book are particularly interesting in their illustration of Morse’s overarching arguments. These chapters include close readings and comparisons between the authors’ children’s poetry and unofficial or unpublished adult poetry. Chapter 4, “Vsevolod Nekrasov: We All Come from Childhood,” examines “the centrality of truth telling and the exposure of falsity in Nekrasov’s work.” Morse argues that Nekrasov’s focus on “living speech” and “unmediated language” were tied directly to the childlike in his work (100). Unlike his contemporaries, Nekrasov struggled with finding success as a children’s writer, and Morse notes that this stemmed from his lack of interest in making distinctions between his two audiences. Of all the poets in her study, Morse argues in chapter 5, “Leonid Aronzon: Naked Child on a Hilltop,” Aronzon is the “most obviously engaged with the literary tradition and the most formally traditional” (116). She asserts that the childlike aesthetic in Aronzon’s work is less evident in the form and more apparent in his “naïve, vulnerable” adult lyric speaker (116). Aronzon also drew the least inspiration from children’s literature than any of the poets explored in the study; as Morse notes, he seems to have engaged with children’s literature as a means of financial compensation. In chapter 6, “Igor Kholin: Buy Your Kids a Poet,” Morse characterizes Kholin’s approach as “more wildly experimental” than the classical approaches of other poets in the study (131). Furthermore, she notes that Kholin did not shy away from or deny his role within children’s literature, explaining the differences in literary devices in poetry for young readers and for adult readers while also not necessarily adhering to a sharp division between audiences for his poetry. Morse’s close readings of poetry written for both adult and child audiences in these chapters are particularly engaging. In each of these chapters, Morse emphasizes the unique ways the poets in her case studies used their work to challenge and upend formal traditions and generic boundaries of children’s literature and poetry.
The book concludes with an epilogue, “‘We can’t keep hold of big loud letters’: The Childlike Aesthetic in Post-Soviet Poetry,” that explores the legacy of the childlike aesthetic in post-Soviet poetry. In this final chapter, Morse examines the work of several poets writing in the 1990s and early 2000s in Russia, including Gatina, Vasily Borodin, Anna Gorenko, and Irina Shostakovskaya. These poets, according to Morse, “belong to one of the last generations to have had a ‘Soviet childhood,’ and hence a personal relationship with both a Soviet childhood and children’s literature” (182). In her conclusion, Morse argues that poets have long been attracted to the childlike aesthetic and that “by the end of the Soviet period, a near century of back-and-forth exchange between experimental poetry and children’s books had generated a recognizable childlike aesthetic that has carried into the post-Soviet period” (194-95).
In general, Morse does not engage with many of the scholars in the field of children’s literature, except for a brief mention in the notes section. This study instead is focused primarily on Russian children’s literature and poetry. Much of the theoretical perspective is grounded in poetics and the specific Soviet-era historical place and time period. Despite this emphasis, Morse’s study provides a thorough examination of several Soviet-era children’s writers who were engaged in the creation of both children’s poetry and adult poetry, making for an interesting study of the intersection of poetry for adults and young readers. By focusing on individual case studies examining the childlike aesthetic in the children’s and adult works of authors and providing historical and cultural context on Soviet authors, Word Play offers much to scholars of Russian children’s literature and poetry.
California State University, Northridge
About Ainsley Morse
This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, which provides conversations about important contributions to the history of childhood and youth.