This introduction to the Letterist poet Isidore Isou was published in a journal, E.R.O.S.: A Journal of Desire (2012), of which I was on the editorial board. The introduction accompanied a selection of Isou’s poems that I ‘translated’.
Introduction to Isidore Isou, Letterist
The history of modern literature resounds with calls for new beginnings. From Wordsworth’s proposal to reclaim a ‘real language of men’, to Pound’s demand to ‘Make it New’, to the multiplicitous manifestos of modernist avant-gardes—and this is already a selective history—writers have long sought tactics to revitalise language. The Romanian Isidore Isou (1925-2007) was another such tactician, informed of this long history and ambitious enough to offer his own theory of aesthetic beginnings. He wanted to go one step further than his predecessors. Not to reclaim or refresh a language; he wanted to break language down to its constituent elements, letters. So far, so Dada. Yet Isou promised that letters could be rebuilt into a new alphabet, one which would allow for new forms of expression and new things to express. His poetics privileged creation, not destruction. He heralded himself as the new creator, and his poems as literature’s newest beginnings.
Isou and his Letterism movement are now most widely known as precursors of the Situationist International, which began as the left wing of Isou’s Letterist group. Even when Isou’s own work has attracted attention, his poems have typically been elided in favour of his films, chiefly Treatise on Slime and Eternity (1951), which discusses his tactics of ‘discrepant cinema’. That film certainly deserves its place in the pantheon of avant-garde cinema, as endorsed by Jean Cocteau and Stan Brakhage, but Isou also occupies an important position in a lineage of sound poetry—preceded, most obviously, by Raoul Hausmann’s experimentations. Yet Isou remains distinct, even from Dada, and by introducing his poems by way of his aesthetic theory, I hope to encourage readers to recognise Isou’s own irreducible particularity.
After the Germans occupied Romania in 1941, the young Isou (then Ioan-Isidor Goldstein) was subjected to forced labour, though not before he had engaged himself in the resistance effort against to the Nazi presence. In 1942 (now Isou), he joined other Romanian Jews attempting to travel to Palestine. However, he feared treachery, split off from the convoy, and decided to make the dangerous journey to Paris. When he finally arrived, on the 23rd August 1945, Isou headed straight for the offices of the publisher Gallimard. He bore the manuscript of his aesthetic theory, which he believed would revolutionise poetry and music, and which announced the basic programme of his Letterist avant-garde. He was initially brushed off by Gaston Gallimard, but after Isou orchestrated a couple of spectacular public denunciations of prominent writers, Gallimard returned and published Isou’s Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music (written 1942-1944, published 1945).
Isou’s text offers a narrative of artistic evolution. The development of an art form, Isou contends, involves a phase of amplification followed by a phase of chiselling. In the former amplic phase, a form is expanded and pushed to incorporate whole swathes of experience and existence. The truth-claims of the form are made grander and grander. Inevitably, this phase reaches a limit, when the form can expand no further. Where once the form was vital and expansive, it begins to stagnate and decompose. Thus begins the chiselling phase, in which artists consciously exacerbate and accelerate the form’s decomposition. They do so mainly by making the form self-referential, making it turn on itself. All the meaning which was previously bound into and supported by the form now dissipates, and a new amplic phase must begin.
Isou’s case study is modern French poetry. The last amplic phase, he argues, culminated with Victor Hugo, with whom French Romantic poetry reached its limit. Baudelaire then performed the destruction of what Isou calls the ‘anecdote’, to be replaced by ‘the form of the poem’: Baudelaire shifted the emphasis of poetry from its narrative function to its formal qualities. Verlaine then reduced poetic form to the more ahistorical ‘verse form’, which Rimbaud subsumed to the word itself. Mallarmé then attempted to perfect the arrangement of words in order to make their sounds primary, before Tzara divested whatever was left of poetry of whatever meaning it still claimed, to leave only a void.
Isou was no disinterested theorist. His theory—the megalomaniacal confidence of which can indeed distract from its many historical reductions—serves mainly to validate and historicise his own poetic endeavours, samples of which were published as ‘Serious and Joyous Recitations’ at the end of Introduction to a New Poetry and a New Music. His whole praxis is based on the assertion that evolution is not predicated on a survival instinct, but an instinct to create. His Letterist poetics claim to take as the basic unit of poetic meaning not the word but the letter. From this new form of expression will emerge a new alphabet which will, in turn, create the possibility for new anecdotes, new narratives. The Introduction opens with a ‘Manifesto of Letterist Poetics’, which announces Isou’s arrival as the messiah who will retrieve poetry from Dadaist meaninglessness. His name is repeated as if in a catechism:
ISIDORE ISOU Begins the destruction of words for letters.
ISIDORE ISOU Wants letters to pull in among themselves all desires.
ISIDORE ISOU Makes people stop using foregone conclusions, words.
ISIDORE ISOU Shows another way out between WORDS and RENUNCIATION: LETTERS. He will create emotions against language, for the pleasure of the tongue.
It consists of teaching that letters have a destination other than words.
ISOU Will unmake words into their letters.
Each poet will integrate everything into Everything.
Everything must be revealed by letters.
POETRY CAN NO LONGER BE REMADE.
ISIDORE ISOU IS STARTING
A NEW VEIN OF LYRICISM.
Anyone who cannot leave words behind can stay back with them!
How are we to understand Isou’s messianism? Certainly, he has been met with bemusement. Orson Welles, in the Saint Germain des Prés episode of his documentary series Around the World with Orson Welles (1955), all but rolls his eyes in response to a reading by Isou of his poetry. The Situationists would eventually declare Isou to have ‘proposed the first art of solipsism’: ‘Isou’s system’, argues the artist Asger Jorn, ‘necessitates Isou’. Historian and critic Andrew Hussey is rather more forgiving. He recognises that Isou’s aesthetic theory is ‘predicated upon a universal system which eschews the local or particular’, but argues that Isou’s actual poetry resonates with his unique experiences as a Jewish Romanian escapee. Hussey implies that the poems maintain a psychological complexity that thwarts their straightforward dismissal as curios. Of the poems presented below, that complexity is perhaps most poignant in ‘Cris pour 5.000.000 de Juifs égorgés’ (‘Screams for 5,000,000 Slaughtered Jews’). Read the poem aloud—think of it as sheet music—and hear the echoes of Yiddish, of German, of the chaos and torment of Isou’s past; hear language being lost into a cacophony of howls.
To some extent, Isou’s poems, the evidence that he gives for his theory of aesthetic beginnings and his privileged place therein, simultaneously contradict that theory. Isou may return to the letter, but he cannot escape words. He conjures their meaningless homonyms. Likewise, he is restrained to a recognisable, though abused, collection of figures, sounds and poetic effects. The poems cannot be so new, for example, as to disavow ‘regular’ titles. The three poems below—‘Cris pour 5.000.000 de Juifs égorgés’, ‘Lances rompues pour la dame gothique’ (‘Broken Lances for the Gothic Lady’) and ‘Promenade parmi les mots de mon pays’ (‘A Stroll Among the Words of My Country’)—are each ‘serious recitations’. For all their novelty, they do indeed deserve to be taken seriously.
 This biographical account is drawn from Andrew Hussey, ‘“La Divinité d’Isou”: The Making of a Name and a Messiah’, Forum for Modern Language Studies 36:2 (2000): 132-142.
 As well as Isou’s Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et une nouvelle musique (Paris: Gallimard 1945), this account of Isou’s theory is informed by the accounts in Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (London: Faber & Faber 1989); Stewart Home, The Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents From Lettrisme to Class War (Stirling: AK Press 1991); and McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International (London: Verso 2011).
 Isou, Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et une nouvelle musique, 55.
 Isou, Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et une nouvelle musique, 13-15.
 J.V. Martin, J. Strijbosch, R. Vaneigem and R. Vienet, ‘Response to a Questionnaire from the Centre for Socio-Experimental Art’, Internationale Situationniste 9 (August 1964):41.
 Asger Jorn, ‘Originality and Grandeur (on Isou’s system)’, Internationale Situationniste 4 (June 1960): 27.
 Hussey, ‘”La Divinté d’Isou”: The Making of a Name and a Messiah’: 134.