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Lettristic Decomposition

The "lettristic decomposition" is an atomistic decomposition of language into its smallest and not further divisible units and the recombination of these individual elements. Examples can be found in poems by Valeri Scherstjanoi, Gerhard Rühm, Ernst Jandl, Hans G Helms, Franz Mon, Oskar Pastior, and Michael Lentz. Lettristic decomposition differs from traditional poetry precisely because in this traditional poetry "the word dominates" (Jandl 1999, p. 217), as the Austrian poet Ernst Jandl puts it.This technique of decomposition has its theoretical origin in the movement of "Lettrism", which goes back to the Frenchman Isidore Isou and his term "Lettrisme" coined in 1946. However, Richard Grasshoff emphasized that a genuinely Lettristic poetry, i.e. poetry that turns to the individual letter and focuses on the letter as such - and mostly beyond its function of a semantically organized language - is far older. Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, for example, emphasized in his review "In the beginning was Dada" that he had already written so-called "letter poster poems" in 1918, i.e."visible letters, i.e. Lettristic poems" (Hausmann 1980, p. 11).

Lettrism is not to be confused with the principle of montage or collage, but represents an independent decomposition technique that differs significantly from the aforementioned decomposition techniques. In contrast to collage, the Lettristic decomposition of letters makes use of the smallest elements of written language without reassembling them into words and sentences. In lethtristic decomposition, therefore, literature is desemantised far more than in any other form of decomposition: Words and sentences are fragmented into letters. Montages in the sense of a new arrangement of linguistic-semantic structures can already be found in Italian Futurism or Dadaism, for example in Kurt Schwitters' "i-Gedicht" or Marinetti's "tavole parolibere". However, these techniques retain a legible texture, whereas genuine Lettristic texts such as Raoul Hausmann's poem "fmsbwtözäu / pggiv-...?mü" can no longer be resemantized. In contrast to the sound poetry of Schwitters, Hausmann's sound poetry remains abstract and is therefore not placed in a semantically recognizable context by a headline or recognizable onomatopoeia. Kurt Schwitters later developed the syllabic decomposition technique of his Ursonate from Hausmann's genuinely Lettristic decomposition: "Fümms bö wö wö tääää Uu, / pögiff, / kwii Ee", which now also has a purely tonal quality.

Even after 1945, the sound poetry is based on "microparticles of the human voice", as Bob Cobbing once put it, thus skips the syntactic and semantic levels of language by reducing poems to the arrangement of letters, letter sequences and syllables according to certain patterns or series. The technique of letristic decomposition can now be found in the poetry sonore of the French poet Henri Chopin, in the text-sound compositions of the Swedes Lars-Gunnar Bodin and Bengt Emil Johnson as well as with Carlfriedrich Claus. Further examples can be found in the poetry of the Australian Amanda Steward, the Dutchman Jaap Blonk, the Russian Valeri Scherstjanoi, the Austrian Gerhard Rühm, or Michael Lentz, himself an author and theorist of Lettrism after 1945. The most famous example can be found in the famous volume "Laut und Luise" by the Austrian Ernst Jandl. On the one hand, Jandl divides the poetic words into syllables and thus reactivates the Dadaist sound poems by Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters, for example. In addition, however, the Lettristic forms of sound poetry in the style of Hausmann's "fmsbw" can also be found here, for example in the poem schtzngrmm.


Emanuely, Alexander: Das Gedicht à la lettre: Isidore Isou und der Lettrismus als Literatur des Widerstandes, in: Zwischenwelt 30,1 (2013) S. 37-41.

Hausmann, Raoul: Am Anfang war Dada. Herausgegeben von Karl Riha und Günter Kämpf. Gießen 1980.

Jandl, Ernst: Autor in Gesellschaft: Aufsätze und Reden, Darmstadt 1999.

Seaman, David W.: French Lettrisme: Discontinuity and the Nature of the Avant-Garde. In: Henry, Freeman-G (Hrsg.): French Literature Series, Vol. XXI, 1994. S. 159-169.