Isou and Lettrism.

Rye Dag Holmboe’s LRB review (archived) of Andrew Hussey’s Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou summarizes the amazing career of a man who, like Kurt Schwitters, “bridged the gap between Dada and the Situationist International”:

In​ 1942, walking the streets of wartime Bucharest, 17-year-old Isidore Isou posed himself the same question then being asked of the founding of Israel: how to build a better world than the one around him? The answer came to him as an illumination – or perhaps as mania. ‘All must be revealed in letters.’ Words had, he thought, done great damage throughout history. By breaking them down and exposing them as a collection of arbitrary symbols, Isou hoped to make space for a new language to emerge. This was the inspiration for the movement known as lettrisme. Isou saw himself not only as the founder of the movement, but its messiah.

Like Futurism and Dada before it, lettrisme held that meaning was secondary to everything else that makes up a word: sound, appearance, texture, the way it is articulated or intoned. Take ‘Larmes de jeune fille’ (1947), which Isou wrote after his move to Paris :

  M dngoun, m diahl Θ¹hna îou
  hsn îoun înhlianhl M²pna iou
  vgaîn set i ouf! saî iaf
  fln plt i clouf! mglaî vaf
  Λ³o là îhî cnn vîi
  snoubidi î pnn mîi
  A⁴gohà îhîhî gnn gî

The Greek characters here, footnoted below the poem, encode dramatically contorted modes of speech: the theta is explained as a ‘soupir’, or sigh; the mu as a ‘gémissement’, a moan or groan; the lambda as a ‘gargarisme’, a gargling; the alpha as an ‘aspiration’, a mere breath. Isou’s own background is registered in the much repeated letter ‘î’, pronounced in Romanian as more of a long ‘uh’ than a French or English ‘i’, sounded with the tongue close to the roof of the mouth.

It’s easy to see how different this is – with its tortuous mouthfuls of diphthongs, screeches and howls – from what we usually understand as sound poetry. Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb (1914), the extended sound poem which did much to establish the form, was sonorous and rhythmic when performed, and unlike many of Isou’s examples, which have no semantic content at all, it told a story – of the siege of Adrianople in the First Balkan War, which Marinetti had reported on as a journalist. Zang Tumb Tumb is a collage of actual Italian and English words, along with onomatopoeic and typographical representations of rat-a-tat gunfire, the boom of grenades, the rattle of a train on an iron bridge, the clicking of telegraph messages sent and received. For Isou, such comprehensibility was almost as outdated as the writings of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Delacroix or the music of Wagner: art should represent nothing other than the medium itself, radically deformed.

Ion-Isidor Goldstein was born in 1925 in the town of Botoșani in north-east Romania. His father, Jindrich, was a successful businessman. His mother, Saly, ran the two family homes. She gave him the nickname Izu, which he went on to adopt as his nom de guerre. Isou’s first, ongoing fight was with his father, and he found an ally in his sister Fanny, whose loyalty he promised to reward with the proceeds of the Nobel Prize he was sure to win one day. The Goldsteins were part of Romania’s Jewish minority, a significant presence in Botoșani. He was disdainful of his home town – too provincial for a messiah – but Botoșani wasn’t a backwater. It was here, rather than in Paris, that he first encountered many formative influences. Beyond the yeshiva, where Isou studied religion, there was a theatre, several publishing houses and a well-stocked bookshop. It was in Botoșani that he was first introduced to Dada.

Having barely escaped the Romanian Holocaust, Isou moved to Paris:

Isou arrived on 23 August 1945, without money or possessions, and with little of note to his name. He did have charisma and good looks – those of a young Elvis Presley – as well as boundless self-confidence. He also had a letter of introduction to Jean Paulhan, a former director of the Nouvelle Revue française, published by Gallimard. Isou went straight to its offices. Paulhan wasn’t there, but Gaston Gallimard was. Isou announced that the most important literary journalist in Romania had arrived and handed over a manuscript detailing the history of poetry from Baudelaire to himself via Rimbaud, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Valéry, Tzara and André Breton. The meeting led to the publication of two books in 1947: Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique, a polemical anthology which includes Isou’s ‘Larmes de jeune fille’, and a semi-autobiographical novel, L’Agrégation d’un nom et d’un messie. […]

In Paris, Isou lived on his chutzpah, joining gangs, working as a conman, a pickpocket – an art like any other, he told a friend – and a prostitute in Pigalle. His sound poetry incorporates the many voices of the polyglot city. In one example, you find lexical eyesores such as ‘lesputains’ (the whores), ‘sangermain’ (St Germain), ‘Hélobeby’ and ‘OLRAITLEDY!’, which, Hussey writes, may be transliterations of the sounds with which American GIs greeted prostitutes. As in the long exclamation at the beginning of Finnegans Wake, language is broken up then stitched together, letters are made to feel like litter (to borrow Joyce’s pun) in your mouth. This is especially true when the poems are read aloud. Isou’s great hero, Tristan Tzara (né Samuel Rosenstock), whose alias sounds like ‘sad country’ in Romanian, wrote a set of instructions in 1920 on how to compose a Dadaist poem: cut out bits of newspaper, put them in a bag, shake it, allow the laws of chance to rearrange the words into a poem. But Isou wanted to take it further, breaking down the words themselves to produce such phoneme-masticating lines as ‘vagn bagadou kri kuss balala chimorabissss …’ If Dada, to use Isou’s term, ‘chiselled’ words out of phrases, lettrisme chiselled letters out of words as a way of replicating or ‘amplifying’ the chaos and violence all around. […]

Isou used his contracts with Gallimard to meet members of the literary establishment: Jean Cocteau, François Mauriac, André Gide and Breton, among others, whom he variously dismissed as ‘old’ and ‘impotent’, calling them ‘whores’ and ‘arselickers’. He even met Orson Welles, who interviewed him in 1955 for his documentary Around the World with Orson Welles. You can see the clip on YouTube: a bemused Welles listening to Isou and two fellow lettristes produce an alphabet of sounds with their mouths and (sometimes) hands – barks, clicks, grunts, groans, sighs, squeaks. The lettristes came to include such luminaries as Maurice Lemaître, Gil J. Wolman and Guy Debord as well as students, drunks and petty criminals. Many of them really believed that Isou was a messiah, even, briefly, Debord, who thereafter made it his life’s mission to undermine him. In 1952, Debord and Wolman founded a splinter group called the Internationale Lettriste, which evolved five years later into the Situationist International. […]

He also started translating lettriste principles into other artforms, producing paintings composed of numbers, glyphs and rhizomes and a film called Traité de bave et d’éternité (1951), which in an analogue to the chiselled word sought to make an ‘image ciselante’, a chiselled image. The celluloid filmstrip was scratched, torn and painted on, obscuring the image beneath and revealing its material base. There was an almost complete discrepancy between picture and sound – ‘a kind of cinematic anti-grammar’, as Isou put it. Daniel, the film’s protagonist (played by Isou), calls for a ‘sadism of the photograph’, a film that ‘hurts your eyes’. The words are enunciated over a frenzied lettriste chorus. Traité de bave et d’éternité won the Prix de l’avant-garde when it was shown at Cannes and found admirers in Alain Resnais, Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard.

I first learned a bit about Isou from Richard Brody’s superb Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard, and I’m glad to find out more. I never know what to make of these mad geniuses (compare Nikolai Fedorov); whether or not they contribute anything essential to humanity’s store of knowledge, I’m glad they exist. Also, in case you were wondering, lettrism is in the OED (entry revised 2011):

A movement in French art and literature characterized by a repudiation of meaning and the use of letters (sometimes invented) as isolated units.

The movement, which was influenced by both Dadaism and Surrealism, was founded by the Romanian-born poet Isidore Isou (1925–2007).

First citation:

1946 Lettrism, founded by Isidore a theory of poetry as ‘rhythmic architecture’. The rapidly growing hordes of Lettrists..prefer meaningless combinations of letters to dictionary words.
Time 2 December 31/2

Oddly, lettrisme is not attested in French until 1947.


  1. Hear him here. “Lecture d’un poème lettriste d’Isidore Isou avec Maurice Lemaître, Isidore Isou et Jacques Spacagna à la Librairie Fischbascher, dans le cadre d’une série documentaire pour la télévision britannique, film réalisé par Orson Welles.”

  2. That’s the video I provided above in “You can see the clip on YouTube,” but it could easily be missed there, so it’s good you brought it to greater prominence. It’s really quite an experience.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    I googled up a few of his paintings but not any in which I could (in low-quality online reproduction) distinguish “rhizomes” from “glyphs.” If that’s meaningful rather than just Holmboe playing with the thesaurus, I’d be interested in an example if anyone can point to one.

  4. Oops…
    I like these guys, like the Dadaists and the Oulipians. They were mostly about fun (OK, plus politics, for the German Dadaists). Occasionally the fun rose to lasting art, because some of them were brilliant people and could not do otherwise.

  5. Christopher Culver says

    I learned about Isidore Isou recently when I read about the inspiration for the remarkable final sequence in Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep. I had never heard of Isou before, and as far as Romanians going west and present wacky new art, he definitely seems overshadowed by Tristan Tzara and Eugène Ionesco.

    I wonder if the Rye Dag Holmboe here (who is notable also as Helena Bonham Carter’s beau but hasn’t got his own Wikipedia article) is related to journalist and early convert to Islam Knud Holmboe and composer Vagn Holmboe.

  6. Is this the essay you read? Interesting stuff:

    In 1951, Isidore Isou, founder of the lettrist movement, carried his film Venom and Eternity uninvited to the Cannes Film Festival, where he sought to actively antagonize an unsuspecting audience. He hoped the bleached and scratched-out images and caustic soundtrack would leave watchers “torn asunder by the disjunction of word and image.” In the wake of the tumultuous events that led up to May 1968, the lettrists and situationists cautioned against a future in which social relations between people would be supplanted by the passive fetishization of commodities and spectacle for spectacle’s sake—a warning that probably warrants repeating today. But through their sometimes shocking, sometimes playful modes of intervention into quotidian reality, they also proposed that new artistic languages could bring about a reordering of human existence, anchored in authentic social relationships, not ones mediated by consumer culture. Transposing theory into action and manifesting concept into object, their methods of revolt took unpredictable forms: for example, in 1959, situationists Asger Jorn and Guy Debord put out a book entitled Mémoires that was bound by a cover of heavy sandpaper, so that it would “attack” any book next to it. This unruly spirit was taken up by punk rockers and no wavers, and later by Assayas via Vidal’s parting images: in the end, Irma Vep confronts its viewers with a self-abjuring assemblage made from discarded black-and-white footage of Cheung in the title role, mutilated by scratches and stamps to the point of abstraction. It’s a striking turn that, like Venom and Eternity, shows a new kind of creation that is double-edged, animated by a desire to grasp at new epiphanies, and by the destruction and annihilation of existing forms of representation. A line from Venom might aptly describe Assayas’s and Vidal’s intentions here: “I’ll smite the picture with sun rays. I’ll take old stock shots and scratch them; I’ll claw at them so that unknown beauty sees the light of day.”

    I love Irma Vep, so I’m glad to have found the essay.

  7. Christopher Culver says

    Yes, that’s the essay I read. IIRC, you’re also a fan of Godard’s Le mépris. I enjoy that ending of Irma Vep as a nod to the scene in Godard’s film where a screening-room presentation reveals that a director has gone too far out there.

  8. Oddly, lettrisme is not attested in French until 1947.

    That way be, but lettriste is attested in French in 1942, in Isou’s own Manifeste de la poésie lettriste (see mid-page). Both TLFi and OED therefore miss the mark when they derive lettriste from a 1947 occurrence of lettrisme. And see various Italian sources, including this one, for oblique evidence of lettrisme itself occurring in Isou’s 1942 manifesto. Is that text available somewhere? (Petit Robert gives 1945 for both words.)

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    So does the first line start with a regular Latin-script capital M which implies a different noise than the footnoted capital-mu in the second line?

  10. Trond Engen says

    I’ll stick to my usual schtick and discuss the name of the author. It’s interesting. It’s both very obviously Norwegian and very obviously not.

    Both Rye and Holmboe are family names that came to Norway from Denmark in the late 17th century. There’s also a hyphened branch Rye-Holmboe. Both names are associated with high-ranking civil servants. The first generations of Rye men were mostly military officers, the culmination of which may have been Olaf Rye, a Danish general and celebrated hero from the siege of Fredericia in 1848. The first Holmboes were parish priests, but later generations soon branched out into business, law and university professorships. Both families have had government ministers. Today Holmboe is much more common than Rye.

    Dag is an unremarkable male given name. It has antecedents in the sagas and became popular with the national awakening in the 19th century.

    So it’s all very Norwegian, and suggestive of a prominent bookshelf in the family home. What makes it very obviously not Norwegian is the family name Rye as a first given name. We just don’t do that.

    [Full disclosure: When I mention this to my wife, who has Holmboe ancestry, she reminds me that we have the Holmboe genealogy book. I learn that she and Rye are 6th cousins and that Rye was born in England to Norwegian parents. Their last common ancestor was fogd (chief civil administrator) in Tromsø at the end of the 18th century. My wife’s sub-branch stem(s) from a daughter who married a local businessman, Rye’s from a son following in his father’s footsteps.]

  11. Now I want to know how Rye Dag Holmboe pronounces his name. I tried Google video search with no luck, largely because the fucking thing no longer shows you videos (unless you’re searching on a song or whatever) — it shows you media webpages that may have embedded videos somewhere but just mention the searched-for name in writing. Google is getting more and more useless.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    Both Rye and Holmboe are family names that came to Norway from Denmark in the late 17th century.
    Now I want to know how Rye Dag Holmboe pronounces his name

    As I have learned here, the Danish pronunciation of “Rye” might well be /:/ (or have been that at the time), that is, something unidentifiable and almost inaudible to non-Danish inquisitive minds. Is it then the case that when such a name is taken on board by Norwegians, they add value by providing an audible pronunciation ?

    Of course I don’t believe for a moment that Danish is an sich hard to understand. It only seems problematic außer sich.

  13. But he’s not Norwegian (I know how to say it in Norwegian), he’s English (or perhaps American, depending on which site you believe)! Does he pronounce his given name like the grain? Inquiring minds want to know!

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Does he pronounce his given name like the grain?

    … or against the grain ?

  15. Stu Clayton says

    À ryebours

  16. Corntrary. Buckwhearts.

  17. If corntrariwise, then likewise nohoe.

  18. (Spelt differently, but means the szème: as farro’s I can glean.)

  19. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Rye and Ryge as family names are disyllabic without stød, /ʁʏː.ə/ or thereabouts. Olaf Rye’s eponymous street is /ʁʏ?s.ɡ̥œð̠̩/ with stød, at least for my generation. (Or is “the street for which he is eponymous”?)

  20. fascinating to not see kurt schwitters mentioned at all in the LRB piece, since his sound poems are so clearly related to isou’s.

    but i’m inclined to think that as important as any avantgardist for isou is the yiddish popular entertainment “vort-kontsert”, which is pretty much exactly what you’d imagine, but possibly stranger. here are a few articles about (and links to recordings of) herts grosbard, a master of the craft; and here’s jevel katz’s fairly abstract sound poem about the train ride from buenos aires to tucumán. and of course glatshteyn’s “zing ladino”, which we’ve talked about here before, is part of the same lineage.

    and all of it, i suspect, is part of the wide world of Elocutionism, which has been largely erased as a (massively popular) art form – mostly on account of being a form in which for the most part scores by women were performed by women for audiences of women – so only the avantgarde’s uses of it get attended to.

    Fümmes bö wö täää?????

  21. (hi, hat! i’ve been referred for moderation – too many links to kurt schwitters, i believe.)

  22. Yes, I too was surprised that there was no mention of Schwitters — he seemed an obvious point of comparison.

  23. Nohoe

    Sow? As I understød – as farro’s acorn’t till – eat mast be the szem. Jest the sème, as far as I can’t till.

  24. David Marjanović says

    Oh. So it’s like Jandl turning the word Schützengraben (“trench”) into a complete description of WWI in particular and war in general.

  25. My introduction to Schwitters was the animated Primiti Too Taa. He probably didn’t think of <Too> as /tuː/, but he probably wouldn’t have minded.

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