A bold Cyrillic hard sign - Ъ - is placed prominently in the center of the cover of this book, made by the vanguard Russian poet Aleksei Kruchenykh and published in 1916. English translations usually omit the hard sign from the title’s translation, and include only Universal War written above. Yet it is this awkward unpronounceable letter of the Russian alphabet that best conveys the groundbreaking character of Kruchenykh’s poetry and his collages inside. Zaum (trans-rational) poetry aimed to unlink the form of a word from an automatic association with a given meaning by using word fragments and creating unexpected juxtapositions of words and letters. In Russian written language before 1917, every consonant at the end of a word was followed by either a soft or a hard sign. While the soft sign actually modified pronunciation, the hard sign merely indicated a lack of change. As such many saw it as obsolete, and by 1916 debates were raging about the need to eliminate the hard sign from Russian spelling in order to modernize it. Kruchenykh seems to equate the redundancy of this letter with the absurdity of World War I.
This book is on view in Inventing Abstraction, where you can also flip through its digitized version. You can see some of the pages of this book and hear Kruchenykh’s sound poems on the exhibition’s website.