The Editor's Corner
The Brave Russian Poets
Being a poet is not always a safe occupation. Many writers and artists of all kinds often come into conflict with the powers that be. There is perhaps no more harrowing example of this than what happened to the undeniably great Russian poets Osip Mandelshtam, Anna Akhamatova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.
Anna Akhmatova survived the Soviet purges, but her two husbands were killed in succession, and her son was long imprisoned. She herself was persecuted and her work banned. In “Requiem,” she tells the story of Russian suffering under Stalinist oppression. Consider this brilliant passage from the poem:
The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.
I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again . . .
But how. The hot summer rustles
Like a carnival outside my window;
I have long had this premonition
Of a bright day and a deserted house
It is difficult to imagine poetry more succinctly expressed, as it is in this poem, which dramatically captures the poet’s helplessness to control events. Despite the persecution and the loss of family, Akhmatova continued to write poetry. It is ours to treasure, but we also should appreciate the struggles some poets endured to express themselves.
Osip Mandelshtam also paid a stiff price for his poetry. He died in a Soviet detention camp, and some of his work was only passed on because his wife, Nadezhda, committed it to memory. She quotes her husband in her own brave volume, Hope Against Hope,
“Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”
In a notable poem, “The Stalin Epigram,” Mandelshtam takes on the Stalinist oppression directly, making fun of the “Kremlin mountaineer” with precision anger, and for this he was sent to prison camps, where he died. You can read W.S Merwin’s translation of this poem at poets.org. In another Anti-Stalinist verse, Mandelshtam wrote
Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me.
But in books much loved, and in children's games
I shall rise from the dead
To say the sun is shining.
Mandelshtam knew that in the long run, the pen is mightier than the sword. His reputation has been restored, and he is a shining beacon of Russian poetry, while Stalin lies in the dust heap of history, his statue tumbled, his city restored to its original name. Therein is the beauty of poetry. It lives on and influences future generations. Read Mandelshtam’s poem, “Leningrad,” at a Northwestern University Web site, which reflects the Russian citizen’s love of native country, but desperate desire for freedom. Perhaps the great poet cannot keep from writing despite the personal danger. As Mandelshtam wrote:
I am trembling with cold
I want to feel nothing!
But the sky dances with gold
It orders me to sing.
The third great poet in this Russian trio is Marina Tsvetaeva, and hers was a very sad life. Although her father was an art professor and her mother a pianist, Tsvetaeva descended into poverty after opposing the Bolsheviks and her young daughter died of malnutrition. She lived abroad for years, but fell into disfavor when her husband was suspected of being a Soviet spy. Returning to Russia, she found only woe. Her husband was executed and her daughter imprisoned. Marina Tsvetaeva ultimately committed suicide in despair of her circumstances. Not widely known in the West, she is nevertheless considered to be a major 20th century poet. Like her two compatriots, she knew that poetry is not constrained by current circumstance, no matter how difficult or indeed deadly.
Here are two of her poems, which should be an inspiration to all you poets out there. Despair astronomer.
For My Poems
For my poems, written so early
That I didn't even know I was a poet,
Hurled like drops from a fountain,
Like sparks from rockets,
That burst like tiny devils,
Into the sanctuary of sleep and incense,
For my poems about youth and death
-- For my unread poems!
Scattered in dusty bookstores,
Where no one ever buys them!
For my poems, like precious wines,
A time will come.
The poet acquires his speech from afar.
Speech carries the poet beyond the stars.
The obliquities of parables and portents—those
Are the way of the poet . . . Between yes and no
Leaping headlong from the dizzy top
Of a tower, he still contrives to stop
And make a detour . . . Because the poet travels
The way of comets. Causality unraveled,
Its links dispersed—that’s the law which guides
the poet’s eclipses. Look up at the sky
And despair, astronomer! For the poet’s path
Can’t be plotted by the curve of a graph.
He’s the one no granite Bastille can hold,
The one whose tracks have always gone cold.
He defies the laws of number and weight,
He’s the train for which everyone is always late.
He asks the questions even Kant doesn’t know
The answer to . . .
Because the poet goes
The way of comets, he doesn’t warm,
he burns, he doesn’t nurture—he’s violence and storm—
Poet, the trajectory of your fiery path
Can’t be plotted by the curve of a graph!
If Tsvetaeva had only written this one brilliant poem, she would deserve fame. These three Russian poets typify the power of poetry to transcend the temporal and lead humankind into the future or at the least to connect to our conscious in a way that is outside normal experience and engage us in higher themes. But nevertheless it is fed by the pain of current events in the poet’s life. Although they suffered terribly, their reputations have been restored in Russia. People will read the works of Mandelshtam, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva one hundred years from now, and their poetry will be translated into many languages. Their reputations are much more likely to grow worldwide than fade. Meanwhile the political figures of the time will become footnotes in history.
It is amazing how the power of some of their poems comes through so strongly in English despite the obvious limits of translating poetry, which depends on the cadence of language. So take some time looking around the Internet for poems by these masters. You will enjoy it. The northwestern site mentioned has an alphabetical list of Russian poets. Another fine poet you will find there is Alexander Blok, whose poem “Those born in obscure years . . .” reflects the despair and hope present in the work of the poets discussed here.
Let the croaking ravens
Take flight above our deathbed -
O Lord, O Lord, may those more worthy than us,
Behold Thy kingdom!
The bravery of the poet to continue writing at great personal risk and sacrifice is truly inspiring. It is regrettably often necessary for the poet to react to calamitous events, although poetry demands its own path as Tsvetaeva so well expressed in “The Poet.” Carolyn Forché’s Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, is a collection of poems that showcases poetic reaction to the violent and oppressive events of the 20th century. How could the world survive without the creative mind’s ability to, in the English poet Auden’s words, “light an affirming flame.”? These brave and extremely talented Russian poets kept that flame burning.