Robert Chandler on Russian Poetry

A friend, not a Russianist but a well-read poet and editor, once told me how astonished he had been to discover, many years after first reading him, that Mayakovsky—the Poet of the Russian Revolution—always wrote in rhyme and metre. Every translation my friend had seen was in free verse. And he had taken it for granted that a revolutionary poet would want to be free of the constraints of traditional form . . . Russian poetry, however, has developed differently from the poetry of most other European countries.

In the development of a culture, as in the life of an individual, poetry comes before prose. In the life of a country, the oral epic comes before the novel; in the life of an individual, nursery rhymes come before stories. And poetry arises from many sources. Lyric poetry springs from prayers, charms, and magic spells; narrative poetry from the need to preserve important myths in a memorable form.

In most of Europe, the invention of print made it seem less important that a work of literature be easy to commit to memory. The decline of a magical or religious worldview also did much to encourage the rise of prose and the decline of poetry. Russia, however, has never seen the full emergence of a rational and secular culture—the official ethos of the Soviet era, though avowedly secular, was supremely irrational—and poetry has, throughout most of the last two hundred years and in most social milieus, retained its importance. Almost all Russians see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer. Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva are loved at least as passionately as Bulgakov, Nabokov, Platonov, Sholokhov, and Zoshchenko.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, poetry's pre-eminence was unchallenged. There was no prose fiction as important as the work of Derzhavin, Krylov, or the poets of the 'Golden Age'—that is, Pushkin and his contemporaries. Only for a single brief period—the second half of the nineteenth century—did poetry become secondary to prose. The serfs were liberated in 1861. The Trans-Siberian Railway was built in the 1890s. A Russian middle class was coming into being, and the novel, at least for a while, seemed better able than poetry to answer its political and social concerns. Early twentieth-century Europe, however, saw a general collapse of belief in reason and progress. In Russia this was more sudden, and more complete, than in most other countries. The realistic novel now seemed oddly unreal. Poetry again became dominant, and most of the poets of this 'Silver Age' held to a magical view of the world. A poet's business was to listen to the music of other worlds—not to interpret this world. Most of the poetry of Alexander Blok and his fellow Symbolists is incantatory; rhyme and rhythm draw more attention to themselves than in the work of Pushkin or Lermontov.

During the Soviet period, poetry became even more dominant. Even Soviet politicians had a magical belief in the power of the word. The Bolsheviks found it difficult to bring into being the new world they had promised; it was easier simply to proclaim its existence through speeches and slogans. As for poetry, it remained unapologetically itself, insisting on the formal features that distinguish it from prose. Mayakovsky wrote 'agit-prop' slogans; it was crucial, of course, that these be memorable, and so, like most Russian poets before and after him, he used strong metres and prominent rhymes—both for these and for his more complex poems.

As for such poets as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, and others who were disaffected with the new reality, they were soon living in what Akhmatova called a 'pre-Gutenberg' age. They could no longer publish their own poems and it was dangerous to write them down. Akhmatova's confidante, Lydia Chukovskaya, has described how writers would memorize one another's works. Akhmatova would write out a poem on a scrap of paper. A visitor would read it—and Akhmatova would burn the paper. 'It was,' according to Chukovskaya, 'like a ritual. Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.' Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. Had his handling of rhyme, metre and other formal devices been less perfect, his widow might have been unable to preserve his work in her memory and much might have been lost.

Russian poetry has, again and again, been forced to return to its oral origins. This is most evident of all with regard to the Gulag. There are many accounts of how people survived, and helped their fellow prisoners to survive, through reciting poetry. The poet and ethnographer, Nina Gagen-Torn, has written how, in 1937, she and a cellmate were between them able to recite most of Nikolay Nekrasov's Russian Women, a poem of at least two thousand lines about two aristocratic women who, in 1826, chose to follow their husbands—participants in the failed 'Decembrist' rebellion—to exile in Siberia. Ten years later, imprisoned for a second time but with no one in her cell to help her remember this poem, Gagen-Torn recited Blok, Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelstam, Gumilyov, and Tyutchev. Every day her cellmates would ask her to recite more. Afterwards, it was—in her words—'as if someone had cleaned the dust from the window with a damp sponge—everybody's eyes now seemed clearer.' Gagen-Torn goes on to reflect on the role of rhythm: 'The shamans knew that rhythm gives one power over spirits. He who had power over rhythm in the magic dance would become a shaman, an intermediary between spirits and people; he who lacked this power would fly head over heels into madness. Poetry, like the shaman's bells, leads people into the spaces of "the seventh sky".'

The greatest of all works about the Gulag is Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, a long cycle of stories set in Kolyma, a vast area in the far northeast of the USSR. Through most of the Stalin era this was, in effect, a mini-State run by the NKVD. 'Athenian Nights,' one of the Kolyma Tales, begins with a discussion of what the Renaissance humanist Thomas More saw as the four essential human needs—for food and sex, and to be able to urinate and defecate. After referring to the need for verse as a fifth such need, Shalamov describes a series of late-evening meetings, during his last, relatively tolerable, years in the Gulag between 1949 and 1951. When he was on night duty in a camp hospital, he and two other medical assistants—all still prisoners—regularly spent two or three hours together, sharing all the poetry they could recall; these meetings are the 'Athenian Nights' of the story's title. Remarkably, the 'anthology' they compiled even included an early version of Akhmatova's 'Poem without a Hero,' a long poem first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s; one of the other prisoners, a former scriptwriter, had been sent a copy by a friend. The Kolyma Notebooks, the five poem-cycles Shalamov wrote during these years, constitute a short critical anthology of world literature in themselves. There are poems not only about all the most important Russian poets but also about Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and the Song of Roland. In one poem Shalamov describes himself as constructing another Inferno 'out of thin air', with no tools but a pencil and notebook. He evidently owed his survival, at least in part, to his creative power, to the command of rhythm that, as Gagen-Torn tells us, gave him 'power over spirits.'

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