Russian soul reawakened: startling revelations in a new anthology of Russian poetry

Russia has always been big news and, after a period of what seemed like quiet, is again big news. But it has never quite gone away. The country has, after all, produced a vast and important literature of which we have not been – could not be – ignorant, from Pushkin and Lermontov through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and the rest.
Big news and politics are not entirely ­detached from literature. Penguin’s first anthology of Russian-language poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, appeared at the height of the cold war, in the middle of the Cuban crisis, in 1962. Books by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky followed. Then came Brodsky and Ratushinskaya. Daniel Weissbort’s Post-War Russian Poetry appeared in 1974. These books – these poets – defined our sense of Russia in that era. We watched Russia carefully, searching for clues to its nature and its inclinations. We were in awe of “the Russian soul”, heroic, revolutionary, slumbering, tragic. Russia was a giant in action.
Times change. The 1962 anthology was edited by Dimitri Obolensky and consisted of the Russian text with English prose versions at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a brief paragraph of introduction for each poet. There was also a heavyweight, 30-page introduction, intended for the serious, possibly expert reader. (I hold the book in my hand now, its pages and dusty-blue paperback cover softened by time.) It included poets from the medieval period and ran up to the mid-20th century, the last contributor being Margarita Aliger, who was born in 1915.
Over 50 years and some major, not to say momentous, political turns later, a new anthology was needed and now we have one. It is marvellous, working on quite different principles from Obolensky’s model. The medieval poets are missing. Robert Chandler’s introduction is excellent but takes only seven pages. The Russian text does not appear at all. The last section contains verse by English-language poets addressing Russian themes, and because the whole thing is presented as a book not for experts with some knowledge of Russian but for readers of poetry in English, the translations are in verse: not just verse but, often, formal verse.
In the 1960s and 1970s, form was generally considered decoration, an irrelevance to be jettisoned in favour of something that could be extracted from it. Form was anti-modern: the equivalent of pediments and capitals in architecture. To be modern, to be a modern internationalist, was to abandon such things. The contemporary counterargument is that form is not decoration but process, an aspect of meaning not to be detached from the whole. The translations in the new anthology follow this ­principle, in that they look for English equivalents of the original’s use of form in terms of metre and rhyme.
Form is demanding, of course, and in the hands of a clumsy translator (or poet) it can sound stilted. The happy surprise in the anthology is that although not everything is carried off convincingly, an awful lot is, not just Chandler’s own elegant translations but also those of lesser-known others such as G S Smith, Yvonne Greene, Maria Blosh­teyn, Catriona Kelly or Boris Dralyuk. There are skilful hands at work here.
The leading poets are all present: Krylov, Pushkin, Tyutchev and Lermontov, through Bunin, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky, down to Akhmadulina, Brodsky and Shvarts. Some are in new translation, some are old ones from earlier books, dug out of single volumes and anthologies. The poets’ reputations go before them and are confirmed.
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