The Sheer Necessity For Poetry - Anna Akhmatova

It will be interesting to see how the coming of glasnost affects Russian poets and their poetry. Already so brilliant and talented a poet as Joseph Brodsky has become as much a cosmopolitan as a Russian poet, often writing in English, and acclimated to the indifference of an open society where poetry is the preserve of academics and a few other enthusiasts. Nothing feels more separated from this than the poetry and personality of Anna Akhmatova, who in her old age was kind to Mr. Brodsky when he was young and befriended him before he had to leave the Soviet Union.

For most Soviet poets she preserved a steady if good-natured contempt. She was the high priestess of a Russian poetry that was almost an extension of the Russian Church - hieratic, gravely melodious, attracting a vast audience of devotees who knew much of the nation's poetry by heart in the same sense that they knew the Orthodox ritual. Her friend, the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died during the Stalinist purges in a distant eastern gulag, once remarked that poetry was taken so seriously in Russia that a poet could be killed for writing it. Pushkin would have understood that, and Mandelstam's satirical verse about Stalin signed his own death warrant. Akhmatova too was persecuted by the Soviet state: her former husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was shot in 1921, and their son was twice imprisoned for long periods for the crime of bearing his father's name.

But Russian poets, like martyrs of the church, have thrived on such treatment and on the holy status it gave their work. Akhmatova herself was very conscious of this status. In 1962, four years before Akhmatova died at the age of 76, Robert Frost visited the Soviet Union and paid a call on her at the dacha lent her for the occasion at the writers' colony near Leningrad. The two distinguished old poets sat side by side in wicker chairs and talked quietly. ''And I kept thinking,'' Akhmatova wrote afterward, ''here are you, my dear, a national poet. Every year your books are published. . . . They praise you in all the newspapers and journals, they teach you in the schools, the President receives you as an honored guest. And all they've done is slander me! . . . I've had everything - poverty, prison lines, fear, poems remembered only by heart, and burnt poems. And humiliation and grief. And you don't know anything about this and wouldn't be able to understand it if I told you. . . . But now let's sit together, two old people, in wicker chairs. A single end awaits us. And perhaps the real difference is not actually so great?''

But she knew it was. Great not so much in terms of suffering - bitter and prolonged as that had been - but in terms of the sheer necessity for poetry in such times, for the Russian poet and for his audience. In a happier country it is one of the amenities, not the needs. The culture that is optional and varied in a civilized society was for many in Stalin's country the only way to stay living and sane.
For this reason the poet must never forget, or allow the new barbarism to blot out the past. Akhmatova saw her poetic role as one of remembering and bearing witness. As Roberta Reeder points out in her admirable introduction to ''The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova,'' 

''for Akhmatova, to forget was to commit a mortal sin. Memory had become a moral category: one remembers one's misdeeds, atones, and achieves redemption.'' And in those miserable years in which Soviet culture sought to impose a Communist stereotype on every aspect of society, the poet's personal memories were as communally precious as statements bearing witness to public events and universal suffering. Akhmatova'a two great poems, ''Requiem'' and ''Poem Without a Hero,'' record, respectively, the time of terror and the purges and a more timeless vision of the past in which the dead and the living meet and change roles, and key events in the poet's own life become part of a public nightmare.

The central event of ''Poem Without a Hero'' is the suicide of a young friend, a cadet officer who had fallen in love with Olga Sudeikina, an actress who was a close friend of Akhmatova's. (There are excellent photographs in this collection of Akhmatova herself and of people in her life.) Sudeikina took parts in the decadent dramas put on in the group theaters and by St. Petersburg cabarets like the Stray Dog. She was also for a time the lover of the poet Aleksandr Blok, another close friend of Akhmatova's, and it was jealousy for this rival that caused the young soldier-poet Vsevolod Knyazev to shoot himself. Although this suicide occurred a year before World War I, it was for Akhmatova a symbol and foretaste of all the horrors to come. The figure of Knyazev mutates in the poem into that of the poet Mandelstam himself, who had said to Akhmatova shortly before his arrest: ''I am ready to die.'' And in the carnival of the threatening 20th century (''The real - not the calendar - / Twentieth Century''), both merge with a ''guest from the future,'' the Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin, who came to call on Akhmatova in 1945, when he was working in Moscow for the British Foreign Office.

Delighted as she was to see this admirer from the West, with whom she conversed for a whole night in her cramped garret near the Moika Canal, Akhmatova was always convinced that she owed to that visit her subsequent persecution by Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin's minister for culture, a pursuit that lasted till the tyrant's death and recalled some of her worst times during the purges before the war. In those days she had planned and begun to write ''Requiem,'' a great poem like a dirge or chant in Orthodox ritual, which was inspired by a woman who spoke to her as they waited in line outside the prison where their sons were held, saying, ''Can you put this into your poetry?'' Akhmatova replied that she could. ''Requiem'' wonderfully commemorates the horror of the time and without a trace of self-consciousness asks that if a statue of herself, the poet, is ever erected by her fellow countrymen it should stand here outside the prison wall by the Neva River, with the melted snow running from its bronze face like tears.

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