Posts Tagged ‘Nadezhda Mandelstam’

Does good literature inoculate us against lies? Poet Tomas Venclova thinks so.

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018
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“Above all, love language” (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I was one of the few people to review Magnetic North, the great Baltic poet Tomas Venclova‘s book-length Q&A with poet and translator Ellen Hinsey certainly in the West, when I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement earlier this year. The book was never going to get a huge commercial audience, certainly, but seeing the long excerpt in the current Music & Literature makes me wonder if the book will have a second (and maybe third and fourth) life in excerpts.

I’m willing to help the process along, so here is an excerpt of the excerpt in the tony online journal (and if you don’t know Music & Literatureyou should): 

Before we go on to speak about other poems, I’d like to ask about poetic inspiration. In her book Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that for poets “auditory hallucinations” are a reoccurring occupational hazard, and that Osip Mandelstam experienced poetic inspiration as a musical phrase insistently ringing in his ears. Early on, did you notice any particular sensations that heralded the onset of a poem?

I’m not a very musical person. My imagination is more visual than aural: I admire (and, I hope, understand) architecture and painting, and I love Bach, Handel, and Purcell primarily because they remind me of architecture. Thus, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination described by Nadezhda Mandelstam comes to me not so much as musical phrases sensu stricto, but rather as rhythmic units that can also be understood in spatial terms. But yes, I experience an insistent and intrusive, even irksome feeling of something constantly repeating itself and demanding a liberating effort. It is frequently preceded by a general feeling of unease and a bout of bad mood. In my youth, I learned to understand this as the signal: “A poem is coming.”

Interlocutor

The passage above was the first that caught my eye in the Music & Literature article, but then another further dow, picked up a theme I’d discussed only a few days ago in The Book Haven post, “’Bro – he lives!’ Joseph Brodsky on the morality of uselessness, and the need to ‘switch off’. The Lithuanian poet Venclova’s work, from the beginning “constituted his own specific universe,” as his interlocutor, said his translator, Ellen Hinsey. 

I think Brodsky had in mind not just Soviet reality, but reality as such. True, Soviet reality was grimmer than most. After the nightmare of the camps and executions, from which we were trying to awake (to quote Stephen Dedalus, whose experience was milder than ours), we were confronted by an ugly and monotonous present that promised no further change. We were surrounded by the absurd. And that was only a part—one of the worst parts, to tell the truth—of the chaos and nonsense of life. Poetry—and art in general—was a way of resisting that chaos, holding it at bay. This also had political consequences. Politics, seen from this perspective, was something transitory (even if one had to make decent choices in everyday life). On the other hand, it would be an overstatement or even a distortion to assert that we were totally apolitical in our work. The stifling Soviet atmosphere, aggravated by the smug audacity of the authorities, provoked not only disdain, but resentment and indignation that could not help but find its way into our verses. …

Everything possible

Akhmatova frequently speaks about how the Soviet period robbed individuals of the chance to live out their own destinies. In your “A Poem about Memory,” and elsewhere, you reflect on “such a shortage of authentic fate—”

In her magnificent poem, the fifth “Northern Elegy,” Akhmatova speaks about all the things she was denied due to the circumstances of her era. She nevertheless states that she perhaps did everything that was possible in the only life left to her. I was stunned by these proud words. Naturally, our situations were not comparable, but in “A Poem about Memory,” I attempted to understand the way to “do everything possible.” …

He loves architecture.

All literature of quality provides the reader with patterns and insights that enable him or her—perhaps not systematically, but frequently enough—to resist false doctrines. Poetry, in particular, is somewhat mysteriously linked to ethics; and poetic discipline to the fortitude of the spirit. Many poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Akhmatova—and her protégé, Joseph Brodsky—insisted that refusal to succumb to evil is primarily a matter of taste. I was of the same mind. …

Thus the human quality of tenacity also becomes an important component of personal and poetic ethics. Or as you described in “A Poem about Friends,” dedicated to Natasha Gorbanevskaya, and written after the 1968 demonstration against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in Red Square: “And those who live are chosen by the fog, / Deserted houses, journeys into the distance, / Their weapons are staunchness, abstinence from speech”—

During this period, it seemed as though the course of events were governed by laws of raw power, that is, by statistics. The force of words and human solidarity were our means to counter this, even if this meant prison or exile, as was the case for many of my friends. Speech—or, at least, a silent refusal to lie—was the axis of their existence. I tried to convey this in the very title of my book.

And the title of the book is Magnetic NorthRead the Music & Literature piece here

Back in the U.S.S.R.: Carl Proffer, Ardis, and an “eleven time zone prison”

Sunday, October 20th, 2013
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proffers

The basketball player who bootlegged books … with Brodsky and Ellendea

Last month, the University of Michigan commemorated two of the most remarkable people to cross the campus threshhold: the late Prof. Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea Proffer Teasley, founders of the exuberant and trailblazing Ardis Publishers, which published the best Russian literature at a time when the Soviet government wouldn’t.  I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, as well as many other places over the last few decades, ever since the time I met them in the erstwhile Ann Arbor country club they had turned into a publishing house (as well as a family home with four kids).  I wasn’t at the September symposium, except perhaps in spirit.  Fortunately, the event left a welter of videos in its wake.  In one of them, Ellendea described, in 27 minutes, the intrepid  venture that was Ardis.

The young Carl Proffer was a longshot for a Slavic scholar, she recalled – a teenage basketball player who was more likely to become a lawyer rather than scholar, someone who never ventured beyond the required reading list. He discovered Russia through a casual interest in Cyrillic, which led him to a mentor – a distinguished Byzantine historian émigré who had been tethered to teaching a first-year Russian language course for the university.  “Then this man, meant for other things, this basketball player with a fancy prose style, fell in love with the literature,” said Ellendea.  That was sophomore year – junior year gave him the Scottish enlightenment and the gifts of persuasion.  He attended St. Andrew’s in Scotland, which runs on a tutorial system, and discovered philosopher David Hume.  “This was an amazing awakening. The basketball player became an intellectual, but not a normal one.”

“He was a person of high risk – captain of the team. … He was afraid of nothing. He could control his temper and his indignation. The rest of us could not; we were very young,” she recalled.  “Everyone he came into contact with went into Russian, too, because he spread the word. His philosophy was spreading the word … He was the first PhD candidate from Michigan. They built the program around him. He became the youngest full professor in 1972.”

ardis

Carl and Ellendea at Ardis

Perhaps the biggest chance he took was with a pretty girl in a miniskirt. “It was easy not to take me seriously if you didn’t know me well,” said Ellendea, who was six years younger.  “He not only took me seriously and married me, but he made me a full partner.”  Every decision was made jointly, and she continued Ardis after his 1984 death until 2002, when Overlook Press acquired Ardis.  She received a MacArthur “genius” award in 1989.

“Carl could type 110 words a minute – that was important. Ardis was built on our bodies.  We used up our energy, and his energy was phenomenal.”  The venture was a dangerous one, and bootlegging manuscripts risked arrest and worse. They faced other dangers in the U.S.:  “We got no money from anyone. We lived on a knife edge – mortgaging our house every year.”

“We walked a razor’s edge, and he was cool,” with an important exception – “and this is where we get to the ‘why’ of Ardis,” she said.

The plight of their friends, the literary heart of Russia, left Carl in “absolute cold, angry outrage – destructive outrage.” She continued, “Our people, they wanted one book, they were writing a monograph and wanted one book on Toulouse Lautrec, they wanted one book on Shakespeare. … They knew so much, so many languages but never left this damn country, which was really an eleven time zone prison … We saw people like us, behind bars, and sometimes they were having to kiss their own chains and say, ‘It’s nothing. It’s great.’ It was no kind of life.  … This was our mood when we come back. We were enraged at what has happened to these remarkable people. Nadezhda Mandelstam with four locks on her door. It’s 1969, but she’s still afraid.  She said, ‘Don’t bring young people to me because they are the worst. They are the informers.'”

She described Soviet-era Russia as “a thin crust over a big volcano of peasant emotion, under the control of the gun and the whip. And that thin crust was a deep, rich, powerful culture to us.  Not just literature – music, art, dance.”

The Proffers dressed up to meet their Russian contacts, but they choose to dress as Americans, not to emulate the proletariat or the Russian intelligentsia, since they were neither.  “We would be American, because the Russians were starting to think, ‘Oh, the whole world is like this.’ Visually, we would contradict that idea.  Because it’s easy to go into despair when you’re in jail for 70 years.”

“I want you to consider the daring, the nerve of him. He had daring, but he never said, ‘Now I’m going to jump from the high dive’ –  he just did it.  We were people of action, that is certainly true. … We were moving very fast because Carl, like [Joseph] Brodsky, did not think he had a long life ahead of him.”

I was there in spirit, and you can be, too – videos of the event are here.

William Jay Smith on “the cinders of your city,” Richard Wilbur on the power of yielding

Saturday, October 15th, 2011
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Native American poet Smith

Thursday’s post on Joseph Brodsky reminded me of the hundreds of lines of poetry the Nobel poet made us memorize at university – an exercise some students defied and ridiculed, but my earlier training in Shakespearean theater taught me to appreciate.

If you want to own a poet, memorize his or her lines.  In this sense, as once said Brodsky, Nadezhda Mandelstam was more deeply married to poet Osip Mandelstam in her widowhood than her marriage, as she preserved his poems against the Soviet regime that would erase them:

“…repeating day and night the words of her dead husband was undoubtedly conneced not only with comprehending them more and more but also with resurrecting his very voice, the intonations peculiar only to him, with a however fleeting sensation of his presence … And gradually those things grew on her.  If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy. Gradually, the lines of those poets became her mentality, became her identity. They supplied her not only with the plane of regard or angle of vision; more importantly, they became her linguistic norm.”

But what do to do in an era when reading a 300-page book seems like an insurmountable task, and memorizing a poem seems – oh, such a leisurely activity in an increasingly hectic world?  OK, here’s two 8-line poems for you. See if you can get these out of your head – then memorize them, so you can’t.  No excuses.

The first, by William Jay Smith, is dark, cryptic, compact, and layered.  I think it’s one of the finest short poems of the 20th century. The second encapsulates one of Richard Wilbur‘s moments of incandescent euphoria.  (As he once said, “Giving up doesn’t always mean you are weak; sometimes it means that you are strong enough to let go.”)  Jay Parini writes that, in this poem, one of two in “Two Voices in a Meadow”: “Wilbur aspires to a Blakean intensity, with his casual lyricism achieving a kind of perfection rarely found among his contemporaries.”

Elizabeth Frank wrote nearly two decades ago in The Atlantic: “When the whole history of twentieth-century American poetry is eventually written, it will surely be revealed that despite the apparently larger and often noisier triumphs of ‘open’ forms, astonishingly good verse that we can call ‘metrical’ or ‘formal’ has continued to be written by some of the country’s best poets – Smith himself along with his contemporaries and near-contemporaries Richard Wilbur, John Hollander, and Anthony Hecht. That Smith has written poems replete with rhythm, rhyme, wit, and melody – what Louise Bogan called ‘the pleasures of formal poetry,’ in an essay by the same name – is cause for celebration, homage, and gratitude.”

I’ve had the privilege of meeting both nonagenarian poets – but that’s another story, for another time.  Both live in Cummington, Massachusetts.  Must be a delightful place for a visit, for that reason alone!

 

“Note on a Vanity Dresser”

The yes-man in the mirror now says no,
No longer will I answer you with lies.
The light descends like snow, so when the snow-
man melts, you will know him by his eyes.

The yes-man in the mirror now says no.
Says no. No double negative of pity
Will save you now from what I know you know:
These are your eyes, the cinders of your city.

 

“A Milkweed”

Anonymous as cherubs
Over the crib of God,
White seeds are floating
Out of my burst pod.
What power had I
Before I learned to yield?
Shatter me, great wind:
I shall possess the field.