Posts Tagged ‘Natalia Gorbanevskaya’

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

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

“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.”


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

She never sniveled: Natalia Gorbanevskaya (1936-2013)

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Free. (Photo: Dmitry Kuzmin)

The Russian poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya declared unequivocally that, for a poet, living in an alien land is “a source of new potency.”

It’s lucky that she thought so, because she really had no choice.  The dissident writer fled the Soviet Union for Paris in the 1970s. And that’s where she died, last night, at 77.  In one of those odd synchronicities, I had been excerpting a poem she wrote for something I was writing – perhaps the first time ever that I had done so. As soon as I finished typing, I clicked to my Facebook page, and the director of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Mikhail Iossel, mentioned  her death in the very top post on my screen.

According to her first translator and champion, Daniel Weissbort, writing in 1974, “Gorbanyevskaya has been a leading civil rights activist, one of the seven to demonstrate in Red Square on 5 August 1968 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Because of her infant child, she was not tried along with the other demonstrators, and she continued to agitate on their behalf, compiling an account of their trial, Noon (published in England as Red Square at Noon). In December 1969 Gorbanyevskaya was herself finally arrested, and in April 1970 was declared to be suffering from schizophrenia and placed in a psychiatric prison hospital, first in Moscow, then in Kazan, where a course of drug treatment was administered. There has recently been a good deal of agitation in the West about the misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union as a means of dealing with dissenters, and whether for this reason or for some other, Gorbanyevskaya was released in February 1972.” Red Square at Noon included not only Weissbort’s translations of her poems, but a transcript of her trial, papers relating to her hospital detention, and an assessment by a British psychiatrist of her mental condition, based on evidence then available.

“One might suppose that Gorbanyevskaya verse would reflect her political activity,” Weissbort continued. “It is, on the contrary, intensely personal and non-public. It transcends politics, not accusing, but describing the psychic reality of her situation. One generation, has had the capacity of transmute her suffering into a universal image. The staccato pulse of her work, the near-hysterical shrillness, recall the poetry of that other poet of suffering, the great Marina Tsvetaeva. In Gorbanyevskaya’s love lyrics, the old Russian mystique of regeneration through suffering is evoked (this appears, less intensely, in Yuli Daniel’s poetry too). Physical love becomes an ordeal like Christ’s on the Cross. Gorbanyevskaya has had the immense courage to remain vulnerable. Hers is the poetry of pain, of separation, of isolation, of despair, of threatening disaster, of disaster present.”

In Gorbanevskaya’s 1991 interview, the poet had an upbeat outlook on her flight for survival:  “I think that we poets are in general enriched by the experience of emigration or exile. Well, if we don’t snivel … that is if we don’t just start to describe the exotica or just start getting nostalgic – in so far as we are submissive to the language, we bring to it everything that we can beg, borrow or steal from other languages. And the language, in so far as it is grateful to us, has yet more to give us in return.”

She never sniveled.  I met Gorbanevskaya in Kraków in 2011. As I wrote here:  “The poet, by then in her midseventies, was short and unfashionably dressed, with short, grizzled hair and thick stockings. She held the small stub of a cigarette like a defiant wand, its end glowing in the dying day on a sidestreet in Kazimierz. When she spoke to me, in French (Paris has been her home since 1976), her voice was probing and intelligent, her eye contact unflinching. She seemed tough-​minded, durable, and utterly lacking in self-​pity.”

I didn’t know her well, but Daniel Weissbort, who died a few days ago (I wrote about that here), did.  So I’ll let him speak. From his book, From Russian with Love:  “While I appreciated the opportunity of working with a poetry so different from my own and indeed from the Russian poetry to which I had previously been drawn, I also suspected that I did not have the language adequately to express the agony, even if as a reader I was responsive.” At that time, Joseph Brodsky had just arrived in the West, and Weissbort didn’t realize that he was a friend of the Moscow poet:


After her release from prison.

“Anyway, as far as I can remember, we were lingering at the front of the Queen Elizabeth Hall auditorium, just below the stage, perhaps during an interval at the end of that day’s readings, when Brodsky said to me, apropos of the Gorbanevskaya versions (it surprised me that he was aware of them: ‘If you were to die tomorrow, would you want to be judged by these translations?’

It seemed unlikely that this was a simple inquiry! I must have been somewhat shocked. Not only because we had just met, but also because his remark echoed, if more forcefully than I would have put it myself, my own doubts and anxieties about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about the whole business of poetry translation, as well as about my Gorbanevskaya versions. Although I had read the account of her trial and, in addition to translating her poetry, had also written about her ‘ordeal’, I doubt whether I had much grasp of its significance. I imagine that Joseph was trying to get across the gravity of a situation when art, in a way, was all you had; that is, he was not merely suggesting that my translations left much to be desired. Though I took what he said as a comment on the translations, I may have received the other message too, since I did not respond as defensively as might have been expected. …. my translations were largely the product of a kind of optimism. That they had their moments was perhaps the best that could be said of them. Still, I realized that, though possibly wrong-headed, Joseph was not being unkind or malicious. Certainly he was not mealy-mouthed, but this helped me begin to see that the context was larger than one simply of translation, the translation of words. My first exchange with Brodsky, thus, took the form of a kind of summons to greater personal commitment. What such a commitment might entail, in his view, was not immediately clear to me, although I already suspected that, prosodically at least, it had to do with formal imitation, the point being that this had a moral dimension.”

Here’s my favorite poem from Red Square at Noon, which I bought in the 1970s.  The 1961 poem has remained my favorite ever since.  In fact, it was the poem I was transcribing when I heard that she had died. In English and Russian:

redsquareIn my own twentieth century
where there are more dead than graves
to put them in, my miserable
forever unshared love

among those Goya images
is nervous, faint, absurd,
as, after the screaming of jets,
the trump of Jericho.

В моем родном двадцатом веке,
где мертвых больше, чем гробов,
моя несчастная, навеки
неразделенная любовь

средь этих гойевских картинок
смешна, тревожна и слаба,
как после свиста реактивных
иерихонская труба.

Update on 12/3:  Obituary from Agence France-Presse/The Raw Story here.  New York Times obituary here.

The Poles throw a party: postcard from Kraków

Monday, May 9th, 2011

Jagiellonian University's Collegium Novum

When the Poles throw a party – they don’t settle for half-measures.  And what better occasion than the Czesław Miłosz centenary?  This is easily the most lavish, labor-intensive, high-class shindig of its kind I’ve ever attended.

We’re not just talking about the obvious:  swag bags with books and DVDs; Miłosz pencils, pens, and t-shirts; Miłosz’s signature on the dinner napkins, and just about everywhere else.  It’s not only the stunning setting at Jagiellonian University, one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Collegium Novum's Assembly Room

Everyone is here:  Derek Walcott, Bei Dao, Thomas Venclova, Adonis, Natalia Gorbanevskaya, and Adam Michnik are among the luminaries – but only among. There are many more.

Queen Jadwiga's portrait watches over us

Though the Book Haven has been relatively silent lately, obviously I have not been idly eating bonbons.  Or at least, not only. This conference at the university’s Collegium Novum and the “Miłosz Pavilion” has pretty much been running me ragged – and the Milosz365 festival continues into the weekend and next week.

And organizers Jerzy Illg, publisher of Znak, and Aleksander Fiut, Miłosz scholar, have bags under their eyes …  Well, they’re not the only ones.

Consider this a down payment.  More later.

Postscript on 5/14:  Walcott’s a no-show, nobody knows why, though a pleasant, vague letter was read by Jerzy Illg at one of the events.  I understand this is not the first time Walcott has bailed.