Posts Tagged ‘Osip Mandelstam’

Gjertrud Schnackenberg on the sound of poetry and the “unaging, perpetual chant” of bees

Monday, July 29th, 2019
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“We live in a vast sound universe.”

Gjertrud Schnackenberg, the great poet with the impossible name, has a two-part interview here and here. It’s not recent: the interview was published five years ago over  Canadian poet Susan Gillis’s top-notch blog (a more recent interview is here). There’s an even older interview with Jonathan Galassi, her publisher at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux over at Bloodaxe Books here. The 2011 piece is also excellent. Here’s an excerpt from the Gillis blog:

Poetry’s sympathetic vibration is like a buzzing tuning fork that awakens a nearby tuning fork to its own buzzing, or like a detonation in the street outside that inspires a door inside to pop open, or like the kung-note struck by the lute-tuner in ancient China to provoke a nearby lute-string to sound its own kung-note – or like the reverberations of the big bang still resounding and vibrating throughout all that exists: we live in a vast sound-universe, which is, mercifully, largely inaudible to us, but nonetheless oscillating everywhere, from superstrings to supernovae. Thousands of years ago, in the practice of meditation, the Vedic seers detected this perpetual vibration, and called it the “unstruck sound.” I think this pre-existent, anterior vibration is the force-field from which poets and composers strike their sound-worlds. Or perhaps it is the other way around: generative, reverberative, fugitive – and billions of years deeper and older than any vocabulary – the pitches, undertones, overtones, harmonies, dissonances, white noise, and rhythm-oceans from which we’re made, and in which we’re immersed, are an auditory, and sub-auditory, equivalent of the Poet’s description of poetry in Timon of Athens, when he says that whereas the “fire i’ the flint shows not till it be struck,” this unstruck thing – poetry – “provokes itself.”

He heard a hum…

Mallarmé describes the sympathetic vibration of poetry as being characteristically always on the verge of vanishing, a vibration in whose vanishing trace the poem “begins itself.” Less subtly, more concertedly, Mandelstam repeatedly describes what amounts to the “autonomous force” of poetry, and unforgettably, in Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam describes the “hum” that Mandelstam heard (and suffered) as a prelude to the starting-up of a poem, a hum that engulfed him, sometimes stopping him in his tracks, sometimes driving him out of doors to pace the streets, and often “tormenting him with its resonance” until he was able to start and finish the poem and be rid of it — a hum so audible and palpable to him that he told his wife that she should be able to hear it as well:

I witnessed his throes at such close quarters that M. always thought I must also be able to hear the “hum.” He even reproached me sometimes for not having caught part of it.

In ancient Greece, poetry and the art of writing were associated not only with gods and their divine concerns, but with honeybees. I love this ancient association, not only for its metaphor of honeyed speech, which is largely what the Greeks meant, but also for its dimension of resounding auditory energy. Personally, for me, the under-resonance I hear in a true poem is indistinguishable from the resonating buzz of a beehive; for me, poetry has to thrum. In the presence of poetry I love, when I read it silently, I often gradually (or sometimes abruptly) begin to overhear this seamless, thrumming continuum of bees preoccupied with their unaging, perpetual chant, their sonic evocation of the “unstruck sound.”

Read the whole interview here and here.

Russia: “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Thursday, December 27th, 2018
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Osip Mandelstam died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on this day, December 27, 1938. Here’s his NKVD photo from the same year. “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed,” he wrote. “Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

 

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

True to himself: Khalid al-Assad and what he “lovest well”

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015
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archeolgue

His unbroken spectacles were by his feet.

By now we all know the story. Last week, Khalid al-Assad, the 83-year-old director of the antiquities at Palmyra, was brutally butchered by ISIS. He had been held for about a month before he was beheaded, but steadfastly refused to divulge the location of ancient city’s finest treasures.  It was a murder “aimed at killing civilization, modernity, and all of humanity,” according to Syrian philosopher and thinker Ahmed Barqawi.

Khalil al-Hariri, a relative of Asaad’s, said that the scholar’s deep connections with “every artifact and every stone” in Palmyra meant he would not abandon his home. “Asaad refused to leave the city, although he was aware of the danger he was facing,” Hariri said. “They brought him to the square in a black van, then used loudspeakers to call for people to come and watch the execution,” Palmyra resident Abu Mohammed al-Tadmuri said after news of Asaad’s killing broke.

And naturally ISIS showed the pictures. From the same Atlantic article (here):

A graphic photo shared by ISIS accounts on social media purported to show Asaad’s bloodied and headless body hung by an orange rope on what looks like a traffic light. The elderly man’s head, its spectacles still intact, had been placed on the ground between his feet. A handwritten placard tied to the body identified the victim as “the apostate Khalid Muhammad al-Asaad” and accused him of being loyal to the “Nusayri regime,” a derogatory term for the Alawite government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He died in vain … from one angle, anyway. Palmyra was destroyed, and ISIS today released the photos of the destruction of the city, which was a caravan stop four millennia ago. It was part of the Seleucid Empire and, after the first century, part of the Roman Empire. Now it is rubble. I will not link to the photos, which are everywhere online, because the week belongs instead to Khalid al-Assad. He was Palmyra’s flowering achievement, rather than the other way around: He was a civilized man. I haven’t read much about this latest atrocity. There have been so many (and I’ve written about them here and here and here and here, among other places), but far and away the best thing I’ve read so far is by Henry Gould over at his blog, HG Poetics. In fact, it’s the reason for this post:

Asaad’s devoted life & iconic death reminded me of some remarks by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, about how a person’s death somehow sums up and defines their life.  This was certainly true in his own case : Mandelstam died a victim of a personal vendetta by another Osip (his evil twin), Joseph Stalin – after Mandelstam had written a brief satirical poem featuring Stalin as its target.  Not a prudent thing to do in 1930’s Russia (nor in today’s Russia either, as a matter of fact).  Yet Mandelstam had a commitment to something beyond his personal survival.  As did Khalid al-Asaad.  This is perhaps the “true” form of martyrdom, which, unlike the standard model popular today, does not require the mass murder of innocent bystanders in order to achieve its glorified apotheosis in Paradise.  No, you only have to give up your own life. …

Pound

The last word.

I would rather stand with Khalid al-Asaad, devoted as he was to some local piles of classical statues & pillars & broken ancient ruins.  His devotion & his death reminded me of some lines of another fanatic old codger, Ezra Pound (from Canto LXXXI) :

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
.
.
Read the whole thing here.

The questionable utility of the dancing bear, or, the future of the humanities

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013
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dancing-bear

The role of the humanities in our society

The New York Times’ article,  “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” once again decries declining enrollment.  I don’t understand why this should come as a surprise to anyone. The humanities are devalued everywhere you look in our society – so why should kids study them?  The humanities are prized only when we can hook them up to consumer interests, make them turn a coin, demand that they entertain us.  There’s always the implicit threat that if we can’t get the bear to dance, the poor old fellow will be put down.

In the world of education, we value humanities only if we can team people onto digital projects that make cool onscreen images or turn them into rap lyrics to make them palatable for the kids. I applaud a lot of these efforts, and appreciate their intent, but they’re rather beside the point.  Coolness and likability aren’t the reason Ovid was exiled, why Osip Mandelstam died scavenging a rubbish heap in a transit camp, why Reinhold Schneider was slated for trial and probable execution had the Third Reich not fallen first, or why André Brink was banned in South Africa.  And it certainly wasn’t why Joseph Brodsky, when I studied with him, made us memorize hundreds of lines of Robert Frost, W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy, and others – in fact, it made him distinctly unfashionable; some kids fled the class rather than make the effort.  William Shakespeare can be mutilated, but he can’t be tamed.  As one teacher said, after a student had made a snarky, sophomoric comment about Hamlet:  “Mister, when you read Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s not on trial. You are.”  And that is the point.

André_Brink_Portrait

Censored in South Africa (Photo: Creative Commons)

The tacit, self-calming assumption behind our continual cuts in the arts and humanities has always been always that the eternal things are durable, and will survive our neglect.  However, these values must be inculcated and passed on – a baby isn’t born appreciating the subtleties of Piero della Francesco or Raoul Dufy, after all.  Anything that isn’t fed eventually withers.  (I know; I have a garden to prove it.)  I’m told by those who teach that we now have a generation of young people who, in large measure, no longer ponder the terms of their existence or question their reason for being.  Tomorrow is for another pizza, ace-ing the PSAT, or another video game.  The “Holocaust” is a description of a description of Black Friday sales; the Civil Rights movement has something to do with … what?  Will I be graded on it?  I know, I know – it’s the “same old,” isn’t it?  But a serious study of history, another one of the humanities, would show that civilization is a delicate, perishable thing, appearing and disappearing throughout the centuries, and we can never take its continuance for granted (read Constantine Cavafy, Zbigniew Herbert, or the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam). When we don’t pass it on, we break a fundamental chain of civilization. We’ll pay the price down the road … wait, we already are – but it’s not taking the form we had anticipated.

Reinhold-SchneiderI’m also tired of cheesy efforts to defend the humanities, which pander to the standards of our society, which are themselves a broken fence in need of repair. In any case, the fence is broken, in part, by the abandonment of literature, art, and music as the commitment of a civilized society, rather than a “frill.” I’m not saying a Haydn string quartet will save your life, but what often passes for music when I’m put on “hold” when calling my credit card company might be seen as the shocking invasion of psychological space that it is.  Sloppy thinking is everywhere, and not the province of one political party or the other – and the fact that it is inevitably attributed to the “other” in itself shows what a bad pass we’ve come to (it’s something that might have been corrected with an introductory study of Carl Jung, or René Girard, for that matter). Our political life is riddled with clichés that should be jeered offstage, because it’s a nasty way to use your Mother Tongue.  Technology, which has the power for good, has accelerated our race to the bottom, just as nuclear power, which could rescue nations, propels us toward annihilation.

Rant over.  Whew!  Not to worry!  I’m back on my medication now.  More on this subject in the coming days…from better minds than Humble Moi!  I’ll start with one of them, Michel Serres, of Stanford and the Académie Française.  I’ve featured it before, and recently, but if you haven’t seen it, please listen to his description of the fate of the humanities.  It’s not pretty.

 

Who knew that Stalin was a lit critic?

Monday, June 25th, 2012
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Everything you wanted to know and lots, lots more. (1902 photo)

Just can’t get enough of Jozef Stalin?  Yale University Press is putting lots more online.  Two decades ago, who would have thought that visitors to a public library could  pore over Stalin’s marginalia and notes? Thanks to an effort by the press and the Russian State Archive for Social and Political History,  Stalin’s personal archive has been digitized, including of thousands of documents, letters, and books. You can read about it here.

According to Vadim Staklo, who heads the project, the Stalin archives are the latest in a research and publishing program that has its roots in the Annals of Communism series that Yale started in the early ’90s, which has already unearthed rich material from the Communist Party archives. Said Staklo:

“The popular perception of Soviet leaders mainly comes from the movies – you know, sclerotic stodgy men with thick eyebrows and golden stars on the lapel,” says Staklo. “In real life however many early Bolshevik leaders were very active, lively unorthodox people from very different walks of life. Some were refined intellectuals, others came from humbler origins, some were good writers… and some knew how to draw. These are the images people drew in the margins during the long hours of party meetings. There are caricatures, and also satirical depictions of current events and issues. They went unseen for decades as most of the artists fell victim to repression. They’re not just pictures however – they tell a story about early Soviet politics and personal relations on the Bolshevik Olympus, and the problems they had to deal with on the daily basis.”

There was, for example, the man Lenin called “The Golden Boy of the Revolution” – Nikolai Bukharin.  We wrote about him here. He probably had lots of marginalia, too.  That might be why Stalin had him executed in 1938.

“The common perception is that Stalin was brutal, paranoiac and senseless. But if you read the notes he was making you can see that, yes he may have been brutal and paranoiac – but he was not stupid. For example, he was very keen on the arts as the most important vehicle for propaganda and he read every important play or screenplay offered by a theater or screenwriter. He read them carefully, and wrote long letters to the authors or producers with his comments. He also personally supervised and heavily revised the Short Course In The History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This was one of the most important books in the USSR, and you can see that it went through many drafts and that Stalin essentially rewrote the entire volume completely.”

One rather wishes, in fact, that he had been less attentive.  His interest in Osip Mandelstam and his poems – in particular, some verse ridiculing the Soviet chieftain – proved fatal.   (Mandelstam wrote that the words and influence of this “Kremlin crag-dweller” and “peasant-slayer” on literature were “leaden,” his “fat fingers … greasy as maggots.”)  Mandelstam died in a transit camp in the same momentous year that killed Bukharin – 1938.

In a recent interview with Chris Wiman, who recently published some “versions” of Mandelstam’s poems, the editor of Poetry Magazine was asked: “Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era ‘made’ Mandelstam as a poet?”  Wiman replied:

Honestly, I don’t think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.

"The Sun!"

Then there’s this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn’t been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam’s best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.

Joseph Brodsky would have agreed: ‘It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills.  Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted.  Basically, talent doesn’t need history.”

In any case, Mandelstam had the last word after all.  Poets always do.

The ranks of human heads dwindle: they’re far away.
I vanish there, one more forgotten one.
But in loving words, in childrens’ play,
I shall rise again, to say – the Sun!