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Thursday, 1 January 2009

Anna Akhmatova

To all my friends in the blogosphere I wish:

A Great and Good New Year.

Anna Akhmatova

A poet is someone to whom it is impossible to give anything and from whom it is impossible to take anything away: this a quote from Anna Akhmatova from whom an unbelievably vicious world had tried, at various times, to take pretty much everything away.

Nearly twenty years ago my son gave me a copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. I think maybe it had been on my wish list, but cannot remember for certain. For some considerable time I dipped into it, enjoying the dipping immensely, but without it really taking hold of me. And then I read:

The sky's dark blue lacquer has dimmed,
And louder the song of the ocarina.
It's only a little pipe of clay,
There's no reason for it to complain.
Who told it all my sins,
And why is it absolving me?...
Or is this a voice repeating
Your latest poems to me?

I had read it before, more than once. But this time it struck with more weight. It seemed more unusual and more exceptional in some way than it had seemed before. I found its impressionistic character charming, as I had from the first found most of the poems in the book. Perhaps it was just me, I thought. Perhaps it was the whisky I had been sipping... but in the morning I was still so hooked on it that I wrote it out and memorised it. Later I was to discover that Judith Hemschemeyer, Anna Akhmatova's translator, had also been struck by it - so struck, in fact, that she had spent three years learning Russian with the express intention of translating all Anna Akhmatova's poems. Which is how the book came about.

In the first poem of her first collection, Anna Akhmatova introduces what is perhaps the main theme of her work: love. I was reminded of this by a remark made by Rachel Fox at Crowd Pleasers to the effect that Some of the best poems are about love. Her post, then, was the inspiration for this one. Here, then is Anna Akhmatova's opening poem, Love.

Now like a little snake , it curls into a ball,
Bewitching your heart,
Then for days it will coo like a dove
On the little white window sill.

Or it will flash as bright frost
Drowse like a gilly flower...
But surely and stealthily it will lead you away
From joy and from tranquility.

It knows how to sob so sweetly
In the prayer of a yearning violin,
And how fearful to divine it
In a still unfamiliar smile.

As Hemschemeyer wrote: most of the poems in this first book show us two people bound together, grappling with their own and the beloved's emotions, struggling to get free, and once free, bewildered and empty. But Anna Akhmatova does introduce one more important theme in these first poems: her concern for her future place amongst the greats, and particularly her future place alongside Pushkin as his equal - and all that at the tender age of twenty two!

But there is another verse that is often interpreted in the same light, from years later, when she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize:

I would have crowned you myself, Fate!
Touched the immortal brow.
The Nobel Prize is not enough. Imagine
Coming up with something like this now!

The last line makes clear, I think, that the thought is not that the Nobel Prize is insufficient recognition for her genius (as I have heard suggested) but that the West's obsession with literary prizes is irrelevant beside the momentous things taking place in Russia at that time.

Under the Czars she suffered nothing worse than the complete bafflement of her compatriots by her poetry - and some condemnation from the women of Russia who were not too pleased about her effect on the men. After 1922, however, she was roundly condemned as a bourgeois - she came from a noble family, her real name being Anna Gorenko and Anna Akhmatova a pen name she had adopted at the request of her father, who had been much against her being known as a poet. She became severely restricted, allowed by the authorities to publish very little. Her family, including her son, would be hounded in the years to come, and some of her best friends were to die in the camps. Everything she had published under the Czars was condemned as remote from socialist reconstruction. In 1950 she was partly rehabilitated and allowed to publish a Collected. which, however, was not allowed to include Requiem. It was said that Requiem would never be published in Russia whilst the socialists were in power, and it never was.

Requiem (excerpt)

In place of a Preface:

In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison
queues in Leningrad. One day somebody 'identified' me. Beside me, in the
queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of
me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and
whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): "Can you describe
this?" And I said: "Yes, I can." And then something like the shadow of a
smile crossed what had once been her face.

1 April, 1957, Leningrad



Again the hands of the clock are nearing
The unforgettable hour. I see, hear, touch

All of you: the cripple they had to support
Painfully to the end of the line; the moribund;

And the girl who would shake her beautiful head and
Say: "I come here as if it were home."

I should like to call you all by name,
But they have lost the lists....

I have woven for them a great shroud
Out of the poor words I overheard them speak.

I remember them always and everywhere,
And if they shut my tormented mouth,

Through which a hundred million of my people cry,
Let them remember me also....

And if in this country they should want
To build me a monument

I consent to that honour,
But only on condition that they

Erect it not on the sea-shore where I was born:
My last links there were broken long ago,

Nor by the stump in the Royal Gardens,
Where an inconsolable young shade is seeking me,

But here, where I stood for three hundred hours
And where they never, never opened the doors for me

Lest in blessed death I should forget
The grinding scream of the Black Marias,

The hideous clanging gate, the old
Woman wailing like a wounded beast.

And may the melting snow drop like tears
From my motionless bronze eyelids,

And the prison pigeons coo above me
And the ships sail slowly down the Neva

This unbearably moving poem comes at the end of Akhmatova's great Requiem sequence, which she wrote during the oppression when her son was taken away by the police. It was for him that she stood in the lines outside the prison gates. Her husband, Nikolai Gumilev was executed in 1921 by the Bolsheviks. Changes in the political climate finally allowed her acceptance into the Writer's Union, but after WWII, she was thrown out of the Union and her son was arrested.

Because she did not abandon Russia during the terrors she became deeply loved by the Russian people.Her most accomplished works,Requiem and Poem Without a Hero, are reactions to the horrors of that time.

But the question remains: what did she achieve poetically? She broke with the vague constructions of the earlier Symbolist movement and adopted the style known as
Acmeism which lauded lucid, carefully-crafted verse. Within this she developed the impressionistic style which I have already mentioned.

So what did she achieve? I was asked this by a friend I chatted to recently about Akhmatova. In reply, I mentioned that she had lived through times as harrowing as any that humankind had managed to create or endure, that in spite of having had opportunities in plenty to escape she had refused to do either that or to forsake her poetry. Indeed, she had behaved throughout with the greatest heroism and had succeeded in encapsulating in her verse some of the most horrendous struggles and the deepest longings of her fellow Russians, as a consequence of which she was generally held in great love and esteem and regarded as one of the four truly great Russian poets of the twentieth century.Yes, my friend persisted, but what did she achieve poetically? I mentioned that she had been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and that seemed to satisfy him.

Here is another of my (many) favourites:

Somewhere there is a simple life and a world,
Transparent, warm and joyful. . .
There at evening a neighbor talks with a girl
Across the fence, and only the bees can hear
This most tender murmuring of all.
But we live ceremoniously and with difficulty
And we observe the rites of our bitter meetings,
When suddenly the reckless wind
Breaks off a sentence just begun --
But not for anything would we exchange this splendid
Granite city of fame and calamity,
The wide rivers of glistening ice,
The sunless, gloomy gardens,
And, barely audible, the Muse's voice.


Bill Stankus said...

Sam Maloof, who builds masterpiece furniture, has said - a chair can look OK but it has to fit and be comfortable in order to be a good chair.

That seat of pants knowledge applies to many things, including poetry.

Shadow said...

you are introducing me to some wonderful poets. thank you for that. her words truly speak.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

I'm with Shadow here - one of my resolutions for 2009 is to read more poetry, especially from poets I'm unfamiliar with, and you're a big help with this!

I'm intrigued by this though:
Yes, my friend persisted, but what did she achieve poetically?
It seems like a strange question to me. My answer would be that a poet writes poems, and thus their poetic achievement is those poems, good or bad, unknown or famous.
I presume, from the friend's response when you told them about the Nobel Prize, that it wasn't her poetic achievements they wanted to know, but the achievements of her poems... (Hmmm. Sorry. Got convoluted there.)

The Weaver of Grass said...

Don't think poets ever write in the hope of achieving anything - I think, like all creative people, they write because they have to. These Russian "artists" who stayed put and lived through it all are to be so admired. Some years ago I went across Russia on the Trans-Siberian and we stopped at remote stations where old ladies sold jacket potatoes and such like to train passengers on the platform. It struck me then that some of these old ladies had the whole of Russian history written on their faces. There is poetry in everything in Russia I find - even if it is not written down.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

A truly Happy New Year to you. I love my visits here and am glad we "met"!

I am off to read more of this amazing poet!! Thank you for the introduction to her.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Thank you, Dave, for introducing me to a "new" poet for me (I'd heard the name but never read her poems). Always a delight to read your blog.

Elizabeth said...

I wish I had people around me to talk about poetry with - it's one of the delights of my life - but lately I'm feeling bereft of it.
You make me want to go to Russia with all its tragic, glorious history.
Greetings for the new year.

Tumblewords: said...

Profound - I'll follow to learn more about her. Thank you!

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting poet. I haven't heard of her. I prefer poems about nature and time as opposed to ones about love - they always feel a bit cheesy to me. Images resonate more than descriptions of mood.

Happy New Year!

Sorlil said...

I adore Akhmatova's poetry so I'm delighted to see you post on her. I also have her complete poems translated by Hemschemeyer and I think she is by far the best translator of Akhmatova (not that I can speak Russian of course, I just prefer her translations). Does your volume have the photo biography also? I love the pictures in it.
Her poem, 'At the Edge of the Sea', is one of my favourites.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2009!

willow said...

Happy New Year to you and yours!

I'm off to find a copy of her poetry. Thank you.

Dave King said...

Indeed, I think we regularly undervalue seat-of-pants knowledge.

I think you may find icreasingly so as you read more.

Yes, absolutely, so many people< I find, follow the judgement of so-called experts. It has been quite noticeable, that on occasions when I have told friends and acquaintances that I have a blog, they don't ask what it's about, but only how many hits I get. As they don't run into millions, they simply nod and change the subject. (they are not all like that, I stress!)

Weaver of Grass
I am sure you are absolutely right in all of that. I have never been to Russia, alas, but I can picture those Russian ladies and I think I see vicariously that history in their faces.

Pamela, Terry and Edward
I am sure (hope) your new year will be even more blessed from having done so.

Thanks. Hope you enjoy your reading - I am sure you will.

I, too, feel the lack of people around me with whom to talk of such things. I suppose it's one of the reasons - the main one, probably) why I blog.

Sarah Laurence
Know what you mean. I think that's the main reason I took so long to get to grips with her poetry.

Yes, I do have the photo biography in my edition. Fascinating pictures.

You will not regret doing so, I know.

J. C. said...

Best wishes Dave. Discovering your blog last year was one of the nice things that happened for me.

Dave King said...

And best wishes also. Really good having you aboard. Thanks

Lucy said...

Interesting indeed. I've only read a few poems of hers a long while ago in anthologies, and thinking back, probably largely anthologies of love poetry. I realise I'm somewhat in agreement with Sarah L., that I don't care so much for love poetry now, though it was what first got me reading, and writing, poems.

I think perhaps poems about spousal, contented sort of love are possibly rather self-satisfied and uninteresting, and the wild, painful, demented, betimes unrequited kind of stuff I've presumably grown out of, or consider as possibly something of an affectation anyway!

But to come back to Akhmatova... she seems to translate quite well, though without any knowledge of Russian I suppose one can't really tell,but I wonder if that clear lucid style is something to do with it .Or perhaps she has good translators.

I shall look out more for her. Though, as you found, perhaps one just has to come at the poetry at the right moment, I often find that.

Happy New Year to you and yours Dave, and thanks so much for all you do, both here and your encouragement and positivity elsewhere too.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an introduction to another new poet.

Kelly said...

Thank you for stopping by my blog, Dave. I'll be back to visit yours as well and will be following you. I particularly like this last poem you shared in this post. Kelly

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I don'tknow her poetry from any other translator - except in anthologies where, as you might expect, it also reads rather well. Might be interesting to try to track down some other translators.
And a really good new year to you and yours.

Hope you will enjoy.

Welcome and thanks for the comment. I much enjoyed my visit to you.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Marvellous poems dear Dave, in particular the pace and intensity of this last one "Granite city of fame and calamity..."
Great post.

Tommaso Gervasutti said...

Marvellous poems dear Dave, in particular the pace and intensity of this last one "Granite city of fame and calamity..."
Great post.

Carl said...

The imagery stuns me at first read. I find these poems haunting and can not believe that this powerful stuf with such moving language is a translation. I will have to get a book of her poems and imerse myself in them. I can see why her translator strove to learn Russian.

Thanks for this great post!


It is as though you have introduced me to a new friend. I thank you.

High Desert Diva said...

I quite like that last favorite of yours...

Thanks for the intro.

Dave King said...

An extraordinary poet, I have come to think - but it took me a while.
Thanks for that.

I agree that they do not read or sound like translations. Even more incredible in that regard is the fact that the translator had only been learning Russian for 3 years.

I hope - am sure - it will be a happy relationship. Thanks for commenting.

High Desert Diva
And thanks for the feedback.

hope said...

Just wanted to stop by and wish you all the best in the New Year!

Been a little fuzzy for the past week as the antibiotics given to me at Christmas for bronchitis have the worst side effects ever!

But I am clear headed enough to let you know how much I enjoy visiting here and look forward to more!

JaneyV said...

Dave - a very Happy New Year to you. What a beautiful post. We who read you benefit greatly from your years in education as you have a very easy manner with which you impart quite complex information. What I was struck by in reading these extracts is the extraordinary rawness that developed in her writing. It feels barren and yet rich with emotion.

I cannot even conceive of what it must have been like to have lived in Russia (particularly in the thirties and forties). European history of that era is so brutal and cold it freezes the soul to read about it. This has been an interesting journey. Thank you for introducing us to Anna.

mansuetude said...

if you had given a starved man a Thanksgiving meal, i couldn't be more full from your post.

I love this "It's only a little pipe of clay,
There's no reason for it to complain.
Who told it all my sins,
And why is it absolving me?"

It has happened to me so often, to read poetry and feel no entrance door to a deep well of response, then one glance and some phrase is embedded within me, calling.

I have not spent a lot of time with Akhmatova, have always felt locked out of her somehow, or not ready... maybe it is her choice of form, as you mention. But now, after this i am going to get that collection and try.


Barry said...

This is a great way to get the year off to a start.

Thanks Dave!

Dave King said...

Many thanks for your good New Year wishes, which I return. Hope all goes well for you and yours - and the fuzziness soon clears. I can elate to that as I am on them (low dose) long term, unfortunately - not that it's the head they affect in my case!

And a happy New Year to you and yours. I completely agree with you, both about the history and the poetry of the time.

I had exactly that feeling for a long time: the sense of being locked out of her inner world. For me it was one poem that turned the key - and then to discover that it had been the same poem that had inspired her translator, was somehow magical.

No, thank you!

Anonymous said...

I'll keep my eyes out for Akhmatova's poetry. Thanks Dave. I have been thinking, increasingly often of late, about the question "Why poetry" and this post has given me a bit more context. Cheers.

acornmoon said...

Dear Dave,

Once again you have introduced me to a fascinating poet. Didn't she have an amazing profile? It must be very difficult to translate poetry like that, how very clever.

Happy New Year to you also.



Lucas said...

I think the extracts you have chosen from Akmhatova are very moving and illustrate her incredible intensity as a poet. Of course, translation makes a huge difference. Russian poets seem to translate very well into English. I have read quite a bit and there seems to be a peculiar rhythm in English which is generated solely by translating Russian poetry. One thing about the Russian people that makes them special is their inate love of poetry.

oximoron said...

This is a beautiful post. I love the poems of Akhmatova. I speak Russian, and I can read her originally. It's the more beautiful.

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