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.
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.