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50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— VĂ­ctor Rodríguez Núñez

Peter Oram, from The Page and the Fire


The early years of the twentieth century saw a remarkable flourishing in the life of Russian poetry. The so-called Symbolist movement had reached a kind of culmination with Alexander Blok, but out of its embers there arose a number of energetic poet-groups, each with its own bright stars and lesser satellites, its own principles and manifestos, its own self-important label. Acmeism, Futurism, Ego-Futurism, the Centrifuge... if one thing was common to these widely-differing movements it was an urge to put aside the deliberate obscurity, the ambiguity and the mystic pretensions that had become the poetic vogue, and replace them with a new linguistic honesty and directness. These cliques would, though, be of little interest to us today had they not fostered the early development of poets of such stature as Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky or Pasternak.

At a time in Russian history like no other, with its tumultuous changes on the largest scale, and its high ideals that would soon dissolve into disillusion, repression and terror, it's perhaps not surprising that the various practitioners of what is essentially a solitary art should be particularly aware of one another's existence and activities, and that there should be a mutual nurturing of common bonds. This may at least partly explain the unusually high incidence, in the works of the major figures, of poems to, about, or in memory of other poets of the time. It is a selection of such verse that this book presents, together with some examples of the same tradition as it continues through the subsequent decades. It is by no means exhaustive, and in many cases a poem included is only one of a whole cycle of poems by the same writer to the same recipient.

Such a monothematic anthology might prove a tedious read, were it not for the first-rank quality of the poets and their highly-differentiated voices. Compare the almost classical, yet thoroughly modern, purity of Mandelstam with, say, the electric vitality of Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky's thundering rhythms and colloquialisms with Pasternak's restrained quatrains and unexpected metaphors, or Severyanin's pitiless irreverence with Akhmatova's simple, acutely sensitive profundity. Where there are a number of items addressed to one poet, it is illuminating to witness the various perceptions as they contrast with, or corroborate, one another and so build up a three-dimensional picture of the individual concerned. Several of the examples are in memoriam, and it is a tragic fact that many of these lives were to end in suicide, execution, or a wretched death in exile. Nevertheless, I believe that this little collection reflects and confirms an inextinguishable vitality in Russian poetic life and the unshakeable faith of the Russian poet in the written word.

A note on the translations

It is generally taken for granted that a true and complete translation of poetry is impossible. And quite rightly so. Any pair of languages is, in the words of Borges, 'not a set of interchangeable synonyms but two possible ways of ordering reality', and even such a simple word as tree says something different to us than Baum says to a German, or árbol to a Spaniard. And even if one could communicate the literal sense of each word, what of its connotations, associations, and the particular resonance in both the ear and the heart of its unique blend of sounds? When we call into consideration the numerous other elements — rhythm, metre, rhyme, alliteration and assonance, wordplays and double meanings, and everything else that contributes to a poem's individual essence — then the translator's task does indeed become not only impossible but also highly presumptuous.

In Russian, the problems are compounded in many ways. The sound-patterns and word-structures of the language are supremely versatile and allow the poet to play with the language in a way that is unimaginable for us. Furthermore, a Russian word may have half a dozen or more syllables, yet only one main stress, and thus the Russian equivalent of the ten-syllable pentameter has lightness, spring and a forward dynamic, whereas the English iambics can plod dreadfully if they are not handled with great care — a dangerous trap for the translator. Other factors are the absence of the definite and indefinite article in Russian, and of the present tense of the verb 'to be', and the limited number of verb-tenses in general. In English, such things often have to be pinned down, and indeed the image of a colourful butterfly impaled on a pin is not far off the mark for much translation of Russian poetry.

In the light of the above, I've preferred to be modest in my ambitions, accepting that I can't do the impossible. I've done my best to convey the literal meaning of each poem as accurately as I'm able, in clear and intelligible contemporary English. This is the least one must do. Beyond this, I've reproduced, where it didn't require forcing the issue on principle, the general structure: line count, verse-form, rhyme patterns — and also meter, though this latter especially can never truly reflect or do justice to the original. Finally, I have worked and reworked each translation as I would a poem of my own, listening to its voice and responding to it, fine-tuning it, until I felt that it 'spoke', and that it could stand upon its own as a humble, yet sincere, homage to the original.

It was never my intention to recreate these poems in my own image as, for example, Don Paterson has done with Machado in The Eyes, where his own poetic identity is at least as present as that of the poet he translates (which in no way implies a deprecation of his fine work). I've tried to keep my own identity well in the background, and although these translations can never, even to a small extent, assume the status of the originals, I'd like to hope that they might be used by those who have little or no knowledge of Russian yet wish to find a way to 'meet' the Russian poets of the twentieth century. I'd like them to serve as mirrors in which one may, by looking carefully, see the originals dimly reflected.