Poetry and the Russian Soul

Review: The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, ed. Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski

Alexander Pushkin / Wikimedia Commons

Walk along the Neva River in St. Petersburg and eventually you will come upon a willowy bronze depiction of 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She is caught mid-motion, her head half turned toward Kresty prison across the river, where hundreds of Stalin’s victims were murdered—including her husband, poet Nikolai Gumilyov. Memorials like this preserve history and the truth, despite efforts at erasure, but statues can be knocked down. Poetry, on the other hand, is more resilient.

In the most miserable or joyous conditions, Russians have found value in poetry. As a national art form, it has largely maintained its integrity because of the intimate mode of its transmission. These facts make The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, a wide-ranging and well curated anthology of poems edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski, an ideal introduction to the Russian soul from the 18th century to the 21st.

The editors of this anthology were determined to expose their English-speaking audience to valuable but little-known Russian poetry. They do not avoid including a poet simply because he or she is difficult to translate, or because they did not attain the same fame in the West as other writers. Nor did the editors let the pressure of political correctness suppress their judgment.

"Bryusov is a dull poet," they write of one of the leaders of the Symbolist movement, Valery Bryusov. "We include the following poem because it has been so well translated by Padraic Breslin, who deserves to be remembered." As for the difficult matter of translation, the anthology draws on a variety of translators (including the editors themselves), sometimes giving multiple translations for one poem in an attempt to reconcile the tug-of-war between form and meaning.

The short author biographies can be almost as intriguing as the poems themselves. Russian poets seem to be intense people: Symbolist Zinaida Gippius would dress up in men’s clothes and insult her guests just to get a rise out of them; Maximilian Voloshin would recite his mystifying, prophetic poetry in order to convince government officials to let innocents live; Alexander Blok was an "unhealthy and morbid" poet who polarized literary circles with a single poem, ‘The Twelve,’ which compares the march of 12 Bolsheviks to the Twelve Apostles.

What’s more, many of these poets were conscious of their strange destiny and believed it to be a result of their unique talent. In his poem ‘In the Bottomless Pit,’ Voloshin writes:

…Dark the destiny of Russian poets
and inscrutable the roads they trod:
Pushkin stood before a duelling pistol,
Dostoevsky faced the firing squad.

In terms of breadth, this anthology comprehensively reviews major shifts in form and content, starting with Romanticism and Realism in the so-called Golden Age of the 18th century, then moving on to formalized movements in the Silver Age of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Symbolism (which saw poems as mystical and subjective), Futurism (which experimented with sound and shape), Acmeism (which valued precision and scenes of everyday life), Absurdism, and later the Russian bards, who set their poetry to guitar music.

While the poems included in this book are striking in their diversity, Russian poets are strongly beholden to a common tradition. For example, later poets often reference or call upon foundational poets in their works, depicting them as though they were legends. Certain themes are also repeated throughout the anthology, such as the poets’ reflections on poetry itself as a transcendent, metaphysical monument. In ‘Exegi Monumentum,’ the father of Russian poetry Alexander Pushkin predicted that his poems would be even more durable than stone:

I have built, though not in stone, a monument to myself;
the path that leads to it will not be overgrown;
indomitably, the summit of my monument rises
higher than Alexander’s column…

A century later, Lev Ozerov described the power of poetry to keep his friend, the Soviet Yiddish poet Shmuel Halkin, alive, even after his death. Halkin is taken to the gulag. He is certain that he will die, but also that he will survive through poetry, so he begins writing "on the paper of memory."

There was no paper,
but Halkin was writing.
Poems piled up.
A terrible burden.

Then, just when he thought he had used "his last scrap of memory," Halkin finds a prison mate who speaks Yiddish – "A great rarity." – and recites poetry to him.

This prisoner
was a sheaf of paper,
paper for new lines.

Halkin survives the camp, makes it home, and continues to write. Eventually, he dies. On the day of his funeral, the narrator meets a stranger dressed like a zek (a gulag inmate) at Halkin’s grave. After inquiring about the narrator’s identity, the stranger tells him,

‘I’ve brought with me
a number of poems
dictated to me by Halkin.
I learned them by heart.
I’m his manuscript.’

The stranger turns out to be the man who spoke Yiddish. He accompanies the narrator to Halkin’s home, and in the presence of Halkin’s family, recites a collection of his unwritten poetry.

This zek read us an unwritten book
and Halkin came to life in his own poems,
line by line and stanza by stanza,
in poems honed by grief
to a diamond glitter
and sharpness.

There is a Jewish saying that the dead will never die as long as they are remembered. In a similar way, a poet is resuscitated each time his or her poems are read. The Russian people have survived off of poetry, escaping to it during imprisonment and starvation, and celebrating with it in times of love and contentment. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry gives English speakers a chance to read the words that three centuries of Russians have lived off of, and perhaps to give new life to a dormant, English-speaking Pushkin, Baratynsky, or Ozerov in their own mind’s eye.

Update 3:12 p.m.: A previous version of this story referred to Anna Akhmatova's husband as Lev Gumilyov. Her husband's name is Nikolai Gumilyov. Lev is her son.