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Champagne for the brain: reading and writing Onegin stanzas with American Undergraduates (1).

Eugene Onegin--like champagne Its effervescence stirs my brain. (Vikram Seth, A Golden Gate, 1986)

"Poetry as we know it is dying." Thus David Bethea opens his 1998 book on Alexander Pushkin (3); similar laments on undergraduates' "bewilderment" when asked to read poems (Lanser, 81) can be found throughout English-language scholarship on both poetry and pedagogy. Apparently, anglophone students today do not particularly enjoy poetry, unless in the updated context of rap or poetry slams. On the other hand, in a 1999 interview, award-winning and best-selling novelist Vikram Seth named Pushkin as the writer who has influenced him most:
   I suppose I have been most inspired by someone whom I haven't
   read a single word of in the original--Pushkin ...  He wrote so
   wonderfully that even in translation, or at least in certain
   translations, his vision comes across. I really admire him. And I
   suppose he gives me the courage to experiment with form ...
   Pushkin is very close to my heart because I like his mixture of
   levity and deep seriousness. He refused to be pompous ...  ("Seth

Seth's own 1986 novel The Golden Gate, inspired by Pushkin and set in Pushkin's unique verse form, Onegin stanzas, at least partly explains Pushkin's appeal to Seth. By writing like Pushkin, Seth actively engaged Pushkin's verse forms, so that his reading was as a fellow writer in a living tradition, rather than as a student trying to understand one that is, for her, dead. Can students of Russian literature benefit from Seth's example? Why is it important that Onegin is set in verse? Can translations come close to conveying the original? Addressing these questions through writing assignments may offer American undergraduates little versed in poetic tradition a taste of Onegin's champagne-like effervescence.

John Bean, in his 2001 Engaging Ideas, argues that "[t]he most intensive and demanding tool for eliciting sustained critical thought is a well-designed writing assignment" (xii-xiii); Bean recommends a mix of formal and informal writing assignments, including creative pieces (41). In fact, Bean has found creative assignments to yield "more lively, provocative and interesting pieces" in much less time than analytical assignments. Jason Merrill has recently argued for applying Bean's ideas to the nineteenth-century canon by assigning reader-response journals that echo Tolstoy's own diaries. Here I will suggest taking the creative writing assignment a step further: writing Onegin stanzas while reading Onegin in English.

Pushkin's Onegin opened my fall, 2003 course on the Russian Novel at Franklin & Marshall College. Only a few students in my course had heard of Pushkin; in contrast, most of them had read some Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and several were especially keen to read Gogol. To set Pushkin in context, on the first day of class we read excerpts from twentieth-century testimonials to Pushkin, including Seth's Golden Gate. This elegantly fashioned pulp fiction, set in 1980s San Francisco, provides an updated modeling of Pushkin's multivoicedness--parenthetical asides, metaliterary discourse on "how this is being written," a mix of lexical registers:
   How do I justify this stanza?
   These feminine rhymes? My wrinkled muse?
   This whole passe extravaganza?
   How can I (careless of time) use
   The dusty bread molds of Onegin
   In the brave bakery of Reagan? ...  (Seth, 101)

Students were assigned to read the first two and a half cantos of Onegin (in Falen's translation) for the second class, when the Onegin stanza writing task was presented. They were thus acquainted with Pushkin's humor and polyphony, as well as (passively) with the Onegin stanza form, when they began their own stanzas.

The Unbearable Lightness of Modeling Pushkin

But reading Pushkin is not necessarily the best preparation for writing like Pushkin, who often leaves readers with the impression that his texts have been produced effortlessly. Lotman argues that readers of Onegin are deceived by an impression of simplification:
   ... in order to evoke in the reader the feeling that the text is
   simple, its language colloquial, its plot lifelike and spontaneous,
   and its characters natural, a far more complex literary construct
   was required ... (95)

In his poetry, Pushkin presents a range of claims as to "how this is being written," and in those rare cases when he mentions pen, paper, meters or rhymes, Pushkin more often than not disparages his working style and its results. The most romantic of his claims--that inspiration comes from dashing through forests, or that Pushkin has sleepily jotted down already-formed lines (2)--are undermined by his manuscripts, whose many lines crossed out and re-worked suggest much effort spent on composition and revision. (3)

Despite Pushkin's claims to the contrary, then, his composition process involved work on the building-blocks level. Students wowed by Pushkin's style may benefit from knowing that Pushkin, too, worked to compose poetry. (4) In any case, the task of writing Onegin stanzas is rendered easier when broken down into small, manageable steps, with revision touted as an integral part of the process.

Pre-Writing: Rhymes, Meters, Content, and Expectations

In groups, students charted out an Onegin stanza's rhymes, which we renamed using traditional annotation (ababccdd ...). (5) To introduce the meter of Onegin, I began with iambic pentameter, a term with which nearly all the students were familiar. We explored this term's practical application to familiar pentameter lines, using "- |" to mark unaccented and accented syllables:
   O, then, I see Queen Mab hath been with you ... (Romeo & Juliet, I:
   - | - | - | - | - |

   To be, or not to be--that is the question ... (Hamlet, III: i)
   - | - | - | - | - | -

Students then scanned lines from Onegin, which nearly all of them recognized as iambic, with four accented syllables (iambic tetrameter).

Students were asked to write on the topic of "comparing Onegin translations," which we had discussed on the first day of class. (6) Before students began writing in verse, I asked them to freewrite in prose, introducing them to freewriting with strategies from Barbara Clouse:
   Sit in a quiet spot and write nonstop ... do not stop for any
   reason; just keep your pen moving. If you run out of ideas, write
   the day of the week, names of your family members, even 'I don't
   know what to write.' Write anything. Soon new thoughts will strike
   you, and you can write about them. (20)

To model Pushkin's shifts between lyrical and conversational tones, I assigned two separate freewrites: seven minutes comparing translations, to serve as the source for the stanza's central lyrical theme, and four minutes on "what you did last weekend," to supply conversational asides. Students then circled rhymed words and easily rhymed words in both freewrites; circled words were compiled into separate list, and a rhyme or two was provided for each. This list became a "cache" of rhymes from which students drew during the writing process.

Before beginning their own stanzas, students asked about grading and aesthetic expectations. Merrill cites sources on grading and distribution options (188); I graded creative assignments credit / no credit: to receive credit, students had to post stanzas (in whatever state) on the class's Blackboard site. To ease worries about my expectations, I read my own (pithy but) freshly minted Onegin stanza aloud:
   I take my mom to meet her plane,
   I watch the signs, I chit & chat,
   But have Onegin on the brain,
   No use in me denying that.
   I think: how can I best explain
   What Vikram Seth saw as "champagne"?
   Who is Eugene? A fake, an actor?
   A harmless fop? Velociraptor?
   He's not a poet, doesn't work,
   Though Pushkin maintains they are friends,
   It's hard to speak in his defense--
   Why, when with Lensky, does he smirk?
   And what's the damage he could wreak
   Should our Tatiana turn out weak?

The Stanzas

Armed with freewrites, cache of rhymes, and notes on rhyme and meter, students began writing their stanzas, with two goals: 1) a total of fourteen lines set in the requisite rhyme pattern and 2) a mix of lyrical and conversational tones. In 10-12 minutes, most students had written a complete stanza, and all the stanzas, whether complete or not, showed humor and creativity. One of the best student stanzas is below:
   To translate Pushkin is just that,
   A paraphrase, Falen's work.
   No doubt a job he's been long at,
   The responsibility, I'd shirk.
   However, Falen gets my praise,
   He took on Nabokov, anyways.
   And though it may lose its appeal,
   Of my approval, it gets the seal.
   I've passed the hump, I have but left
   A mere few simple lines to rhyme.
   But eight years, I've not Pushkin's time,
   So I speak of the moment (a harmless theft).
   Alas my "Pushkin stanza's" done,
   Time to post, here comes the fun.

Iambic tetrameter had been touted as a bonus only: just over half of the lines in this stanza (8/14) are in iambic tetrameter. Indeed, the more iambs, the longer the stanza took to complete. Two students were not able to write complete stanzas in the time allotted because they concentrated on matching Pushkin's meter. One of the unfinished stanzas, whose lines are nearly all in iambic tetrameter, is below (the fourth line has an extrametrical syllable):
   Does Falen capture Pushkin's style?
   His wit, his poetry, and more
   I pondered this within the aisles
   of Giant..the local grocery store
   Is Pushkin's voice lost in translation?
   As is affirmed by my relations
   Or can Onegin, read in rhyme
   Cross language barriers this time?

Though this stanza was unfinished, a number of students singled it out for praise. When the class wrote a second stanza a week later, both these students were able to write a 14-line stanza, despite the fact that they again set nearly all lines in iambic tetrameter.

An Example of the Immediate Benefits of the Task: "gg" lines

Students' final two lines ("gg" lines) were successful in a number of formal ways, and showcase the benefits of interweaving writing and reading. Students favored rhymes based on monosyllabic words, and this benefited their "gg" lines, since Pushkin's "gg" lines end in masculine rhymes. Students' "gg" lines were also more likely than any other to be set in iambic tetrameter, as seen in the examples below:
   ... My thoughts into this stanza spun,
   for now it seems my job is done.
   ... To be like Pushkin's hard I find,
   Although the challenge, I don't mind.
   ... Onegin may not translate well,
   But we should try to make it gel.

Probably more importantly, students' intuitive sense of a good ending mirrored what Tomashevskii, Vinogradov, and others have found in formal analysis of Pushkin's stanzas: that "gg" lines function as aphorisms, wittily and succinctly (and sometimes with a twist) summing up preceding lines (Tomashevskii, 370; Vinogradov, 380). Pushkinists' formal findings on "gg" lines would probably have struck students as abstruse without the Oneginstanza writing assignment; after students had written their own stanzas, however, they found such formal findings intriguing because they could be compared to students' own discoveries. Students acquired an intuitive feel for the Onegin stanza during the writing process; their intuitive discoveries could be named and discussed, and could then nuance their reading of subsequent Onegin chapters. This exploration also led students to keep an eye on "gg" lines as the novel unfolded, which is fortuitous because these lines house many of the novel's most important revelations.


Besides an hour or so of introduction on the first day of the semester, I devoted three 90-minute classes to Onegin. On the first and third of these days, students spent the middle thirty minutes of class writing Onegin stanzas. Students later assessed this activity, claiming it had been one of the most helpful for understanding Pushkin. In fact, students who found the task most challenging assessed its benefits most warmly:
   After writing my own stanza I definitely read the rest of the novel
   differently. I paid closer attention to word choice and verses.
   Pushkin's writing made more sense to me.

   I got that beat of each line stuck in my head, that _ | _ | _ | sort
   of beat that swam around in my head even when I wasn't reading it.
   So then when I did read, the poem seemed to flow a lot more.

Course Projects in Onegin Stanzas

We continued to incorporate both analytical and creative writing into the course, and near the end of the semester, students began work on a course project of their choice. The two students, whose earliest stanzas had been unfinished, but predominantly iambic, chose, as a course project, to write a reflective essay set entirely in Onegin stanzas. Compared to students working on other projects, they needed very little outside prompting. Bean argues that creative projects are more likely to trigger lasting engagement and to become "self-sponsored," i.e., carried out for pleasure rather than out of a sense of duty (77); this describes the students writing Onegin stanzas, though they did benefit from one another's advice and support in peer workshops. One concluded her project by comparing herself with Pushkin's Tatiana and Anna Karenina:
   Had these two heroines been real,
   I'd be their protegee, I feel!

The second student, a Russian heritage speaker, eventually incorporated Russian-language quotes in her stanzas. In this excerpt, she discusses Crime and Punishment:
   This novel starts with Rodya's scheme
   For now he only contemplates
   The thought of murder, like a dream,
   Throughout his soul, it permeates.

Why did students who had initially appeared to struggle with the task voluntarily continue it in course projects? Perhaps they were instinctively drawn to the project (which is why they strove to mirror Pushkin's meter); perhaps they chose the project as a challenge to overcome. Bean finds that creative exploration yields benefits in both cases:
   [B]y including several different kinds of assignments in a course,
   teachers give students more opportunity to find one or two that are
   particularly effective for them; likewise, students get to discover
   that they can learn significantly from doing an assignment that is
   not, by nature, their preferable way of operating. (40)

Asking students to write their own Onegin stanzas goes far beyond the parameters of usual class activities. However, this assignment can provide benefits that more traditional writing assignments may not, such as an intuitive grasp of "gg" lines, or of "that _ | _ | _ | sort of beat that swam around in my head even when I wasn't reading it."

Further Applications / Implications

Contact hours with students are in short supply, and to economize class time, some of the tasks described here could be assigned as homework. For example, after having written one stanza in class, students could be told to bring a new stanza, as homework, to each remaining day of class devoted to Onegin, perhaps serving as a versified "journal entry" on that day's readings.

Students found this assignment an enjoyable but intense individual experience; it is also possible to re-cast this assignment to involve less struggle and more play. Jason Merrill, after reading a draft of this paper, suggested further applications emphasizing play and collaboration:

* brainstorm the first stanza as a class;

* have students in groups of three of four collectively compose an Onegin stanza;

* provide students with a ready-made list of rhymes related to Pushkin;

* have groups draw rhymes from a hat;

* have groups challenge each other with a list of rhymes and a time limit;

* surprise groups about to start writing by swapping rhyme lists;

* have groups present their stanzas in an "open mic" setting.

Collaborative activities have additional advantages, serving as icebreakers, opening up discourse opportunities and increasing students' commitment to one another, all of which have a beneficial effect on attendance and future enrollment.

Most fans of Pushkin enjoy him on his own terms, and not because he is part of a canon or Russia's national poet; after all, Seth values Pushkin not least because he "refused to be pompous." Pushkin can certainly stand on his own, but may be better able to "speak to" today's anglophone readers when they are writing like Pushkin at the same time they are reading Pushkin. By updating ways to present Pushkin, perhaps we can cheerfully defy his prediction that a path to his monument would never be beaten by crowds of American undergraduates.

Works Cited

Bean, John. Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Bethea, David. Realizing Metaphors: Alexander Pushkin and the Life of the Poet. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Clouse, Barbara Fine. Working It Out: A Troubleshooting Guide for Writers. (1993) Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Falen, James E., trans. Eugene Onegin. By Alexander Pushkin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Hofstadter, Douglas. "Translator's Preface." Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. By Alexander Pushkin. New York: Basic Books, 1999. ix-xl.

Lanser, Susan S. "The Author's Queer Clothes: Anonymity, Sex(uality), and The Travels and Adventures of Mademoiselle de Richelieu." The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publications from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century. Ed. Robert J. Griffin. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 81-102.

Lotman, Yury. "The Structure of Eugene Onegin." Russian Views of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. Trans. Sona Stephan Hoisington. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988. 92-114.

Merrill, Jason. "Using Reader-Response Journals in Teaching Anna Karenina." Approaches to Teaching Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Ed. Liza Knapp, Amy Mandelker. New York: MLA, 2003.

Pushkin, Aleksandr. Sobranie sochinenii v 10-i tomakh. Vol. 4: Evgenii Onegin, Dramaticheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1975. 10 vols. 1974-78.

Scherr, Barry P. Russian Poetry: Meter, Rhythm, and Rhyme. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Seth, Vikram. The Golden Gate: A Novel in Verse. New York: Random House, 1986.

"The Seth Variations." The Atlantic Online 23 June 1999. 25 April 2004 <>.

Tomashevskii, B. V. Pushkin: Raboty raznykh let. Moscow: Kniga, 1990.

Vinogradov, V. V. Stil ''Pushkina. 1941. Pullman, MI: Russian Language Specialties, 1969.

Franklin & Marshall College

(1) My thanks go to students in my Russian 215 class at Franklin & Marshall College in fall, 2003; I also thank Marcus Levitt and Jason Merrill for extremely helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

(2) In Pushkin's 1827 "Poet," for example, composing poetry hinges on wild runs through nature ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]), rather than on the more tedious work of putting pen to paper. Pushkin's motive for projecting such a carefree writing process is suggested in his earlier "Moemu Aristarkhu" (1815), where those who labor over poetry are talentless pedants who tear out their hair in order to egest verse; Pushkin differentiates himself from the hacks by his effortless writing process.

(3) In manuscript fragments from Onegin, unfinished lines are nearly always anchored by rhymes:
   [worthy of ... praise / he attacked unmercifully ...]

   [And summertime ... for the day / They awoke me joyfully ...]

   [... entered Onegin suddenly / At the hills' threshold, in their
   dreary circle.]

(4) In Onegin, Pushkin declares that he could have improved his first canto, and continued his third canto, but is unmotivated, or too tired, to do so (Canto 1:60, Pushkin, 4:30; Canto 3:41, Pushkin, 4:66). Pushkin also professes that he is not up to the task of translating foreign phrases:
   Du comme il faut ... [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]

   She seems the very illustration
   Du comme il faut ... (Shishkov, be kind:
   I can't translate this phrase, I find.)

   (Canto 8:14; Pushkin, 145; Falen, 191)

On the other hand, one reason Onegin does not take to poetry is that poetry requires work--a tacit acknowledgment of poets' labor (Canto 1:43; Pushkin, 43; Falen, 23).

(5) Since not all aspects of the form were discussed, I did not introduce all elements of formal notation. For example, we did not discuss types of rhymes (masculine, feminine), so the standard notation "aBaB" was simplified to all lower-case letters.

(6) Douglas Hofstadter, in the preface his own Onegin translation, provides a convenient panoply of translations of a single stanza (4:20); using this, we were able to compare some of the most widely read translators (Nabokov, Arndt, Falen: xxiii, xxiv, xxix). I can make no claim to having presented different translations objectively: my own preference is for Falen, and most of the students (as their stanzas show) ended up preferring Falen as well.
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Author:Taylor, Romy
Publication:Pushkin Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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