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On Russian Meta-realist poetry: a conversation with Ilya Kutik.

Russian versus American Poetry

On behalf of a friend who is studying the use of Vergil in Russian culture, I wrote with a question to Ilya Kutik, the author of a large body of poetry in Russian and of two books of essays in English, one of the founders (together with Alexei Parsh-chikov and Ivan Zhdanov) of the Russian poetic movement called by critics "Meta-realism." As readers of this column will already know, I have been working with Kutik for many months on translations of Russian poetry, and spending a lot of time talking about what it is that poetry does when it rhymes, and how poetry thinks, and what it is that poetry gets hold of in the world, and in our experience and spirit. Many of the particular issues we raise turn out to make visible interesting differences between poetry in English and poetry in Russian. The question this time was what he had to say generally about Russian translations of Vergil. Characteristically, he replied with such specificity and ready knowledge that my first reaction was to think how incapable I am of responding in such a fashion to any similar question. If this difference between us is not only about him and me, then perhaps it suggests, in turn, a different relationship of the poet to poetry in Russia and America. Ilya answered the question about Vergil from the point of view of the whole history of Russian poetry.

He wrote to me: "Vergil was translated many times, from the late 17th c. on--mostly his Bucolics and Georgics. In 1933, the modern version of them both was published by the most famous translator of the Greek and Latin poetry, Sergei Shervinsky (1892-1991). Vergil's Aeneid was translated (in its entirety)--in the 19th/20th-century--by Valery Briusov (1873-1924), the founder of Russian Symbolism, a most illustrious Russian poet. One can say that it is a remarkable translation, in which Briusov tried to convey even the phonetics of each of Vergil's verses in each corresponding Russian line, and to make the translation great poetry at the same time. In some places, it is the greatest poetry, but sometimes either Briusov fails or Vergil does or both: the poetry is too complex for an average reader and is very interesting only for an enthusiastic reader.

"Perhaps poetry is like this in general (and Briusov wanted to show this idea through his translation of Vergil). In Russia, there is still a debate about how to approach Briusov's translation of the Aeneid. The latest full version of the Aeneid was first published in 1971 by the late Sergei Os-herov (1931-1983)--also a very famous translator of Greek and Latin poetry. It reads easily, as a good well-built narrative, is sustained very well; however there are not too many poetic wonders in it."

It's those wonders that lead me in my desire to understand, despite my not knowing a word of Russian, something about Russian Meta--the concept and the practice at the heart of the poetic school of "Meta-realism." And for this reason I have embarked on translating, with Ilya, a few poems each by several of the greatest and most difficult twentieth-century poets--Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelshtam, and Marina Tsvetaeva--and another 20 or so poems by other Russian poets, as well (including two or three by Ilya himself). We think of what we're doing as a way of trying to show, in American English, what Russian poetic thinking is like; so we are writing essays, too.

About Vergil, Ilya added: "And, I was again thinking and thinking, there are so many translations and versions of Vergil in Russian that in order to make even a short bibliography of them and comment on major things in this bibliography, plus add to it the major (recent!) articles, essays, etc., would take--at least--a week of hard work. I know (probably, unfortunately) too much about translations and their history in Russian and in Russia, plus how all this goes together with the history of poetic mentality. If, for example, we take the poem 'Mosquito' (for centuries ascribed to Vergil), then we get a whole extremely important chain of poems in Russian, from the eighteenth century (Der-zhavin) to the present (Brodsky's poem 'Fly,' for example, is also a version of Vergil's 'Mosquito'). What more can I say?"

To my mind, Ilya's two main points were that indeed there was evidently much more he could say, and that what he would say would relate the history of the translation of Vergil to Russian poetic thinking in general. It is well known in English, too, that poetic translation has had enormous influence on all the developments of poetic technique, stance, and substance, from the very beginning of what we might call English poetry. The English poet and translator Dick Davis has written a compact and persuasive, even impassioned, essay on this very topic, "All My Soul is There: Verse Translation and the Rhetoric of English Poetry" (Yale Review, 90: 1, January 2002), in which I read him to say that, beyond the way a history of poetic translation has changed what English poets do and what they make poetry sound like, there have also necessarily been changes in the varieties of poetic thinking. What Ilya and I seem to be trying to do--as our project has been accumulating translations and essays and source materials for a kind of literary montage, and as our conversations have led us to topics that I, at least, could never have anticipated (above all, the relationship between poetic thinking in Russian and apophatic theology)--is to make visible what kind of poetic thinking is present (and absent) in each poem we have translated and annotated with our comments, from our two points of view, which are very different not only individually but also culturally and historically.

I wondered how I might have answered the question about Vergil, if it had been posed to me about American poetry. Unlike Ilya, I would have had to do a very great deal of research before I could have answered it. I wrote to him:
 Just to follow your message with something more apropos of our own
 project.... Your inclination and your ability to respond in this way
 to such a question--to see that the whole history of poetry must be
 taken into account in answering such a question--already distinguishes
 you, as a learned poet, from me and many other American poets, and
 also probably distinguishes Russian from American (poetic) culture. To
 speak of the general tone of any culturally and linguistically bounded
 poetry, is to acknowledge that even in rich variety there may be some
 kind of narrowness when one compares it to all the possibilities of
 poetry in all languages and cultures. Which means somehow or other
 that poetic diversity, which we do have in the United States, is not
 exactly the same as the fullest range of poetic possibilities. Dante
 Gabriel Rosetti said that the purpose of poetic translation is to
 bring something new and beautiful into the translator's language.
 Apparently Briusov did that when translating Vergil into Russian.


Our Present American Context for "Difficult" Poetry

I think that what has happened in the United States since the 1980s--the very moment when Ilya and his fellow poets were developing Meta--has been that the publication of books, the education of poets, and the availability of poetry to readers (through sales of books and through readings) have all changed drastically to make poetry in English far more various than it had been even at its most myriad, before--ranging from the most conventional autobiographical lyrics to the most conventional anti-autobiographical non-lyrics, with a remarkable amount of serious, inventive, important work in between. What strikes me across all this variety, though, is that while no poets were ever more "associative," indirect, "difficult," and psychically fast-paced, yet non-surrealist and intensely invested in meaning, than Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Boris Pasternak (whose work Ilya Kutik and I have been translating), nevertheless they are the farthest thing, poetically, from some current American poetic fashions that might seem superficially to resemble them.

American artistic (in this case poetic) careers don't have much to do with whether readers like to recite memorized poems. American poetry pays readers a currency of gesture that is often readily understandable, whether the lines are easy or difficult to grasp. Poetic fashions and schools in our vast country seem not to need to pay much attention to each other's poetics, but do seem to pay attention to each other's renown. On top of all that, we Americans are notoriously--even disastrously--incurious about and ignorant of other cultures; few writers and readers know any language beyond English; and the academic study of contemporary poetry tends to give precedence to either the poetry of experiment or the poetry of identity (whose antagonists might put "identity" in quotation marks). As far as I can tell, poetic thinking--as a (highly various) mode of human inquiry, mental experience, feeling, a way of perceiving--is to my knowledge almost never discussed. It's certainly not easy to define.

As Ilya has suggested, perhaps poetry in general, since it is too complex for an average reader, can be very interesting only to an enthusiastic reader. Yet I can't help believing that whatever it is that poetry does, with and in and to and against language, it is one of the most vitally human activities that we have, and that our culture, far from destroying it, has instead nourished it--but it has done so in a context of media and consumerism that is forever emptying poetry out, pushing it to confess something and urging it to keep itself readily understandable or inviting it to take a very oblique angle to ordinary language and to make sure that it is easily recognizable as not understandable. Resisting both this push and pull seems to me the stance that some poetry, at least, must take, which means that it has to insist on thinking in its own ways.

Because mainstream American poetry tends toward demotic speech--however sequined and spangled in some quarters, of late, or however meandering and erudite in its documenting of sources and of poetic consciousness itself--and the autobiographical lyric (in a startling variety of modes), perhaps we poets and teachers haven't encouraged in general readers a pleasure in language that is more complicated and a serious interest in subjects and poetic stances that are less personalized. Such pleasure, and such impersonality, can make for a difficulty that is worth the reader's trouble, among other difficulties that are not. Antonio Machado--an ardent advocate of a certain kind of poetic clarity, to be sure--said in the early twentieth century that "To create enigmas artificially is as impossible as to attain absolute truths. Yes, one can manufacture mysterious trinkets, little dolls which have, hidden in their bellies, something which will rattle when they are shaken. But enigmas are not of human confection; reality imposes them, and it is there, where they are, that a reflective mind will seek them out in the desire to penetrate them, not to play at amusing itself with them." From this, I'm not sure he would have liked the poetry of Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva or Pasternak, if he knew it; but I think he would have sensed that it does seek out, in serious play, genuine mystery both in reality and in language, and does not manufacture mystery for its own sake.

What fascinates me about Russian Meta, insofar as I understand it, is that the mode of poetic thinking that distinguishes it is completely new to me. Which I find rather cheering.

What Is "Meta"? This Will Be Difficult to Describe

Ilya wrote to me: "Yes, I know that poetry in the US is marginalized and exists in the same 'cloud' of arts as architecture, drawings, etc., and yet it is something very sublime that doesn't belong to mass culture, even though of course there are 'poets' who do belong to the latter. The problem with Meta (-realism) is that it does not belong to mass-culture."

Here I realize: despite the absence in post-Soviet Russia of the huge editions of (approved) poets during the Soviet era, and the huge audiences at poetry readings, poetry is still important and available to people there in a way we do not know. Yet at the same time, Ilya says elsewhere that Meta is not necessarily going to be the particular poetry that is so prized by vast numbers of people.

In fact, Ilya's use of the word "mainstream" with regard to poetry is especially interesting to me. In America, the term "mainstream" poetry is used by those poets and readers who do consider themselves to be part of it to mean the poetry that is most widely recognized, that is most widely distributed and read. Therefore, our "mainstream" is at the edge of "mass culture," but scarcely penetrates it except perhaps in forms that can ride piggyback on popular music. But in Russia, "mainstream" poetry, as Ilya uses the term, means the great tradition, including the work of the "Great Four" (Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelshtam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva), whose work (especially that of the latter three) was seen as very difficult in its time, but nevertheless taught readers how to look for much more in the language of poetry than they had seen before. In Ilya's usage, then, "mainstream" means the main line of poetry as high culture and new aesthetics, including now the Meta-realists who have drawn from the poetics of Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and others to create their own movement. Ilya says that on the other hand, postmodern poetic conceptualism in Russia, even though it worked with and transformed new materials--from mass culture and the cliches of the Soviet era--has not worked with a new aesthetic, precisely because it made use of the "ready-made." A new aesthetic, he says, can have nothing to do with ready materials.

When I asked him to tell me more about this, he wrote to me: "Russian 'mass culture' is completely non-American, even now, when the 'market' is very violent. 'Mass culture' (in pre-Soviet times, if such a thing is even possible by definition) was of course a product of the 'elite.' The Russian 'elite' was always the elite in all meanings (best meanings!) of this word--it was the huge variety of extremely well-educated people. (To be badly educated meant automatically, so to speak, that you could not belong to an 'elite.') I am now speaking about those times when the concept of the 'intelligentsia' had appeared, which included not just the nobility but also a concept of 'being educated.' 'Culture' came from an 'elite' that included the 'intelligentsia' and 'politics'--from the powers-that-were, but 'culture' also all too often had to stand in opposition to these same powers--which were the nobility, of course. And later, in Soviet times, culture came from the 'intelligentsia,' meaning somehow both politics and culture. But here the 'class-approach' doesn't always work, because we have lots of various 'complications' that would need about a hundred pages of our cultural history to be explained. Nevertheless, 'mass culture' is a 'culture' of a 'middle class' that 'buys' culture from the 'elite' for its own entertainment. Russian culture was 100% elite! We never had any 'middle class'--only the elite who were 'cultural' and the rest of the population, who either wanted to be 'cultural' or didn't. 'Culture,' by all means, is of true value in Russia--even if you try to kill it (for hundreds of years and on purpose). How does it happen that it survives? I don't know! How did the Jews survive? It's the same ontological puzzle, I think.

"Even now, and this is somehow striking, new 'uneducated' very rich people want their 'mass culture' to be built upon the 'cults' of, say, Great Russian Poets--such as Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Yesenin, and others!--who are thus probably introduced to this new audience in a 'wrong' way. But still, they are not Hollywood stars, and so forth! Again, why? When I have said that we Meta-realists are (or were) not the subject of 'mass culture,' I meant by 'mass culture' (because I didn't pause to explain this complex Russian phenomenon) its functioning in American society; I meant the American sense of what 'mass culture' is. Also, in later Soviet times, 'underground' culture (which we Meta-realists were 'related to' but not 100% 'associated with,' because we were part of a 'mainstream'--and still are--of Russian poetic thought), was living, mostly, on what the Russian 'avant-guard' of the 1910s-20s had achieved or left not yet achieved; thus the 'underground' was a priori 'marginalizing' itself from any 'Soviet,' however much it loved a 'mass culture' that was built upon common 'values' (or 'anti-values' in this respect, because the underground poets were, say, anti-Soviet). 'Underground' poetry, known now as 'conceptualism' in both visual arts and poetry, became more and more of what 'mass culture' would be to an American. If you look at visual art by, say, Komar and Melamid, you will understand why we Meta-realists have nothing to do with this, why it is not Meta, etc. These two wonderful and inventive artists live in New York City. They are extremely popular--they created, for example, 'an ideal American painting' of 'all times'! They produced such pictures for all nations on the planet, based on sociological questionnaires.

"The problem with Meta (-realism) is that it does not belong to mass-culture--although at the end of the 1980s both the powers-that-were and the readers who hated those powers both made Meta-realists into 'celebrities' of an appropriate 'rank,' somewhat against our own wishes, and thus many of us left Russia in order to start everything from the very beginning again somewhere else (do not forget that Ukraine, where Ivan Zhdanov now lives, is also another state). Of course you know about those, for example, ancient Chinese poets who, when somebody had achieved fame, changed their names and started their lives and careers anew. Some critics blame us, saying that we left the literary field to the conceptualists--they don't understand that we never did belong to 'mass culture.'"

What was this retreat about? Ilya described it in a way as a kind of protection of poetry. "Meta," he wrote, "deals with something very complex which never can become mass-culture: the 'aura' of a 'thing.' That is how we now understand and formulate our difference from, say, 'conceptualism' (the second most influential underground school/movement of Russian poetry from the late 1970s to the early 1990s), which seeks to be part of present-day mass-culture and deals with mass-cultural symbolism in a kind of 'postmodern' way. This 'aura' is that what any real 'thing' loses, according to Walter Benjamin, when it goes into a mechanical mass-production (when it becomes the 'same' and thus 'soulless' rather than 'unique') or when it becomes a 'sign' or a 'simulacrum.' ('Sign' and 'simulacrum' are two different things. A 'sign' is anything that we all understand when looking at it: say, the red circle with diagonal cross-bar that everybody understands means that you shouldn't do this or that. A 'simulacrum' is less concrete; however it means the kinds of things that the truth--which is always one and can be defined through, say, its antonym, the lie--throws as lots of 'shadows' in present-day society, which are in fact not truth but its antonyms, and which can't be exactly defined, because even though these antonyms stand on the concept of 'falsehood,' the falsehood of the simulacrum is not necessarily a lie: what is false is probably just wrong. Falsehood has nothing to do with democracy--it has everything to do with 'relativism.' 'Metaphor,' on the other hand, has nothing to do with 'relativism'--because it unites things--this, first of all--and because--as in the case of Meta--it deals with that reality that becomes known to us only through it--the metaphor).

"The higher reality (in which the truth is, most probably, one thing, not multiple) is (as we Meta-realists believe) developing and dynamic and chaotic and thus moving to somewhere that is either its ultimate goal or ... something we don't know. What we do know is that here, where we are, we see a reality that has no harmony and instead looks like many intermittent realities with many possible mimeses. Thus each poet gives his/her own picture of reality. The 'attempt' to be as concrete as possible in order to convey your own reality we call a 'mimesis,' and thus it may also be called a 'realism.' Pasternak, in this respect, was the first who, from exactly this perspective, called 'impressionism' a 'realism,' because the impressionists tried to be as concrete as possible in order to be close to their own reality. That is why we call Meta a 'realism.'

"What is Meta, then? Meta--let us put it this way--is the 'aura' of the 'thing.' Together with this 'thing.'

"We are not Symbolists--we never wanted to trace any other world or worlds through a thing that already is. We (unlike our OBERIU poets of the 1910s-20s) don't say: 'Imagine--here is a mouse. Imagine--that the mouse is running across a stone. Now, erase the stone. Then, erase a mouse. What is left--will be a flickering. And this will be POETRY.'

"However, this statement might be a meta-statement: it says a lot (to those who are not inside Russian poetry and its enormously rich tradition of poetic thought) about how to think poetically and see in between words. What we Meta-realists try to do is to create poetic worlds that are, so to speak, ultimate, that is, that will give the impression that the world is one and unique (both here and there, since we believe that there is no dualism) and thus not 'ready-made.'

"For example, whatever happens to the Earth, an astronaut will see from orbit. What happens will be (simultaneously) objective--an almost epic vision (the astronaut will remain outside the event, therefore his is an epic vision) and also a subjective vision (because he will feel the event, since he is a human). (Eschatology has nothing to do with it--I am just giving an example that is extreme in a sense that you can also feel this astronautical vision.) However, this example is about the Earth; but Meta-realism creates its own worlds, its own realities (so to speak). Meta-realism believes that all realities that each human possesses can be connected in one reality (thus, they can be cognized only poetically) by and in metaphor, which understands more than we do, sees farther than the poet does, and so forth. This meta-metaphor is the cognitive/intuitive vehicle of the poet. It brings together the broken chains of time, space, events, and so on, that are indeed broken, intermittent for (and in) us as individuals and that cannot be cognized in any other way than in poetry and by means of this meta-metaphor. In this respect, you can say that for Meta-realism 'metaphor' is a 'monad.'

"In this respect, in its 'uniqueness,' the meta-world is a kind of enclosed world, and it means a poetic work that can, for example, be described through Mandelshtam's metaphor (leaving aside for now what this metaphor means in the poem, 'Lines for an Unknown Soldier'): 'ocean without an opening, a palpable stuff.' A meta-world is just so, because each poetic world, like Leibniz's 'monad' which, as we remember, has 'no windows,' is a 'self-thinking' and 'spiritual' unit. Thus while each poetic work has lots in common with this reality that we inhabit (since all reality derives from these 'monads'), nevertheless the different 'levels' of the 'spirituality' and 'self-consciousness' of these many 'monads' is very different (according to Leibniz's 'Monadology'). Hence, each poetic 'meta-work' is enclosed, is different from the other meta-works; thus, also it is unique.

"Meta-metaphor works simultaneously in both worlds--like a web browser in the world of matter, and like an astronaut in the world of the immaterial. A poet sends a metaphor--one!--in both directions!--taking for himself some third point of view."

The Sound of Poetic Thinking

I asked Ilya to relate Meta to the Briusov's translation of Vergil into Russian. He wrote: "to say that Vergil is important for 'meta-realism' is the same as saying that Homer is, was, or would always be important for 'Meta.' In both, we find the exemplified epic vision (plus, an epic way to narrate this vision)--that is, we find the issue that 'Meta-realism' was, is, will be always interested in, involved in--a vision that is both epic, in that it is impersonal rather than lyric, and yet subjective, in that it evokes feeling."

And, I thought, this experiment has indeed been undertaken in innumerable ways in American poetry--that is, to find a mode of poetic thinking that is both impersonal and subjective.

Ilya continued: "Moreover, both in Homer and in Vergil, we can (speaking bluntly) already find a phenomenological approach to what a 'thing' is--that it is in fact an 'idea,' and neither 'form' nor 'content,' and that it is not an 'ideal' (instead of an 'idea' per se). This mistaking of the idea for an ideal--also for a form or for subject matter--occurred first in Cicero, then in Thomas Aquinas, albeit differently, and from there on in the aesthetics of the 16th century in Western culture. Meta-realists believe that only Plotinus--that is, Neo-Platonists--restored the initial values of Plato's 'idea,' that is: the 'thing' plus its 'aura' (Benjamin's term) together, as one--which can be, we believe, perceived only through so-called 'meta-metaphor.'

"This is why it is impossible to give a single verse from Vergil that would demonstrate a meta-vision. Rather, in Briusov's version of the Aeneid, it is the tone and the syntax of Vergil, and the ways in which the Russian language approaches them both, that Meta-realism would, definitely, approve of, while other poetic stances (which prefer a much more simplified poetic speech) would either disapprove or remain indifferent. Why so? Briusov has created, as I already mentioned, a very complex verse-unit in his translation of the Aeneid in such a way that, according to what I presume his task was, each line is not only supposed to 'echo' the Latin original but also to simultaneously 'draw' Russian phonetic (and, thus, especially in Russian, visual) 'connotations' from the Russian poetic tradition--phonetic 'connotations' that might already exist in (and for) certain cases and places of the Aeneid, and hence might 'overlap' with what both 'sound' and 'memory' 'do' (so to speak) to the educated, the well-read, individual."

So, I think I understand, if the dimension of Meta in Homer and Vergil has to do with the simultaneity of the epic and the subjective, a simultaneity which thus produces an intimate perspective on what is, without bringing into view a perceiving lyric subject, then the use of language in Briusov at its best will also produce such a simultaneity. How will it do so, since the life-world and beliefs, and thus the perceptions, of Homer and Vergil are unavailable to modern human beings? If I understand the possibilities of Meta, one way to create a sense of depths or distances or poetic perception of reality itself is in making--or inviting--the language to seek its own affinities. When it does this--in diction, in sounds, in allusion--the language adds dimensions and depths to the poetic perception of reality, it engages different levels of reference and reality at once, it exceeds what had seemed possible to express.

Ilya illustrated: "For example, if something in Vergil could suggest a certain verse from, say, Pushkin (because the 'well-read' Russian very often 'thinks' in exactly this way when reading poetry), then Briusov tried not to change that very verse in the Aeneid but to build it 'upon' either the same consonants as the Pushkin (which would be easily 'figured out' by the associative 'memory' of a reader--I put 'memory' in quotes because is it a relative not an absolute thing, and is especially an associative power) or upon two particular words, say, 'borrowed' from a specific line of, again, Pushkin, and therefore also existent in (and thus synonymous with) this verse or the next of the Vergil.

"To give you an 'impression' of Briusov's attempts at creating a Vergil in Russian that would be both a Russian and a surprising Vergil, I should do something that is, of course, even more unusual--by trying to explain both what is done in Russian by Briusov in his word choice (via English!) and what he aimed at representing (the source, also through English--even though English does not try to evoke or guess at either such a goal of word choice or the source and its importance). In Book I, lines 55-56, we read, in the Latin: 'cum murmure montis / circum claustra fremunt.' This is about the winds that Aeolus keeps locked up, and how they, so to speak, 'protest' against this. For the sake of illustrating a poet's handling of this line in translation, I will cite Dryden, who translated the passage this way, the relevant line being the last, in this passage:
 The tyrant Aeolus, from his airy throne,
 With pow'r imperial curbs the struggling winds,
 And sounding tempests in dark prisons binds.
 This way and that th' impatient captives tend,
 And, pressing for release, the mountains rend.


"What is important for Briusov (beyond the substance of the line, of course) is the sound of this verse in Latin, which is built upon alliterations. In Russian, the most powerful alliterations that you would hear (in this particular case) would be the r, the l and the m. So, Briusov makes his version (which is extremely beautiful, and overcomplicated in syntax, although he could have constructed it much more simply) in order to emphasize these same three phonemes. I give my transliteration of it, showing where the syllables and sounds are emphasized: 'TE, negODuia, GRokhochUT s veLIkiM ROPT AnieM GORnyM // OkOLo sTV oRov, a EOL sIDiT v KRePOSTniTSe vySokoi.' Briusov stretches his passage, as does Vergil, from line 55 to line 56, ending the passage I quoted from the Latin after the Russian word 'Eol' (at the caesura in the Russian hexameter). Then the 'sound' just, shall we say, gradually diminishes (as an 'echo' does: there are no more instances of l and m, just r, and there is a lonely s, as if it were disappearing, too).

"Now, a second example, from the same Book I, to illustrate 'working' not with the sounds but with the Russian poetic tradition. Vergil writes at line 147, 'atque rotis summas levibus perlabitur undas.' This is from the scene when Neptune is angry at Aeolus for having released his winds, and Neptune himself must restore calm and order. Word for word this might be something like 'and on light wheels upon the flat waves he glides.' Dryden, by the way, translated it this way:
 Where'er he guides
 His finny coursers and in triumph rides,
 The waves unruffle and the sea subsides.


"In the Briusov translation, line 147 in my transliteration would be: '[...] I na kOLesakh on Lekg-kigkh nad gLAdiami vOLn prOLetaet [...]' The liquid l sound (when alone and addressed to the 'water' or the 'sea'!) almost immediately links Russian associative 'memory' to, for example, Pushkin's line (from his 'tale in verse'): 'Ty, voLna moia, voLna! Ty guL'Liva i voL'na!' (Word for word, this would be: 'You, my wave, my wave! You are wandering and free!') In Pushkin's line, the concepts of a 'wanderer' and 'freedom' are connected through Russian phonetics: 'gul'livyi' (a wanderer) and 'vol'nyi' (free) and 'volna' (wave) that is 'vol'na' (free). However, at the same time, the l sound in Russian is extremely soft and peaceful. Altogether, what we have through this particular line in the version of Vergil by Briusov are lots of things simultaneously that we are able to see, feel, etc. (even in the very narrow meaning of seeing and feeling). Again, I must emphasize that what is happening, and how it is happening, in the verses prior to, say, verse 147 in Briusov's translation are poetically much more interesting, from a Meta point of view, then these two lines, in terms of how the Latin is put into Russian, but in order to explain Briusov's use of sounds and allusions I see no other way to explain his approach than by oversimplifying its complexity somewhat in these two somewhat easier lines.

"There is nothing specifically Meta in these two lines, for Meta is always beyond the boundaries of what one can see right here and right now. Nevertheless, Briusov, in his Vergil translation, always creates the possibility of seeing beyond what is written and what one can specifically read in this or that line: each line of Briusov expands (and commands--through the Russian traditional poetic phonemes--his readers to expand, too, on their own) in the direction of Russian poetry; and also, commands readers to see much more than what Latin, an alien original, is for us now. However, these other things I cannot show to an American reader for they can't be shown and can't be demonstrated!--they are deeply within the Russian language and in metaphors that are in other places of Briusov's translation. The important thing is the simultaneity of poetic action, the different vectors of this action, that arise out of the same one line of the translation.

"Something analogous can be said about the meta-image. It always goes in various directions--it is one, yet through it the reader can see at least three things: (1) and (2) (what this image shows the reader directly--a metaphor usually shows two things, right?) and (3) where it leads you, suggesting a third 'thing,' which, using our example from Briusov, would be a 'thing' called Pushkin plus concepts of 'wandering' and 'freedom' (as synonymous).

"What is also important to understand here about the Russian poetic tradition and about this particular translation is that we are not dealing here with any kind of postmodern phenomenon! I have written about Russian poetry that it is all a 'citati-tonal epic' per se, long before this had become a focus and thus a 'problem' for any postmodern culture. In Briusov's time, Russian poetry, which he aimed at (so it becomes a 'vector' of his translation) when translating, was a 'must' for everybody with even an average education; readers memorized and knew poetry by heart--thousands of poetic texts. In my times, the range of texts is even more, because we know more poetry, including Briusov himself; however, the education of the people who knew these texts--say of such 'half-banned' poets as Mandelshtam or Tsvetaeva--was similar to membership in a group that was about 'one against all,' and so forth. In the Soviet era, very often, it was exactly by means of poetic quotations, like passwords, that people used to find each other, to speak to one another."

Ilya added an afterthought about the way language seems to form its own ideas. Regarding the use by Briusov of that liquid l, Ilya noted: "What is even more interesting is that the l sound in the word 'revolutionary' ('revol'iutsioner'), there too is very soft and peaceful. Even softer. To the same phonetic 'paradigm' belongs the word for love, in Russian, 'l'iubov.' Thus, 'l'iubov' loves 'revol'iut-sioner.' Question mark? No--language is not so ambiguous on this subject: the Russian language suggests that letters are already in love with each other. Thus 'revolutionary' and 'love' are closer to each other than 'revolutionary' and 'hatred,' because the first word pair is based in Russian on the letter l. This of course is 'apophatic' thinking--that is, the apophatic thought is that the periphery of 'love' (which would be 'atheism,' in the 'revolutionary' case) is closer to the center of Love (let's call this center God) than those who consider themselves 'closest' to this center may think. In Yeats we find a very interesting parallel to this very Orthodox and Catholic (which, until 1057 CE, were one church) 'apophatic' idea (which was formed by the third century CE). In 'Ribh Considers Christian Love Insufficient' (from Parnell's Funeral and Other Poems, 1935), Yeats writes: "Hatred of God may bring the soul to God." This verse means that the periphery may be closer to God than the center. Just so, 'revolutionary' may be closer to 'love' than those who, in the name of love, do things that are not very loving. (We know many examples.)

"This is how language as such is a thinking substance--it also makes its own decisions! Thus, in Russian, with this 'soft l' that is a 'loving sound,' language can tell us more about the real order of things than people's arguments. However, this may be too metaphysical a statement for American readers. And if so, let us disregard it. Russians would understand if I simply said: 'L loves all L's, even if people rebel in real life.' The sounds of language are in love with each other, even if they rebel against each other in real life."

The Situation of Poetry in America and in Russia

The place of poetry in our culture is much smaller than it is for Russians, and among us (as opposed to among Russians), poetry, which is the most deliberate of non-manipulative, non-regulatory, and playful language, is trivialized by the speed and flash and materialist motives of our media. Perhaps this is because American mass culture is so obsessed with pragmatism, wealth and entertainment; and because the public face of American spirituality is dominated by churches, above all by moralism and by eschatological and fundamentalist advantage-seeking, and not by ethics and by spirituality as inner life; and because American schooling is all too often not only an inadequate preparation for the working world, but also an inadequate teaching of how to cherish the life of the soul and the intricacies and play and astonishing nature of language. (There's more than enough education for children and youths, everywhere they turn, in language's self-contradictory emptiness and seductiveness, falseness and manipulative power, and ugliness and effectiveness.)

Differences between American and Russian poetry are differences between two cultures in all their variety, two histories in all their complexity, and at present two spheres of knowledge and communication and attitudes that are remarkably distinct. I asked Kutik about his statement that great poetry "is too complex for an average reader and is very interesting only for an enthusiastic reader." He replied: "In Russian culture, poetry cannot (and would not)--even if and when it might want to--become part of mass culture or pop culture. Mass culture and pop culture exist, of course, but they sort of don't blend with the rest of life, with what is REAL. But poetry (which is REAL) cannot be marginalized, either--because the tradition of its being at the center of Russian culture is too strong. Celebrity--that's a different issue. A pop-culture celebrity is one thing--it means that the entire country knows your name, mostly from TV shows, etc. Or, for literary pop-celebrity, it means a kind of cheap fame, as in the United States. However, there is another kind of literary celebrity, which doesn't mean that the whole country knows you, but that nearly anyone who has ever read Russian poetry (within Russia) knows you. But I think that the portion of the populace that knows REAL poetry in Russia is about the same as in the United States, nowadays. Still, poetry means more in Russia--it is what even the government now 'promotes,' because poetry is a major part of our heritage. That is why it will never lose its central importance, even if the print runs are very small in comparison to what they were, before. And this is mostly the result of book prices. Not many people in Russia who REALLY read poetry can afford a book when it is priced as it is in the U.S., and when the mechanism of buying books new and used on line isn't yet established. People who do have the price of a book prefer something else, as you know. Nevertheless, poetry in Russia is Poetry, always with a capital P."

REGINALD GIBBONS is a Professor of English and Classics at Northwestern University. From 1981 to 1997, he served as the editor of TriQuarterly magazine; he also co-founded and edited TriQuarterly Books, an imprint for contemporary writing at Northwestern University Press. His most recent poetry publications are two chapbooks, In the Warhouse (Fractal Edge, 2004) and Fern-Texts (Holly-ridge, 2005).
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Author:Gibbons, Reginald
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Words:6732
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