The Keening Muse
The Keening Muse
When her father learned that his daughter was about to publish a selection of her poems in a St. Petersburg magazine, he called her in and told her that although he had nothing against her writing poetry, he'd urge her "not to befoul the good respected name" and to use a pseudonym. The daughter agreed, and this is how "Anna Akhmatova” entered Russian literature instead of Anna Gorenko.
The reason for this acquiescence was neither uncertainty about the elected occupation and her actual gifts nor anticipation of the benefits that a split identity can provide for a writer. It was done simply for the sake of "maintaining appearances" because among families belonging to the nobility—and Gorenko was one—the literary profession was generally regarded as somewhat unseemly and befitting those of humbler origins who didn't have a better way of making a name.
Still, the father's request was a bit of an overstatement. After all, the Gorenkos weren't princes. But then again the family lived in Tsarskoe Selo—Tsar’s Village—which was the summer residence of the Imperial family, and this sort of topography could have influenced the man. For his seventeen-year-old daughter, however, the place had a different significance: Tzarskoye was the seat of the Lyceum in whose gardens a century ago, "carelessly blossomed" young Pushkin.
As for the pseudonym itself, its choice had to do with the maternal ancestry of Anna Gorenko, which could be traced back to the last khan of the Golden Horde: to Achmat-khan, descendant of Chengiz-khan. "I am a Chengizite," she used to remark not without a touch of pride; and for a Russian ear "Akhmatova” has a distinct Oriental, Tartar to be precise, flavor. She didn't mean to be exotic, though, if only because in Russia a name with a Tartar overtone meets not curiosity but prejudice.
All the same, the five-open a's of Anna Akhmatova had a hypnotic effect and put this name's carrier firmly on top of the alphabet of Russian poetry. In a sense, it was her first successful line; memorable in its acoustic inevitability, with its “Ah” sponsored less by sentiment than by history. This tells you a lot about the intuition and quality of the ear of this seventeen-year-old girl who soon after publication began to sign her letters and legal papers as Anna Akhmatova. In its suggestion of identity derived from the fusion of sound and time, the choice of the pseudonym turned out to be prophetic.
Anna Akhmatova belongs to the category of poets who have neither genealogy nor discernible "development." She is the kind of poet that simply "happens"; that arrives into the world with an already established diction and his/her own unique sensibility. She came fully equipped, and she never resembled anyone. What was perhaps more significant is that none of her countless imitators was ever capable of producing a convincing Akhmatova pastiche either; they’d end up resembling one another more than her.
This suggests that Akhmatova's idiom was a product of something less graspable than an astute stylistic calculation and leaves us with the necessity of upgrading the second part of Buffone's famous equation to the notion of "self."
Apart from the general sacred aspects of the said entity, its uniqueness in the case of Akhmatova was further secured by her actual physical beauty. She looked positively stunning. hi-ye feet ark-haired, fair-skinned, with pale grey-green eyes like those of snow leopards, slim and incredibly lithe, she was for a half of a century sketched, painted, cast, carved and photographed by a multitude of artists starting with Amadeo Modigliani. As for the poems dedicated to her, they’d make more volumes than her own collected works.
All this goes to say that the visible part of that self was quite breathtaking; as for the hidden one being a perfect match, there is testimony to it in the form of her writing that blends both.
This blend’s chief characteristics are nobility and restraint. Akhmatova is the poet of strict meters, exact rhymes and short sentences. Her syntax is simple and free of subordinate clauses whose gnomic convolutions are responsible for most of Russian literature; in fact, in its simplicity, her syntax resembles English. From the very threshold of her career to its very end—she was always perfectly clear and coherent. Among her contemporaries, she is a Jane Austen. In any case, if her sayings were dark, it wasn't due to her grammar.
In the era marked by so much technical experimentation in poetry, she was blatantly non-avant-garde. If anything, her means were visually similar to what prompted that wave of innovations in Russian poetry like everywhere else at the turn of the century: to the Symbolists' quatrains ubiquitous as grass. Yet this visual resemblance was maintained by Akhmatova deliberately: through it she sought not the simplification of her task but a worsening of the odds. She simply wanted to play the game straight, without bending or inventing the rules. In short, she wanted her verse to maintain appearances.
Nothing reveals a poet's weaknesses like classic verse, and-that's why it's so universally dodged. To make a couple of lines sound unpredictable without producing a comic effect or echoing someone else is an extremely perplexing affair. This echo aspect of strict meters is most nagging, and no amount of oversaturating the line with concrete physical detail sets one free. Akhmatova sounds so independent because from the very threshold she knew how to exploit the enemy.
She did it by a collage-like diversification of the content. Often within just one stanza she'd cover a variety of seemingly unrelated things. When a person talks in the same breath about the gravity of her emotion, gooseberry blossoms, and pulling the left-hand glove onto her right hand—that compromises the breath—which is, in the poem, its meter—to the degree that one forgets about its pedigree. The echo, in other words, gets subordinated to the discrepancy of objects and in effect provides them with a common denominator; it ceases to be a form and becomes a norm of locution.
Sooner or later this always happens to the echo as well as to the diversity of things themselves—in Russian verse it was done by Akhmatova, more exactly by that self which bore her name. One can't help thinking that while the inner part of it hears what, by means of rhyme, the language itself suggests about the proximity of those disparate objects, the outer one literally sees from the vantage point of her actual height. She simply couples what has been already bound: in the language and in the circumstances of her life, if not, as they say, in heaven.
Hence the nobility of her diction for she doesn't lay claim to her discoveries. Her rhymes are not assertive, the meter is not insistent. Sometimes she'd drop a syllable or two in a stanza's last or penultimate line in order to create an effect of a choked throat or that of unwitting awkwardness caused by emotional tension. But that would be as far as she'd go for she felt very much at home within the confines of classical verse, thereby suggesting that her raptures and revelations don’t require an extraordinary formal treatment, that they are not any greater than those of her predecessors who used these meters before.
This, of course, wasn't exactly true. No one absorbs the past as thoroughly as a poet, if only out of fear of inventing the already invented. (This is why, by the way, a poet so often regarded as being "ahead of his time" which keeps itself busy rehashing clichés.) So no matter what a poet may plan to say, at the moment of speech he always knows that he inherits the subject. The great literature of the past humbles one not only through its quality but through its topical precedence also. The reason why a good poet speaks of his own grief with restraint is that as regards grief he is a Wandering Jew. In this sense, Akhmatova was very much a product of the Petersburg tradition in Russian poetry, the founders of which, in their own turn, had behind them European classicism as well as its Roman and Greek origins. In addition, they too were aristocrats.
If Akhmatova was reticent, it was at least partly because she was carrying the heritage of her predecessors into the Art of this century. This obviously was but an homage to them since it was precisely that heritage which made her this century’s poet. She simply regarded herself with her raptures and revelations as a postscript to their message, to what they recorded about their lives. The lives were tragic, and so was the message. If the postscript looks dark, it's because the message was absorbed fully. If she never screams or showers her head with ashes, it's because they didn't.
Such were the cue and the key with which she started. Her first collections were tremendously successful with both the critics and the public. In general, the response to a poet's work should be considered last for it is the last consideration. However, Akhmatova's success was in this respect remarkable if one takes into account its timing, especially in the case of her second and third volumes: 1914 (the outbreak of World War I) and 1917 (the October Revolution in Russia). On the other hand, perhaps it was precisely this deafening background thunder of world events that rendered the private tremolo of this young poet all the more discernible and necessary. In that case again the beginning of this poetic career contained the prophecy of the course it came to run for half a century. What increases the sense of prophecy is that for a Russian ear at the time the thunder of world events was compounded by the incessant and quite meaningless mumbling of the Symbolists. Eventually these two noises shrunk and merged into the threatening incoherent drone of the new era against which she was destined to speak for the rest of her life.
Those early collections ("Evening," "Beads,” and "White Flock") dealt mostly with the sentiment which is de rigueur of early collections; with that of love. The poems in those books had a diarylike intimacy and immediacy; they'd describe no more than one actual or psychological event and were short-16 to 20 lines at best. As such they could be committed to memory in a flash, and indeed they were—and still are—by generations and generations of Russians.
Still, it was neither their compactness nor subject matter that made one's memory desire to appropriate them; those fixtures were quite familiar to an experienced reader. The news came in the form of a sensibility which manifested itself in the author's treatment of her theme. Betrayed, tormented either by jealousy or guilt, the wounded heroine of these poems speaks more frequently in self-reproach than in anger, forgives more eloquently than accuses, prays rather than screams. She displays all the emotional subtlety and psychological complexity of nineteenth-century Russian prose and all the dignity that the poetry of the same century taught her. Apart from these, there is also a great deal of irony and detachment which are strictly her own and products of her metaphysics rather than shortcuts to resignation.
Needless to say, for her readership those qualities seem to come in both handy and timely. More than any other art, poetry is a form of sentimental education, and the lines the Akhmatova readers learned by heart were to temper their heart against the new era's onslaught of vulgarity. The comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one's chances of weathering the drama of history. This is why, and not because of the epigrammatic beauty of her lines only, the public clung to them so unwittingly. It was an instinctive reaction; the instinct being that of self-preservation, for the stampede of history was getting more and more audible.
Akhmatova in any case heard it quite clearly. The intensely personal lyricism of "White Flock" is tinged with the note that was destined to become her imprimatur: the note of controlled terror. The mechanism designed to keep in check emotions of a romantic nature proved to be as effective when applied to mortal fears. The latter was increasingly intertwined with the former until they resulted in emotional tautology, and "White Flock" marks the beginning of this process. With this collection, Russian poetry hit "the real, non-calendal twentieth century" but didn't disintegrate at impact.
Akhmatova, to say the least, seemed better prepared for this encounter than most of her contemporaries. Besides, by the time of the Revolution she was twenty-eight years old: that is, neither too young to believe in it nor too old to justify it. Furthermore, she was a woman, and it would be equally unseemly for her to extol or condemn the event. Nor did she decide to accept the change of social order as an invitation to loosen her meter and associative chains. For art doesn't imitate life if only for fear of clichés. She remained true to her diction, to its private timbre, to refracting rather than reflecting life through the prism of the individual heart. Except that the choice of detail whose role in a poem previously was to shift attention from an emotionally pregnant issue presently began to be less and less of solace, overshadowing the issue itself.
She didn't reject the Revolution: a defiant pose wasn't for her either. Using latter-day locution, she internalized it. She simply took it for what it was: a terrible national upheaval which meant a tremendous increase of grief per individual. She understood this not only because her own share went too high but first and fore-most through her very craft. The poet is a born demo- crat not thanks to the precariousness of his position only but because he caters to the entire nation and employs its language. So does tragedy, and hence their affinity.
Akhmatova, whose verse always gravitated to the vernacular, to the idiom of folk song, could identify with the people more thoroughly than those who were pushing at the time their literary or other aims: she simply recognized grief.
Moreover, to say that she identified with the people is to introduce a rationalization which never took place because of an inevitable redundancy. She was a part of the whole, and the pseudonym just furthered her class anonymity. In addition, she always disdained the air of superiority present in the word "poet." “I don’t understand these big words,” she used to say, “poet, billiard." This wasn’t humility; this was the result of the sober perspective in which she kept her existence. The very persistence of love as the theme of her poetry indicates her proximity to the average person. If she differed from her public, it was in that her ethics weren't subject to historical adjustment.
Other than that, she was like everybody else. Besides, the time itself didn’t allow for great variety. If her poems weren't exactly the vox populi, it’s because a nation never speaks with one voice. But neither was her voice that of the “crème de la crème” if only because it was totally devoid of populist nostalgia so peculiar to the Russian intelligentsia. The "we" that she starts to use about this time in self-defense against the impersonality of pain inflicted by History was broadened to this pronoun’s linguistic limits not by herself but by the rest of these language speakers. Because of the quality of the future,
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