ANNA AKHMATOVA: POEMS. SELECTED & TRANS. LYN COFFIN. INTRODUCTION by BRODSKY
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 more humble 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 writing 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 "developpment." 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. Five feet eleven, dark-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 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. Akhrnatova 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 is so often regarded as being "ahead of his time" which keeps itself busy rehashing clichés.) So no matter what a poet my 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 mes-sage. 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, Akhrnatova'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-calendar 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 a solace, overshadowing the issue itself.
She didn't reject the Revolution: a defiant pose wasn't for her either. Using later-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 foremost through her very craft. The poet is a born democrat 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." "A 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 void 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, this "we" was there to stay and the authority of its user to grow.
In any case, there is no psychological difference between Akhmatova's "civic" poems of the World War I and the Revolutionary period and those written a good thirty years later during World War II. Indeed, without the date underneath them, poems like "Prayer" could be attributed to virtually any moment of Russian history in this century, which justifies that particular poem's title. Apart from the sensitivity of her membrane though, this proves that the quality of history for the last eighty years has somewhat simplified the poet's job. It did so to the degree that a poet would spurn a line containing a prophetic possibility and prefer a plain description of a fact or a sensation.
Hence the nominative character of Akhmatova's lines in general and at that period in particular. She knew not only that the emotions and perceptions she dealt with were fairly common but also that time, true to its repetitive nature, would render them universal. She sensed that, like its objects, history has very limited options. What was more important, however, was that those "civic" poems were but fractions borne by her general lyrical current which made their "we" practically indistinguishable from its more frequent, emotionally charged "I." Because of their overlapping, both pronouns were gaing-in -verisimilitude. Since the name of the current was "love”, the poems about the homeland and the epoch were shot through with almost inappropriate intimacy; similarly those about sentiment itself were acquiring an epic timbre. The latter meant the current's widening.
Later in her life, Akhmatova always resented attempts by critics and scholars to confine her significance to her love poetry of the teens of the century. She was perfectly right because the output of the subsequent forty years outweighs her first decade both numerically and qualitatively. Still, one can understand those scholars and critics since after 1922 until her death in 1965 Akhmatova simply couldn't publish a book of her own and they were forced to deal just with what was available. Yet perhaps there was another reason less obvious or less comprehended by those scholars and critics that drew them to the early Akhmatova.
Throughout one's life, Time addresses man in a variety of languages: in those of innocence, love, faith, experience, history, fatigue, cynicism, guilt, decay, etc. Of those, the language of love is clearly the lingua franca. lts vocabulary absorbs all the other other tongues, and its utterance gratifies a subject, however inanimate it may be. Also, by being thus uttered, a subject acquires an ecclesiastical, almost sacred denomination, echoing both the way we perceive the objects of our passions and the Good Book's suggestion as to what God is. Love is essentially an attitude maintained by the infinite towards the finite. The reversal constitutes either faith or poetry.
Akhmatova's love poems naturally were in the first place just poems. Apart from anything else, they had a terrific novelistic quality, and a reader could have had a wonderful time explicating the various tribulations and trials of their heroine. (Some did just that, and on the basis of those poems, the heated public imagination would have their author "romantically involved" with Alexander Blok—the poet of the period—as well as with His Imperial Majesty although she was a far better poet than the former and a good six inches taller than the latter.) Half self-portrait, half mask, their poetic persona would aggravate an actual drama with the fatality of theater thus probing both her own and pain's possible limits. Happier states would be subjected to the same query. Realism, in short, was employed as the means of transportation to a metaphysical destination. Still, all this would have amounted to animating the genre's tradition were it not for the sheer quantity of poems dealing with the said sentiment.
That quantity denies both biographical and Freudian approaches for it overshoots the addressees' concreteness and renders them as pretexts for the author's speech. What art and sexuality have in common is that both are sublimations of one's creative energy, that denies them hierarchy. The nearly idiosyncratic persistence of the early Akhmatova love poems suggests not so much the recurrence of passion as the frequency of prayer. Correspondingly, different though their imag-
ined or real protagonists are, these poems display a considerable stylistic similarity because love as content is in the habit of limiting formal patterns. The same goes for faith. After all, there are only so many adequate manifestations for truly strong sentiments; which, in the end, is what explains rituals.
It is the finite's nostalgia for the infinite that accounts for the recurrence of the love theme in Akhmatova's verse, not the actual entanglements. Love indeed has become for her a language, a code to record Time's messages or at least, to convey their tune; she simply heard them better this way. For what interested this poet most was not her own life but precisely Time and the effects of its monotone on the human psyche and on her own diction in particular. If she later resented attempts to reduce her to her early writing, it was not because she disliked the status of the habitually love- sick girl: it was because her diction and with it, the code, changed subsequently a lot in order to make the monotone of the infinite more audible.
In fact, it was already quite distinct in "Anno Domini MCMXXI"—her fifth and technically speaking last collection. In some of its poems, that monotone merges with the author's voice to the point that she has to
sharpen the concreteness of detail or image in order to save them, and by the same token her own mind, from the inhuman neutrality of the meter. Their fusion, or rather the former's subordination to the latter, came
later. In the meantime, she was trying to save her own notions of existence from being overtaken by those supplied to her by prosody: for prosody knows more about Time than a human being would like to reckon with.
Close exposure to this knowledge, or more accurately to this memory of Time restructured, results in an in ordinary mental acceleration that robs insights that come actual reality of their novelty, if not of their gravity. No poet can ever close this gap, but a conscientious lay lower his pitch or muffle his diction so as to play his estrangement from real life. This is done sometimes for purely aesthetic purposes: to make one's voice less theatrical, less bel-canto-like. More frequently though the purpose of this camouflage is, again, to retain sanity, and Akhmatova, a poet of strict meters, was using it precisely to that end. But the more she did so, the more inexorably her voice was approaching the impersonal tonality of Time itself until they merged into something that makes one shudder trying to guess—as in her "Northern Elegies"—who is it there, hiding behind the pronoun "I"?
What happened to pronouns was happening to other parts of speech which would peter out or loom large in the perspective of Time supplied by prosody. Akhmatova was a very concrete poet, but the more concrete the image the more ex temporary it would become because of the accompanying meter. No poem is ever written for its story-line sake only, like no life is lived for the sake of an obituary. What is called the music of a poem is essentially restructured in such a way that it brings this poem's content into a linguistically inevitable, memorable focus.
Sound, in other words, is the seat of Time in the poem, a background against which its content acquires a stereoscopic quality. The power of Akhmatova's lines comes from her ability to convey the music's impersonal epic sweep which more than matched their poetic content, especially from the Twenties on. The effect of her instrumentation upon her themes was akin to that of somebody used to being put against the wall suddenly being put against the horizon.
The above should be kept very much in mind by the foreign reader of Akhmatova since that horizon vanishes in translations, leaving on the page absorbing but one-dimensional content. On the other hand, the foreign reader may perhaps be consoled by the fact that this poet's native audience also has been forced to deal with her work in a very misrepresented fashion. What translation has in common with censorship is that both operate on the basis of the "what's possible" principle, and it must be noted that linguistic barriers can be as high as those erected by the state. Akhmatova, in any case, is surrounded by both and it's only the former that shows signs of crumbling.
"Anno Domini MCMXXI" was her last collection: in the forty-four years that followed she had no book of her own. In the postwar period there were technically speaking two slim editions of her work, consisting mainly of a few reprinted early lyrics plus genuinely patriotic war poems and doggerel bits extolling the arrival of peace. These last ones were written by her in order to win the release of her son from the labor camps in which he nonetheless spent eighteen years. These publications in no way can be regarded as her own for the poems were selected by the editors of the state-run publishing house and their aim was to convince the public (especially those abroad) that Akhmatova was alive, well and loyal. They totaled some fifty pieces and had nothing in common with her output during those four decades.
For a poet of Akhmatova's stature this meant being buried alive, with a couple of slabs marking the grave. Her going under was a product of several forces, mostly that of history whose chief element is vulgarity and whose immediate agent is the state. Now, by MCMXXI which means 1921, the new state could already be at odds with Akhmatova, whose first husband, poet Nikolai Gumiliov, was executed by its security forces, allegedly the direct order of the state's head, Vladimir Lenin. A spin off of a didactic, eye-for-eye mentality, the new state could expect from Akhmatova nothing but retaliation, especially given her reputed tendency for an autobiographic touch.
Such was, presumably, the state's logic, furthered by the destruction in the subsequent decade and a half of her entire circle (including her closest friends, poets Vladimir Narbut and Osip Mandelstam). It culminated in the arrests of her son, Lev Gumiliov, and her third husband, art-historian Nikolai Punin, who soon died in prison. Then came World War II.
Those fifteen years preceding the war were perhaps the darkest in the whole of Russian history; undoubtedly so they were in Akhmatova's own life. It's the material which this period supplied, or more accurately the lives it subtracted, that made her eventually earn the title of the Muse of Wailing. It simply replaced the frequency of poems about love with that of poems in memoriam. Death which she would previously evoke as a solution for this or that emotional tension became too real for any emotion to matter. From a figure of speech it became a figure that leaves you speechless.
If she proceeded to write, it's because parody absorbs death, and because she felt guilty that she survived. The pieces that constitute her "Wreath for the Dead" are simply attempts to let those whom she out- lived absorb or at least join prosody. It's not that she tried to "immortalize" her dead: most of them were the pride of Russian literature already and thus had immortalized themselves enough. She simply tried to manage the meaninglessness of existence which suddenly gaped before her because of the destruction of its meaning's sources, to domesticate the reprehensible infinity by inhabiting it with familiar shadows. Besides, addressing the dead was the only way of preventing speech from slipping into a howl.
The elements of howl, however, are quite audible in other of Akhmatova's poems of the period and later. They'd appear in a form either of idiosyncratic excessive rhyming or as a nonsequitur line interjected in an otherwise coherent narrative. Nevertheless, the poems dealing directly with someone's death are free of anything of this sort, as though the author doesn't want to offend her addressees with her emotional extremities.
This refusal to exploit the ultimate opportunity to impose herself upon them echoes, of course, the practice of her lyric poetry. But by continuing to address the dead as though they were alive, by not adjusting her diction to "the occasion," she also refuses the opportunity to exploit the dead as those ideal, absolute interlocutors that every poet seeks and finds either in the among angels.
As a theme, death is a good litmus test for a poet's ethics. The "in memoriam" genre is frequently used to exercise self-pity or for metaphysical trips that denote the subconscious superiority of survivor over victim, of majority (of the alive) over minority (of the dead). Akhmatova would have none of that. She particularizes her fallen instead of generalizing about them since she writes for a minority with which it's easier for her to in any case. She simply continues to treat them as individuals whom she knew and who she senses wouldn’t like to be used as the point of departure for no matter how spectacular a destination.
Naturally enough, poems of this sort couldn't be published nor could they even be written down or retyped. They could only be memorized by the author some seven other people since she didn't trust memory. From time to time, she'd meet a person privately and would ask him or her to recite quietly this or that selection as a means of inventory. This precaution was far from being excessive: people would disappear forever for smaller things than a piece of paper with a few lines on it. Besides, she feared not so much for her own life as for her son's who was in a camp and whose release she desperately tried to obtain for eighteen years. A little piece of paper with a few it could cost a lot, and more to him than to her who could lose only hope and, perhaps, mind.
The days of both, however, would have been numbered had the authorities found her "Requiem," a cycle of poems describing an ordeal of a woman whose son is arrested and who waits under prison walls with a parcel for him and scurries about the thresholds of state's offices to find out about his fate. Now, this time around she was autobiographical indeed, yet the power of "Requiem" lies in the fact that Akhmatova's biography was too common. This Requiem mourns the mourners: mothers losing sons, wives turning widows, sometimes both as was the author's case. This is a tragedy where the choir perishes before the hero.
The degree of compassion with which the various voices of this "Requiem" are rendered can be explained only by the author's Orthodox faith; the degree of understanding and forgiveness which accounts for this work's piercing, almost unbearable lyricism, only by the uniqueness of her heart, her self and this self's sense of Time. No creed would help to understand, much less forgive, let alone survive this double widowhood at the hands of the regime, this fate of her son, these forty years of being silenced and ostracized. No Anna Gorenko would be able to take it. Anna Akhmatova did, and it's as though she knew what there was in store when she took this pen name.
At certain periods of history it is only poetry that is capable of dealing with reality by condensing it into something graspable, something that otherwise couldn't be retained by the mind. In that sense, the whole nation took up the pen name of Alchmatova—which explains her popularity and which, more importantly enabled her to speak for the nation as well as to tell it something it didn't know. She was, essentially, a poet of humanties: cherished, strained, severed. She showed these evolutions first through the prism of the individual heart, then through the prism of history, such as it was. This is about as much as one gets in the way of optics anyway.
These two perspectives were brought into sharp focus through prosody which is simply a repository of Time within language. Hence, by the way, her ability to forgive - beause forgiveness is not a virtue postulated by a property of time in both its mundane and metaphysical senses. This is also why her verses are to survive whether published or not: because of the prosody, because they are charged with time in both said senses. They will survive because language is older than state, and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.