• Email
  • Print

Poetry of Loss

Poets on Street Corners

by Olga Carlisle
Random House, 429 pp., $6.95

Russia’s Underground Poets

translated by Keith Bosley, translated by Dimitry Pospielovsky, translated by Janis Sapiets
Praeger, 92 pp., $4.95

The Italics Are Mine

by Nina Berberova, translated by Philippe Radly
Harcourt, Brace & World, 606 pp., $12.50

Fever and Other Poems

by Bella Akhmadulina, translated by Geoffrey Dutton, translated by Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin
Morrow, 72 pp., $5.50

In his learned and delightful book about translation, The Lofty Art, Korney Chukovsky, speaking of an excellent Russian version of The Great Gatsby, remarks: “One reads it, rejoicing in every line and thinking gloomily: why is it that neither in the USA, nor in England, nor in France, has a single translator been found to translate with equally concentrated devotion and equal skill our Gogol, Lermontov, Griboydev, Krylov, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Blok?” Why indeed? Perhaps because translation in the West is seldom considered an art, much less a “lofty” art, and translations are usually made for reasons that are not literary but, as Robert Lowell has said, because they are “news”: “Nine-tenths of the competent translations being done today in verse, to say nothing of the incompetent ones, are of no value except as news. They get the thing over for the moment and that’s very valuable, but there will be much better translations later on.” When he himself undertakes this kind of work—and he is outstanding in it—Lowell wants to produce good English poems; how else shall Pasternak or Mandelshtam be served, certainly not by “very bad, very uninspired English poetry?”

These comments come from “a dialogue” between Mr. Lowell and D. S. Carne-Ross, editor of Delos, A Journal on and of Translation, an authoritative publication which is the organ of The National Translation Center that has Mr. Lowell and also W. H. Auden on its distinguished board of directors—a sign perhaps that translation is coming to be taken seriously.

Mr. Lowell believes that it is impossible to carry a poem over in its entirety from one language to another, that only the meter of a foreign poem may be “had” but not its “sound effects,” which are not “transferable”; and this is why, when he collected his own versions of foreign poems, he called the volume not “Translations” but Imitations.” Mrs. Carlisle prefers “adaptations” and includes in Poets on Street Corners about twenty of Lowell’s:

Then only the hollow, smiling dead
dared to draw breath and sing;
by block and prisons, Leningrad
throbbed like a useless wing.

There convict regiments, miles long,
and mad with suffering,
heard engines hiss their marching song,
the cattle cars’ wheel-ring.

* * *

The dragging Don flows slow, so slow,
the orange moon climbs through a window.

Its hat is slanted on its brow,
the yellow moon has met a shadow.

This woman is alone,
no one will give the dog a bone.

Her husband’s killed, her son’s in prison;
Kyrie eleison!
* * *

For one month, five months, seventeen,
I called you back. I screamed
at the foot of the executioner.
You are my son, my fear.

Thoughts rush in circles through my head;
I can’t distinguish white from red,
who is a man, and who a beast,
or when your firing squad will rest.

Here there are only musty flowers,
old clock hands tramping out the hours,
old incense drifting from a censer,
and somewhere, boot steps leading nowhere.

See, see, it pins us down from far;
now looking straight into my eye,
“Move quickly, be prepared to die,”
says the huge star.

These passages are from Akhmatova’s Requiem, a long poem composed of brief sections in a variety of meters. Lowell does not strain to duplicate the words, rhymes, and metrical scheme of the original. For example, in the part beginning “For one month…,” he changes a lyric of fourteen iambic lines of irregularly alternating tetrameter and trimeter, rhyming abab, cdcd, eefggf, to one of sixteen lines in broken iambs and with as much assonance as rhyme; but he conveys the essence of the poem, that is to say, its tone and meaning, recreating, without copying, Akhmatova’s plangent notes, her effect of boundless grief.

On rare occasions a mistake creeps in, which happens at times in the most masterful translations. Lermontov, for example, once confused the English kindly with the German das Kind and translated Burns’s “Had we never loved so kindly,” “Had we never children been.” And Mr. Lowell, who does not know Russian and relies either on prose versions or “rather uninspired verse translations,” slips up in Requiem, where he makes the Magdalen, at the foot of the Cross, hit a wholly invented officer. In the original, the Magdalen “thrashed about” (bilas’) in her grief, but Mr. Lowell, or his source, having missed the force of the reflexive bilas‘ and mistaken it for the past bila, which means “hit,” had to provide an object for her blows; hence “the officer.” But there are very few inaccuracies of this kind and, within the excellence of the whole, they hardly matter. His Requiem is a triumph.

In the last analysis, a translation will depend on the translator’s emotional and intellectual flexibility and technical skill: the quality of his ear, his mastery of his own language (the extent of his vocabulary and his perception of verbal nuances), and the degree of his sensitivity to another’s experience—assuming, that is, that feelings and concepts can be transposed from one language to another. Pasternak’s translations and his theory of translation are exercises in empathy. “A translation,” he said, “must come from an author who has experienced the influence of the original long before he has undertaken his work. It must be the fruit of the original and its historic consequence…. Translations are possible because they too must be works of art.” His own, like his poems, developed organically.

To Auden, on the other hand, translation is a matter of craftsmanship. For instance, when, without knowing Russian, he undertakes to translate Voznesensky, he begins only “after reading literal prose translations of his poems, studying metrical models, listening to tape recordings of him reading his own work,” and deciding, “as a fellow maker,” that Voznesensky is a craftsman. “Here, at last, is a poet who knows that, whatever else it may be, a poem is a verbal artifact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed as a table or a motorcycle.”* Then, having analyzed the Russian artifact, Auden proceeds to build its English equivalent.

Unlike Auden and Lowell, and at the farthest extreme from Pasternak, is Vladimir Nabokov who willfully abjures the work for which he is best fitted. An expert manipulator of words, in perfect command of both English and Russian, he once used his ability to good effect in some admirable verse translations (one of his best, Pushkin’s “Exegi Monumentum,” is given by Mrs. Carlisle in her “Introduction”). But presently he concluded that his productions were false and so, depriving English-speaking readers of a chance to savor Pushkin, gave them his pedestrian Onegin, together with a self-congratulatory explanation of why he had done so. “Can a rhymed poem like Eugene Onegin be truly translated with the retention of its rhymes?” he asked, after giving a very fair example of how this could be done. “The answer, of course, is no.” Therefore:

To my ideal of literalism I sacrificed everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than truth. Pushkin has likened translators to horses changed at the posthouses of civilization. The greatest reward I can think of is that students may use my work as a pony.

Pushkin, however, had also said, commenting on Chateaubriand’s literal translation of Milton, that “a word by word translation can never be accurate.” What, in short, is truth? “The dainty mimic” may have a better idea of it than Mr. Nabokov. Fortunately, Nabokov is an exception, and other poets do not equate literalness with poetic truth, though what this truth may be and how it can be rendered does remain a debatable question. Certainly, all too often, translators, unaware of their own limitations and trying for unattainable accuracy, end up with a travesty of poetry, a nondescript, hobbled something, neither verse nor prose, that limps along in wobbly rhythms and feeble rhymes.

It is the special merit of Mrs. Carlisle’s collection that its “adaptations,” made by eighteen able craftsmen, are competent to a degree; naturally, they cannot all be equally good, but the net result is of unusually high caliber. In addition to Lowell’s contributions, there are fine passages by Theodore Weiss, such as the following from Pasternak’s The Breakup:

My table’s not so wide, that pressing my chest
against its board, I cannot crook my elbow
round the edge of anguish, those straits
of countless miles, quarried by “Farewell.”

There is Rose Styron’s rendition of Marina Tsvetaeva:

I know, I know
that earth’s enchantment—
this carved
charmed cup—
is no more ours
than air is ours
than stars
than nests
suspended in the dawn.

I know, I know
it has a master.
Still, like a towering
eagle rising
high
with your wing
purloin his cup
from the cold pink lips
of God.

There is the line that opens Mandelshtam’s “Tristia” in the version of Stanley Kunitz: “I made myself an expert in farewells.” Richard Wilbur, whose well-known translations of Molière are virtuoso performances, is represented here by three pieces, in which he often comes close to reproducing exactly the meter and rhyme, as well as the sense, of the original, as in Akhmatova’s poem that begins:

All is despoiled, abandoned, sold;
Death’s wing has swept the sky of color,
All’s eaten by a hungry dolor.
What is this light which we be- hold?

A pity that in place of another of his tours de force, Voznesensky’s “Anti-worlds,” a much less skillful version is given here! Wilbur begins with charming verve, and perfect accuracy:

The Clerk Bukáshkin is our neigh- bor.
His face is gray as blotting paper—

But here we have:

Mr. Beetle lives nearby (he’s our neighbor).
He’s a clerk the color of blotting paper—

and so on.

The title, Poets on Street Corners, is misleading. Mrs. Carlisle explains at the outset that she had “deliberately…chosen to stress one particular aspect of contemporary Russian poetry—the poets’ involvement with the flow of everyday life as it is symbolized by the street.” But this intention is not borne out. Although “everyday life” is indeed in evidence—Soviet everyday life, that is, which mercifully is unlike the everyday of other nations—“the street,” except by distant, allusive, or symbolic implication, is only occasionally there. Indeed, the poetry she has chosen is intimate, personal, intellectual—poetry of the study rather than the street. Also misleading is her subtitle, “Portraits of Fifteen Russian Poets.” “Portraits” is too ambitious a term, “sketches” would have been more exact, for each poet, of necessity, is represented by a mere fraction of his writing, and the brief essay which introduces him gives only a hint of his personality and the nature of his work.

Some of these essays, however, when they are based on actual encounters, are vivid: Mrs. Carlisle, in addition to a consuming interest in literature and a generous capacity for admiration, has an artist’s eye for the appearances of things. And her choice of poets and poems is excellent. More than half the book is given to poets of recognized merit who are already known in the West: Blok, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky, Pasternak, Yesenin. There are also Tsvetaeva and Zabolotsky, who should be better known, and also, somewhat oddly in this group of poets in Soviet Russia, the gifted émigré, Boris Poplavsky, who wrote in Paris and died there at the age of thirty-two. Of those who are still alive, we have Akhmadulina, Brodsky, Voznesensky, and Yevtushenko, as well as a handful of so-called “Barachni poets,” the crudely and boldly satiric voices of youthful discontent, popular, Mrs. Carlisle tells us, “in Moscow literary circles.”

Russians love poetry. They have readings of it in private homes, in public squares, in theaters. Surrealism is in fashion; there are clandestine publications; and official persecutions of poets continue. In Mrs. Carlisle’s opinion, no one writing today is likely to equal such masters as Blok and Mandelshtam. It is, of course, too early to tell. And Bella Akhmadulina and Joseph Brodsky are very fine. Brodsky’s recent trial will be remembered: he was condemned to penal servitude on the charge of “parasitism.” His work is apolitical, but writing poetry, even when it is first-rate, does not constitute an acceptable occupation in the Soviet Union. Bella Akhmadulina is a celebrity. She is “glamorous,” says Mrs. Carlisle and describes one of her public appearances in 1967:

A sea of young people with ecstatic open faces; here and there middle-aged women in drab clothes, with gray faces, some with eyes filled with tears—they all press against one another on hard auditorium benches, trying to make room for those jammed in the aisles. Young men are precariously perched on window ledges halfway up to the ceiling; students are crowding to the very footlights of the brightly lit stage.

A pretty woman walks out onto the stage. She is wearing pumps with high heels. Her navy silk dress is extremely short, her reddish hair set according to the latest fashion. She looks like a doll with her heavily made-up, wide-open dark eyes. She stands there a bit unsteadily, clutching the microphone, lifting an unseeing immobile face to the public. After six or seven outbursts of acclaim, she raises her left arm in a timid, rounded gesture—and perfect silence settles over the audience within seconds. Bella Akhmadulina is having a solo public reading for the first time in many months.

Unfortunately only four of her lines are well translated here. They are an address to Pompei, done by Auden, and quoted in the “Introduction”:

What future did you assume,
What were you thinking of and whom,
When you leaned your elbow thus
Thoughtlessly on Vesuvius?

The other translations, honest but uninspired, do not do justice to her exquisite lyric gift. (A volume of her recent work, Fever and Other Poems, is about to appear. It has an appreciative essay by Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, who was her first husband; but the translations are also painstaking but inadequate.)

In one way or another, Russia’s subterranean poems find their way to the West. Many of them have been published in a journal called Grani (“Facets”) by Possev-Verlag, a Russian language press in Frankfurt/Main, and “about one-fifth” of these have now appeared in Russian Underground Poets, translated by Keith Bosley “from literal versions supplied by Dr. Dimitry Pospielovsky and Mr. Janis Sapiets.” There is spirit in them, and wit:

But seeing that silence is gold,
You might say business is fair.


The people of Africa are black people.
They say: you need black happi- ness.

The people of Asia are yellow people.
They know: yellow happiness is better.

The people of America are white people.
They think: there can only be white happiness.

The people of Russia are Russian people.
They are silent. This is Russian happiness.

And sometimes, as in the verse of N. Gorbanyevskaya, there is the intensity of a genuinely poetic imagination:

In my own twentieth century
where death queues for a grave
my wretched passion, my
forever lonely love

amid these Goya settings puts
up just as poor a show
as after screaming jets
the trump of Jericho.

Some of Akhmadulina’s and Brodsky’s work is also included; all the poems have “news” value, but as art, most of them are probably ephemeral.

In the history of Western literature, Russian poetry of the twentieth century, both in and outside Russia, holds a proud place. Tragedy has come of age in it. Stark, somber, majestic at its best, it is a poetry of revolt, pain, indignation, of Promethean anguish and illimitable loss. Even its self-pity has a historic dimension, a cosmic sweep. It is deep in feeling, broad in sympathies—a celebration of human grandeur. Such is the tragic poetry of the Soviet Union. Russian émigré poetry is, on the whole, rather different: less raw in its emotions, less powerful in effect, softer, more visionary, more analytic and abstract. Its history remains to be written; and when this is done, Nina Berberova’s autobiography will certainly be taken into account.

Hers is the story of self-imposed exile that, as with many Russians, has ended in the acceptance of another land. It began in 1922 in Germany, continued in France, and has come to rest in the United States. She has played a certain role in the literature of exile; and, having moved in literary circles, is able to provide more or less intimate glimpses of many well-known writers, Gumilev, Bunin, Bely, among others, Gorky, Akhmatova, Zinaida Gippius and Merezhkovsky, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Nabokov, and the poet and critic Vladislav Khodasevich, one of the most astute and discriminating masters of the Russian tongue, who was her first husband.

But it is not about these that she writes primarily. Her book is “an autobiography,” as she declares in her opening sentence, “not a set of memoirs” nor “a collection of portraits.” Neither is it a confession; she has secrets that she keeps to herself, and she could write another, and different, volume of equal length about herself. What is her purpose? Know thyself is her motto, and she believes that as she explains herself, “the meaning of life” will emerge, “of my life, or, indeed, of every life.”

This, to say the least, is solemn. But Nina Berberova does not think that she takes herself seriously, and even excuses herself for not doing so: “We who were born between 1895 and 1910 grew up on tragedy…. But now, when the tragedy has come to its end and the epic has begun, haven’t I the right, ending my life, not to take myself too seriously?” (Why, yes, by all means! But do you, and has the tragedy come to an end?) She prides herself on her capacity to think, her independence, her love of energy. Complaint, dwelling on the past, helplessness are not for her. “No suffering,” she proclaims, “is too high a price for awareness.” And she herself seems, somehow naturally, to have been insulated against suffering. From early childhood she has loathed protectiveness, has preferred “the anthill” to “the nest,” the crowd, that is, where one can be alone, to the family where one cannot; has chosen to live “for the present moment” rather than the future, and has been determined, since the age of three, not to lose time. Her story bears her out. It gives the impression of avid haste: thoughts, feelings, actions, all swirling at great speed—around herself. She was in France during the German occupation, lived through days of savage bombardment, saw the deportation of Jews, among whom were close friends and was injured in a courageous attempt to save one of them; she has known poverty and watched illness and death. And she has come through very happily: “I have only my whims, no one else’s, and I have no children, no grandchildren, no great-grandchildren—that is, no witnesses to my old age, and therefore I don’t risk falling into senile garrulousness or starting to oppress my progeny with my caprices.” This is, I suppose, what one calls “strength.”

But perhaps most interesting in her story is the atmosphere it conveys of émigré life—a difficult life, full of nostalgia, dissatisfaction, distrust, estrangement; of impotent rage against the abandoned native land and covert hostility toward foreign ones—a state of mind in which the spirit struggles against its own pettiness, and misery seeks defense in an armor of stoic attitudes, or of scorn, indifference, playfulness, cynicism, or religiosity; when the need to be recognized, or just accepted, leads some to despair and some to self-aggrandizement, when pathos and bitterness are dominant, and a sense of tragedy is impossible in a merely pitiful and hideous world.

These moods, as much as the tragic, have evolved their own values and their own art, and Vladimir Nabokov is their best representative. No wonder that to Nina Berberova he is “the answer to all the doubts of the exiled, the persecuted, the insulted and the injured, the ‘unnoticed’ and the ‘lost,’ ” the savior of her own generation “of deprived, broken, silenced, stripped, homeless, destitute, disenfranchised…poets.” Their “tragedy” was that they had no “style,” no new way of saying things suitable to their unique experience, and Nabokov brought them “a renewal of style.” A matter of style, then, constitutes the tragedy of the émigré writers—hardly the tragedy of Akhmatova and Pasternak, Mandelshtam and Solzhenitsyn.

  1. *

    From the “Foreword” to Andrei Voznesensky’s Antiworlds, Doubleday, 1967.

  • Email
  • Print