The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, Updated and Expanded Edition
Remembering Anna Akhmatova
Poetry must somehow proclaim its authority. However mysteriously this comes about, its achievement can always be recognized; a great poem continues to assert its magisterial spell in the face of all the tyranny or indifference of passing events. When Yeats wrote in 1919, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” he could not have known that before the end of the century, at a time when convictions of any sort were hard to come by, for both the good and the bad, his words would nonetheless have passed into the language, been stamped on the consciousness of daily speech.
How much more has this authority come to exist in the great poetry of Russia, where it stamped its conviction on the secret speech of the martyrs and the persecuted? A moving photograph in the complete edition of Anna Akhmatova’s poems, between the text and the notes, shows a tiny handmade “notebook,” formed of a few fragments of paper stitched together, with a poem of hers laboriously copied out in minute handwriting. This had been the treasured possession of a zek in one of the gulags, a talisman to strengthen him through years of suffering. Now that particular tyranny has gone, at least for the moment, and poetry of course remains; yet its authority in Russia is perhaps not quite what it was, its “bright name”—in Aleksandr Blok’s phrase—not quite so potent. A famous sonnet of Shakespeare’s has never enjoyed a moment of such rough magic as when the audience at a hall in Moscow shouted insistently for “Number 66,” while Pasternak, with grudging permission from the Soviet authorities, was reading his translations. That sonnet contains the line: “And art made tongue-tied by authority,” and goes on to speak of “captive good attending captain ill.”
Of course art can always be used for propaganda purposes, and bad art too can sometimes enjoy in a political context the same potency as the good. But since the time of Pushkin Russian poetry at its best and most venerated has never achieved its force and its popularity by going directly against the state and the establishment. On the contrary: its power has always come from its detachment, its serene confidence in belonging, so to speak, to another and a better world. Not in every case is this true. Nekrasov, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, and in conformity in some degree with the famous critic Belinsky’s theory of the social utility of art, is both an excellent poet and a propagandist for social and political reform. For that reason he was one of the few poets, other than the iconic Pushkin, to be thoroughly approved of by the Soviet authorities, who also encouraged another good poet, Mayakovsky, to be their poetic mascot and front man with the Muse. Unable to stand the strain of serving two masters, Mayakovsky committed suicide. Blok, who had earlier shown a wish to serve as a poet the …