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 new Bolshevik society, had already died in despair. His well-known poem “The Twelve,” for all its undoubted magnificence and impact, in fact falls resoundingly between two stools: it is a poem of wholly personal and symbolic vision which nonetheless tries to be realistic and urgent about historic events and the Reds’ seizure of power.
This point against Blok’s vision of twelve uncouth Red Guardsmen wandering destructively through St. Petersburg under the leadership of Jesus Christ was made by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago, which contrasts the grim reality of “Russia’s terrible years” with Blok’s poetically apocalyptic conception of them. Akhmatova, who did not at all care for Blok as a man although she admired some of his poetry, would certainly have agreed with Pasternak’s view of the matter. For her, as for Pasternak, the poet indeed had a duty, but it was nothing to do with political principles, or with a regime. It was to stay where you were, in your own country, and write, as a poet, for your own people. For Russian poets to leave Russia and go into emigration was for them to forfeit the mysterious authority which they possessed. It is this knowledge and certainty which fill the four lines at the opening of Akhmatova’s tragic poem-cycle Requiem, written in memory of the time under the Great Terror when she stood outside the prison in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) where her son was confined, hoping, like innumerable others, to get a parcel through, or at least a word.
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortu- nately, were.
That is Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation, and her versions of Akhmatova’s collected poems in the new single-volume Zephyr Press edition—it succeeds the bulky two-volume edition with Russian text and translation on facing pages published three years ago—is in general excellent: accurate, unpretentious, and in the same straightforward and simple key as the original. The usual difficulties and impossibilities remain of course; but Akhmatova was herself a translator, and like all the Russian Acmeist poets she was steeped in the texture and tradition of European and English poetry. She knew the difficulties, and would appreciate how the translator, who learned Russian because of her love for this poetry, has tried to overcome them.
Wendy Rosslyn gives the usual and more elegant version of that stanza’s last line “Where my luckless people chanced to be” in her translation of Anatoly Nayman’s sensitive and lively memoir of the poet. It is true that the drawback of the word “unfortunately” in English is that it is usually employed in a trivial context—“Unfortunately, she’s got another appointment” or something of the sort. “Luckless” is a more obvious poetical word, more rare, more drastic. But it is just because of its commonplaceness that “unfortunately” seems to me to be right in this dire context: the Russian k neschastiu is not poetical either. According to Nayman, Akhmatova herself used to get impatient with worshipers of Requiem, and its tribute to the “blood and tears” of suffering humanity, pointing out that these are poems, and remain poems. She nonetheless singled out those four lines as the “one good passage,” evidently separating the absolutely basic emotion in them from all the artifices of good poetry.
There is a difference, and a vital one, between the inevitable distance of any poetry from what is actually going on, and the deliberate cultivation of a “poetic world” by a Symbolist poet like Blok. Pushkin and Akhmatova are not in the least concerned to be “relevant” to human affairs and responsibilities—sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t—their poetry is in this sense quite unselfconscious, and therefore wholly separate and wholly individual. But it is equally natural that their poetry speaks with its own complete authority, not an assumed or a carefully constructed one.
In this context Nayman makes an unexpected and devastating point. “Strictly speaking, Requiem is the ideal embodiment of Soviet poetry that all the theorists describe.” Its hero is the people, the narod, not the people as the regime wanted them to be, and was continually and hypocritically invoking, but the people as they actually were. By upbringing and temperament, and no doubt by conviction too, Akhmatova was instinctively a Christian. So was Pasternak. That is why they had to stay where they were. Not only their instinctive authority as poets depended on it, but their identification with Russia—its past and especially its faith. The great advantage of such a faith against all forms of political idealism, an advantage which would be comical if the human predicament did not make it so inherently tragical, is that it has no trouble in accepting things as they are. Politics and ideology always have to pretend that things could be different, and, in Soviet Russia, that they actually were different. Hence the fact that Soviet poetry, so far from identifying like Akhmatova with what was really going on, had no choice but to endorse the Big Lie and to identify with the narod as it was ideally supposed to be, not as it was.
Having said that it is necessary also to state—and Nayman too makes this clear—that Akhmatova, like many other poets of her time (like Yeats himself) could seem a tremendous show-off. Her fellow-poet Marina Tsvetaeva used sardonically to refer to her as “Anna of All the Russias.” She was regal; she was a queen. Yet she was one absolutely by nature, as if a little girl, a giddy princess, had always known what grave responsibilities ineluctably awaited her, and met them when the moment came without protest or pretension. The showing off was done on her behalf by friends, critics, the hangers-on—devoted or merely sycophantic—which literature attracts, and particularly literature in the Soviet Union, with all the official flim-flam—poets’ villages and “Houses of Creativity”—which sought to make the people venerate the chosen bards of the Soviet system as much as the system itself. Ironically all that state-culture worship was transferred by a sort of honorable reversal on the part of their devotees to Pasternak and to Akhmatova herself. They became rival icons to those of the Soviet regime, images of an older and truer faith.
The splendidly refreshing thing about Nayman’s memoir—he is himself a poet and was her literary secretary in her old age, when even the post-Stalinist regime did not dare to persecute her more—is that although he reveres Akhmatova as a woman and a great poet his tales about her, and his sparkling critical intelligence about the background and setting of her poems, are not in the least reverential. He assumes her grandeur and her dignity as she assumed them herself; and his accounts of her life in Leningrad, in her small crumbling room on the Fontanka canal and later outside the town in the writers’ village of Komarovo, have the homely fascination and humor of Boswell’s recollections of Dr. Johnson. When Robert Frost came to Leningrad in the late Fifties a meeting was arranged by a well-known critic and authority on English literature. “Both their names figured in the list of candidates for the Nobel Prize, and the idea of bringing them together seemed an especially felicitous one to the bureaucrats…” The Eng. Lit. man was duly impressed—“how grand she was, and how sad she seemed,” when she read Frost her poem “The Last Rose.” “For some moments we were silent, still.”
But Akhmatova later told Nayman with amusement that she had felt like a “Grandma” with a “Grandpa,” and moreover that Frost had seriously wanted to know whether it might be profitable to manufacture pencils using the Komarovo pine trees. Entering into the spirit of the thing, she reminded him that anyone felling a tree in the park was fined 500 rubles; but the reader may suspect that Frost was acting the New England farmer, teasing her in his deadpan way and being more playful than either she or her secretary realized. She felt it unfitting and improper for a great poet to have such a “farming streak” in him. In fact two quite different attitudes to Art and the Artist—the Russian one and the American—were misunderstanding each other.