“the idyllic era of cushions was at an end”: 20th century lyric genres

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some twentieth century lyric genres [1]:

1. poem written on cigarette pack lining and buried, Makronisos, Greece, c.1948:

 “even under the harshest conditions on Makronisos [an island detention centre for political prisoners after the Second World War], Ritsos was constantly writing, on whatever scraps of paper he could find, including the linings of cigarette packs, which he hid or buried in bottles in the ground” — “Introduction,” Diaries of Exile p.viii Translators Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley

1a. variant: poem written on cigarette paper, the Small Zone, Barashevo Labour Camp, Mordovia, USSR, c. 1983:

“In minute letters, I write out my latest poems on four-centimetre-wide strips of cigarette paper. This is one of the our ways of getting information out of the Zone. These strips of cigarette paper are then tightly rolled into a small tube (less than the thickness of your little finger), sealed and made moisture-proof by a method of our own devising and handed on when a suitable opportunity presents itself.” — Grey is the Color of Hope Irina Ratushinskaya p.75

1b. variant: poem placed in glass preserving jar and buried in the garden, by night. USSR, c. Stalinist Russia:

“[Andrei Sinyavski] tells how, at the height of the Stalin terror, Alexander Kutzenov used to seal his manuscripts in glass preserving jars and bury them in his garden at night-time.” —The Government of the Tongue, Seamus Heaney, p.97

2. poem hidden in cushion or saucepan, Stalinist Russia, c.1934:

“I began to make copies and hide them in various places. Generally I put them in hiding-places at home, but copies I handed to other people. During the search of our apartment in 1934 the police agents failed to find poems I had sewn into cushions or stuck inside saucepans and shoes….Voronezh [where Osip served part of his sentence of exile after writing the “Stalinist epigram”] marked a new stage in our handling of manuscripts. The idyllic era of cushions was at an end — and I remembered all too vividly how the feathers had flown from Jewish cushions during Denikin’s pogroms in Kiev. M.’s memory was not as good as it had been, and with human life getting cheaper all the time, it was in any case no longer a safe repository for his work….” — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, p.324

3. poem in a burnt notebook, Moscow, c.1938-41

“…suddenly, in mid-conversation, [Akhmatova] would fall silent and, signalling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: ‘Would you like some tea?’ or ‘You’re very tanned’, then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. ‘How early autumn came this year,’ Anna Andreevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray…” — Lydia Chukovskaya, The Akhmatova Journals Volume 1, 1938-1941, (p.6)

4. poem remembered during the night shift at the textile factory, Strunino, USSR, c.1950s:

“Working on the night shift and running between one machine and another in the enormous shop, I kept myself awake by muttering M.’s verse to myself. I had to commit everything to memory in case all my papers were taken away from me, or the various people I had given copies to took fright and burned them in a moment of panic — that had been done more than once by the best and most devoted friends of literature. My memory was thus an additional safeguard — indeed, it was indispensable to me in my difficult task. I thus spent my eight hours of night work not only spinning yarn but also memorizing verse.” — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope p.411-2

5. poem scratched onto Styrofoam cup, Guantánamo Bay, early 21st century:

“Many men at Guantánamo turned to writing poetry as a way to maintain their sanity, to memorialize their suffering and to preserve their humanity through acts of creation. The obstacles the prisoners have faced in composing their poems are profound. In the first year of their detention, they were not allowed regular use of pen and paper. Undeterred, some drafted short poems on Styrofoam cups retrieved from lunch and dinner trays. Lacking writing instruments, they inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste, then passed the “cup poems” from cell to cell. The cups were inevitably collected with the day’s trash, the verses consigned to the bottom of a rubbish bin.”  — “Poems from Guantanamo”  Amnesty International Magazine Fall 2007

5a. variant: poem burnt onto bar of soap with matchstick, and then memorised, the Small Zone, Barashevo Labour Camp, Mordovia, USSR, c. 1983 Irina Ratushinskaya (see also Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe Books, 1988).


[1] See “The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists under Stalin,” a chapter in Clare Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West.

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