“Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?”

August 18, 2013 § 5 Comments

Lot’s Wife

 And the just man trailed God’s messenger,
His huge, light shape devoured the black hill.
But uneasiness shadowed his wife and spoke to her:
‘It’s not too late, you can look back still

 At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you,
The square in which you sang, the spinning-shed,
At the empty windows of that upper storey
Where children blessed your happy marriage-bed.’

Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt
Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind;
Her body turned into transparent salt,
And her swift legs were rooted to the ground.

Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she never will be lost,
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.

 1922-24

Translated by D. M. Thomas

In Defending Poetry: Art and Ethics in Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, and Geoffrey Hill, David-Antoine Williams explores, in his chapter on Geoffrey Hill, Hill’s abiding interest in the memorializing function of lyric poetry, as it relates to its ethical function. Inevitably concerns of exploitation arise over taking a devastating historical event such as the Shoah as “subject matter” for a poem; the lyric poem negotiates the difficult balance between the urgent need to remember, and the instinct that drives us towards silence out of respect for the dead.

Hill embodies these tensions in early poems such as “September Song” and in the concept of the belated witness: the witness who comes after the event, who was not there him or herself, but who feels compelled nonetheless to function as witness, as marked in a lyric poem. Susan Gubar, in her Poetry After Auschwitz, considers a similar concept that has arisen out of Holocaust studies, the concept of the proxy witness: the witness who may be a child or grandchild of survivors, or who experienced events indirectly, or who is a belated witness as Hill uses the term. I would suggest we also now have, with the advent of social media and instantaneous transmission of events via Twitter, smart phones, and the world wide web, the experience of the virtual witness: the individual who witnesses for example the events of the Arab spring, or its aftermath, as we are seeing now in Egypt and Syria, albeit mediated always by screens, events brought to us on a digital flood tide.

Geoffrey Hill has written:

“‘I would seriously propose a theology of language; and a primary exercise which might be undertaken towards its establishment. This would comprise a critical examination of the grounds for claiming (a) that the shock of semantic recognition must also be a shock of ethical recognition; and that this is the action of grace in one of its minor, but far from trivial, types; (b) that the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead.'” (from “Language, Suffering, and Silence” 1999, collected in CCW 405, qtd in Williams p.159)

Williams notes that Hill’s poems tend towards silence, particularly in the elegiac mode. He observes that

“Writing poetry, for Hill, means working in a medium which is ethically marked at its origin. The ethical is built into the very structure and process of language. The menace of language is against our moral being: the abounding opportunities for inattention to language and through language, and for deception and confusion by language, threaten the precision and reliability of our judgements. Poetry is a way of atoning for one’s linguistic trespasses, a way of ‘at-one-ing’ with that from which language separates us….” p. 179

and

“Words exist in the ‘real world’; words represent and refer to things in the ‘real world.’ When Hill writes, in his note towards establishing a ‘theology of language’, that ‘the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing, of the dead’, he is directing diligence, endurance, and attention—the ethical attributes of attitude and process—towards an ethical end. By ‘late twentieth century’ we understand the post-Holocaust world; by ‘the dead’ we understand in particular the victims of the Jewish Shoah. But Hill also has a more general, comprehensive and methodical memorializing in mind, a memorializing mode for or approach to the writing of poetry.” p.183

According to Clare Cavanagh in her Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska in her mature poems approached this idea of attention and memorializing of the dead as a series of footnotes or marginalia in the great Soviet Book (see also my earlier post, “death of the book à la russe“), lyric poems which function as “self-consciously inadequate witness” (p.195).

Cavanagh traces this idea of the inadequate witness by considering the poems both Anna Akhmatova and Szymborska wrote on the fate of Lot’s wife. I’ve included Akhmatova’s version of the story above, as translated by D.M. Thomas, whose translation of Akhmatova’s Requiem I most prefer.[1]

I like Akhmatova’s insistence in “Lot’s Wife” on the small details of everyday life that constitute its very fabric: the spinning-shed with its association with the making of cloth; the marriage bed, a private space associated with warmth and shelter, and the conceiving of children. Akhmatova then asks, “Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?/Surely her death has no significance?” In Requiem, Akhmatova writes of her own personal experience of loss: her fears for her son in the Gulag, her lover’s arrest and imprisonment, her existence utterly limited and threatened by the Soviet state. By documenting her own situation, she illuminates the lives of the many others who also stood in line with her at the prison queues in Leningrad with parcels to send to loved ones, hoping to hear news.

According to Cavanagh, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn first encountered Requiem in the 1960s, he criticized it for its “inappropriate lyric self-absorption” (which, Cavanagh notes, sounds an awful lot like the same criticism made by Soviet critics who preferred socialist realist prose). Solzhenitsyn said, “‘But really, the nation suffered tens of millions, and here are poems about one single case, about one single mother and son … I told her that it is the duty of a Russian poet to write about the suffering of Russia, to rise above personal grief and tell about the suffering of the nation.'” p.122-123.

Akhmatova had already answered this criticism through her rhetorical questions in “Lot’s Wife.” The lyric poet’s function, she implies, is at times simply to mourn one woman in a holocaust, because each single death is significant. Cavanagh argues that Akhmatova thereby “performs what Szymborska sees as a key function of the lyric poet in an age of Great History: ‘One single human being laments the woeful fate of another single human being'” p.195.


[1] For example, consider Thomas’s translation of the last lines of the second part of Requiem: “Son in irons and husband clay./Pray. Pray.”

“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.

Thomas Wyatt’s heart

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Alas, and is there no remedy
But have I thus lost it wilfully?
Iwis it was a thing all too dear
To be bestowed and wist not where:
It was mine heart! I pray you heartily
Help me to seek.

Just now I am reading Nicola Shulman’s Graven with Diamonds: The Many Lives of Thomas Wyatt: Courtier, Poet, Assassin, Spy. I was immediately drawn to Shulman’s insistence that in Wyatt’s time, poetry had uses — it could do things (Wyatt’s poetry a refutation, she argues, of Auden’s “Poetry makes nothing happen.”).  There are two aspects of this claim that converge with my own preoccupations with the uses of poetry: first, the simple idea that a poem can have a particular effect in the world, and second, that the political context, the system, within which a poem is written, will imprint its language and determine its uses.

I want to return to this second point in a later post that considers the political system in relation to a poem’s production and its strategies of resistance to oppressive political structures; Clare Cavanagh’s important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russian, Poland, and the West, has much to say on this subject. Cavanagh points out that the very fact that poetry has no immediate material or economic use, and resists any attempts to control or organize it (as socialist realism tried to do), paradoxically increased its value in post-war Poland — the lyric poem came to represent a kind of elusive freedom, a private space which the state sought to annihilate. This makes me think also of John Donne’s insistence, over 300 years earlier, on the lovers’ room as a private space where the state must not intrude (“Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,/Why dost thou thus,/Through windowes, and through curtaines call on us?”) — although in Donne’s poetry this private space is often defined in opposition to, and appropriates the language of, the state.

The freedom of the lyric is linked to the metaphorical and polyvalent nature of language in this most compressed form; meaning is elusive; a line can be interpreted in multiple ways. Shulman explores Wyatt’s adept use of the poem as encrypted message. She points out that “Historicist critics…began to realise that Wyatt, like Mandelstam or Akhmatova, was a poet writing under tyranny, who might yield insights into life under the Tudor Stalin” (p.16).  [1]  Wyatt’s poems she suggests can be read as coded responses to the complex web of power at the court of Henry VIII; his ‘lute’ is symbol of the poet’s ability to speak freely: “My lute and strings may not deny/But as I strike they must obey….Blame not my lute”.

But it is her first point I am more interested in for now: that in Wyatt’s time, poetry had social currency; it could do things. Shulman demonstrates the function of a Wyatt poem within the game of courtly love as it was played in the court of Henry VIII, a game designed to channel the sexual frustrations of young men and women in confined quarters. The women needed to preserve their virginity in order to enter into the lists of marriage, which consolidated economic and family ties. The men, as always, had less to lose. Both wanted sex, and couldn’t have it. Courtly love codified and sublimated these heterosexual desires in its games, its masques, its poems, its role-playing; young men could be lovers addressing their Lady; if they couldn’t have sex, they could all at least play the game. (And perhaps, Shulman notes, some played the game as cover for an actual affair, which must have heightened the excitement of the game, and the affair.) Here’s where Wyatt comes in  — poems played a significant role in the game, and Wyatt could write a good poem.

Shulman observes that “an early 16th-century lyric was more than the words that were written in it. It had a life as a material object as well. To us now, a poem means the same whether we read it on a computer screen or in a newspaper or a book of poetry; but to the ladies and gentlemen of the early Tudor court, a poem on a piece of paper was also a material thing, like a flower or a handkerchief, or a jewel” (p.72). This was true also in the imperial court of Heian Japan where poetry served various social functions, including its use by officials as a form of inter-governmental memo [2]; similarly, a poem’s physical appearance and presentation — kind and colour of paper, folded in a particular way, delivered at a particular time, attached to an iris root or sprig of cherry blossom — played as meaningful a role as the words themselves.

But I have promised Thomas Wyatt’s heart:

Help me to seek for I lost it there;
And if that ye have found it, yet that be here,
And seek to convey it secretly
Or else it will plain and then appair.
But rather restore it mannerly
Since that I do ask it thus honestly,
For to lose it it sitteth me too near.
Help me to seek.

Alas, and is there no remedy
But have I thus lost it wilfully?
Iwis it was a thing all too dear
To be bestowed and wist not where:
It was mine heart! I pray you heartily
Help me to seek.

The riddle lies, Shulman tells us, in the knowledge that the heart he seeks was a heart-shaped cloth-covered balloon that would “plain and then appair” — complain and then be damaged — with rough handling; it would have been used in some undocumented game of hide and seek played by the courtly lovers. The poem might have been a clue, instructions on how to play the game. Within that particular social context, the poem comes to life. I like this observation Shulman then makes about the poem as a light bulb of sorts: “When we think of a courtly lyric we must imagine it as a thing with latent energy, that lit up when the right social circuitry was connected” (p.85) — poetry as currency.


[1] I’ve seen estimates for the number of victims under Stalin’s reign range between 20 000 000 and 60 000 000; estimates for the number of victims under Henry VIII, between 54 000 and 72 000. I don’t know what this represents proportionally of the citizens under their control.

[2] In The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Ivan Morris observes of a new government appointment in the year 962: “…when a certain Imperial Prince who is serving as Minister of Military Affairs wishes to ask the newly appointed Assistant Minister why he is so lax in reporting for duty, he does not dream of sending the curt memorandum that would be normal in a more businesslike form of bureaucracy; instead he indites an elegant poem, replete with word-plays, in which he compares the Assistant Minister and himself to two strands that have been coiled together in a single thread and asks his subordinate why he has stopped ‘reeling the silk.’ There follows a long exchange of increasingly obscure poems, all ringing the changes on the silk-reeling image, in the course of which the two gentlemen appear to have forgotten entirely about the original, rather prosaic, purpose of their correspondence” (p.192).

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