“death of the book à la russe”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

We live without feeling the land beneath us,
Our speeches can’t be heard ten steps away.

But whenever there’s enough for half a chat–
Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer.

His fat fingers are plump as worms,
And his words are as sure as iron weights.

His mighty cockroach moustache laughs,
And his vast boot-tops gleam.

A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him,
He toys with the favors of half-humans.

One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers,
He alone bangs and pokes.

He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes–
One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye.

Every execution is a treat
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.

–Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” translated by Clare Cavanagh

I wrote in an earlier post (poem as threat to national security/as terrorist act I: Guantánamo Bay) that in particular historical situations the writing of a poem has been perceived as a terrorist act or as a threat to national security — recent examples of this include poetry written by some of the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, anthologized in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007), and Pussy Riot’s musical expression which led to the imprisonment of  Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Tolokonnikova being currently held in IK-14, in the same penal colony — the Dubrovlag —  that once housed the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was herself sentenced to a lengthy term in the 1980s for writing poetry deemed anti-Soviet.

The paradigmatic historical example of the poem as terrorist act is Osip Mandelstam, whose “Stalin Epigram” was described by his wife as “uncharacteristically coarse.” (Most of his verse is known for its intimate character and its musical play, poems which proceed by a kind of aural logic almost impossible to translate into a new language.) But as Clare Cavanagh points out in her important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Russian and Polish poets of the 20th century have often found the need to insist upon the private nature of the lyric, the stanza or private room as stay against the monolithic culture of the state. The private realm of the lyric in itself becomes by situational necessity a political space. Seamus Heaney once described Mandelstam as “a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’ Mandelstam died because he could not suppress his urge to sing in his own way” (XX The Government of the Tongue). Heaney also describes this effect as “poet as potent sound-wave” (xx).

Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda however also noted in Hope Against Hope that she thought her husband deliberately wrote and performed his “Stalin Epigram” for people they could not entirely trust; she saw this uncharacteristic, “coarse” (‘political’?) poem, as deliberate provocation: he was baiting Stalin. Here is Cavanagh, on this “terrorist act”:

On hearing the ‘Stalin Epigram,’ Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: ‘This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide.’ Mandelstam’s interrogator likewise saw his unauthorized lines as exceeding the reach of literature proper: they were a ‘provocation,’ a ‘terrorist act,’ he charged. And Mandelstam apparently ceded the point: the poem was, he confessed, ‘a widely applicable weapon of counter-revolutionary struggle.’ All three agreed that these were not words, but deeds.
— Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics p.114

Cavanagh offers an interesting challenge to poststructuralist conceptions of écriture, the death of the author, and the death of the book by insisting on the cultural specificity required for such readings (that a metaphorical, not actual, death of the/an author is required). She notes that such phrases as the “death of the author” or the “death of the book” “are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice” (p.110). She goes on to describe the many poets and writers in Soviet Russia who have had to literally burn or destroy or hide or never write down in the first place, their books, in addition to the many poets and writers who died at the hands of the state — hence the title of Chapter 3 on acmeism, a chapter I highly recommend: “The Death of the Book à la russe“.

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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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