Friday, April 29, 2016

A poet’s speech begins a great way off - some Marina Tsvetayeva

One way to pin down a poet is to read her poetry on poetry.  This is Marina Tsvetayeva, who frequently wrote poems about and to poets, in 1923:

A poet’s speech begins      a great way off.
A poet is     carried far away by speech
By way of planets, signs, and the     ruts
Of roundabout parables…  (from “The Poet,” I, p. 35)

Those gaps are one of Tsevtayeva’s signatures, one of the ruts she digs into her poems to make her readers twist their dang ankles.  The poet – I mean The Poet – “confuses     arithmetic and weight,” “altogether refutes Kant,” and “burn[s] without warming.”

Tsvetayeva writes about Moscow and Prague, Akhmatova and Blok, love affairs and exile, with great intensity, her matter personal and intimate but hardly confessional.  Meaning, even the deepest grief, is pushed through language and imagery.  Her long “Poem of the End” (1924) is about the painful end of a love affair in Prague.  It begins with the couple still together, but the poet is uneasy.

A single post, a point of rusting
    tin in the sky
marks the fated place we
    move to, he and I

on time     as death is
    prompt     strangely
too smooth the gesture of
    his hat to me  (I, 48)

The river is “a strip as colourless / as a slab for corpses,” his laughter is like “that cheap tambourine,” and so on.  The metaphors, one after another, do much of the emotional work.  Once I decode the language, the poet’s anguish seems more direct.  Maybe it is a confessional poem.

A post.  Why not beat my forehead to
    blood on it?  To smithereens!  We are
like fellow criminals, fearing one
    another.  (The murdered thing is love.)  (7, 58)

This is a specific scene in a specific place (the man has broken up with the poet; they have returned to the site of the first line), but I found that it took several tries for the scene to emerge, to close the distance Tsvetayeva creates.

Or, said another way, I thought a lot of her poems were pretty hard.

Some poems are closer to pure metaphor, pure description. 

Readers of Newspapers

It crawls, the underground snake,
crawls, with its load of people.
and each one      has his
newspaper, his skin
…  No face, no features,
no age.   Skeletons – there’s no
face, only the newspaper page.  (1935, p. 35)

Even though the poem ends with a cry against “news/papers’ evil filth,” it’s a funny poem.   I see that two more of my favorites are from the same time.  The passengers in the rattletrap “Bus” “were like / peas in boiling soup,” “shaken / in vibrato, like violins” (91).  Tsevtayeva’s “Desk” is her “most loyal friend,” her “loaded writing mule”:

And when     my body will be laid out,
    Great fool!  Let it be on you then.  (89)

How Marina Tsvetayeva wrote like she did under the constraints she faced, what a mystery.

My book of Tsvetayeva is the 1981 edition of Selected Poems translated by Elaine Feinstein with the aid of numerous collaborators.


  1. Another one about whom I could say exactly the same as I did in my comment on Mandelstam. I feel somewhat ashamed to have had her books for decades and never got round to reading them....


  2. I am intrigued by the caesurae she builds into lines with her extra spacing. Her technique -- and the effect it has upon me as a reader -- reminds me of my encounters with Emily Dickinson's singular caesurae. The duration of the pauses becomes an interesting challenge for readers. Nothing exists in a vacuum, so some meaning must be "hiding" in plain view within the spaces. Each reader will discover his or her own meaning.

  3. Oh yeah, Kaggsy, pull down a Tsvetayeva book! I'll enjoy seeing what you find. She and Mandelstam presented some related difficulties.

    The caesurae are startling, aren't they? She wants to make sure her readers see the pauses, even stumble against them. Sometimes Tsvetayeva used giant dashes, and then she looks uncannily like Dickinson:

    Your name is a——bird in my hand
    a piece of——ice on the tongue ("Poems for Blok")

  4. Tsvetaeva is a difficult poet, and almost as difficult to translate as Pasternak; as I wrote here, I’ve rarely seen a translation that begins to capture her in English — they usually betray either sound or sense. (The linked post quotes an exception, a fine translation by Ekaterina Rogalsky.) Dmitry Bykov (a wonderful novelist, critic, and biographer) has an enlightening passage about her (in the process of comparing the great Acmeists):

    "Tsvetaeva, in a letter to her young colleague Yuri Ivask, remarked that in a mature poet the main semantic unit is the word ('N.b.! In my case, often the syllable'). We must note that such a semantic overload sometimes makes Tsvetaeva’s later verse difficult to read, with their crowded spondees; when you try to read them aloud, you have to scan as you go. This frightening density is the result of iron self-discipline. Strikingly willful in daily life, in friendship and love, in her division of people into her own and the others (as a rule, without the slightest idea of their true essence), Tsvetaeva made her poetry the apotheosis of discipline, repeating and varying the same thing over and over with the obstinacy of a divisional commander, drumming the same thought into her reader, and her poetic unit indeed becomes the syllable, if not the letter."

    (See this LH post for the full passage.)

    Incidentally, as far as I am aware she did not use extra spacing; the editions I have, at any rate, use only dashes and ellipses. I suspect the spacing is the translator's choice (though, as always, I speak under correction).

  5. What an insightful passage, all the way through to Mandelstam. How irritating that I forgot about it - I read it and your post back in February.

    Now I wonder if Feinstein deliberately used the gaps in place of the dashes to avoid the visual resemblance to Dickinson.

  6. An interesting point is that she sometimes breaks up individual words with the same dash; you can see an example in the fifth stanza of this translation by Catherine Ciepiela of a 1923 poem: "Above a la–cerated Phaedra" (corresponding to Над ужа — ленною — Федрой" in the Russian).

  7. First, that is a strange effect, breaking the word like that.

    Second, thanks for pointing out Ciepiela's translations. I enjoyed both poems.