Thursday, April 28, 2016

The people need poetry that will be their own secret - some Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin:

from He Who Finds a Horseshoe

Where to start?
Everything cracks and shakes.
The air trembles with similes.
No one word’s better than another;
the earth moans with metaphors...  (p. 46. 1928)

Starting at the end is too difficult, the poems from the 1930s impossible to separate from Mandelstam’s biography, his persecution by Stalinists, his exile, his murder.  And throughout this incessant need to make poems. 

The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breathing.  (p. 89, 1937)

But in the beginning Mandelstam was merely a poet, a great poet during a great period, arguing and drinking with other poets, rejecting Symbolism for Acmeism, whatever that means.  Is this either one of those – it’s a complete poem:

All the lamps were turned low.
You slipped out quickly in a thin shawl.
We disturbed no one.
The servants went on sleeping.  (3, 1908)

I wonder if this one gave Merwin much to do.  Mandelstam soon moves past these little poems that capture moments.  I was surprised at how often he invoked the Greek and Roman classics:

Orioles in the woods: length of vowels alone
Makes the meter of the classic lines.  No more
Than once a year, though, nature pours out
The full-drawn length, the verse of Homer.  (7, 1914)

Merwin must be messing around with the vowels, that variety of “o”s.

The poem before mentions Ovid, the next Rome, Homer again in the next, Caesar, Caesar – all of this in Mandelstam’s the 1916 edition of his first book, Stone, but the references continue to the end of his life, as in this poem from 1937. 

As though the fame of its mint and iota
Were never enough, the Greek flute,
Free, following its instincts,
Matured, labored, crossed ditches…

When he’s [the flutist] gone, we’ll have no one
To knead lumps of clay to death.  (97-8)

The preceding poem is about Cretan potters; thus, I assume, the reason the poet-flutist is also making pots.

I had no idea Mandelstam was such a classicist.  I began to feel sad for him.  It is like when I read Friedrich Hölderlin, another poet imaginatively immersed in Greece.  I wish he could have actually visited Greece.  Maybe it is best that he didn’t.  Mandelstam, heck, I wish he had escaped to Greece.

And Mandelstam did travel when he was young.  He had even studied in Heidelberg.  A 1932 poem is titled “To the German Language,” about, I think Mandelstam’s fear of exile, a poet’s nightmare.  What if he has to start over?

Destroying myself, contradicting myself,
like the moth flying into the midnight flame,
suddenly all that binds me to our language
tempts me to leave it…

Nightingale-god [Apollo], I’m being conscripted still
for new plagues, for seven-year massacres.
Sound has shrivelled, words are hoarse and rebellious,
but you’re alive still, and with you I’m at peace.  (65-6)

And so Mandelstam kept writing poems, Russian poems, until he was killed for it.


  1. Mandelstam is a difficult one - literally. I want to love his work but I've struggled with both poetry and prose. He probably needs slower, more careful reading than I've been giving him. Must try again.


  2. I know, I know. This whole series has been written in desperation, in preparation for the next reading of these poets. An illusion.

  3. Mandelstam is one of my very favorite poets; here are my versions of three of his early poems (including the orioles), and here's my translation of "The Finder of a Horseshoe." My rendition of the bit you quote above is:

    So where to start?
    Everything cracks and rocks.
    The air trembles from comparisons.
    No word is better than another,
    The earth hums with metaphor [...]

    Although Mandelstam is not an easy poet, I find him relatively easy to translate, whereas Pasternak is simply impossible (and there is in fact no complete, or even substantial, edition of Pasternak in English as far as I know).

  4. Thanks for the translations. They are lovely refractions of the poems. Wonderful complements to Merwin. I love "lagniappe duration."

    The next stanza of that poem, in Merwin, in the book I have, at least, features a "golden langor powerless." Without Russian, I honestly could not tell whether Merwin had misspelled the mood or the monkey.

    Pasternak, I assume, is hopeless. I have the Penguin selection on hand. We'll see if I can catch a glimpse of Pasternak.