Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Life is composed of details - some lines from Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak is likely made the most distant in translation than any of the great cohort of Russian poets I have been reading.  But he works with imagery as well as a purely poetic language, and translators can make their desperate attempts at the imagery if nothing else.

It may be that our knowledge
At the graveside fails.
But life, like autumn stillness,
Is composed of details.  (from “Let words drop, as resin,” 1917)

Please note the rhyme.  Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, in the Penguin Selected Poems (1983) succeed in creating poems that sound like poems that might have been published in poetry magazines circa 1983.  What else they do, I don’t know.  They provide a helpful introduction.  This book is another of those that, apparatus and blank pages aside, ends up with all of ninety pages of poems.  But maybe that’s about right.

from About These Poems

On pavements I shall trample them
With broken glass and sun in turn.
In winter I shall open them
For the peeling ceiling to learn.

The garret will start to declaim
With a bow to the window-frame.
Calamities, eccentricities
Will leapfrog to the cornices.

I don’t want to say that the translators are trampling Pasternak’s poems, but those rhymes, I dunno.  Regardless, I can see what the poet is doing.  Near the end of the poem he turns into Ebenezer Scrooge: “I shall shout to the kids: Hey, you, / What century is it out there?”  A reasonable question in 1917.  What is a poet going to do in the new world that has suddenly appeared outside his room?

As with Anna Akhmatova, the selection of poems become a biography.  Early exuberance (“Verses sob from the pen,” 1912, p. 47) and mastery (“And, Poetry, tonight I’ll squeeze you out / To make the thirsty paper flower,” 1916, p. 55); a revolution that gradually displaces him; a series of tragedies for other poets; a career as a translator, especially Shakespeare; Doctor Zhivago; the Nobel Prize:

Like a beast in a pen, I’m cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I’ve nowhere else to run.  (from “Nobel Prize,” 1959, 154)

“Nobel Prize” is among the bleakest poems I have ever read.  “Of what crime do I stand / Condemned?”

And aside from the biography, imagery:

At twilight the swifts have no way
Of stemming the cool blue cascade.  (“Swifts,” 1916, 55)

Love in a foreign city:

Like any rep Romeo hugging his tragedy,
I reeled through the city rehearsing you.  (“Marburg,” 1916, 57)

Then summer took leave of the platform
And waiting room.  Raising his cap,
The storm at night for souvenir
Took snap after dazzling snap.  (“Storm, Instantaneous Forever”, 1917, 72)

Lots of poetry in these poems, still.

The poems from Doctor Zhivago, the ones that make up the last chapter of the novel, are included in Selected Poems.  They are mysteries to me, a deliberate turn to a plainer language that likely resists translation.  A note to the poem “Hamlet” tells me that as of the writing of this book, 1983, a particularly frozen period of Soviet history, “this poem [and a list of others] has never been published in the Soviet union, but thousands of people know it by heart and it was spoken at the poet’s funeral” (159).

No translator will capture that.


  1. maybe it IS the translation; akhmatova sounded a lot better to me..., but she never got the recognition - sexism i guess...

  2. Akhmatova just needed to write an internationally best-selling novel, one easily adapted to a feature-length film.

    I enjoyed her more, too, on a poem by poem basis.

  3. The back of my copies of Zhivago have lots of the poems and one in particular has two translations - one done literally and one made to rhyme. I still can't decide which is the most honest way to translate.


  4. Two versions - good idea, especially in the context of the novel. Whatever helps a reader fit the poems into the book.

  5. I've written about Pasternak in some detail here and here; as I say there, he's basically untranslatable. I'm not crazy about the Stallworthy/France versions, but (as you've doubtless noticed) there's not much out there, and there's a reason for that. If he hadn't written Zhivago, he'd be as unknown abroad as, say, Tyutchev. And yet he's as great as Mandelstam. The vagaries of translatability create reputational unfairness.

  6. Ah, I meant to mention and link to your more recent post. Completely forgot. Thanks for doing it yourself. Both posts lead to great discussions of the problems at hand.

    Some translations are merely useful. What does Pasternak do - well, this, sort of.

  7. I read between the lines of your posting and remind myself of the tensions between artists and governments. As a child of the 40s, I remember being steeped in terror (those nuclear bomb dropping Soviets were always poised to obliterate me as I hid under my grade school desk), but only as an adult do I begin to fathom the other terrors: state v. individual. I wonder if readers born and raised after the Cold War would have much appreciation for Pasternak's dilemma within an inhospitable Soviet Union. I also wonder if 2016 (and future) American poets and writers (et al) give much thought to the power of the State. Thanks for permitting me such an off-topic blather.
    All the best from the Gulf coast and Past Perfect Murders,

  8. I would say that readers born after the Cold War are capable of studying history. Pasternak's life makes a useful case study.