Monday, May 2, 2016

Vladislav Khodasevich - sound is more honest than meaning / and strongest of all is a word

Vladislav Khodasevich is a poet I knew via Nabokov, who had translated three of his poems and had a character based on him in The Gift (1938), a Russian poet in exile in Berlin.  The 2014 Selected Poems translated by Peter Daniels is surprisingly the first book-length collection of Khodasevich in English.

Whyever not the four-foot iamb,
cherished from before the flood?
And what to sing, if not to sing
the iamb’s gift, so rich and good?  (p. 169, 1938)

The ideal of the formalist poet, that the form itself is “cherished.”  Khodasevich is a Russian classicist, here invoking his great 18th century predecessors.  More commonly he refers to, quotes, and idolizes Pushkin.  Do I have much hope of identifying such references through the fogginess of at least two translators, Daniels and whoever’s Pushkin I read?  Surely I do not.  One more reason to be happy that there is now a book, with many notes.

“The Automobile” (1921) is a poem about poetic inspiration.  It is a good place to see what the similarities between Khodasevich and Nabokov.  It is night; a car is approaching.

Its paint of shimmering glossy black,
its crystal facets shining bright;
into the dark it stretches out
two broad angelic wings of white.  (p.115)

Actually, I can imagine Nabokov objecting that an angel’s wings are on its back, not coming out of its eyes, but setting that aside, the visual precision and the originality of turning headlights into wings are appealing.

The angels return with a Rilke-like frequency.  In a poem describing fishermen launching their boats, an unfurled sail becomes “a rosy-feather wing”

And others making their approach
to join the first, unhurriedly,
are ruffling with their flowing wings
the smoky darkness of the sea.

The thickening clouds are in a swirl;
angels are rising on patrol,
and who would think, among them, simple
boats with nets are setting sail?  (p. 119, 1922)

Why so many poems about poetry, about metaphor?  Khodasevich elaborates in “Ballada” – “Ballad of the Heavy Lyre” for Daniels, “Orpheus” for Nabokov – that poetry is a transcendence of all earthly things, and also of death.  Pure Schopenhauer.

Oh my life is so worthless, a quagmire
where I’m stuck with no way to get free!

Inspiration strikes, somehow, a mystery, but:

It’s nothing but passionate nonsense!
Whatever it means, it’s absurd,
But sound is more honest than meaning,
and strongest of all is a word. (p. 121, 1921)

A formalist, I think I mentioned.  In the first stanza, the poet is gazing at his ceiling, at the light fixture, “a plasterwork heaven,” and now “a music, the music of music” (originally “и музыка , музыка, музыка”, “and music, music, music”) causes him to rise from “where I exist but am dead” into the world beyond the veil (“there is no plasterwork heaven”).  He plays the lyre like Orpheus, making not the rocks but his sad exile’s furniture dance to his song.

So there is a lot at stake in a poem, says Khodasevich.

Since I took a break from reading early 20th century Russian poets, I will now have to cease writing about them for a little while.  What a cohort.


  1. They certainly are a fascinating lot - thanks for your posts!


  2. Just the personal stories of these poets, setting aside the poems, are so fascinating as to be almost distracting.

  3. This interests me:
    "But sound is more honest than meaning,
    and strongest of all is a word."
    I'm off to read more about semiotics as a way of sounding the depths of the ideas suggested in the extracted lines. Off the top of my head, I can think of some sounds that are universal but most sounds/words/meanings are limited by languages. And I am reminded that Samuel Beckett was perplexed about the limitations of words as conveyors of meaning, so he embraced the notion of sound as meaning. I also remember that I used to ask people to name the word that they most enjoyed saying because of the sound rather than the meaning. It is an interesting exercise. I leave you with one word: zucchini. It is a word with so much sound and meaning.

  4. i remember, it might have been auden, a poet who thought the most beautiful sounds in the english language were "cellar door"...

  5. Much dispute over the origin of that "cellar door" business.

  6. enlightening whatchacallit, that blue letter thingy... i had no idea so many persons had commented on the subject; fascinating, really, what the average savant can find to occupy his time... have to admit i liked dorothy parker's a lot...

  7. James Joyce, as I recall, thought that the most beautiful English word was "cuspidor," which is eerily similar. He also praised the sheer sonic beauty of Dante's "siccome i gru van cantando lor lai," which I'd have to second.

  8. Italian is incomparable for sonic beauty.

  9. Khodasevich is a wonderful poet, but it puzzled me for a long time that Nabokov called him “the greatest Russian poet of our time” -- until I learned that they were close friends, and the quote comes from N’s memorial tribute. One should allow for a little rhetorical excess on such occasions.

  10. Yes, I thought it best to avoid that particular bit of excess. I suppose it helped get the poems translated, published, and into my hands, but I am in no position to evaluate the claim.