Friday, May 27, 2016

Why is this age worse than other ages? - Anna Akhmatova, narrative poet

Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, is the book I read.  How many translations of Anna Akhmatova are there now?  She seems eminently translatable, with poems that would be interesting even if not poetic in plain prose.  Her life is interesting, her subject matter is interesting.

The Kunitz translation has all of sixty pages of English poetry.  The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, a 1990 translation, has seven hundred pages, just of the poems, not the apparatus.  So what do I know.

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?
In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

Are they ever.  This poem is only from 1919.  The next forty years gave her many opportunities to update this poem.  The narrative push of this collection is irresistible – this must be true of any chronological collection – as I move, with dread, to the next age, always worse than the previous, until Akhmatova finally outlasts everyone.

I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I… malevolent memory
won’t let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail…  (from “March Elegy,” 1960, first ellipses in original)

Not that Akhmatova’s pre-war poetry is so cheery, but it shares the sense of freedom and possibility with her amazing cohort of peers:

We’re all drunkards here, and harlots:
how wretched we are together.  (1913)

But it is a meaningful Bohemian wretchedness, full of emotion and art:

His eyes are so serene
one could be lost in them forever.
I know I must take care
not to return his look.

But the talk is what I remember
from that smoky Sunday noon,
in the poet’s high gray house
by the sea-gates of the Neva.  (from “To Alexander Blok”)

A number of the poems give a sense of eavesdropping on the talk of the poets, maybe a little too intimately, as in the many poems about Akhmatova’s husband, Nikolai Gumilev:

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn’t stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
…  And he was tied to me.  (1911, ellipses in original)

If only this had been the tumultuous life of Akhmatova.  No vigils in front of prisons, or sieges of her city.

Put it all to the torch!  And the king named one by one
the towers, the gates, the temples – this marvel of the world;
then brightened, as the thought leaped into words:
“Only be sure the Poet’s House is spared.”  (from “Alexander in Thebes,” 1961)

Please recommend favorite translations of Anna Akhmatova.


  1. i'll have to get some of that - she's definitely got a handle on it... tx

  2. Yes, such an interesting person, and poet, too.

  3. Some of her poems feel like a shorter, more direct Szymborska, with their common sense, playful, fresh way of looking at bemusing topics:

    Ah, but I am warning you
    This life’s the last I’m living through.
    Not as a swallow, or a poplar
    Not as a reed or a star,
    Not as water from a well
    Nor a bell’s hollow song—
    I won’t return to trouble men
    Or visit stranger’s dreams again
    With my unquenchable lament.

    Anna Akhmatova, 1940, as translated by Meryl Natchez in Poems from the Stray Dog Cafe.

  4. The Richard McKane translation of Echo is my favourite version:

    The roads to the past have long been closed
    and what is the past to me now?
    What is there? Bloody slabs,
    or a bricked up door,
    or an echo that still could not
    keep quiet, although I ask so…
    The same thing happened with the echo
    as with what I carry in my heart


  5. I've been meaning to read Akhmatova for years...

  6. Jean, that is almost exactly what you are seeing here, me meaning to read Akhmatova for years (and then, finally, doing it).

    Both of the above poems sound great. Now I will be meaning (not for too many years, I hope) to read a different Akhmatova.

  7. "The Last Toast"

    I drink to our ruined home
    To my cruel life
    To solitude together
    And I drink to you.--

    To the lie of the lips that betrayed me
    To the eyes' deadly cold
    To the fact that the world is cruel and rough
    To the fact that God doesn't save

    My translation. "The fact that" is totally unsatisfactory- the Russian is more like "to that".

    I love the hourglass shape of this poem-- how it starts panning over the effects of the breakup, then narrows to an accusing "you", then widens to indict the world and God.

  8. Sorry, that should be "the ruined house" not "our ruined house." What comes of not proofreading, alas!

  9. Yes, the movement of that poem is wonderful. Thanks so much for the translation.

  10. Glad you liked it. And it's "God didn't save" not "God doesn't save"-- another failure of proofing.

  11. You will want to read this critical essay by Marjorie Perloff on Nancy K. Anderson and other Akhmatova translators; as I wrote here, "I agree with her about the relative merits of the translations she excerpts (though all are hideously inadequate)." The comment by Alexei in that thread is also instructive.

  12. Oh, and back in 2002 I discussed translations of a particular poem myself at LH.

  13. Languagehat, thank you very much for those links. I'm a big fan of your blog (and of Dr. Mair's Languagelog blog). This is the original Russian for the poem I quoted above, could you please tell us what you think about the translation?

    Но я предупреждаю вас,
    Что я живу в последний раз.
    Ни ласточкой, ни кленом,
    Ни тростником и ни звездой,
    Ни родниковою водой,
    Ни колокольным звоном –
    Не буду я людей смущать
    И сны чужие навещать
    Неутоленным стоном

  14. Yes, thanks - way before my time. Did I know there was an internet in 2002? I'll pretend I did not.

  15. Cleanthess: It's quite good; the major quibble I'd have would be with the lines:

    I won’t return to trouble men
    Or visit stranger’s dreams again

    In the Russian, людей is 'people (regardless of gender),' not 'men (as opposed to women),' and especially these days "men" seems inappropriate and misleading; сны чужие is 'other people's dreams,' not "stranger’s dreams" (and in any case, shouldn't that be "strangers' dreams"?).