510 at The New School rumbled and danced on Wednesday evening with the Silver Age of Russian Poetry as presented by Andrey
Gritsman, poet in both Russian and English, translator and eloquent
ambassador of the greats of 20th-century Russian poetry, such as Innokenty
Annensky; Alexander Blok; Vladislav Khodasevich; Anna Akhmatova; Osip
Mandelstam. (Variant spellings abound.)
I wish I could convey the sound of the poems as declaimed by Andrey. He started reading them in the original Russian and moved seamlessly into his English translations.
Even better we had a visit from the David Lehman/Andrey Gritsman Traveling Mayakovsky Road Show!! After Andrey treated us to a selection of his own poetry, including one from his new book Pisces, he conspiratorially retreated to the back of the room while David read his own translation of Vladimir Mayakovsky's "Brooklyn Bridge" (from Lehman's book When a Woman Loves a Man). Then, clad in a black tee-shirt and startling yellow overshirt (the better to scandalize bourgeois taste), Mayakovsky (looking quite fit for a man who's been dead some 78 years) strode to the front of the room and brought 1925 alive.
Andrey tackled the poets chronologically, starting with the lesser known Annensky, an important influence on Akhmatova, and a direct link from Pushkin to Akhmatova. Blok is one of the Russian Symbolists, a cousin to the French movement. Khodasevich, not as well known as several of the others, wins plaudits for his evocative, personal poetry. And then Akhmatova and Mandelstam: two major figures who witnessed, and suffered from, the cataclysms that rocked Russia in the 20th century. Though many feel that their sufferings led to their greatness, Andrey adamantly rejects this notion.
"The suffering might change the angle of the art,. But suffering is bad for poets and for their art."
David concurred: "I'm glad you said that." Some in America suppose that important poetry results from oppression. "We should not idealize the persecution of poets or envy these people their suffering."
In the Q and A after the readings, David noted that some of the translations that Andrey read last night seemed different from ones David had previously read. Andrey acknowledged that they were, and said a translation -- even more than a poem you've written yourself -- is a work in progress. "Because you hear something a little different each time you go back to the poem. The sound and structure is very important in a translation."
Andrey said that when he translates he is more concerned with the sound of the poem that with a word-by-word correlation. The sound, the cadence, and the emotional structure are paramount. It seems he has achieved this aim in many of his translations as the transitions from Russian to English in his reading was almost imperceptible.
"The music of poetry is everything," he said.
Much of Russian poetry must be in a minor key, then, since Andrey said -- in comparing Russian and American poetry: "Russian poetry is usually sad. About the world. And not as in the American style of self-psychologizing."
In Russian, the soul is female, but in English, Andrey said -- restraining his disapproval -- it is an "it." David interjected at this point that the soul is "really neutral" in English. Andrey rejoined: "In Romanian I think it has two or three genders, depending on the situation!"
A questioner in the audience asked which language Andrey chooses to write in. It seems that different poetic impulses lend themselves to different languages, In Andrey's view, English is better suited for free verse, and Russian for rhythmic verse. English has a longer tradition of poetry, going back centuries, whereas Russian poetry had its first flowering in the so-called Golden Age of Russian poetry with Alexander Pushkin. Free verse is still relatively new to Russian poets.
What can American poets learn from Russian poets, even in translation? Andrey
said that Russian poems are "written
through emotion" -- as the Russian language demands. When he read Mandelstam
or Akhmatova in the original, even without a word of Russian you could hear the passion in
Andrey Gritsman is a bilingual poet, essayist, and literary editor who immigrated to the U.S. in 1981 from Moscow, Russia. His most recent book is Pisces, published by Numina Press. He has published four volumes of poetry in Russian. His first bilingual collection of poems and essays, View From the Bridge, was published in 1999 (WORD, New York), and a second such collection, Long Fall, was published in 2004 (Spuyten Duyvil Press, New York). He runs the Intercultural Poetry Series at the Cornelia Street Café in New York City. In addition he is the founding editor of Interpoezia, a bilingual international poetry journal.
-- Meg McGuire