Expansive Poetics – (Akhmatova & Mayakovsky)

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), in 1924, aged 35

June 9 1981 – Allen Ginsberg’s Expansive Poetics class continues at Naropa Institute. On this day, Ann Charters, who, two years earlier, in collaboration with her husband Sam, had published I Love – The Story of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik, is the class’s special guest. The emphasis therefore is on Mayakovsky and twentieth-century Russian literature.

AG: ….in the Russian section…  (Anna) Akhmatova  is after (Nikolay) Gumilev (1886-1921) [in the Expansive Poetics Anthology] , a poem called “Requiem”.  Okay? Everybody got it?

Student: That’s the very first poem in her section.

AG: Yeah. In the Russian section, after (Nikolay) Gumilev and before (Osip) Mandelstam…

Okay, (so), where we left off was (Vladimir) Mayakovsky’s poem, “150, ooo, ooo”  – What year was that?  What  year was that? Okay, 1920 – (a) performance at the Arts House in Petrograd, December 5th, 1920, according to Ann Charters book. He read his new poem,”150, ooo, ooo” before a group of other writers including (Yevgeny) Zamyatin and (Vladimir) Mayakovsky, whom we’ll hear from later, a long propaganda poem – “150,000,000 is the creator of this poem./ It’s rhythms, bullets, it’s rhymes, fires from buildings/150,000,000 speak with my lips. Who can/tell the name of the earth’s creator? Surely a/ genius. And so of this my poem noone is the author”  Years later, after all the poets had been starved, shot. or arrested or exiled, or threatened or intimidated, or made to kiss (Josef) Stalin‘s ass – March 1940, so that would be twenty years later, there’s this great poem by Anna Akhmatova called “Requiem”, composed of fragments which she wrote over a period of years, from 1935 to (19)40,  up to (19)61, and not published complete in Russia until after 1965, I think (if  then, published complete) – Do you know if that’s in Russian?

Ann Charters: No, it’s never been (fully available) in Russia.

AG: It’s never been published in Russia. It was published outside Russia in Russian, (in Munich, originally, I think, actually)
So, the end of the poem,  the epilogue, is a retrospect view of all the bitter experiences she’d had. The translations (by Stanley Kunitz and Max Haywood) are not particularly great, but you get some of the gist or substance of what she’s saying. You’ve got to realize that under the various terrors and purges almost all of her friends (were killed), like Mandelstam died in 1937 to 1940 (nobody knows exactly when). He was exiled to Siberia by Stalin for a joke poem he wrote about Stalin. And Akhmatova was there in a town called Voronezh, Voronezh, when the cops came to pick him up and busted into the room and grabbed his manuscripts and took them away. So she says [Allen begins reading from Akhmatova’s “Requiem”] – “I have learned how faces fell to bone,/how under the eyelid terror lurks,/how suffering inscribes on cheeks/the hard line of its cuneiform texts/ how glossy black or ash-fair locks/turn overnight to tarnished silver,/how smiles fade on submissive lips,/and fear quavers in a dry titter./And I pray not for myself alone…/for all who stood outside the jail,/In bitter cold or summer’s blaze/ With me under that blind red wall.” – She had spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in a queue outside the jail to see her son who had been arrested by Stalin and had been kept by him, as a cat playing with a mouse, till the (19)40’s. He asked her to write a few poems to him and Stalin had her son in jail. So Stalin “had her by the balls”, so to speak.

This is the conclusion of the poem – [Allen reads from “Requiem”] – “Remembrance hour returns with the turning year./I see, I hear, I touch you drawing near:/the one we tried to help to the sentry’s booth,/and who no longer walks this precious earth,/ and that one who would toss her pretty mane/ and say, “It’s just like coming home again.”/ I want to name the names of all that host,/but they snatched up the list and now it’s lost./ I’ve woven them a garment that’s prepared/out of poor words, those that I overheard,/ and will hold fast to every word and glance/all of my days, even in new mischance,/ and if a gag should bind my tortured mouth,/through which a hundred million people shout/ then let them pray for me, as I do pray/for them, this even of my remembrance day./ And if my country ever should assent/ to casting in my name a monument,/ I should be proud to have my memory graced,/ but only if the monument be placed/ not near the sea on which my eyes first opened -/ my last link with the sea has long been broken -/ nor in the Tsar’s garden near the sacred stump,/ where a grieved shadow hants my body’s warmth,/ but here, where I endured three hundred hours/in line before the implacable iron bars./ Because even in blissful death I fear/ to lose the clangor of the Black Marias/ to lose the banging of that odious gate,/ and the old crone howling like a wounded beast./ And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets/ may the melting snow, like teardrops, slowly trickle/and a prison dove coo somewhere, over and over,/as the ships sail softly down the flowing Neva” –

So, twenty years later, she is saying, “and if a gag should bind my tortured mouth,/through which a hundred million people shout”, which is really a colossal claim (even I never could claim I was speaking for a hundred million people all at once! – prophetic). (Vladimir) Mayakovsky said a hundred-and-fifty million (“150,000,000”) and I wonder if that’s a reference?

Ann Charters: It probably is. Although there are fifty million who supported the regime and two-thirds who did not.
This is a good point also to consider, that Akhmatova’s poem is written after the horrors of Stalin, and this is also after Mayakovsky’s suicide. We think about Mayakovsky, (and) the perspective in which we hold (him), of course, is the perspective of Akhmatova, basically, which is after the realization of the Gulags(Aleksandr) Solzhenitsyn’s account of the forced labor-camp system which sent twenty million people to their deaths. We’re trying to get our minds back, however, to.. remember, Mayakovsky was writing his poems in, for example, 1920, 1922, before all of this, while (Vladimir Ilyich) Lenin was still alive, and he didn’t have the sense of failure in the Revolution to the extent that Akhmatova did, obviously, because historical events had not yet moved on.But yes, remember the two voices speaking for the Russian people – Mayakovsky’s first, and then Akhmatova’s.

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) in 1928, aged 35 – photo by Alexander Rodchenko

(Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at the beginning and continuing to approximately eight-and-a-half minutes in)  

to be continued

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