Expansive Poetics – (Acmeism)

Nikolay Gumilev, with his son Lev Gumilev and his wife Anna Akhmatova, 1913

Allen’s July 30 1981 Expansive Poetics class (with particular emphasis on Russian literature) continues.

AG: I thought what we should do is I’ll read you just a few paragraphs about Acmeism now, and then we’ll get right into the poems of (Osip) Mandelstam, which I’ve been slowly circling about.

There’s a description of Acmeism, or a few paragraphs, by (Nikolay) Gumilev, who was a theoretician. I’m not going to be long on this, just so that you get some idea of their approach, which is not to dissimilar to the revolution in style that American poetry went through around the same time, of trying to stop talking about what you couldn’t talk about, stop talking about the impalpable and start talking about what was palpable, talk about what you could talk about, instead of saying, “Oh, I can’t describe the mystical feelings I feel”. Instead, actually talking about what you can describe.

This is Gumilev, an essay, “Symbolism’s Legacy and Acmeism”.  (also known as “Acmeism and the Testaments of Symbolism).  It was published in the great Russian avant-garde magazine, Apollon, in 1913:

“Russian Symbolism dispatched its main forces into the area of the unknown. Alternatively it fraternized with mysticism, with theosophy, and with occultism. Certain of its quests in this direction almost approached the creation of myth. And it has a right to ask of that trend coming up to take its place whether it can boast only of animalistic values and what its relationship is to the unknowable. The first answer that an Acmeism can give to sch an interrogation will be to point out that what is unknowable, according to the very meaning of the word, cannot be comprehended. The second is that all efforts in this direction are immodest. The enire sacred significance of stars rests in the fact that they’re infinitely far from the earth and through no successions of aviation will they come closer. He demonstrates a poverty of imagination who imagines the evolution of the individual always in terms of time and space.” – (in that kind of vast evolutionary vastness) – “How are we able to recall our former existences, if this is not clearly a literary device, when we were in the abyss where there were myriads of other existential possibilities about which we know nothing except that they exist? After all, each of them is negated by our…” – (Well, and so forth. Actually, he’s just saying just live where you are, and to look where you, are and pay attention to what you’ve got in front of you) – “All this gives us a more powerful sensation of the otherworldly than whole volumes of discussion..” – (Oh) – “Francois Villon, upon  asking where the most beautiful ladies of antiquity are now, answers himself with a mournful explanation – “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan” – and this gives us a more powerful sensation of the otherworldly than whole volumes of discussions concerning which side of the moon the souls of the departed are found on. Always keep in mind the unknowable, but do not offend the thought of it with more or less probable speculations. This is Acmeism’s principle.

Always keep in mind the unknowable, but do not offend the thought of it with more or less probable speculations. This is Acmeism’s principle. That doesn’t mean it relinquishes its right to depict a soul in those moments when it trembles in approaching another. But at that point it should only shudder. Of course, the comprehension of God, the beautiful lady, Theology, shall remain on her throne, but Acmeists wish neither to lower her to the level of literature nor to elevate literature to her diamond-like fragility. As concerns demons, angels, elementals, and other spirits, these are part of the artist’s material and should not outweigh by greater earthly gravity the other images taken up by him –  (That’s a pretty clear statement of realistic principles. The editor of this book (the Russian Literature Anthology here) gives a little background):

“August 25th marks the 50th anniversary of Gumilev’s death at the age of 35 before a firing squad. Although his monarchist politics were no less anachronistic in the early years of the Soviet rule than were his poetics…” – which were.. See, these kinds of realistic poetic principles were, actually, anathema to the more rigid and doctrinaire ideas of so-called Social Realism (Socialist Realism) and theoretical control of the idea of the poet by the Central Committee of the Communist Party), which is what developed later on, and what (Vladimir) Mayakovsky agreed to as his criteria, that he should be criticized by the Party, because they knew what reality was, and nobody else did (or they confirmed what reality was because they were the committee of the people who decided what was reality, so, therefore, the reality must be what they decided was reality, otherwise the whole system wasn’t working. And so if some poet came up and said that, “I prefer to sing about wine-glasses, or my left foot”, and the Central Committee decided that that was anti-social (because it didn’t conform to ego-less reality as defined by the Party), then there would bea  big aesthetic argument, and you could get shot!)

Although his monarchist politics were no less anachronistic in the early years of the Soviet rule than were his poetics, Gumilev nonetheless succeeded in finding, guiding, and contributing to a movement which still represents the acme of Russian poetic craftsmanshiptoday. Aristocratic, elitist, and neo-classical in inclination, a re-introduction of movement into a poetry which had become stagnant in its contemplation of mystical symbolism, a reinstatement of the masculine principle, where the misty, feminine, Lemontovian element had dominated for so long. Together with (Anna) Akhmatova, (Osip) Mandelstam, and several other poets, Gumilev created a cult of the word in itself, a perception not so much of is mystical qualities but of its function as a complex unit of concrete and associative meanings. Acmeism challenged the transcendent visions of Symbolism with a scrupulous insistence on finite perceptions.” –

That’s the key! Acmeism challenged the transcendent visions of Symbolism with a scrupulous insistence on finite perceptions” – an insistence on actual perceptions..”, (which by “finite” means limited to what you can actually see (instead of unlimited to what you can’t see – because I’ve had students here who insist that their perceptions include what they can’t see, that their direct perceptions and imaginations and dreams  – including dreams they’ve had when they’ve woken up).. – it’s sort of a semantic argument, actually (Naropa student) Steve(n) Hirsch has that theory)

Student: What are you talking about?  Mysticism?

AG: Well, I’m talking about the transcendent visions of Symbolism, the practice of Symbolists (who got a little out of hand, finally,by just talking about general symbols, and the symbols that they spoke of were no longer related to actual perceptions of, as he calls them here, “finite”, direct perceptions.

Student: That’s er…Steve?

AG: Steve Hirsch

Student: ….Yeah, that little story about confrontation might illustrate the point…

AG: It’s pretty had to untangle, but there’s a student here (that) I was working with last term, and he had the theory that dreams continue after we stop dreaming, and that he was in contact with that world and could write about that world as easily as he could write about the world of (the) dreams he had. But, after a long conversation, it turned out that it was  a theory he had that dreams continued – and, therefore, since, by theory, dreams continued after we woke up, if we were of complete consciousness, we should be in contact (with them), and therefore he said that he was in contact – meaning that he should be in contact, rather than (that) he was actually in contact. But we had this misunderstanding for about three weeks before we actually discussed his terms.

And it’s a very common problem of people asserting a fact as a theory which they think should be explored, but asserting it as a fact simply because they think the rest of the world is so stupid that, unless they assert it as a fact, the theory will never be explored.
I remember, when I was in New York State Psychiatric Institute in 1949, I got into a long argument with my psychiatrist ..because..since my general theory was that all existence was sentient and awake and alive, I said to him that the telephone was alive. He said. “The telephone isn’t alive”. And I said, “Yes, it talks”. And he said, “But it isn’t alive”.  And I said, “It is alive!”. And we got into this long thing without asking each other what we meant by the word “alive”, without defining the word “alive”, and so we got into what was essentially a semantic argument. And I remember my motivation there was somewhat irritation at him, and anger, and contempt, and an arrogant insistence on him using my words rather than my using his words, or my insistence on him using words as I wanted them to be used, rather than as they might commonly be used between us, or might be found in the dictionary. Because I was trying to point (out or) insist (on) this perception that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have understood, I thought. But, in the course of forcing him to accept my language, actually, it just drove him up the wall, and he didn’t know what I was talking about, he just thought I was nuts.
And it’s a common problem – I mean, among lovers – “You’re not faithful” (they never discussed what the word “faithful” meant, even), “You’re just not faithful” (and then there’s a big battle with socks of shit as to whether you’re faithful or not!)

“The Acmeist Sergey Gorodetsky claimed “We wish to admire a rose because it is beautiful, not because it is a symbol of mystical purity.” In other words, they wanted direct contact, rather than symbolic contact with reality.  That was the idea of Acmeism.

Nikolay Gumilev and Sergey Gorodetsky

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately thirty-two minutes in] 

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