Expansive Poetics – (Osip Mandelstam)

Allen Ginsberg’s class, July 1980 on Expansive Poetics (Russian Expansive Poetics) continues. Today’s episode begins with some confusion with the text book, before Allen (and Peter) get down to discussing the text.

AG: (Osip) Mandelstam, then, has these texts here. For those of you who have the anthology you might move to that. He’s 1891 [the anthology was ordered in terms of the individual date of each poet’s birth] – a funny poem on the unknown soldier, which is at the beginning..
Student: (What number?)
AG: Number 362. I’m just starting at random in certain aspects with certain poems.
So this is in Voronezh, where he was arrested for the last time, and these are poems written just before his arrest.
Peter Orlovsky [sitting in on the class]: What..what..what page?
AG: It’s the first page of Mandelstam and he is in the middle of the Russian section. His date is 1891, and that’s how you’ll find him, because they’re all arranged chronologically. Oh.. he’s… (Yes, those of you who have anthologies, will you see me before you go and I’ll number them and sign (them), because they’re all (to be) numbered and signed, and that’ll make them more valuable in the future, when you’ll want to sell them to rare-book stores. But don’t forget to see me about it, that’s really important).
Student: You mean after class?
AG: Yeah, Yeah. It’ll take a few minutes, just (to) sign the ones and number them. I think I’m up to forty…
Student: Fifty-nine
AG: We have up to fifty-nine now.
Student: Yeah, fifty-nine.
AG: Well, you all got your thing? You got the Russian section? Find the Russian section (You’ll do well to put some tabs in these books – to divide them up by tabs – and you can probably get a cheaper binding than this, which is six bucks or so. I think Chris (sic) found a soft-cover binding that just had steel staples that go in and bend)
Student; (Where is it?)
Peter Orlovsky; I’ll find it. Take your time.
AG: Can you find the Russian section first?
Peter Orlovsky: Yeah, I’ve got the Russian section. After (Alexander) Blok?
AG: Yes, after Blok. It’s the middle of the Russian section. He’s 1891, so you’ll just find it as 1891.
Peter Orlovsky: Hmm
AG: See, anybody else would be before or after 1891
Peter Orlovsky: Hmm
AG (pointing to section of the Anthology): That’s all Blok
Peter Orlovsky: You’re doing (Velimir) Khlebnikov?
AG; No, Mandelstam, 1891. Find 1891
Peter Orlovsky; Eighteen… The beginning date of his birth? 1891?
AG: That’s Mandelstam’s birthday, is 1891. [to other students] What’s he got there?
Peter Orlovsky: 1885
AG: There’s something out of order with your book perhaps, Peter, or with my book. He (Mandelstam) is before (Marina Tsvetaeva, before (Velimir) Khlebnikov, before (Vladimir) Mayakovsky – before Khlebnikov, unless your Khlebnikov. (Well, I don’t know where Khlebnikov is), before Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva
Peter Orlovsky: After Blok.
AG: Yes, (it) should be after Blok and after (Anna) Akhmatova and (Nikolay) Gumilev. After Gumilev, Blok, and Akhmatova, after Khlebnikov
Peter Orlovsky: Oh, after Khlebnikov
AG: Is Khlebnikov.. no…
Peter Orlovsky: “Poem on an Unknown Soldier” ?
AG: Yes, yes, yes. Okay. Everybody got it? – “Let this air witness/his long-range heart..”

[Editorial note – Allen reads (in translation) only one of several “Poems (sic) on an Unknown Soldier”]

Monument to Osip Mandelstam in Voronezh, Russia

“Let this air witness -/his long-range heart/omnivorous, energetic in mud-huts –
ocean, substance with no window./ Are these stars informers?..” – (That’s a pretty funny line – “Are these stars informers?”..”

[“Этот воздух пусть будет свидетелем/Дальнобойное сердце его/ И в землянках всеядный и деятельный —/Океан без окна — вещество/ До чего эти звезды изветливы —”] – Are these stars informers?/They stare down all the time – why?/into the judge’s sentence, the witness’ sentence,/into the ocean, substance with no window./ The rain remembers, cheerless sower,/anonymous manna,/how wooded crosses aimed at/the ocean, or at battlefields./ Cold sick people will/kill, will endure, will starve, and an unknown soldier lies in his famous grave./ Puny swallow, teach me,/ oh you have forgotten flight,/teach me to control this aerial grave/with no rudder, no wing./ And I’ll give you a strict report, on behalf of/Lermontov, Mikhail…” – (Lermontov)

[“До чего эти звезды изветливы —/Все им нужно глядеть — для чего?/ В осужденье судьи и свидетеля /В океан без окна — вещество…/ Помнит дождь — неприветливый сеятель —/ Безымянная манна его,/Как лесистые крестики метили/ Океан или клин боевой./ Будут люди холодные, хилые/ Убивать, холодать, голодать/ И в своей знаменитой могиле/ Неизвестный положен солдат./Научи меня ласточка хилая/ Разучившаяся летать/ Как мне с этой воздушной могилой/ Без руля и крыла управлять./И за Лермонтова Михаила”] – (“the way the grave straightens/a hunchback..” – That’s a great line!)- “the way the grave straightens/a hunchback, the way the aerial pit pulls you in” [“Я отдам тебе строгий отчет/ Как сутулого учит могила/ И воздушная яма влечет.”] – (It’s just that line about “Are these stars informers?” – and – “”the way the grave straightens/a hunchback”)

Peter Orlovsky: He was extremely paranoid then?

AG: Well, realistically so, actually. Yeah (number) 362, I think there’s a footnote on that, about the unknown soldier

Peter Orlovsky: Yeah, on the train, (nobody) would talk to him, on the way to Siberia

AG: Uh-huh

Peter Orlovsky: They went two weeks by train. No one.. knowing not one Russian person would come up to them, if they had crowded stations, where they had to change trains, frequently…

AG: Uh-huh

Peter Orlovsky: and this was in a totally new situation for them.

AG: Uh-huh.. because he was always pretty sociable

Student: So was he recognized by the public? so that he was that well-known that people normally would come up to him?

Peter Orlovsky: They would have two guards, three guards. If he made one… if he crossed his legs, the guard would pull a gun.

AG: Lermontov also was a soldier.

Mikhail Lermotov (1814-1841) after the Battle of the Valerik River (memorialized in his poem “Valerik” – drawing by D. P.Palen

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

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