Expansive Poetics – (Mandelstam And Stalin)

Stalin c.1902. as a published poet

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) & Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

Prisoners mining gold at Kolyma, the most notorious Gulag camp in extreme northeastern Siberia – from the 1934 documentary film, Kolyma, courtesy the Central Russian Film and Photo Archives

AG: The next poem, I think I mentioned before. I’ll read you.. I have only one version here but I’ll read you another also. This is a celebrated poem which got him in trouble, when it was circulated around. It was the attack on Stalin

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,
Как подкову, кует за указом указ:

Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него – то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

“We live, not feeling the ground under our feet./No one hears us more than a dozen steps away..” – (I think that’s ironic) – “And when there’s enough for half a small chat -/ah, we remember the Kremlin mountaineer..” – (that is, when there’s enough left, enough ground and enough space, enough leisure left for a little chat with your friends in secret) – ‘ah, we remember the Kremlin mountaineer/Thick fingers, fat like worms, greasy words solid as iron weights./Huge cockroach whiskers laughing, boot-tops beaming./And all around him a rabble of thin-necked captains, he toys with the sweat of half-men/Some whistle, some meow, some snivel, he is the only one looking, jabbing/ He forges decrees like horseshoes – decrees and decrees – This one gets it in the balls, that one in the forehead, him right between the eyes/Whenever he’s got a victim, he glows like a broad chested Georgian munching a raspberry.”
And there’s a footnote to that also, which I should.. what that raspberry image is. It’s a…

Peter Orlovsky: (Raspberries actually killed somebody!)

AG: “This is the poem on Stalin for which Mandelstam suffered greatly. He and his wife were sent first to Cherdyn in the Urals, then, after a softening of their punishment, to Voronezh, most likely as a result of his poems having been reported. It must not, of course, be confused with the later attempt to write a positive ode to Stalin..” – [he did, actually, try to do that to get out of trouble] – “..the by-products of which were in the poems written in Voronezh from (6 of January to 9th of February, 1937..” – [that is, just before he got take away – And that’s a witty exercise (I think we have it in our books) and we’ll get to that – and he tried to write a positive ode) – “The “Georgian munching a raspberry” – This was, literally, an Ossetian – the Ossetes were a Muslim tribe in Georgia of legendary ferocity said to celebrate an enemy’s death by munching a raspberry” (!) (Stalin, of course, who was a Georgian, was rumored to have been of that particular tribe..was rumored, at times, to have been of that particular tribe).. ]

And there’s an alternative translation of it (that) I have around, so you get the… I’m not sure if it’s any better, but..

“We live without feeling under us firm ground/At ten feet away you can’t hear a sound/ Of any words but “the wild man in the Kremlin/ Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin” – (this is a translation by Bernard Meares) – “Each thick finger of his is as fat as a worm,/ To his ten-ton words we all have to listen…/His cockroach whiskers flicker and squirm/And the shining thigh-boots shimmer and glisten/ Surrouding himself by scrawny-necked lords/ he plays on his servile half-human hordes /Some mewl, some grizzle, some moan/ Prodded by him/ scourging us till we groan/Like horseshoes, he hammers out law after law/slamming some in the gut and some in the eye, some in the balls and some in the jaw/At each execution, he belches his best/This Caucasian hero with his broad tribesman’s chest.” – (so they left out the image of the raspberry in this translation.. oh, maybe , they’ve got a note.. let’s see what kind of footote they’ve got on it.. Well, they say – “Epigrammatic poem about Stalin which caused Mandelstam’s first arrest in 1934”) – (That was the cause of the arrest that I read about last time, this poem) – Alternative second couplet – “Of our voices but each muttered a half-phrase/Sings the Kremlin mountain-man’s praise” – (our own voices, our own muttetred half-phrases have to sing his praises)

Student: (What community (support) did these poets have?.. (Leon) Trotsky?)
AG: Not Trotsky… (Nikolai) Kluyev?..
Peter Orlovsky: Trotsky criticized Kluyev.
AG: Didn’t like him. That was before Trotsky was ..out – when did Trotsky leave?
Student: Late (19)20’s. – 1925
AG: Mid or late (19)20’s – that’s late! – he survived that long!
No, not directly, they were all (buried or lost), they were isolated lefties. However, they were all known to the intelligensia, and so, like (Vladimir Ilyich) Lenin and those guys..like (with, for example) (Vladimir) Mayakovsky – he knew about him and he’d read something. (Stalin was in direct contact with some of them, I think. In fact, Stalin once called up Mandelstam, or something like that, called up (Anna) Akhmatova).

Student: A phone call to Akhmatova!

AG: Yeah, they actually spoke on the phone. And, like Lili Brik, when the time came, wrote a letter to Stalin, about 1931, (19)32, or so, wrote a letter to Stalin saying my boyfriend Mayakovsky, is the greatest, and you said he was the greatest, and I’ve got all his papers, and nothing is being done to preserve them, (there’s) no monument to him, no museum, do something, shouldn’t we do something?, you said he was the greatest, didn’t you?.” So he wrote a letter saying, yes, we must do something, he was the greatest Russian poet, greatest lyricist, or something, the most gifted. And so they immediately built a museum. The next day, I think, there was a headline in Pravda that he was the greatest – according to Ann Charters’ account (that we heard two weeks ago). So they were actually close enough to.. (and then) it’s a small enough scene among the intelligensia and the politicians, for someone to be writing weird poems like this and attacking Stalin, even ironically, even in gossip, got back really fast. And because the whole thing was a psychological con and an hallucination i the sense of.. well, of course, everybody’s hands were covered in blood and so they couldn’t go back on it now, all the lower bureaucrats, what they called then the “party hacks”, who were clinging to their chairs (as (Yevgeny) Yevtushenko described them – “party hacks” – the people who did all this – party-hacks, the people who did all this are still clinging to their chairs, 1965). but everybody was so implicated that amy attempt to address the grievance and go back, undo the karma, would have met with an enormous amount of resistance…

So, in Russian the bureaucrats were all involved in this kind of national “mucous-membrane” blood network. [Editorial note – the phrase “international mucous membrane network” is a phrase by the German poet, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, much admired by Allen – see, for example, here]. It wouldn’t feel right, you know, betraying each other (I mean, they had (had) a complicit thing – that they were all going to send people away, and murder people – for “truthful”, “good” “idealistic”, ideological reasons. (But) now, if somebody pulls it out, pulls the rug out from under them, and says, “you’re shit!”, and breaks the complicit mutual hallucination, then they’re all going to get scared that they’re going to get it next, you know, that they might be involved, and they might be fingered, and they might be guilty and sent off, in their turn.So they’ll be this wall of “no, we don’t want any redress”. But, if somebody like Akhmatova, who had real language, could cut through. In that sense, the poet is “the unacknowledged legislator of the world”, as (Percy Bysshe) Shelley said, because the voice, being so truthful, and making such sense, and waking a resonance in everybody else, it could really shake the throne. If somebody in Moscow was going around saying, “I don’t give a shit what Stalin says, he’s a Georgian, eats raspberries and then kills somebody, and he gets somebody in the balls.. “, well, that guy… Well, pretty soon everybody knows it’s true, and, you know, people start muttering, and, pretty soon, it leads to revolt.

Student: So in this case, with Mandelstam and Stalin, it’s not only a personal attack, in the sense of the poem, but also an example to all the poets that you (just) better stay in line or we’ll throw you off…

AG: Yeah. meaning..(so).. when Stalin did that (also) to (Mayakovsky).. Also Stalin, I guess, he got really pissed and upset (also). There is this famous line when Mayakovsky gave his big speech, “At The Top of My Voice” (I think it was, yes), Stalin said, “Who ordered this..claque?” (because there were a lot of people in the hall applauding, maybe three-thousand people applauding) and Stalin said immediately, “Who ordered this claque?” (thinking that it was this big organized claque – and it probably was, you know, like a Beatnik poetry reading is organized, somebody organizes it). “Who ordered this claque?.
Who were they? Get me their names!”
Well let’s see what else we’ve got here?

Peter Orlovsky: (Didn’t he (Mandelstam) write “It is midnight in Moscow, a sumptuously Buddhist summer..”? [Полночь в Москве. Роскошно буддийское лето.”]

AG: His idea of “Buddhist”, no, his idea of “Buddhist” here, that meant “Stalin” – by “buddhist”, he meant “impersonal”, “de-humanized”, I think – I’ve read it somewhere in a footnote that he meant “impersonal”, “de-humanized”, “ego-less”, “without individuality” – just like Stalin was ordering, a sacrifice to the State. So he was equating Buddhism with that, rather than something slightly different, with which we equate it to here (at Naropa).
I think that’s what he mean by “Buddhist summer” there.

I just put these (particular) poems in the anthology because there are clear pictures of Moscow, walking on the street – and somebody going into the crowds out of the dark movie-houses

Student: A nice one.

AG: Yeah

Student: It’s very naive

AG: So you can read those. But I gave you the aesthetic ones. I went over before, but I’d like to repeat- 233 – his aesthetic, his Acmeist aesthetic – [Я пью за военные астры, за все, чем корили меня:/За барскую шубу, за астму, за желчь петербургского дня,/За музыку сосен савойских, Полей Елисейских бензин,/За розы в кабине ролс-ройса, за масло парижских картин./Я пью за бискайские волны, за сливок альпийских кувшин,За рыжую спесь англичанок и дальних колоний хинин,/пью, но еще не придумал, из двух выбираю одно:/Веселое асти-спуманте иль папского замка вино”] – “I drink to soldiers’ star-flowers,/ to everything I was blamed for..” –  (in other words, so he’s still holding out in this poem) – “I drink to everything I was blamed for – soldiers’ star-flowers, lush fur-coats..” – (the elitist Acmeist, aristocratic..memorobilia of Petersburg) -“to Petersburg days and their bile” – (because all the poets were quarreling with each other in the Stray Dog (Cafe)) – “to pine-trees’ music,/ to petrol in Elysian Fields,/ to roses in Rolls-Royces” – (which is a phrase that is picked up later on, I think, by (Andrei) Voznesensky and his poetry – “roses and Rolls-Royces” – that’s the sort of barbaric Russian idea of Western civilization, sophistication) – “to Paris-paintings/I drink to Biscay waves/and pitchers of Alpine cream/to arrogant red-headed English girls/to quinine from the colonies/drink to which I don’t know/I still don’t know,/wine from the Pope’s cellars, or a lovely Asti Spumante” – (good, elegant, manners)

Oh, here’s the poem he tried to give to Stalin (except this is another – the last two lines change the meaning of the poem). And he wrote two versions – “Если б меня наши враги взяли/Если б меня наши враги взяли/ И перестали со мной говорить люди,/Если б лишили меня всего в мире:/Права дышать и открывать двери/ И утверждать, что бытие будет/И что народ, как судия, судит, -/Если б меня смели держать зверем,/Пищу мою на пол кидать стали б,-/ Я не смолчу, не заглушу боли,/Но начерчу то, что чертить волен,/И, раскачав колокол стен голый/И разбудив вражеской тьмы угол,/Я запрягу десять волов в голос/И поведу руку во тьме плугом-/И в глубине сторожевой ночи/ Чернорабочей вспыхнут земле очи,/И – в легион братских очей сжатый -/ Я упаду тяжестью всей жатвы,/Сжатостью всей рвущейся вдаль клятвы -/И налетит пламенных лет стая,/Прошелестит спелой грозой Ленин,/И на земле, что избежит тленья,/Будет будить разум и жизнь Сталин.” –

“If our enemy took me/ and nobody would speak to me/If they took everything – everything,/ the right to breathe, to open doors,/ to claim that existence will be, will be,/ and that people are judges and judge, they judge/ – if they dared to chain me like an animal/and throw my food on the floor/ it won’t make me mute, I won’t muffle pain/I’ll write what I’m allowed to write, and when my nakedness rings like a bell,/ and the home of hostile darkness wakes/I’ll yoke ten oxen to my voice/ and move my hands like a plow in the darkness/ and then, compressed in an ocean of brotherly eyes,/ I’ll fall with the weight of an entire harvest, with the exactness of that oath, ripping into the distance,/and deep in the dark sentry- night/ the earth’s unskilled-laborer’s eyes will flare,/ and a flock of flaming years will flash by,/ and like a blind thunderstorm, rustling out, will come – Lenin/ Yes, but that which will endure on this earth,/ that which will destroy reason…” (“that which will destroy capitalism,/ which will ruin capitalism, is Stalin”) – He just simply.. “that which would for a reason ruin life/ would be Stalin”.. just substituted the words “reason” and “life”, just put some positive words in there – “Stalin” – as his attempt to write a poem in favor of Stalin. But it’s (in) such an ambivalent way – “that which..”, “that which will destroy..” – I’ve forgotten the.. maybe I can find the footnote that will give us the exact..

..page 72.. “Although this is not the “Positive Ode” to Stalin, the last two lines..were originally written differently as. “awaken reason” and “arouse life”, but this was an obvious ploy for the benefit of snoopers as Nadezhda Mandelstam, his wife and Clarence Brown (sic – his biographer) make clear. In any case, the last two lines seem artificially tagged on and do not really belong to the poem.” – (Then there’s the article in the Slavic Review – see, by Clarence Brown – “Into the Heart of Darkness” – (Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) – “Mandelstam’s “Ode to Stalin”” (where, Mandelstam actually tried to write a poem for Stalin, but, actually, what he (Stalin) read was, the positive one, was, “Yes, but that which will endure on earth,/ that which will awaken reason, arouse life will be – Stalin” (Stalin-oid) – (that) version – and then (there was) the secret version – “(that) which would destroy reason,/ which would ruin life, will be Stalin” – So, the whole rest of the poem could pass as a patriotic revolutionary poem, because he praised it all up to Lenin coming, like he’s praising, he’s praised, the protestors and the revolutionaries, up to the time of Lenin – “something like a thunderstorm” – “Yes, but that which will endure on earth,/ that which will awaken reason and arouse life – that will be Stalin” – then he can send that to Stalin and get out of the concentration camp (and then send to his friends – “that which will destroy reason,/ which will ruin life, will be Stalin”).

Stalin, 1945 at Yalta

Stalin, 1953, on his death-bed

AG: ..and, I’d like to do one more, four-line, poem, which is Mandelstam’s aesthetics, number 368, to compare that with William Carlos Williams “so much depends/upon/ a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens”Everybody knows that Imagist standard? “Eyes sharper than a whetted scythe/cuckoo in each eye, drop of dew in each eye/ and just barely able to distinguish, full-length/how to distinguish among the great lonely stars” – February (19)37″ [“Были очи острее точимой косы —/ По зегзице в зенице и по капле росы, ‑/И едва научились они во весь рост/ Различать одинокое множество звезд.”]

Peter Orlovsky:(You think he was able to…)

AG: Yes, he was just beginning to learn the stars, he was able to lie down full length and look up at the sky, wuth his eyes “sharper than a whetted scythe”, so, in the middle of all this political complexity, this is what he was really thinking about, actually going out into the space of the earth, lying down and looking up at the stars, and beginning to.. as a big intellectual Acmeist, sort of now, completely wrecked and ruined and a social outcast, going out, and barely able, full length, to learn “how to distinguish among the great lonely stars”

Student: Like Stalin and Hitler?

AG: No no no no! – He’s talking about the stars!

Student: Where was Voronezh?

AG: Voronezh was…

Student: That was the prison camp, wasn’t it?

AG: No, no , that was the place, the town to which he was exiled, from which he was taken , from which he was arrested, and taken to the concentration camp. That was written ..Then, I want to conclude with a couple of lines of (Anna) Akhmatova, which relate to what we’ve just been talking about. In the first page of Akhmatova’s “Requiem” (born 1888, so you can find her by her chronology – got it?) – in this little poem, in, a part of “Requiem”, (which we’ll take up next time) – “To Death” (Akmhatova, 1888) – “You will come in any case – so why not now?/How long I wait and wait.The bad times fall/I have put out the light and open the door/ for you, because you are simple and magical./Assume, then, any form that suits your wish,/take aim and blast at me with poisoned shot/ or strangle me like an efficient mugger,/ or else infect me – typhus be my lot -/or spring out of the fairytale you wrote,/ the one we’re sick of hearing, day and night/where the blue hatband marches up the stairs/ led by the janitor, pale with fright”. (“blue-hat men are the secret police – blue hat men – they’re like the guy who came to arrest Mandelstam ) – “or spring out of the fairytale you wrote,/ the one we’re sick of hearing, day and night/where the blue hatband marches up the stairs/ led by the janitor,pale with fright” – (That’s a really vivid picture!) – It’s all the same to me/ the Yenesi swirls/the North Star shines,as it will shine forever/ and the blue lustre of my loved-ones’ eyes/ is clouded over by the final horror”.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifty-three minutes in and concluding at approximately seventy-two minutes in. This transcript has been edited, two passages not immediately pertinent to this subject (Russian poetry and Osip Mandelstam) will be transcribed and included later]

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