Expansive Poetics – (Anna Akhmatova – 1)

Anna Akhmatova in 1924, photo by Moisey Nappelbaum Moscow House of Photography

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1996) in 1924 – Photograph by Moisei Nappelbaum

AG: (Now) I wanted to move on to Anna Akhmatova, who lived… (Sergei) Esenin died 1925, (Vladimir) Mayakovsky (allegedly) committed suicide 1930, (Nikolay) Gumilev was shot 1923, (Velimir) Khlebnikov starved to death in 1923, (Osip) Mandelstam died of cold and starvation in a work camp in Siberia somewhere between 1937 and 1940, although nobody knows exactly when. Esenin’s friend, (Nikolay) Klyuev…what year did he die?

Peter Orlovsky: (19)35.

AG: (19)35, coming back from six years exile in Siberia, with a suitcase full of poems, but then he never got back to Moscow and nobody knows what happened to him, and the rumor and supposition is that he was shot by the secret police on his way back. So his suitcase full of poems never survived.

Anna Akhmatova survived everybody. (She was) the one person that survived the whole thing, all the way through. She had married Gumilev, who was shot in 1923, but they had divorced in (19)21. She published a few books of very hard chiselled poems early and, apparently, she was the innovator of a whole new style in Acmeism – the school (which is roughly the equivalent to the same movement in American and British poetry which is coming down from the misty romanticism of Symbolism, avoiding the proletarian cult of (the) stupid simplicity of the Socialist Realist writers, trying to get hard factual images drawn from actual life). And so she’s known for a kind of dignity and solemnity and straightforwardness in her poetry and in her person, and she looked like a really beautiful aristocratic lady. She was a friend of (Boris) Pasternak and Mandelstam. You remember when Mandelstam was arrested in (19)34, she was there in the room when the police came to get him. She was in constant contact with Madame Mandelstam and with the other poets. They were a very small group of beleagured, aristocratic, elite high minds who held Russian poetry in their hands, held the word of Russia in their hands (as against the fake language of “Truth” newspaper – Pravda – and as against the fake language of the accusations against them and twenty mllion other people who were taken off).
She had a son, Leo, who was arrested in the (19)30’s as a way of keeping hold on her. That was a deliberate and personal shot by (Joseph) Stalin to keep her in line. And she was forbidden to publish. And she was attacked during the (19)30’s.

Then with the war and with (Adolf) Hitler, there was a moment of recognition in Russia that they had to get behind themselves, they had to get behind Mother Russia, and even Stalin, weeping, went on the radio when Hitler attacked, and, instead of saying “comrades”, he said “brothers and sisters”, appealing to (his) fellow Russians to fight Hitler.

And so, she was brought out of obscurity and assigned the task of summoning up the Russian people with her poetry to fight Hitler. And so a little book of poems of hers was published in the (19)40’s, and  she  wrote some patriotic, nationalistic poetry for radio-broadcast. She stayed a good deal of time in Stalingrad, Leningrad, Petersburg….I’m sorry, in Leningrad (or Petersburg which was renamed Leningrad), during the early (19)40’s, when Hitler’s armies, or the German armies, surrounded Leningrad and there was almost starvation conditions in the city. A few people, after about a year-and-a-half, were evacuated on a plane, and so she left on a plane, carrying with her (Osip) Mandelstam’s manuscripts and a few other rare manuscripts of poetry that had not been published before.

[Gregory Corso arrives in the class] – There’s another chair there. You can pass one (up)..

Gregory Corso: I thought one out of three died in that siege from starvation.

AG: In Leningrad.

Gregory Corso: Leningrad…

AG: It was total devastation.

Now she had grown up in Leningrad, and was one of the Leningrad circle of poets, and she had known the Stray Dog Cafe and Alexander Blok and all the great poets, pre-War and post-War – (Velimir) Khlebnikov, and everybody. So she’d survived. (Osip) Mandelstam by this time was dead – 1940. Everybody else was dead that she knew, except a few younger (poets, like Marina) Tsvetaeva (the other woman that we haven’t dealt with is Tsvetaeva, who was more of an elite, aristocratic social class, who left Russia in 1919 or (1920). And then, for some patriotic reasons, I think, despite what she knew after living in Paris, Tsvetaeva came back to Russia in the late, late, late (19)30’s – (19)39 or (19)40 – with her son from Paris, and, almost within a year after she came back, her son was shot by the police in jail, and so Tsvetaeva, during that same year in Leningrad, committed suicide – and she was  the big sister for Akhmatova. So, by this time there’s hardly anybody left of that group of major poets, except Pasternak and Akhmatova)

In 1940, she assembled a long poem composed of fragments that she had suppressed. There was even, at one point when they were coming to get her son, that Akhmatova burned all her manuscripts that she’d saved up during the late (19)2o’s, early (19)30’s (I think sometime in 1936 she had to burn everything, because what she’d written, if it were found, would have been enough to hang her too). She was taken out of obscurity and put to patriotic work , and then, as soon as the War was over, there was an attack on her by (Andrei) Zhdanov (who was the mouthpiece for Stalin in literature) saying she was a rich bitch and an aristocrat and of no use to the people and that her poetry was egocentric and individualistic and didn’t participate in the actual society, and (that) she was a decadent left-over from the Stray Dog Cafe in 1912, and she ought to be beaten, or put on trial, or, certainly not published.

Then her son was arrested, after a press campaign against her, because she was then, after (Osip) Mandelstam, the most popular poet, so it was necessary to destroy her in public to diminish her influence. Her son was arrested in (19)45, I think, immediately after the War, and put in jail as a way, again, of keeping her under control. And so she spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours in a line in front of the Yezhov prison – I’m sorry, a prison outside of Leningrad, and the head of the police was (Nikolai) Yezhov, I believe,  and so they’re called “the Yeshov years”, or something.
People whose relatives were arrested.. I think we didn’t go through this, did we? There was a bureau where you could bring packages and money to people in jail – a bureau in Leningrad, or in each big city. There were twenty million in Siberia, so that meant twenty million families were going to these windows, which was like a bureau, where you had a blank wall and one window, and a line, of maybe a hundred or two hundred people, waiting to either get a letter or give a letter. Letters from Siberia were rare, letters to were allowed through and money and giftts (and) clothes were being sent. And if your person who was in Siberia was either dead or transferred, you would be told that there was no news (and you didn’t know then if he was dead, but no news at the desk probably meant death, likely death rather than transfer, because, if they were transfering them, there would be some kind of paperwork that would come in a month or two – so you might be waiting a month or two to find out if your prisoner was dead )
She spent hundreds of hours on this line, and the poem takes place as recollections on this line. But it’s an assembly of different poems written in (19)35, (19)39, (19)40, March 1940, and so it’s a “Requiem”, actually for all the dead poets and all the prisoners. You have it in your anthologies, if you can open it up to that, in the Russian section – Akhmatova (born) 1889. What I’ve done is taken sections from it, I haven’t printted the whole poem. I’ve just (taken) the most startling stanzas. So we’ll go through that.

[Audio for the above may be heard here, starting at approximately fourteen-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-five-and-a-half minutes in] 

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