Evgeny Baratynsky in FULCRUM; rhyme, again




Fulcrum: An Annual of Poetry and Aesthetics, is a tremendously capacious literary journal published in Cambridge, England, and edited by Philip Nikolayev and Katia Kapovich. The newest issue, no. 7, includes (among many other very interesting things) “Evgeny Baratynsky: Poems from Twilight,” with poems introduced and translated from Russian by Peter France, and a second introductory essay and extensive commentaries by Ilya Kutik (also translated by France).  Kutik describes Baratynsky (1800-1844) as a poet who was submerged after his death by the literary fashions of the Russian nineteenth century and whose work was resuscitated by much later poets, especially Osip Mandelshtam, who saw Baratynsky’s work as a valuable un-Romantic or even anti-Romantic poetic precedent, in the midst of Russian Romanticism, for Russian poetry in the twentieth.  Of course Peter France and Ilya Kutik see in Baratynsky far more than that—but I mention this one aspect of Baratynsky’s achievement simply to situate him among twentieth-century poets, and to suggest why a twentieth- and twenty-first century Russian poet, Kutik, is interested in bringing into English at least a sampling of Baratynsky’s poems and an account of Baratynsky’s importance.  Kutik’s commentary runs to more than 30 pages, and along with more than a dozen poems and the substantial introductory essays, this is in effect an impressive small book.  Kutik’s commentaries are especially valuable.  Returning to one of France’s deftly worded translations after reading Kutik’s commentary on the poem enriches the English version wonderfully.

Now I will copy here a few comments Kutik makes on rhyme, which readers of this series of my small essays on poetry will know is of great interest to me.  (Not because I use it in my own poems very often—although I do highly prize rich sound-textures—but because of how Kutik explains rhyme as a mode of thought, which I very much think it is, even though its potential as such is not realized by very many poets in English, and in all phonetic repetitions, not only in full rhyme.  It’s not realized because English-language poets can’t do so, but because our literary history has carried us through times, and into times, where for other reasons poets don’t choose to do so.  This has been true for centuries, even when poetry was at the height of its use of rhyme.)

Twilight was Baratynsky’s last book, was written over about ten years’ time, and he organized his book very carefully.  The final poem in the collection is “Rhyme.”  Baratynsky’s figure for rhyme is the dove that returns to Noah’s ark with an olive leaf or leafy twig in its beak.  That is, from a new world elsewhere, as yet unknown, the dove brings an answer to Noah’s question: does any land yet exist that stands above the flood?  Neither the question nor the answer is expressed in words.  The question is the releasing of the dove, and the answer is the twig brought back by the dove–a human gesture, a living bird; then a material object, presumably still silver-green with life.  And, as I mentioned, from a place not yet known.  Kutik writes that rhyming for Baratynsky (and for himself and so many others) is “as if the Russian poet was throwing a word into the linguistic abyss and waiting to see what other word it will return with.”

That is not a figure that I can imagine being used by any poet writing in English of French (the two languages that Kutik mentions as comparisons) or for that matter in Spanish or Italian or Portuguese (a few more languages that I can add to the list), in any century.  What would the figure for rhyme be for a poet writing in English, formed by English-language poetic traditions?  If it had come in that dove’s beak, it would have had to be something of a kind already preserved on the boat–but on the ark there are no leafing plants, only pairs of animals.  What other figures might we imagine for rhyme in English?

In just a few paragraphs, Kutik’s succinct account of rhyme as a part of the poetic process is revelatory of it as a poetic mode of thought.  He speaks of the remarkable flexibility of Russian syntax and the richness of rhyme sounds in a poetic tradition in which what we call half-rhymes are considered true rhymes— these aspects account for the acrobatic Russian line; he also speaks of the effect on thought of producing the rhyme-word in the context of a stanza, which I have not before seen discussed; and he writes that one “can see why free verse finally triumphed in French and English poetry, since it offers a liberation from the limitations and set patterns of the language, which in Russian do not exist.”

“[R]hyme is for the poet above all a searching device that animates the language.”  And it is, he writes, a kind of companion of the poet even where there are no others.

Here’s something apropos of the poet’s sense (which Baratynsky clearly felt, in that last poem of his last book) of writing with the poetry itself, the language itself, as the needed companion.  In an interview of the Russian poet Victor Sosnora (b. 1938) by Darra Goldstein, published in 1988 in the New York Review of Books, Sosnora says, amidst other responses equally extreme and yet persuasive in showing us a man of intense, sometimes unlikely, and sometimes almost repellantly truthful opinions: “I don’t write for the present.  I don’t write for the future, either. […]  I write because that’s what it takes for me to live.  If I’m not published, that doesn’t mean that I don’t exist. […] An ideal reader has a talent equal to that of the writer.  I’ve had three such readers who understood poetry in the absolute sense: Nikolai Aseev, Lilya Brik, and Nikolai Gritsiuk.  I want to stress that I’m fifty-one, I’ve published nine books, and I have had only three readers.”  About Sosnora’s diction, Goldstein says that his “words seem to arise from a dream or a state of intoxication.  His images are startling, even hallucinatory.”  But I don’t mean to imply that these qualities are typical of Russian poetry in general; as far as I can tell, they are merely qualities that the Russian language makes possible by the poet’s use of what Kutik calls the “justification” of sound.  I.e., of phonetic figures, including rhyme.

Norman Manea

Again I’ve been absent a while in the unreal yet inconceivably populous virtual spaces of the web.

I was in NYC for the first day of the July 27-28 celebration of the 75th birthday of the great Romanian fiction writer and essayist Norman Manea.  (I had been mispronouncing his last name for years, and he was too polite to correct me, and now finally I’ve learned how to do it—when Romanians say “Manea,” it sounds like “monya”; the “e” is very fleeting.)  The announcement for this can be found at: http://annandaleonline.org/s/990/noright.aspx?sid=990&gid=1&pgid=252&cid=1915&ecid=1915&ciid=5764&crid=0

This tribute seemed to me to have required the emergence of two generations of Romanian writers and readers younger than Manea.  Literary culture in Romania, after so long under Nazi and then Communist dictatorship, is still fraught with nationalist rigidities of attitude, extremism, and a history that even now can scarcely be discussed fully.  Manea kicked a hornets’ nest when he published his essay “Felix Culpa,” an unmasking of Mircea Eliade’s fascist years in Romania and of others connected with him whose mentality and program remains fascist to this day.  The vitriolic response was anti-Semitic, nationalistic, and dangerous.  (The essay first appeared in The New Republic, and Manea included a fuller version in his 1992 American collection On Clowns: The Dictator and the Artist.)

At the tribute, among the first of these two younger Romanian generations who are trying to open Romanian culture were Silviu Lupescu, the director of the Romanian publisher Polirom, which is now issuing all of Manea’s work in a uniform edition; Corina Suteu, the director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York; Carmen Musat, the editor of Observator Cultural, a weekly publication in Romania; and Bogdan-Alexander Sta Nescu, the editorial director of Polirom.  (On the occasion of this tribune to Manea, Polirom published a bilingual Romanian-English book in his honor, edited by Cella Manea and George Onofrei, Obsesia Incertitudinii / The Obsession of Uncertainty.)  Among these and also among several Romanians in their twenties with whom I spoke, there was great reverence for Manea, not only because of his writings, but also because of his having refused to make an existential trade-off with the twenty-four-year-long Ceaucescu regime: he would not go along with the regime in order to avoid pressures, threats of imprisonment or worse, and very effective censorship.  He somehow held his own, having to accept the limited publication for which he was eligible in that society deliberately distorted by its government.  (In the title essay of On Clowns, Manea’s description of submitting his typewriter for its annual required inspection at a government office—absurd ritual of an absurd state—is funny, creepy, and all too meaningful.)

Among the Americans speaking on the first day of the tribute was the president of Bard College, Leon Botstein, whose work as an orchestral conductor took him to Romania in 1997 and provided the occasion for Manea’s first return visit to the nation he had been forced to flee.  His meditation on that trip, his parents, Romania, and the course of his own life, took the form of The Hooligan’s Return: A Memoir (Farrar Straus, 2003).  Also speaking were Robert Boyers, who has often published Manea’s writing in his invaluable and (happily) long-lived literary journal, Salmagundi, and the novelist Francine Prose, among others.

In English translation there are several works by Manea.  October, Eight O’Clock (1992) contains the first (and unforgettable) story he published in the USA (in TriQuarterly), “The Sweater.”  Manea and his wife Cella arrived here in 1987 via Germany, bringing with them only what they could carry, after Manea was told by the Securitate of Romania that he had permission to accept a fellowship offered to him in Germany, and that he should take it, and that he should not come back.  October, Eight O’Clock and On Clowns are both in print, published by Grove Press.  Published very recently by Trinity University Press is the collection Manea has edited of Romanian Writers on Writing (2011), one of those books that opens up a whole world that overflows the banks of the present nation of Romania.  It’s a world previously unavailable to all who must wait for translations into English.  We have had bright flashes of that world in the amazing work of those who left Romania during the twentieth century and found readers and audiences elsewhere—driven out or voluntarily withdrawing from that oppressed place—including Paul Celan, E. M. Cioran, Eugene Ionesco, Mircea Eliade, Andrei Codrescu, and Manea himself (to say nothing of the artists Constantin Brancusi and Saul Steinberg, the pianists Dinu Lupati and Radu Lupu, the composer Georges Enescu).  Only a few Romanian poets have been translated into English, among them Tudor Arghezi, Ion Caraion, and Benjamin Fondane (who wrote in French).   Now Manea’s edited collection of Romanian writings on writing give us a fuller sense of how much we are missing.  Also, two other, earlier, books by Manea have been published in English—the collection of stories Compulsory Happiness and the novel The Black Envelope (both by Northwestern University Press).  And earlier this year, Sheep Meadow Press published The Correspondence of Paul Celan and Ilana Shmueli, which includes a brief essay by Manea and his lengthy interview with Shmueli; she too was from Romania, and has much to say about the world that formed Celan and herself, and the somewhat younger Manea, too, and about Celan himself, to whom she remained close until the end of his life.

Manea’s stature, as a fiction writer and a thinker about human destiny, is that of a world artist.  I wish more of us would read his work!