From Russia with love

From Russia with love

Event: Russian Twentieth Century Poetry

Location: The LRB Bookshop

Date: 17 March, 2015

‘We have a very poor idea of great nineteenth-century Russian poets,’ says Robert Chandler remorsefully. People shift uncomfortably in their seats. I picture him suddenly turning and pointing at one of us. ‘You there, yes, you! Do you know your Lermontov from your Tyutchev? Shame on you!’

When it comes to twentieth-century poets, there has been an unquestioning belief that there are only four ‘great’ Russian poets of the era – Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Mandelstam – when, in fact, Robert argues, many poets of equal stature have been neglected. ’It’ll be a long time before we have a clear conscience of the greatest twentieth-century Russian poets’.

In a bid to ‘open up the world of Russian poetry to English readers for the first time’, Robert, along with fellow editors Robert, Boris Dralyuk, Irina Mashinski and a host of acclaimed translators have brought to being The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Ensconced in the London Review Bookshop, encircled by shelves of books and with wine in hand, we are guided through this world of Soviet-era subversives, symbolists and surrealists; the brazen, the blackly comic and the shamelessly romantic.

With the furrowed brow of a veteran academic and a voice that holds onto words as if to savour their meaning, Robert pledges to begin with some ‘well-known poets’ who were ‘possibly admired or disliked for the wrong reasons’.

We begin with the ‘romantic figure’ of Sergey Yesenin. ‘Lovers of poetry have tended to look down on him,’ Robert explains. Yesenin is often considered sentimental, but his best poems are strikingly honest. Indeed, his poetry was often regarded as anti-Soviet and he was harassed by the secret police. Fellow editor, Boris Dralyuk (whose excellent moustache gives him more than a hint of the Viking) comes forward. He explains that Yesenin was hugely popular in the criminal world: many criminals even went so far as to have lines of his poetry tattooed onto their bodies. Among the most popular were the lines of this poem:

‘Poor poet, was that really you,

addressing the moon in rhyme?

by love, by cards and wine.

The moon climbs through the window frame.

White light, so white it blinds you…

I bet on the Queen of Spades,

but I played the Ace of Diamonds.’

The Ace of Diamonds, which was sewn on the back of prisoners’ uniforms in tsarist times, was a general symbol of criminality.

‘Many criminals even went so far as to have lines of his poetry tattooed onto their bodies.’

After a suffering from severe alcoholism and a nervous breakdown aged just 30, Yesenin cut his wrists and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood. The following morning he hanged himself. Robert explains how the number of deaths of poets in the 1920s, including Nikolay Gumilyov and Alexander Blok, had a tremendous impact. ‘Yesenin’s suicide was an enormous shock for many people. It seemed a whole world had died.’

He then reads the suicide poem, with its heartbreaking last stanza:

‘Goodbye for now, goodbye, dear friend –

no handshake, words or grief.

To die is nothing new – but then,

what new is there in life?’

‘Yesenin cut his wrists and wrote a farewell poem in his own blood.’

There is a steady hush in the room. Robert pauses, as if in reverence, before moving on to the next poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky. Robert suggests we tend to have an ‘oversimplified’ picture of him. ‘He was often seen as a revolutionary loudmouth; but he was much more varied than that. He had great delicacy and intelligence, and a great wit.’ Translator James Womack reads a part of ‘A cloud in trousers’ which includes the delightful lines:

‘Listen up, mister god!

Don’t get bored up here in the sky


If you’re omnipresent, you can get into all

the cellars and bring some quality wine back up –

then maybe, just maybe, Peter the Apostle

can be persuaded to lighten up.’

We then had readings from Maria Petrovykh. She had a ‘very fierce directness’ and her words stick hard and uncomfortably in the mind. Consider these lines: ‘Love me. I am pitch black,/sinful, blind, confused./…You have no choice. I am/pure night, and you – pure light’. Stephen Capus reads another of Petrovykh’s poems, with the lingering lines: ‘Words lying empty, without breathing –/that don’t know why they exist at all.’ Irina Mashinski then reads the same poem in Russian. To hear it precisely as it had been thought, written and recited… it could not be more haunting.

By contrast, Arseny Tarkovsky made quite clear that he was not to be taken seriously. ‘His writing was a mixture of fiction and memoir,’ Robert says. ‘Some were enraged that someone who has the freedom to speak truthfully would lie about it.’ Georgy Ivanyov has the power to surprise in a quite different way. ‘He was a quite wonderful poet,’ Robert enthuses. ‘Endlessly startling!’ He reads a poem which begins, ‘Where can I look, where can I go,/To find that almost Alpine snow, all sacrificed so life can grow.’  ‘It was seen as a shrug of shoulders in response to the horrors,’ Robert explains. ‘It really did shock me reading it in Russian.’

Capus then reads two of his translations of Ivanyov. He comments on the ‘extreme brevity’ of his poems. ‘As a rule of thumb, the shorter the poem the harder it is to translate.’ Robert can’t resist ‘just one more’ Ivanov. ‘The poems he wrote whilst conscience he was dying in 1958 are particularly powerful.’ He reads an elegiac poem including the lines, ‘I disappear./The real me lives elsewhere.’

‘Another discovery for us is this poet Lev Ozerof,’ Robert reveals. He wrote ‘good but fairly conventional poetry throughout his life’ until the ‘90s when he started writing free verse in a book Portrait without Frames. ‘It was unlike anything before. You realise every detail is very carefully chosen.’

Then we move on to Varlam Shalamov, who, Robert claims, ‘without exception, wrote the best poems about the Gulag, where he spent about seven years’. Shamalov’s poetry has been ‘neglected and underrated’ but this is beginning to change now. ‘He is an extraordinary lyrical poet,’ Robert says, almost in awe. He reads ‘a wonderfully simple poem’ that has a huge resonance with the lines:

‘By candlelight,

In midday dark, I’ll warm

Your words beside the stove;

Frost’s bitten them.’

It’s now time for audience questions. One gentleman asks what the challenges are of translating from Russian. Robert appears piqued. ‘I’m always paralysed by those generalised questions!’ he exclaims. ‘If you look through the anthology you’ll see we’ve favoured those which have meter and rhyme. Obviously it’s a naive thing for iambics with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes to have the same effect in English, so to insist on directly translating is completely bonkers!’ He seems exasperated.

‘I think there are quite a variety of approaches,’ he adds, as if attempting to soften the blow. ‘Sometimes the line of thought seems so precise I couldn’t produce without deviating but I try to keep to the bare, simple thought, reproducing that simplicity and tone is more important that anything.’

Capus adds, somewhat diplomatically: ‘There are no general rules; you have to decide as you go along.’

Mashinski concludes, philosophically: ‘We’re here to find the core. Each poem is a creature. You do not approach human beings with the same attitude.’

Amen to that.

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