‘We have a very poor idea of great Russian poets.’ Robert Chandler

‘We have a very poor idea of great Russian poets.’ Robert Chandler

We have a very poor idea of great Russian poets. There has been an unquestioning belief that there are only four ‘great’ Russian poets of the twentieth century – Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova and Mandem – when, in fact, many poets of equal stature have been neglected.

Lovers of poetry have tended to look down on Sergey Yesenin. He is often considered sentimental, but his best poems are strikingly honest.

We tend to have an oversimplified picture of Vladimir Mayakovsky. 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.

Arseny Tarkovsky made quite clear that he was not to be taken seriously. His writing was a mixture of fiction and memoir. 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. Endlessly startling! The poems he wrote whilst conscience he was dying in 1958 are particularly powerful.

Lev Ozerof started writing free verse in a book Portrait without Frames. It was unlike anything before. You realise every detail is very carefully chosen.

Varlam Shalamov, without exception, wrote the best poems about the Gulag. It was where he spent about seven years. His poetry has been neglected and underrated but this is beginning to change now. He is an extraordinary lyrical poet.

Obviously it’s a naive thing for iambics with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes to have the same effect in English. To insist on directly translating is completely bonkers!

I think there are quite a variety of approaches [to translating]. 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.

Robert Chandler is a British poet and literary translator.


From an event at the London Review Bookshop

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