Published by Index on Censorship 5/87 and translated by Sally Laird

1986: Raw meat: we’ve had enough

Poets should be poets, not prophets

Cannibalism, not vegetarianism, is my theme.

Every two years several dozen poets from various countries gather in Cambridge for a festival of poetry. Twice as a reporter I’ve attended the festival and, along with 150-odd Britons, have sat and listened to poets good and bad, some truly good and some very bad indeed. Somehow or other poets of all kinds — academic, alcoholic, gay — blend together comfortably in Cambridge, and when in the bar they talk of poetry, it ceases to matter which of them wears a tie. All those present have their craft in common, all are members of a single guild. Besides, the academic usually likes his drink, and may very well be gay into the bargain; his being a poet is all that really counts.

Aside from their poems, their toasts, their considered judgments, those who come to Cambridge have certain magic spells, incantations that they utter in pubs, shout from platforms or mutter to themselves. The standard abracadabra runs as follows: Mandelshtam, Pasternak, Tsevetaeva, Akhmatova. The order may change, the stresses slip a little (Tsvetaèva for Tsvetàeva, Akhmatòva for Akhmàtova) but in some form these words are de rigueur. What, one might ask, are these Hecubas to them? After all, Nadezhda Mandelshtam has far more readers in England than her ‘introverted’ husband. But such is the inequality of genres: memoirs are much more understandable than verse. What can a non-Russian do with the simplest line fo Pasternak’s: “Kisses poured on the breast, like water from a wash-stand ...’? Barriers of style or language may, with more or less success, be overcome. What can’t be overcome is something other. Poetry is one form of a nation’s sensual and intellectual being. For a Russian, “wash-stand’ means — summer. But the Russian summer is different from the Scandinavian or the English. In Sweden the seasons are much more clear-cut than in Russia, in England their boundaries are more blurred. In Russia, summer means holidays, children’s voices, while in England children are in school until mid-July and are kept from playing in the doorways, yards and streets. For a Russian, ‘wash-stand’ means ‘dacha’, then ‘pioneer camp’: grass, mushrooms, river, kisses … and this way of enjoying life has nothing, or almost nothing, in common with the way people enjoy themselves in England or Sweden.

But why this set of names, this abracadabra? Suffering, stoicism, death certainly command a powerful magnetic field. But the Austrian poets Georg Trakl and Paul Celan, the heirs of Werther, were sufferers too. Why not them, after all? Garcia Lorca stood an even better chance: he was murdered. But only twelve years later, the regime that killed the Andalusian poet published a full, eightvolume edition of his works, and then itself gave up the ghost and died. Whereas if we project the fate of those four Russians onto the present day, the picture doesn’t look so bright. In theory they go on suffering, their martyrs’ term of service is not yet over. It’s these very torments that are the object of an unquenchable envy on the part of the English (the Swedish, the Dutch) poets. From a safe distance repression and persecution engender faith in this significance and value of poetry. Those magic words, chanted in a foreign key, express these poets’ yearning for another role, another social function.

I would not exchange those one hundred and fifty Englishmen at the Cambridge festival for a thousand Russians at a poetry evening in the Luzhniki stadium. Once upon a time I too was among those Russians. The further one moves from the sixties, the more clearly one sees how frantic, how feverish people’s love for poetry was in those days. What went by the name of poetry — verses declaimed and trumpeted to crowds — wasn’t literature so much as a biological urge, on the part of both listeners and declaimers, for freedom. You would go to the stadium, the university auditorium, the concert hall, get your fix of freedom, and then stay high for a day, a month, a lifetime. That was what poetry was — ersatz freedom. Let’s be grateful for it, let’s give it its due — but no more than its due. The times were charitable to poets; cheating them of their martyr’s haloes, they merely turned them into living caricatures.

It would plainly be stupid to condemn the English poets for their envy. But how have the Russian poets dealt with their lot? Poets are not obliged to go in for self-analysis, to stand aside and examine themselves. But self-knowledge is better than self-intoxication and self-indulgence. The poet Vladislav Khodasevich was one of the last to come from a literary-cultural tradition that hat flourished uninterrupted for over a hundred years. Had he been born not in 1886, but some twenty years later, the Khodasevich that we know most likely would never have been. Even in his youth Khodasevich shied away from Bohemia, abstained from Romantic intoxication, Shamanism of any kind. He never joined what Pasternak called ‘the smoky phantoms of the workshops’ but was, as it were, an intellectual teetotaller. A master of both poetry and prose, he would have ranked as one of the very best had not Russian poetry in the twentieth century produced, in a fit of generosity, two or three undisputed geniuses. In 1932 Vladislav Khodasevich wrote a short essay entitled ‘Raw Meat’. This essay, in many ways a remarkable work, represents a kind of manifesto. In it, Khodasevich writes of the terrible fate of Russian writers: ‘In a certain sense the history of Russian literature could be called the history of the destruction of Russian writers’. There followas a sad catalogue of the Russian poets and writers who had been tortured, shot, torn to bits, or who had taken their own lives. The subsequent history of Russia has contributed new names to Khodasevich’s martyrology. But the poet not only establishes the fact of this ‘annihilation’; he gives it a certain value. It would be absurd to take issue with an essay in literary criticism written fifty years ago. An essay is neither a poem nor a philosophical treatise. It always has a context, and it would be unfair to prise the text from its context and attack it with a sledgehammer. But one need not shrink from taking issue with a tradition: for one is dealing here not just with the judgements of an individual poet, but with the entire Russian tradition of literary interpretation.

In Khodasevich’s view, whe should actually take pride in the unparalleled ‘annihiliation’ of Russian writers. (‘However, this is not a matter of shame, it may even be a matter of pride’.) For Russian literature is prophetic, and the people — such is the immutable law of history — stone prophets to death, and canonise them only later.

The Russian literary tradition should not be reduced exclusively to prophecy. This literature — to its honour — has produced a variety of poetic models and has left room, moreover, for the development of others. Pushkin’s is the model of divine play: the creation of the world of Russian poetry in the space of twenty years; Gogol’s — a potentially fatal association with the phantasmagorical; Herzen’s — an almost diabolical passion for freedom; Dostoyevsky’s — a dialogue with the self in (to put it mildly) heightened tones. Going back to Pushkin, prophet No. 1, a few remarks may be in order. For every quotation from Aleksandr Pushkin there’s a counter quotation from Aleksandr Pushkin. ‘The people’ in Pushkin may suddenly turn into ‘the mob’. To the notion of ‘burning the hearts of people with a word’ Pushkin provides his own rejoinder: ‘Enough of you (the people). Should a poet/rashly trifle with you? ...’ The words ‘Soon all of me will die ...’ (in Andrei Shen’e) find their counterpart in ‘No, not all of me will die ...’ (in I have erected a monument to myself. Pushkin takes lofty credit for havin ‘awoken fine feelings with his lyre’, but later, more modestly, claims only to have ‘found new sounds for songs’, (respectively in the first and second drafts of the poem I have erected a monument to myself. In other words, Pushkin is a poet, and may therefore permit himself to be whatever he pleases: a prophet, Don Juan, a tree of poison. If a poet dresses up in a prophet’s toga and forgets after a while to change into, let’s say, a robber’s mask, he will simply become a caricature.

Does one really compliment a poet by elevating him to the rank of a prophet? I’m not so sure. A prophet is a messenger, a herald, an interpreter. He articulates the will of the gods. A poet is a creator, he is himself a god, however minor. A god who, incidentally, has himself an entire holy synod of philologically-trained interpreters. Honour, haloes, prestige are not the point: the point is to be oneself. Let prophets prophesy, and poets create. The prophet and the poet have different social functions.

The reasons for this sublime Russian muddle, this romantic confusion of roles, are vulgar to the point of indecency. Over the past two centuries of Russian history there have been two periods in which literature has known its place: the Pushkin epoch and the so-called ‘Silver Age’ (the first quarter of the nineteenth century). By the beginning of the twentieth century, religious, political and social tendencies in Russia had crystallised into legally recognised institutions. Ideas were no longer contraband. Young poets stopped losing their heads and, exploiting this breathing space, busied themselves with literature, that is, with the real material from which literature is made. They were in a hurry, sensing that it was indeed only a breathing space. Their texts bear the marks of that haste: their poetic breath is strained and gasping. Still, they fulfilled the tasks (essentially literary and artistic) which they had set themselves. But their nation’s history saw fit to deal with them in its own way; once again it turned poets into evangelists, so that now, over half a century later, their texts are interpreted like the texts of Old Testament prophets. In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandelshtam is a little sceptical about the revival of interest in Osip Mandelshtam’s work. Her scepticism is not unfounded: in the sixties and seventies, Mandelshtam’s poetry was used to help people live. Yet his verse was written with joy and should inspire like feelings in his readers. People cannot be helped to live. They can be helped only in the specifics of their lives. Those who need help in living as such are hollow people. Hollow systems owe their existence precisely to such people’s mutual back-scratching. In other words, Mandelshtam bears no responsibility for the vulgar kitchen-table readings of his poem: ‘You and I will sit a while in the kitchen ...’

Khodasevich believed that the people were bound to stone their prophets (poets) to death in order that they could partake of revelations of the slain and mystically overcome their own sufferings of the prophets they had killed. I shall risk one further vulgar interpretation, this time of Khodasevich himself. How many more poets must they kill in order, finally, to overcome their own suffering and be happy? Or does the people’s happiness in fact consist in their killing poets?

Poets cannot foist religious, political or social institutions on society, but they can refuse alie roles and functions for themselves. The more insignificant a poet, the more eagerly does he play the role of minion, champion, martyr, party-member, oppositionist, prophet or whatever else. Poetry bears no relation either to the forces of good or to the forces of evil, either to tyrants or to figthers against tyranny; it relates only to itself. Well, but what if Khodasevich was right and the main source of Russian poetic inspiration has been ‘annihilation’? What if, as the poet says, ‘it will cease when the spring of prophecy dries up (in poetry)’. He adds: ‘May this never happen!’

May it happen! May it! When prophets rather than poets start taking care of prophecy, the latter will be obliged willy-nilly to seek other sources of inspiration. Perhaps then the names of poets will cease to be yelled like passwords and incantations all the way from Moscow to Cambridge. In the ensuing silence it will be easier to seek and find another intonation, another lexicon.