Jesse Kornbluth again, briefly fleeing my obligations to HeadButler.com. “Poetry Month” has ended — it’s a splendid time to write about a poet.
“Poetry is respected only in this country,” said Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. “There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”
As jokes go, that’s sour. In Russia, it’s also true. And by that standard, Anna Akhmatova — Russia’s most beloved female poet — was lucky. She wasn’t executed.
It’s hard for American readers to grasp how important great poets have been to Russians. And not just to intellectuals — poets in Russia used to be rock stars. That was Akhmatova, as a 20-something poet in the years before World War I. She wrote warm, intimate poetry that captured a mood in a few words. And she rang the chimes of personal freedom: “We are all boozers here, and sleep around.”
Then came the war: “We aged a hundred years, and this/happened in a single hour.” Seriousness became the new order, and politics; Akhmatova suddenly seemed as dated as an old newspaper. After the Revolutions, artists like Akhamatova were forced to sweep the streets. By 1920, she was broke and desperate, and it took a lot of help for her to get work as a librarian. [To buy her "Selected Poems" from Amazon, click here.]
In 1921, Nikolay Gumilyov, her former husband, was shot without a trial — the first important poet to be executed by the Bolsheviks. Akhmatova wrote:
He loved three things above all else
And faded maps of America.
He hated it when children cried,
He hated tea with raspberry jam,
and female hysterics
And I was his wife.
By 1923, politically sensitive Russian poets were dismissing Akhmatova, who was then only 32 years old, as “a relic.” She could have left Russia — she had plenty of incentives. She refused. Russia was the motherland; you undergo any sacrifice necessary to be with her in her time of need.
But she was battered at every turn. In 1935, her son, Lee Gumilyov, was arrested. Boris Pasternak wrote to Stalin, and he was released. But he was arrested again in l938, then jailed and tortured for months. Like many other mothers, Akhmatova stood outside Leningrad’s Kresty jail every day, hoping to get a package for her son accepted.
That experience is at the core of “Requiem”, her greatest poem. She worked on it from l935 to 1940. (There was an unofficial ban on her poetry; it’s a measure of the literary climate in the Soviet Union that it wasn’t published until 1963 — in Munich. The complete poem wasn’t published in Russia until 1987.) Here’s “Instead of a Preface”, which launches the poem:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
In Russia, poetry is an oral tradition; her poems were read aloud and memorized. Akhmatova became the Princess Diana of poetry, the people’s poet, “the mouth through which a hundred million scream.” In l944, she received an ovation from an audience of 3,000; Stalin knew then he’d have to ruin her. After World War II, he had listening devices shoved into her walls — she pointedly left the heaps of plaster dust on her floor. She was expelled from the writers’ union and lost her ration card. In 1949, her son was rearrested and sentenced to ten years of hard labor; in desperation, she wrote a poem in praise of Stalin.
Akhmatova died in 1966. Her poems are still vivid for Russians, who cherish its directness and its lack of politics. American readers not familiar with Russian literature and history may find some of it opaque. But I think anyone can understand and appreciate the most famous lines from “Requiem”:
Not under the protection of foreign skies
Or saving wings of alien birth,
I was there with my people
There, where my people unhappily were.