Osip Mandelstam

Exchanging signals

What makes me interested in the question of how poems travel is the very difficulty of capturing the actual experience of reading poems, especially as it varies from culture to culture, language to language. I don’t mean some abstract ‘impact’ or ‘effect’ of poems on individuals or societies. I mean those experiences of reading that can be demonstrated or documented, especially in the form of writing. “Transpositions” is an umbrella term for such material evidence of reception: it comprises different kinds of translation, different kinds of criticism, and more.

Before turning to my first example of transposition, I want to consider two models of poetic circulation that complement the one elucidated by Matt Cohen in Whitman’s Drift, the subject of my last post.

'Like a postponed present'

In describing life under the Stalinist regime in Russia, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes in her celebrated memoir, “To lose one’s memory — provided it was an honest one — is to lose touch with reality.”[1] These words are especially profound from a woman famous for saving her partner’s words, the poems of Osip Mandelstam, by committing them to memory.

Ian Probstein: Three translations of Osip Mandelstam's 'Stalin's Epigram'

It is said that a translator is like a spy: if everything is fine, the author of the original is praised and the translator is barely noticed; if not, the translator is blamed. Having that in mind, I am going to discuss several translations of Osip Mandelstam’s “Stalin’s Epigram”, which cost him two exiles and eventually, life.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) led an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering and exile. After his Stalin’s epigram of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that “vengeance is best when served cold,” never forgave the poet.

The Poems of Osip Mandelstam, tr. Ilya Bernstein (free pdf)

EPC Digital Editions is pleased to present this new book.

pdf of full book. 

Here is Ilya Bernstein's introduction:

A Note on Mandelstam’s Poems

When Mandelstam wrote, “I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice,” he was being literal. Here is how Viktor Shklovsky, Mandelstam’s neighbor for a time in the early 1920s, described him: “With his head thrown back, Osip Mandelstam walks around the house. He recites line after line for days on end. The poems are born heavy. Each line separately.” And here is how Sergey Rudakov, a young philologist and poet who visited Mandelstam in exile in Voronezh, described him in 1935: “Mandelstam has a wild way of working… I am standing in front of a working mechanism (or maybe organism, that is more precise) of poetry… The man no longer exists; what exists is – Michelangelo. He sees and remembers nothing. He walks around mumbling: ‘Like a black fern on a green night.’ For four lines, four hundred are uttered, literally… He does not remember his own poems. He repeats himself and, separating out the repetitions, writes what is new.”

The persistence of memory

Lisa Samuels, one of the three co-organisers of the Short Takes on Long Poems symposium (with Robert Sullivan, mentioned in my previous post,  and Michele Leggott, pictured above with her guide-dog Olive), writes in to specify that it was she who was responsible for the two words "begin anywhere" which started off our long,  collective, ten-part beach poem the other day:

Nice to see your Jacket2 write-up, and that you used the 2 words I wrote at the beginning of our very very very very very very very very very very long beach poem – I'm sure I am pulling 'begin anywhere' from some co-making moment, and that too is par for the symposium.

Which prompts me, in turn, to claim responsibility for inscribing the four words visible in the picture above, beside Michele and Olive, which were meant to be a quote from the last line of the title poem of Allen Curnow's 1982 collection You Will Know When You Get There:

Down you go alone, so late, into the surge-black fissure.

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