Exchanging signals

Osip Mandelstam, 1914. Photo by Karl Bulla.

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. In 1913 Osip Mandelstam offered a memorable analogy for the relationship between author and reader in essay “On the Addressee” (translation by Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link):

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I’ve found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

This statement has proven enormously influential to the modern concept of lyric poetry. Eminent critics like Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler seem to echo it in their own pronouncements: poems teach us how to speak to ourselves, poems create a “twinship” between poet and reader. Edward Hirsch quotes it approvingly, alongside similar formulations by Paul Celan and Jorge Luis Borges, in his book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. According to Mandelstam, the poem anticipates its “secret addressee” (or, as the term is sometimes translated, “mysterious interlocutor”) who is distanced from its author in space and time. The poem succeeds precisely when it connects two individuals who otherwise would never meet in person. As Mandelstam says, hyperbolically, “[e]xchanging signals with the planet Mars is a task worthy of a lyric poet.”

Mandelstam’s “secret addressee” is not be confused with the specific addressee typically found in the poetry of address. A poem can be directed to a friend, lover, spouse, parent, child, patron, ruler; or, through apostrophe, to a dead person, abstract idea, higher being. But in such cases the reader merely overhears an utterance directed to someone or something else; these are not instances of, in the equally influential phrase by John Stuart Mill, “feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude.” In Mandelstam’s view, and in certain respects in Mill’s, the reader becomes the “secret addressee” when she shares the urgency of solitude with the author. It is then that the words spoken by the author become the reader’s; the two improvise a kind of friendship as he adds: “our sense of communication is inversely proportional to our real knowledge of the addressee and directly proportional to our felt need to interest him in ourselves.”

It is instructive, at this point, to contrast Mandelstam’s notion of poetic audience with a model proposed by the contemporary Russian poet Kirill Medvedev’s in his “Dmitry Kuzmin: An Essay-Memoir,” included in his 2012 book It’s No Good (translation by Cory Merrill and Keith Gessen):

When I read a poet who is truly new, I find myself seeing not only the words on the page but, behind the page as it were, a new group of people. This is the poet’s imagined audience, to some extent; every poet has one; the new poet is one who in the process of imagining this audience also brings it into being. These aren’t just his friends or people who could be his friends; they are people who could be his readers, who relate to what he’s put down and the way he’s put it down. They won’t all necessarily come into contact with his poetry, in fact most of them won’t. But in the work of a truly new poet these people suddenly come into view.

As we can see, both Medvedev and Mandelstam gauge the poem’s success or failure by the nature of its relationship with its audience. The challenge is aesthetic as well as social. Thus, Mandelstam faults his contemporary Konstantin Balmont for his dishonesty and disregard of his audience while praising the Romantic-era poet Yevgeny Baratynsky for the “profound and modest dignity” of his verse (the passage he quotes has a similar intimacy effect to that which is often found in Whitman). Medvedev believes that a poem is “original” if it manages to envision a “new group of people” as its primary readership. As a successful example, he quotes a poem by another contemporary Stanislav Lvovsky, which he says describes the lives of “a particular social stratum — the young Moscow Russian-Jewish intelligentsia, aged about twenty-five to forty, which finds itself working in various quasi-cultural spheres — advertising, design, journalism, TV, and so on.”

This is the main difference between the two models. While Mandelstam assumes reading to be a solitary experience, Medvedev suggests the possibility of reading as a communal act. While Mandelstam locates the “secret addressee” in futurity (his other descriptors for the addressee are “providential” and “unknown”), Medvedev clearly places the poet’s audience in the present, even if it still remains to some extent “imagined.” His concept is less hypothetical, perhaps less expansive. But it is also more concrete and more useful to tracing the actual reception of poems as they move around in the world. Sometimes poems don’t need to travel far to find an audience. That audience exists here and now — not across the ocean, not across the century, not even on planet Mars.