Dipping into Poetry


I’ve been realising lately, as you might have noticed, that I do have a bit of a problem with unread books… And digging about has made me realize just how many of them are poetry books. I have a problem with reading this too, in that I find that I set out to read a whole volume in one go and that just isn’t working for me. It may be because the self-imposed discipline of writing about everything I read here means that I think I have to read a book, write about it and then move onto the next one. But that isn’t conducive to reading poetry I’m finding and so I may have to take a more dipping-in kind of approach.

And this is just a few of the titles I have on my shelves which are tempting me at the moment… It’s far from all of the poetry books I own – in fact, if I hauled all of them out of their other categories (Russians, Plath, Hughes, women etc etc) I reckon they’d take up a decent sized bookcase. *Sigh*.

As it’s my books we’re talking about there are of course going to be Russians. This is just a few of them: my lovely huge Mayakovsky book; Akhmatova; an Everyman collection Youngest Child gave me; a fragile early collection OH gave me; a Penguin post-war Russian poetry collection I’ve had since my teens; and the rather splendid Penguin Book of Russian. And yes – all very dippable.

There are Americans too… All the classic names I should be reading – or at least dipping into. I picked up the Frost and Lowell myself, but oddly had never owned Whitman until OH cleverly gifted me a copy.

Some 20th century greats: my beloved Philip Larkin (and actually I could probably happily sit down and read that one cover to cover); an old fragile Eliot I’ve had since the 1980s; and two Ezra Pounds. I know Pound turned into a reprehensible fascist, but some of his early stuff is amazing.

Some bits and bobs, now. Trakl comes highly recommended; Anne Sexton is essential; and Adrian Mitchell is a favourite British poet. If you’ve never seen the footage of him reading “To Whom it May Concern” aka “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965, go and search it out – it’s stunning, powerful stuff.

And finally, Daniil Kharms. Is this poetry? I don’t know, but what I’ve read of it is fragmentary and beautiful and intriguing, so I’ll count it in.

So I’ll be reading poetry, and I might share the odd thought or poem, but I can’t see myself doing regular reviews of fully read poetry collections or anthologies. I think by taking away any restrictions on myself and allowing myself this freedom, I’ll actually get a lot more poetry read and enjoyed. Off to do some dipping! 🙂


Echoing translations…


When I was considering posting Akhmatova’s “Echo” earlier in the week – for a long time, one of my favourite poems, I had a quick look online for a digital version. I guess I was feeling lazy and didn’t feel like digging out the old handwritten version I had, as I couldn’t remember at the time where it came from.


Well, I was in for a shock! And I shouldn’t have been, really, bearing in mind the amount of grumbling and pondering I’ve done here about the issues of translation, particularly from the Russian! But the three versions I found online of “Echo” were so different from the one I knew and loved, that I feel it’s worthy of contemplation!

Just as a little reminder, here is the version I posted earlier this week:

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart

(translated by Richard McKane)

Here is the first version I found online:

Long ago were paths to the past closed,
And what shall I do with past, at all?
What is there?  Just washed with blood flat stones,
Or the door, immured in a wall.
Or the echo, that all time me worries,
Tho’ I pray it to be silent, hard…
To this echo happened the same story,
That – to one, I bear in my heart.

And the second:

There’re no paths to where the former gone is.
I don’t crave for the passed by long ago.
And what is there? The lit with blood floor stones,
The immur’d and forgotten door,
Or echo which still doesn’t have any patience
To be quite mute, though I’ve prayed much for that…
This helpless echo fell in the same station,
In which is one in my heart set.

And finally the third:

All the ways to past are now closed,
What the past for me today, what for?
What do you see there? – The bloody stones,
Or the bricked up surely so heavy door?
Or the echo, which is still repeating
Words, and never could this action stop,
I am asking it to end, but really
It is carrying weight, as in my heart, for long.

Well! What a difference! At some points, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were reading a different poem (and some of the lines do seem rather clumsy and strange to the English-speaking ear)! And yet, if you look again, you really aren’t – the sense of the short verse, that of the echoing weight of the past in the poet’s heart, which she’ll never be rid of, is still there in all versions. But the elegance is not.

Translating poetry from any language must be unbelievably difficult, and from Russian particularly so. I remember that in the back of my battered old film tie-in paperback of “Doctor Zhivago” from the 1970s there were translations of Zhivago’s poems – two versions, a literal one and one that tried to catch the rhythms of the originals. I recall this being actually quite a useful aid to me as a reader as it helped me to appreciate both aspects.

At the end of the day, I suppose any translation of a poem is going to be a version of it; and I certainly love the version of “Echo” I’ve known for so long. I *did* track down its origin – I took it from an old book I’ve had since the 1970s, “Post War Russian Poetry” (a Penguin).  The only collection of Akhmatova’s work I have is the Selected Poems (again a Penguin), translated by D.M. Thomas. Alas it doesn’t contain “Echo” – but I would have been interested to see how Thomas rendered it!




Echo – by Anna Akhmatova

The roads to the past have long been closed
and what is the past to me now?
What is there? Bloody slabs,
or a bricked up door,
or an echo that still could not
keep quiet, although I ask so…
The same thing happened with the echo
as with what I carry in my heart


(translated by Richard McKane)

A Did-Not-Finish: The Stray Dog Cabaret


Sadly, I have to report a Did Not Finish – which is most unusual for me, as the books I’ve been reading lately have been books I’ve wanted to read and that have turned out to be mostly all that I wanted. This volume is an exception, unfortunately, and although I was anticipating it a lot, I ended up angry and disappointed.

I stumbled across “The Stray Dog Cabaret” when I was browsing the NYRB books site and saw that it contained poems by many of my favourite Russians, including Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, plus some lesser known to me poets. So I quickly sent off for an Amazon penny copy – but I wish I’d read the reviews on Amazon.com first…

The Stray Dog Cafe or Cabaret has a Wikipedia entry here, and it was a club in St. Petersburg for avant-garde writers and artists. The poets featured in this book appeared and read at the SDC and ‘translator’ Paul Schmidt had prepared this volume and it was found in his papers after his death and then published by NYRB. I actually wish it hadn’t been. As I read the introduction, I was alarmed to read of the large number of changes PS had made to the original works. I tried to read with an open mind, but each time I referred to the notes at the back of the book and found what had been added (yes, added!), omitted or changed, I got angry. I stopped halfway through the book because I felt I wasn’t reading the Russian poets, but an American re-write of them – and that isn’t what I wanted.


I appreciate that translation is incredibly difficult (I certainly couldn’t do it) and that poetry must be about the hardest thing to translate. But to change the stanza breaks? Take out half or more of some poems? Change the dedicatee? And in the case of a Mayakovsky poem, actually add a (very weak) refrain that wasn’t in the original? That’s not to me translation, and however gifted PS may have been, and however much he might want to get these poets across to English-speaking people, what he was presenting here was not their words, not their poems. I want a translation that gets me as close to the original as is possible, not something filtered through another writer’s sensibility and changed into something it isn’t. The Americanisation of Blok’s “Twelve” is awful and I want to read something that sounds like it’s Russian. The re-written poems may read as strongly in English, and have the same impact, as the Russian originals – I can’t judge as I’m not a Russian speaker – but they should be advertised not as translations but as interpretations or re-writes. They aren’t the original words of the Russian poets and shouldn’t be marketed as such. This book in the end seems to be much more about Paul Schmidt than anything else which is odd for a volume that purports to be about Russian avant-garde poetry.

I feel very strongly about this, obviously, and translation has been something of a bugbear with me recently. Certainly, I find myself questioning this whole ‘celebrity translator’ thing that’s about and I find myself enjoying and trusting Chandler, Aplin and Turnbull, who stay outside the whole publicity machine and just produce excellent, reliable, readable translations. The Amazon.com reviews are probably a little more balanced than I am about this(!) so I’d recommend reading them if you’re considering buying a copy. But I won’t be picking up this volume again – and I doubt whether I will actually keep it…

Recent Reads: Manuscripts Don’t Burn Mikhail Bulgakov – A Life in Letters and Diaries by JAE Curtis


“And in the room of the banished poet
Fear and the Muse take turns to watch,
And the night comes
When there will be no sunrise”

(from Voronech, 1936, by Anna Akhmatova – these lines about Mandelstam apply equally well to Bulgakov)


Well, needless to say, the Bulgakov kick continues! After my recent intense novel-reading I felt the need of a little non-fiction and this book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. It’s not a new book – it was first published in 1991 to celebrate the centenary of MB’s birth – but my edition is a recent reprint (possibly to coincide with the fairly high profile of the writer at the moment?)

ms dont burn

The blurb on Amazon for the book sums up what the contents are:

“The Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) is now widely acknowledged as one of the giants of twentieth-century Soviet literature, ranking with such luminaries as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. In his own lifetime, however, a casualty of Stalinist repression, he was scarcely published at all, and his plays reached the stage only with huge difficulty. His greatest masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, a novel written in the 1930s in complete secrecy, largely at night, did not appear in print until more than a quarter of a century after his death. It has since become a worldwide bestseller.

In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, J.A.E. Curtis has collated the fruits of eleven years of research to produce a fascinating chronicle of Bulgakov’s life, using a mass of exciting new material – much of which has never been published before. In particular, she is the only Westerner to have been granted access to either Bulgakov’s or his wife Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries, which record in vivid detail the nightmarish precariousness of life during the Stalinist purges. J.A.E Curtis combines these diaries with extracts from letters to and from Bulgakov and with her own illuminating commentary to create a lively and highly readable account. Her vast collection of Bulgakov’s correspondence is unparalleled even in the USSR, and she draws on it judiciously to include letters addressed directly to Stalin, in which Bulgakov’s pleads to be allowed to emigrate; letters to his sisters and to his brother in Paris whom he did not see for twenty years; intimate notes to his second and third wives; and letters to and from well-known writers such as Gorky and Zamyatin.

Manuscripts Don’t Burn provides a forceful and compelling insight into the pressures of day-to-day existence for a man fighting persecution in order to make a career as a writer in Stalinist Russia.”

And this really is a treasure of a book. Each section covers a number of years, with an introductory text by Curtis, followed by the clearly set out letters and diary extracts. The earlier parts are naturally less detailed, as a limited amount of items survive from the time of the revolution and civil war. However, what exists is expertly commented on and put in context by Curtis, who clearly has a deep understanding of, and respect for, her subject.

The later chapters are full of detail of Bulgakov’s life and his attempts to work and survive under the repressive regime. Particularly valuable are Yelena Sergeyevna’s diaries which allow us to see the writer from the point of view of someone close to him, which works well alongside MB’s own thoughts. And there is a wonderful section where Yelena is sent away for a month owing to an illness, and Bulgakov’s letters to her, while he is in the midst of writing “The Master and Margarita”, are illuminating and revealing.

But there is chilling material in this book. Bulgakov comes to Moscow in the early 1920s and struggles to survive the privations of the time – lack of food, fuel, clothing, all the basic necessities plus nowhere to live (ah, this is why the eternal Moscow housing issue turns up time and time again!) He writes shorts stories but after initial hope of publication they are deemed unsuitable. He prolifically produces plays and one, “Days of the Turbins” is a runaway success with the public, despite the fact the critics point out that it doesn’t conform with party ideology. The authorities are left with the awkward situation of a hugely successful production by an author they don’t wish to acknowledge. In desperation, as he cannot find any kind of work to survive, MB writes directly to Stalin asking for a job or to be allowed to leave Russia. Amazingly, the Iron Dictator telephones him and asks if he really wishes to leave the country. This is a pivotal moment that B always looks back on – he refuses the chance to leave Russia and so work at the theatre miraculously appears. However, he always wonders whether this was the time he should have gone into exile as much of the rest of his life is tormented by his inability to travel the world.

Certainly, it is quite clear from this book what a cat and mouse game was played in Soviet Russia between the authorities (all the way up to the Top Man) and the country’s artists. All of these creative people were trying to work whilst having an acute awareness of being constantly observed. The kind of bureaucracy that existed in Soviet Russia was ideal for tormenting the citizen, giving him hope and then snatching it away – in B’s case we can feel his agony at not being allowed to travel outside the USSR (passports were dangled in front of him several times) and the constant commissioning of work which was then never produced or changed so much that it bore no relation to the original concept.

(On his play being cancelled):

“How did I feel?

My first wish was to grab someone by the throat and start some kind of fight. Then came a lucidity. I understood that there was no-one to grab, and that I didn’t know why or what for. Tilting against windmills is what used to happen in Spain, as you know, and that was a long time ago.

And it’s an absurd pastime.

I’m too old.

And the thought that someone might watch from the sidelines with cold and powerful eyes, and might laugh and say, ‘Go on, flounder away….’ No, no, it’s unthinkable.

You have to keep the knowledge of your utter, blinding helplessness to yourself.”

And by the time we reach the 1930s the Stalinist purges begin; the letters and diaries give a terryifying insider’s view of the effects of the purges on artists such as Akhmatova and Shostakovich as well as of course B himself and there are heartbreaking glimpses of artists trying to deal with the fear of not knowing what the next knock on the door might mean. These extracts are shot through with pain and particularly poignant are the attempts to keep in touch with his family in exile, particularly his brother in Paris. There are also snapshots of writers like Ilf and Petrov, and Zamyatin, who were friends of Bulgakovs, and it is astonishing to see how these higher profile names were working and publishing at the same time as B, but his work was buried by the authorities. Zamyatin later went into exile in Paris but alas did not survive for many years more.

mb and yelena

What shines through most is MB’s absolute dedication to his craft as a writer and his determination to write the works he must, even if he is “writing for the drawer”. The insight into the composition of “The Master and Margarita” in these extracts is immense and it is clear that Bulgakov felt that this was a major work.

(Letter toYS while working on M&M)

“‘And what will come of it?’ you ask. I don’t know. In all probability you will put it away in the writing-desk or in the cupboard where the corpses of my plays lie, and from time to time you will remember. However, we cannot know our future….

For the moment I am interested in your judgement, and no one can tell whether I shall ever know the judgement of the reading public.”

But he felt a hopelessness about getting his work to the public in his lifetime:

“The stove long ago became my favourite editor. I like it for the fact that, without rejecting anything, it is equally willing to swallow laundry bills, the beginning of letters and even, shame, oh shame, verses!”


“And I personally, with my own hands, threw into the stove a draft of a novel about the devil, the draft of a comedy, and the beginning of a second novel entitled The Theatre.”

All my things are past rescuing.”
(Letter to the Soviet Government 28.3.1930)

The many references to the burning of his papers are chilling and it still amazes me at the resilience of these works and how they have managed to escape down the years so that we may read them now. Posterity is also fortunate to have had YS to support B through his final years and to preserve his work after his tragic death. Although her diaries often reflect despair:

“Misha’s destiny is clear to me: he will be alone and persecuted until the end of his days.” (Yelena Sergeyevna’s diary, 24.2.36)

there are happier times when they attend events at the American Embassy or go on holidays or laugh with friends – it *is* worth remembering that their life was not all doom and gloom, or else where would the strength come from to produce all these works? Akhmatova in particular has memories of a witty friend.

This is one of those life-changing books that takes you right inside someone’s life and world – you come out the other end of the read feeling as if you have lived through what they have lived through and you will never look at things in quite the same way again. In the end, Bulgakov was a bourgeois trapped in a Soviet world. He did not settle easily into the post-revolutionary regime and refused to produce Socialist Realist works or stories that toed the party line. His writing was always individual and from the heart, which is why his life was such a difficult one. Out of his struggle to survive came his great works of art, for which we have to be grateful. But the human cost to the man was immense.


As an afterword, I was alerted (by Alex in Leeds pointing me at the Alma Classics catalogue) that a new collection of Bulgakov’s diaries and letters has been published by that company (who also issue a number of Bulgakov titles). It sounds magnificent and I hope will expand my knowledge and enjoyment of MB’s work even more than this excellent and pioneering book has done!

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