Thursday, July 21, 2016

`The Languor of the Heart and the Pang of Thought'

Wednesday’s post included a fleeting mention of Yevgeny Abramovich Baratynsky (1800-1844), a Russian poet praised and befriended by Pushkin and admired by Mandelstam, Zabolotsky, Shalamov and Brodsky. Wednesday morning, Norm Sibum wrote to me: “Say, in your travels, did you ever come across a Russian poet named Baratynski? Just wondering. He’s supposed to have been the Russian Leopardi and roughly contemporary to him.” When I wrote back, I assumed Norm was joking but I was wrong. He hadn’t yet read the post, and replied: “Christ, more synchronicity at work: I hadn't heard of Baratynski until last night.” Nor had I, but it appears to be a good time to discover a poet who remained a complete blank to us until two days ago.

Last year, Arc Publications brought out a slender edition of Baratynsky’s Half-light and Other Poems, translated by Peter France, and this year Ugly Duck Presse published the 584-page A Science Not For for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters, translated by Rawley Grau. France in his introduction confirms Baratynsky’s kinship with Leopardi, saying: “. . . there is much in the clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society in the Canti that reminds one of the poet of Half-light: the historical pessimism, the noia (something like Baudelaire’s spleen), the awareness of human fragility and ephemerality, but also the idealism and the vital honesty and magnanimity.”

Superficially, based on a single reading of France’s versions, Baratynsky seems like a stiffer, more formal and classically minded poet than Leopardi. The Russian’s world is muted and melancholy, less profoundly bleak than Leopardi’s. An English-language cognate might be Keats (“glut thy sorrow on a morning rose”). Here is France’s version of an untitled 1828 poem:

“My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but I am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
a distant fellow-man will read my words
and find my being; and, who knows, my soul
will raise an echo in his soul, and I
who found a friend in my own time,
will find a reader in posterity.”

That’s the best any writer can hope for. The most fruitful writer/reader connections tend to be occult, after all, defying ready explanation. Why do some writers – often a wildly divergent assortment – elicit a tingling sense of kinship? Leopardi certainly does that for me. Go here to see Peter France’s coupling of Baratynsky’s “Autumn” and Pushkin’s poem of the same name. For a reader of English, the echo of Keats is inevitable. In his preface France writes:

“Pushkin is irresistibly attractive, Baratynsky is probably more of an acquired taste. When I first started to read him, he wasn’t exactly my type of poet -- too bleak, too aloof. Yet I began to feel (the translator's abiding illusion?) that I could find my way into his vision, his voice. I'm not sure now why I was originally drawn to translate his poems. Perhaps at first it was partly the challenge of the new.”

Encountering a new poet from another time and place can be disorienting. Am I getting Baratynsky or France, or some indeterminate mingling of both? How much am I missing? What remains of the original? What France gives me I like. There’s a clarity and occasional plain-spokenness about Baratynsky’s lines that’s attractive. I can’t say how “major” Baratynsky is. I’m too removed from the original. I’ll defer to Nabokov’s assessment in the commentary to his four-volume translation of Eugene Onegin (1964):

“If in the taxonomy of talent there exists a cline between minor and major poetry, [Baratynsky] presents such an intermediate unit of classification. His elegies are keyed to the precise point where the languor of the heart and the pang of thought meet in a would-be burst of music; but a remote door seems to shut quietly, the poem ceases to vibrate (although its words may still linger) at the very instant that we are about to surrender to it. He had deep and difficult things to say, but never quite said them.”

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