Friday, June 25, 2021

'Not to Use Language, But to Be Language'

Like other readers, I maintain a mental list of writers that I consult when visiting bookstores. I’m always in the market for new books, new editions of old books, old editions of old books and other curiosities I might find by or about that inner circle of enthusiasms. High among them is Osip Mandelstam. A dozen or so translations of poems and prose by the Russian master, and three books by his wife, are already on my shelf.

 On Thursday, my middle son and I visited a used bookstore new to us. The aisles are narrow, the shelves scrambled and the owner cranky – all good signs. I was pleased to find a copy of Robert Tracy’s 1981 translation of Mandelstam’s first collection, Stone (1913). More than the translations of other foreign-language poets, English versions of Mandelstam’s verses seem to vary wildly in sense and, apparently, quality. I accept that he is a difficult writer even in the original Russian, but I have often compared English translations of individual poems and could hardly tell they were based on the same Russian original. I have read Tracy’s collection but don’t own a copy. I looked at the price marked on the front endpaper -- $38 for a beat-up, forty-year-old paperback – and returned it to the poorly alphabetized shelf.


I’ve been reading Mandelstam again after reading Leeore Schnairsohn’s “Unfit for Prison: On Ilya Bernstein’s Edition of Osip Mandelstam’s ‘Poems’” in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Last week I bought Bernstein’s Poems (M-Graphics, 2020), which includes a thirty-page “Note on Mandelstam’s Poems.” Between the review and Bernstein’s essay, I feel more chastened than ever when reading the poems. I have no Russian, and must rely on comparative readings of the poems in English. I found a passage in Schnairsohn’s review that is daunting but hopeful in the way it explains the challenge of reading Mandelstam and the work of other poets.


“Like souls in Dante, words speak in their particular way — and not just one. A dark age for poetry comes when the word is expected to bear any fixed message. The poem’s charge is to build its own speaking, as if from scratch: to posit its terms, suggest its shape, gesture at a beginning and end. A poem promises not to use language, but to be language, for as long as the poem lasts. When the poetry around you is doing more talking than attending, when poems are too busy saying something to be something, when poems can be paraphrased to demonstrate things you might believe in, when you are tempted to quote a poem in a tweet or status update — in other words, when you can agree or disagree with a poem, and this kind of thing strikes you as normal — then you might be in a dark age.”


Welcome to the Dark Ages.

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