Romantic revolutionary: Pushkin is seen as the founder of modern Russian literature. Photo: AKG-Images
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Russian soul reawakened: startling revelations in a new anthology of Russian poetry

The new Penguin Book of Russian Poetry has surprises to offer.

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry
Edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski
Penguin, 592pp, £12.99

Russia has always been big news and, after a period of what seemed like quiet, is again big news. But it has never quite gone away. The country has, after all, produced a vast and important literature of which we have not been – could not be – ignorant, from Pushkin and Lermontov through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and the rest.

Big news and politics are not entirely ­detached from literature. Penguin’s first anthology of Russian-language poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, appeared at the height of the cold war, in the middle of the Cuban crisis, in 1962. Books by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky followed. Then came Brodsky and Ratushinskaya. Daniel Weissbort’s Post-War Russian Poetry appeared in 1974. These books – these poets – defined our sense of Russia in that era. We watched Russia carefully, searching for clues to its nature and its inclinations. We were in awe of “the Russian soul”, heroic, revolutionary, slumbering, tragic. Russia was a giant in action.

Times change. The 1962 anthology was edited by Dimitri Obolensky and consisted of the Russian text with English prose versions at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a brief paragraph of introduction for each poet. There was also a heavyweight, 30-page introduction, intended for the serious, possibly expert reader. (I hold the book in my hand now, its pages and dusty-blue paperback cover softened by time.) It included poets from the medieval period and ran up to the mid-20th century, the last contributor being Margarita Aliger, who was born in 1915.

Over 50 years and some major, not to say momentous, political turns later, a new anthology was needed and now we have one. It is marvellous, working on quite different principles from Obolensky’s model. The medieval poets are missing. Robert Chandler’s introduction is excellent but takes only seven pages. The Russian text does not appear at all. The last section contains verse by English-language poets addressing Russian themes, and because the whole thing is presented as a book not for experts with some knowledge of Russian but for readers of poetry in English, the translations are in verse: not just verse but, often, formal verse.

In the 1960s and 1970s, form was generally considered decoration, an irrelevance to be jettisoned in favour of something that could be extracted from it. Form was anti-modern: the equivalent of pediments and capitals in architecture. To be modern, to be a modern internationalist, was to abandon such things. The contemporary counterargument is that form is not decoration but process, an aspect of meaning not to be detached from the whole. The translations in the new anthology follow this ­principle, in that they look for English equivalents of the original’s use of form in terms of metre and rhyme.

Form is demanding, of course, and in the hands of a clumsy translator (or poet) it can sound stilted. The happy surprise in the anthology is that although not everything is carried off convincingly, an awful lot is, not just Chandler’s own elegant translations but also those of lesser-known others such as G S Smith, Yvonne Greene, Maria Blosh­teyn, Catriona Kelly or Boris Dralyuk. There are skilful hands at work here.

The leading poets are all present: Krylov, Pushkin, Tyutchev and Lermontov, through Bunin, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky, down to Akhmadulina, Brodsky and Shvarts. Some are in new translation, some are old ones from earlier books, dug out of single volumes and anthologies. The poets’ reputations go before them and are confirmed.

But who emerges from this anthology refreshed and enlarged? Above all it is Velimir Khlebnikov, one of the less formal poets, who in his 37 years produced work of great dynamism and range. Obolensky gave him three pages: here he has 25, and deserves them. This is the sound of the ­futurist Khlebnikov, writing in about 1908, as translated by James Womack:

Zoo! Zoo!

Where the iron of the cages is like a father,

    reminding brothers that they are brothers

    and stopping their bloody skirmish

Where Germans come to drink beer.

And pretty ladies sell their bodies.

Where eagles sit like centuries, defined

   by a present day that still hasn’t

   reached its evening . . .

Among the more famous writers we also discover Varlam Shalamov, Boris Slutsky, Arseny Tarkovsky (the director’s father), Olga Berggolts and Sofia Parnok of 1931, here half-formally translated by Chandler:

I pardon all you sins –

but two I can’t abide:

you read poems in silence

and kiss aloud . . .

And there are more-than-decent formal translations of 1916-vintage Mandelstam, as in this instance, by Thomas de Waal:

On the black square of the Kremlin

the air is drunk with mutiny.

A shaky “peace” is rocked by rebels,

the poplars puff seditiously . . .

Russia is back in the news. Literature, Pound said, is news that stays news. There is new news here. This book is likely to be the standard anthology for a good while. It earns its place. 

George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His books include “Bad Machine” (Bloodaxe)

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Iain Cameron
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Meet Scotland's 300-year-old snow patch, the Sphinx

Snow patch watchers expect it to melt away by the weekend. 

This weekend, Scotland's most resilient snow patch, dubbed Sphinx, is expected to melt away. The news has been met with a surprising outpouring of emotion and nationwide coverage. Even The Financial Times covered the story with the headline "The end is nigh for Britain's last snow". The story has also gone international, featuring in radio reports as far away as New Zealand.

So what is it about Sphinx that has captured the public’s imagination?  Some have suggested it could be symbolic. The Sphinx represents how we all feel, helpless and doomed to a fate determined by leaders like Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. 

Regular contributors to the Facebook page “Snow Patches in Scotland”  have their own, more prosaic theories. One tells me that the British are “generally a bit obsessed with weather and climate”, while another says snow-patches are "more interesting than anything Trump/May/Boris or Vladimir have to say”.

Those more interested in patches of snow than the existential consequences of international relations could be dismissed as having seriously skewed priorities, but there's more to the story of Sphinx than lies on the surface. 

For a start it's thought to be 300 years old, covering a small square of the Cairngorms for centuries with just six brief interruptions. Last time the Sphinx disappeared was 11 years ago. Though it may melt away this weekend, it is expected to be back by winter. 

Iain Cameron, the man who set up the Facebook page "Snow Patches in Scotland" and someone who has recorded and measured snow patches since he was a young boy, says that Sphinx has shrunk to the size of a large dinner table and he expects it will have melted entirely by this Saturday.

It came close to disappearing in 2011 as well, he adds. In October of that year, Sphinx at around its current size and only a heavy snowstorm revived it.

"They tend to keep the same shape and form every year," Cameron tells me. "It might sound weird to say, but it’s like seeing an elderly relative or an old friend. You’re slightly disappointed if it’s not in as good a condition."

But why has Sphinx survived for so long? The patch of land that Sphinx lies above faces towards the North East, meaning it is sheltered from the elements by large natural formations called Corries and avoids the bulk of what sunlight northern Scotland has to offer. 

It also sits on a bid of soil rather than boulder-fields, unlike the snow patches on Britain's highest mountain Ben Nevis. Boulder-fields allow air through them, but the soil does not, meaning the Sphinx melts only from the top.

Cameron is hesistant to attribute the increased rate of Sphinx's melting to climate change. He says meterologists can decide the causes based on the data which he and his fellow anoraks (as he calls them) collect. 

That data shows that over the past 11 years since Sphinx last melted it has changed size each year, not following any discernable pattern. “There is no rhyme or reason because of the vagaries of the Scottish climate," says Cameron.

One thing that has changed is Sphinx's title is no longer quite so secure. There is another snow patch in near Ben Nevis vying for the position of the last in Scotland. Cameron says that it is 50:50 as to which one will go first.