|A Conversation with My Friend, Pamela Metcalf:
Akhmatova and the Russian Intelligentsia
by Jacqueline Marcus
...But in the world there is no power more threatening and terrible than the prophetic word of the poet.
DEAD AGAIN The
Russian Intelligentsia After Communism
The year could have easily been 1920 at that moment. We were having a glass of wine at a cozy restaurant in the old town of Pismo Beach. Across the street is a two-story, white-brick building with dark blue awnings over the angular windows that reminded me of Hollywood in its silent film days. Palm trees line the street and an antique lamp adorns the hotel window. The only thing missing is the horse and carriage.
And we were sitting in the restaurant, watching the fog transform the town into a silent film of grays and whites, when Pamela recalled the ending of a poem by Osip Mandelshtam:
In a far-off garden I swung
Perhaps it was the mist that made her think of those lines and the film, Burnt by the Sun. Of course, it is not unusual for me to learn about Russian landscapes, poetry and politics from Pamela, given her passionate love of Russian history. She came close to getting her Ph.D. in Russian Studies at the University of Washington until the rain and the pressure drove her back to California. Fortunately, we've entered the age of on-line educational extension courses, and she intends to pursue her studies in her own good time.
The conversation turned on Masha Gessen's book, DEAD AGAIN / The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism. (Click here to listen to a brief interview with Masha Gessen.) Masha Gessen was born in 1967 and raised in Moscow in a family of writers and translators. She belongs to the 7th generation of Russian Intelligentsia. The Russian Intelligentsia, (which is often described as having evolved for the first time out of the 18th C. nobility), has died many times, and according to Gessen, it's "dead again." From my own viewpoint, as long as Masha Gessen is still alive and writing, the Russian Intelligentsia lives on. (Click to here to read Masha Gessen's Dispataches from the War Zone in Kosovo / Slate Magazine).
As for poetry, I think Gessen would agree that there would be no Russian Intelligentsia without the Russian poets, especially when Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelshtam, Mayakovsky and many other extraordinary writers emerged during the early 30s many of whom were killed during The Great Terror years under Stalin's Purge. Akhmatova survived, but she was mentally tortured without being physically harmed or arrested. Even before Stalin, she had suffered the death of her first husband, Nilolay Gumilyov, a brilliant scholar who was arrested and then shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921. And when Stalin came of power, she could do nothing to save her son, Lev Gumilyov, from being arrested and exiled to the labor camps. She watched her friends, all artists, all part of the Intelligentsia, disappear, one by one into the death camps.
You will not live again.
Dedicated to Nilolay Gumilyov
They have dug trenches in the garden
Anna Akhmatova, 1942
Reality is heightened by inner moments of intensity and intonation of sound in all of Akhmatova's poetry. "A genius is a usurper who grabs words, similes, images from everywhere, often the simplest, those unnoticed by anyone," said Akhmatova in a conversation with her friend, Luknitsky in 1927. "But when the genius uses them, they become inimitable, identified only with him or her."
This is not surprising considering that Akhmatova, Mandelshtam and this group of writers expressed feelings, sounds and subtle ironies through images. Influenced by Pound, they formed their own movement called "Acmeism." Simplicity, clarity, economy and vividly stark imagery were some of the key techniques emphasized in both Acmeism and Imagism. In the following passage, Akhmatova described the poet's sense of awareness of things and sounds and how they become mysteriously arranged or "dictated" into poetic verse:
"The poet first hears sounds in the airsounds of everyday reality such as a clock striking, the peal of thunderbut then follows the process of selection, as one triumphant sound overrides the rest. This sound is then transformed into words and rhymes. The lines are "dictated" rather than being called forth by the poet at will."
But now words are beginning to be heard
Pasternak had a similar view on the creative process of writing poetry.
To return to Masha Gessen's theme on the death of the Russian Intelligentsia, Akhmatova's prophetic vision of Russian culture seems to be confirmed by Gessen. "As the future ripens in the past / So the past rots in the future / A terrible festival of leaves." Akmatova predicted that Russia could experience a Great Awakening, and that the arts could flourish, but instead, she saw signs of "culture rot," of writers falling into stagnation and sterility, a culture that will inevitably bear dead fruit. T.S. Eliot also predicted the doom of European culture in the "Wasteland".
Today, in America, there are instances when it appears that art is not only deadit's rotting with the stench of stupidity. Consider, for example, the recent discussion on the Virgin Mary smeared in elephant dung or the film of gay men having sex together, and whether these "displays" should be regarded as "works of art," or not. In contrast, Akhmatova's poetry is heart wrenching because it bears the voice of the Russian people, their grief and fears.
In INSTEAD OF A PREFACE, for REQUIEM Akhmatova wrote:
In the terrible years of Yezhovism I spent seventeen months standing in line in front of the Leningrad prisons. One day someone thought he recognized me. Then, a woman with bluish lips who was behind me and to whom my name meant nothing, came out of the torpor to which we were all accustomed and said, softly (for we spoke only in whispers),
" And that, could you describe that?"
No, it was not under a strange sky,
The Intelligentsia not only represented the educatedthe poets held a moral responsibility to write about the terrible conditions of poverty and despair. How would their poetry change things? Change always begins with awareness. Akhmatova had the essential gift of retrieving the past from her own memory and making it part of the collective memory through poetry.
Unlike the Russian Intelligentsia, no one can imagine making the dissident toast "to the success of our hopeless mission" after looking at a sculpture of the Virgin Mary smeared with elephant dung. Gessen suggests in Dead Again that we live in a Myth-less society where few artists enlighten us at deeper levels of emotion and intelligence.
Back at the restaurant in Pismo Beach, I could see the pinkish-red neon light, Hotel Landmark glowing softly in the dark, and the fog gave us the feeling that time is a product of the imagination. Masha Gessen wrote that during Akhmatova's time, poetry was the cultural activity of the youth. She asks why this was so and answered that "perhaps the young people of the time discovered in the poetic word a new and vital way of expressing their sensations and perceptions. The poetic word, in contrast to the prose of socialist realism, almost inevitably opens the door to numerous interpretations."
At home, I opened one of my books on Anna Akhmatova and came across a passage I highlighted several years ago. It conveys Akhmatova's devotion to poetry and that the role of the poet, from her experience, could not be taken lightly. She understood that genius, alone, is not enough. Faith in something larger than ourselves is also required.
"Poets are not professional," said Akhmatova. "Yes, we know that. It's like a camera. Like a nonexistent camera. They sit and fish; perhaps once a century they will catch something. They mainly fish for only an intonation; everything else is there. Painters, actors, singers these are all professionals; poetsare catchers of intonations. If a poet wrote a poem today he has no idea whether he will write one tomorrow or really ever again."