Friday, September 21, 2012

Poetry and Poetics



Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), like many of his contemporaries, wrote literary               criticism as well as poetry. Joseph Brodsky (1940–1996), a poet of the next generation, explained
the ease of transition between writing poetry, and writing prose about poetry, among Russian authors.

‘Poetry has more in common with criticism than criticism with poetry,’ Brodsky claimed.

Poetry, as art, conveys a whole idea, a unified picture of reality, including logic and analysis as well as metaphor and metrics. What the poet connects up with as part of the poetic whole – analysis – he can as readily develop as a single line of inquiry in prose criticism (Joseph Brodsky, Preface to “Modern Russian Poets on Poetry,” 1974).

So Mandelstam, whose poem, below, depicts the immortal embodied mind of the poet with the transitory image of human breath ‘imprinted’ on a pane of glass, is the same writer who discourses on changing literary forms in “On the Nature of the Word,” reflects on the poet’s sense of an audience in “On the Addressee,” and places himself within the poetic tradition by taking a backward glance at Dante.


Given a body – what shall I do with it,
So one and my own?
For the quiet joy of breathing and living,
Tell me, whom should I thank?

I am the gardener and I am the flower,
In the prison of the world I am not alone.
My warmth, my breath already have settled
On eternity’s glass.

There a pattern imprints itself,
Lately unrecognizable.

Let the dregs of the moment trickle down –
The precious pattern will not be erased.

 – Osip Mandelstam, 1909

Дано мне телочто мне делать с ним,
Таким единым и таким моим? 
За радость тихую дышать и жить
Кого, скажите, мне благодарить? 

Я и садовник, я же и цветок,
В темнице мира я не одинок. 
На стекла вечности уже легло
Моё дыхание, моё тепло. 

Запечатлеется на нем узор,
Неузнаваемый с недавних пор. 
Пускай мгновения стекает муть
Узора милого не зачеркнуть.


On the Nature of the Word

“Literary forms change, one set of forms yielding its place to another. However, each change, each gain, is accompanied by a loss, a forfeit. In literature nothing is ever ‘better,’ no progress can be made simply because there is no literary machine and no finish line toward which everyone must race as rapidly as possible.” 

Osip Mandelstam, 1928

On the Addressee

“The view of the poet as ‘God’s bird’ is very dangerous and fundamentally false…To whom does the poet speak? This is a question which still plagues us, which is still extremely pertinent, because the Symbolists always avoided it, and never formulated it succinctly.”

“Why shouldn’t there be a concrete, living addressee, a ‘representative of the age,’ a ‘friend in this generation’? I will answer that: because appealing to a concrete addressee dismembers poetry, removes its wings, deprives it of air, of the freedom of flight. The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise.”

– Osip Mandelstam, 1928

[Quotations from the two essays, above, are taken from “Modern Russian Poets on Poetry,” Ardis, 1974] 

Conversation about Dante

  “A good education is a school of the most rapid associations: you grasp the thing on the wing, you are sensitive to allusions – this is Dante’s favorite form of praise. As Dante understands it, the teacher is younger than the pupil, because he ‘runs faster.’

‘He [Brunetto Latini] turned aside and seemed to me like one of those who run races through the green meadows in the environs of Verona, and his whole being bespoke his belonging to the number of winners, not the vanquished.”  (Inferno XV, 121-124)

  The rejuvenating force of metaphor returns to us the educated old man Brunetto Latini in the guise of a youthful victor in a track race in Verona.”

– Osip Mandelstam, 1933

{“Talking about Dante,” Translation by Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes}

“No statue has ever been dedicated to a critic.” – Jean Sibelius

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