Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Place of Poetry

Yesterday, I discovered a poem that will be with me for a long time.

It's by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and it's the "preface," if you will, to her cycle of poems about the Stalinist terror, "Requiem" ("Реквием").

I'm including the Russian text, because I know I have a few readers of Russian who are also readers of my blog.

If you don't read Russian, the English translation, by Judith Hemschemeyer, follows after the Russian version of the poem.


В страшные годы ежовщины я провела семнадцать месяцев в тюремных очередях в Ленинграде. Как-то раз кто-то «опознал» меня. Тогда стоящая за мной женщина с голубыми губами, которая, конечно, никогда в жизни не слыхала моего имени, очнулась от свойственного нам всем оцепенения и спросила меня на ухо (там все говорили шепотом):

— А это вы можете описать?
 И я сказала: — Могу.

Тогда что-то вроде улыбки скользнуло по тому, что некогда было ее лицом.

"Instead of a Preface"

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.  Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course had  never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):

"Can you describe this?"
And I answered: "Yes, I can."

Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

--Leningrad, April 1, 1957

I think this is one of the most powerful expressions of the power and purpose of poetry that I have ever read.  What I particularly like about it is that Akhmatova proves her own talent even as she asserts the significance of her craft.

Poets are so often thought of as "useless" members of society.  But if Akhmatova can describe the prison lines of Leningrad and the years of the Yezhov Terror, she will do more than simply document history.

Source: "St. Petersburg: Anna Akhmatova Museum"
This is why something that looks like a smile crosses what "was once the face" of a woman "with bluish lips."  Akhmatova will testify to the suffering of others, and if she does it well, it will be preserved and reach an audience who might otherwise never know about what happened.

If she does it well, it will be unforgettable.

And the people who suffered will not be forgotten.

Akhmatova's name can wake people up, both literally and figuratively.  Her simple, one-word answer (in Russian, "Могу" means "I can") changes everything for a woman who no longer resembles the person she once was.

The last line is not only haunting, but disturbing.  Does Akhmatova mean it to be read literally?  Has the woman been so scarred that she literally no longer has what could be called a face?  Or is it meant figuratively, as a way of suggesting that the woman--like the others around her, sunk in a stupor, speaking only in whispers--has lost the hallmark of human identity, her face ("ее лицом")?

I think the beauty of Akhmatova's line is the lack of specificity in the final line: it holds out both possibilities simultaneously.  It testifies to the ability of poetry to give hope, to restore people to their humanity, but it also remains profoundly ambivalent.

Is the smile a "real" smile or not (it is described as "a kind of smile"--"вроде улыбки")?  Are "real" smiles still possible, after everything that the woman has seen and endured?  Is it poetry that can return this possibility to those who have suffered?

Akhmatova's poem encapsulates an interesting paradox.  She has to describe what is seemingly impossible to describe--the suffering of millions.  This is not simply an aesthetic task for her; it is a moral imperative.  

How can she do this?  How could anyone?

Akhmatova realizes that, to make others understand that which resists comprehension, she has to combine specificity with indirection.  At times, a mere suggestion is enough.  At times, people must be made to look, very closely and very specifically, at exactly what has happened.

At times, they must do both simultaneously.

The dynamic that results is the source of the poem's interpretive energy.  It is a poem that makes you think, that makes you imagine.  It makes you think about what Akhmatova describes, and think about what you imagine as a result.

It is an amazing poem.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."