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Marina Tsvetaeva and the Poet-Pair
A cab driver vending at a Russian street fair on the lower east side of NYC once sold me a little leather notebook with a woman’s head engraved on the cover. “Who is that?” I asked. “Famous Russian poet,” he answered. “Akhmatova?” “No, no! Greater!,” he grinned. Then he spelled her name for me, Marina Tsvetaeva, my first entry in that notebook.
Twenty years later, I was asked by opera composer and Tsvetaeva fan Deborah Drattell to write an opera libretto about Marina Tsvetaeva, based on her voluminous letters, journals, and poems. The result, “Marina: A Captive Spirit,” was a sobering, tragic opera, as it had to be: Tsvetaeva hung herself after losing her job, home, and most of her family in the Russian revolution, and watching one of her children starve to death.
U.S. readers of Russian poetry are so much more familiar with the work of Akhmatova than that of Tsvetaeva that it sheds light on both poets to remember they are often considered a poet-pair, my name for a phenomon you may well have noticed. Some poets will always be singular: Milton, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Hughes. But during formal or informal discussion of poetry others often fall, whether for historical or literary reasons, into pairs: Herbert and Donne; Wordsworth and Coleridge; Keats and Shelley; Eliot and Pound; Plath and Sexton.
Poet-pairs provide a natural, and apparently a perennial (!), context for appreciation of each of the poets’ contrasting strengths. The distinctness of each poet is highlighted in comparison with the qualities of the other. In college, I began to notice how poetry-lovers might identify ourselves as favoring Keats or Shelley the same way other people identify themselves as cat people or dog people. One of the topics that crops up with regularity every couple of years on the Wom-Po listserv is a discussion of the relative merits of Plath vs. Sexton.
Often, poet-pairs split along Nietzsche’s classic Apollonian-Dionysian axis: one of the poets is more cool, the other more warm; one more of the mind, one more of the emotions; one more stable, one more unstable. Plath, Wordsworth and Shelley might not be considered the most classical of poets, but contrasted, as they so often are, with Sexton, Coleridge, and Keats, they tend to fall on the classical, intellectual, controlled end of the spectrum.
The same with Akhmatova. Tsvetaeva is such a warm poet, so unbridled in her passion, so completely vulnerable in her love poetry, whether to her female lover Sofie Parnak, to Boris Pasternak, or in one of my favorite porms, her passionate ode to her desk, that Akhmatova seems cool and controlled in comparison. Tsvetaeva throws her poetic brilliance on the altar of her heart’s experience with the faith of a true romantic, a priestess of lived emotion. And she stayed true to that faith to the tragic end of her life, in the face of all odds. It is impossible not to acknowledge and respect her genius. As Akhmatova wrote of Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Pasternak, and herself, “There were four of us.”
I know the truth — give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look — it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.
Marina Tsvetaeva, 1915
Translated by Elaine Feinstein