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Marina Tsvetaeva and the Poet-Pair

By Annie Finch

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.
Tsvetaeva.jpg
Marina Tsvetaeva
Akhmatova.jpg
Anna Akhmatova


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.”
The Truth
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

Comments (20)

  • On March 9, 2009 at 5:15 pm james stotts wrote:

    sorry, annie, for this little plug–here are some links to new translations of akhmatova, pasternak and tsvetaeva:
    jhstotts.blogspot.com/2008/06/akhmatova-museic-testimony.html
    jhstotts.blogspot.com/2008/08/elegiac-pasternak.html
    issuu.com/red_coke/docs/14_by_tsvetaeva_chap

  • On March 9, 2009 at 5:27 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    you might mention “The Truth” translator,
    Elaine Feinstein . . . . (if I’m not wrong?)——
    which translations/books would you as an Tsvetaeva expert recommend?

  • On March 9, 2009 at 5:41 pm james stotts wrote:

    tsvetaeva and akhmatova figure prominently in the premier russian poet who followed them, too: joseph brodsky. he actually haunted the akhmatova home as a young leningrad poet, and claimed tsvetaeva as ultimately his greatest influence. i would guess that it’s the spectre of his opinion that keeps them united especially, and the fact that they alone have stood as russia’s great women poets of any time, being as brodsky was the one to communicate so much of russia’s heritage to america.
    why does akhmatova get top billing? it may be kunitz’ translations, which got a lot of attention (though neither of them have been treated very well by translators), or the fact of tsvetaeva’s very difficult, jarring style. akhmatova is supremely translatable, with her almost latin precision and logic–while tsvetaeva puts syntax and emotion under heavy assault, and leaves the russian language stretched beyond its breaking point. brodsky liked to compare her to gerard manley hopkins and hart crane stylistically. i think she had the giant eroto-psychic circumference of dickinson. both akhmatova and tsvetaeva were capable of absolutely devastating love poems, and very sobering political/historical poems (you had to be capable of the latter to survive as a russian poet of the early 20th c., i guess).

  • On March 9, 2009 at 6:19 pm Paul wrote:

    That’s a wonderful dramatic poem from an age when poetry dared to say something in a poetic voice. Do you think if it was submitted to Literary Journals today by an unknown writer it would get published?

  • On March 9, 2009 at 8:08 pm james stotts wrote:

    feinstein’s translations make tsvetaeva so tame she’s hard to recognize, or even distinguish from akhmatova. it’s summary-en-vers, and it’s a real shame. in the 30-40 years since feinstein, there hasn’t been much. that said, there will be a new expanded feinstein coming out in a few months (BRIDE OF ICE, i think), and a lot of people have fallen in love w/tsvetaeva through feinstein, so maybe i shouldn’t judge.

  • On March 10, 2009 at 6:57 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Brodsky favored Tsvetaeva, & even Akhmatova compared herself unfavorably to T. But I’ll have to be convinced that Tsvetaeva, or any 20th-cent. Russian poet, wrote a greater poem than A’s “Requiem”. The concluding lines of that poem made my hair stand on end – in translation.
    Tsvetaeva seems all fiery passion, & sparkling intellect , & Pushkinian-Mozartean verse technique. But Akhmatova has this slow, mournful, loving, ironic & relentless clear-sightedness, which I find even more powerful.
    But I’m certainly not an expert, familiar only with the translations.

  • On March 10, 2009 at 8:42 am james stotts wrote:

    henry,
    ‘requiem’ is a great poem, and akhmatova was a genius of poetic historicism, as well; facing what probably seemed very possible at the time–the erasure of history–akhmatova and a lot of poets showed a courage that it’s not even possible to exhibit anymore by memorizing and sharing their poems. maybe everybody knows the stories, the samizdat, the oral poeto-history, but it takes a huge leap of imagination to understand and appreciate what they accomplished.
    you should look at my tsvetaeva translations, though (the link’s above). if tsvetaeva had survived longer…but that’s one of the great losses in this world–like keats, celan, crane–because we’ll never know what they could have done.

  • On March 10, 2009 at 11:44 am Don Share wrote:

    I’m going to duck in here to recommend a terrific book, Catherine Ciepiela’s The Same Solitude, which documents the relationship between Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak – hot stuff!
    And here’s exciting news: Northwestern University Press will be publishing No Love without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Daughter, by Ariadna Sergeevna Efron – never before translated fully into English. We might have a piece of this in the magazine if things work out….

  • On March 10, 2009 at 11:54 am james wrote:

    i heard from a little birdie: ciepiela is working on a selected poems of tsvetaeva, too, i believe

  • On March 10, 2009 at 1:01 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    The links and info on new books are very much appreciated. And thanks for the nudge re my oversight in acknowledging the translator, who was, indeed, Elaine Feinstein. I’ve corrected that.
    For the opera, I worked mainly with Feinstein’s translations of the poetry and of the prose (under the title A Captive Spirit). I think both these books are wonderful and found Feinstein’s translations of the poetry very moving. I haven’t translated Tsvetaeva yet, though I would really like to, someday. I have done a few poems by Akhmatova, working with a Russian scholar, and when I compared my versions to Kunitz’ I was shocked by how much, it seemed to me, was lost by abandoning the meter of the originals. I suppose I may end up feeling the same way about some of Feinstein’s if I do translate any Tsvetaeva.
    Interesting question, Paul, whether “The Truth” would be published now–I assume you mean by a U.S. editor. Perhaps not. U.S. editors now seem, as a rule, to allow more ambitious public clarity to poets from other places than to ourselves. We seem, as a poetic culture, suspicious of making any grand statements–perhaps because grand statements work best when they are backed by audiences, and, as has been mentioned on other Harriet posts recently, the question of audience is a big one for U.S. poetry now.
    Annie

  • On March 10, 2009 at 1:30 pm Jilly wrote:

    AA carried MT’s poems around in her purse.
    My Russian teacher (15-ish years ago) said the Feinstein translations didn’t have any of MT’s “wildness” & said tut tut.
    Ronald Hingley has some pretty good Tsvetaeva snippets in his book Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution. [Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelshtam, Pasternak.)

  • On March 10, 2009 at 2:49 pm Don Share wrote:

    I enjoyed Nina Kossman’s version of Poem of the End. Thoughts on that one?
    … and from last April’s translation issue of Poetry:
    “Our sweet companions-sharing your bunk and your bed‚”
    Our sweet companions—sharing your bunk and your bed
    The versts and the versts and the versts and a hunk of your bread
    The wheels’ endless round
    The rivers, streaming to ground
    The road. . .
    Oh the heavenly the Gypsy the early dawn light
    Remember the breeze in the morning, the steppe silver-bright
    Wisps of blue smoke from the rise
    And the song of the wise
    Gypsy czar. . .
    In the dark midnight, under the ancient trees’ shroud
    We gave you sons as perfect as night, sons
    As poor as the night
    And the nightingale chirred
    Your might. . .
    We never stopped you, companions for marvelous hours
    Poverty’s passions, the impoverished meals we shared
    The fierce bonfire’s glow
    And there, on the carpet below,
    Fell stars. . .
    Translated by Sasha Dugdale

  • On March 10, 2009 at 4:03 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Annie, not to shift focus from the translations, but I’m fascinated by this idea of poetic pairs. The pair of Moore and Bishop, of course, comes to mind, but it would be neat to recalibrate some more familiar pairs, for the fun of it. For example, what happens to the individual terms in a familiar pair when the pair is remade, or mixed in terms of gender: instead of Moore/Bishop and Pound/Eliot how about Moore/Eliot and Pound/Bishop? Poets have many and complex relationships but we’re always reducing these relationships, aren’t we? Some longer work on pairs is surely in order but, in the meantime, thanks for this very interesting post!

  • On March 10, 2009 at 7:39 pm mearl wrote:

    Annie,
    You’re libretto and the opera you collaborated on with Deborah Drattell (finished in 2000 according to Wikipedia) – is there a recording of that? Auden took his role as a librettist very seriously. You should tell us more about what that experience was like.
    Jason suggests jumbling up the pairs. I think Bishop and Lowell are the real pair he’s looking for. Moore is more of a mentor, as you pointed out in a recent post…but it’s clear that for both B. and L. a convergence of opposing sensibilities was in the works, much like Laura Riding and Robert Graves. You suggest that the pair is a kind of marriage of dissonances, and struggle between qualities: “poet-pairs split along Nietzsche’s classic Apollonian-Dionysian axis”.
    But what this post seems to be pointing to in its final sentence is that “pairing” is a kind of academic construction. In truth Tsvetaeva spent a long while outside of Russia living among the émigré community in Paris. You remind us at the end of your post that these poets were not in competition with each other. They spent too much time suffering for that, and the realities of war and Stalin tended to overshadow any rivalries they might have had among themselves. (Although we only need read Mandelstam’s reviews of his contemporaries to realize that there was a good deal of bitchiness among them, despite the hardships the all faced together.) You end by expanding the pairing into a quartet: “As Akhmatova wrote of Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Pasternak, and herself, “There were four of us.”
    I’m glad you cite this, because it brings Pasternak back into the mix. People talk less and less about him. But it’s clear that he was the rock that held the quartet together, as long as could be held together.
    It’s a tribute to all of their poetry that, even in translation, these four have made such an impression on us. With them poetry was put under a kind of pressure that we can hardly imagine. It created a poetry of “truth-telling” that is utterly out of our range. And it is clear, if we read the accounts of the other three, that Tsvetaeva was the special case among them. As you say, she “throws her poetic brilliance on the altar of heart’s experience.”
    Luckily there is a lot of background material on all of this that, at times, even rivals the foreground. Tsvetaeva’s prose to start with. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope. Pasternak’s earlier prose, but then, much more to the point, his novel Доктор Живаго. Not to mention Joseph Brodsky’s essays, Clarence Brown’s Mandelstam, Peter Levi’s wonderful short biography, Boris Pasternak.
    Martin

  • On March 10, 2009 at 9:11 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Don, pretty cool stuff with the rhyme in that translation!–I’d love to compare it to the original–i am guessing the meter in the original was more consistent, whichever meter it was in. This one incorporates lines in iambics, anapests, and amphibrachs, and my guess is that smoother/more consistent meter would lend a different and less startling feeling to the rhyme as well. Of course the startlingness is part of the contemporary feeling and the fun. This line of thought raises all kinds of philosophy-of-translation issues maybe best saved for another thread, so I’ll stop there for now. . . thanks for posting it! Annie

  • On March 10, 2009 at 10:06 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Jason, so glad you picked up on the pair idea. The more I think about it, the more it seems that the pairing mechanism may be one of the most insidiously powerful–because invisible–tools critics have with which to shape the poetic canon in the long term. James reminds us implicitly, by tracing the MT/AA pair to Brodsky, that the attribution of agency robs the pair of some of its sense of inevitability–and this, to me, points up in chilling contrast how falsely “natural” and “inevitable” the inherited/received pairing might have seemed before.
    If we associate Shelley and Keats perpetually together–as opposed to, say, Shelley and Hemans, a major poet of the day who was born just two years before Keats–this pairing may well prove not simply the result of biographical association but rather the final, near-indelible legacy of some previous critic of Romanticism–perhaps M.H. Abrams; I’m sure someone reading this will know. Who’s to say we wouldn’t understand more, or at least more that is fresh and vital now, about Shelley by comparing/associating his poetry with Hemans’?
    It would be good to know the sources of all the pairings we routinely honor. Is the Donne/Herbert pairing the legacy of Eliot? And whence the Sexton/Plath pairing? Why do I have the feeling that it originated from some elevation of Lowell at both of their expense? Why don’t we pair Plath and Hughes as poets? Does confessionalism really trump symbolism as an aesthetic strategy (Plath was as much, or more, a symbolist than a confessionalist), or is it simply the convention that poet-pairs consistently have respected gender boundaries, as you point out, for all the world like the Best Actor and Best Actress categories at the Academy Awards?
    There does seem to need to be some necessary similarity that makes certain pairings stick, though–whether of biography or association, as in Pound/Eliot and Moore/Bishop, or of aesthetic. With Pound/Bishop, I can see the international attitude–but is there other common ground to make that pairing stick? With Moore/Eliot, there is a certain patrician aestheticism that makes for an intriguing pairing, but again, does it have essential sticking power?
    But maybe sticking power is not the point. In fact, maybe sticking power is a source of problems. Either way, I’m with you in relishing the idea of rethinking the categories, first for the kind of brain exercise and new ways of thinking about poetry that your two new pairs are such good examples of, and second—and here I guess I do betray my belief that sticking power is a good thing—simply because in certain cases, freed of inherited constraints on pairing (race, gender, class probably the most blatant, but perhaps also aesthetic oppositions that are no longer operative) one might really come up with more viable and useful pairs that would stick. Or stick long enough to do some good for poetry and our appreciation and understanding of it.

  • On March 11, 2009 at 9:30 am james wrote:

    tsvetaeva worked in pairs as a poet–that is, erotically. she had real affairs with parnok and mandelstam, imagined ones with pasternak and rilke. she went out on a limb to stand as a pair with mayakovsky and esenin. speaking of the stars–of all the poets brought up here, each one gets the laurel of best russian poet of the 20th century placed on their head regularly, except esenin. poor esenin, even with a lot of attention from american writers, he hasn’t been picked up by our scholars and placed in the pantheon. it certainly isn’t that way in russia, where he’s given top honors all the time. there are no translations in print (i don’t think), and no reputable ones at all. jim harrison’s ‘letters to yesenin’ is the closest it comes to proper props. kliuev, who i might have put my money on back in the nineteen teens and twenties, has completely fell off the radar (he was one of the peasant poets, like esenin)–and now there’s a ton of space being cleared for the russian experimentals: khlebnikov, vvedensky and kharms. vvedensky and kharms is another good pair. if you want a dialectic pair–khlebnikov and blok, who really slip in one generation beneath the rest.
    what’s the pair that’s getting so much attention these days? o’hara and mayakovsky–because they both hammed it up with the morning sun.

  • On March 11, 2009 at 9:55 am Ian wrote:

    >>which translations/books would you as an Tsvetaeva expert recommend?<
    Not to answer for Anne but in my opinion Angela Livingstone is the best translator of Marina Tsvetaeva. Check out her translation of Tsvetaeva’s “The Ratcatcher” (ISBN: 0810118165).

  • On March 12, 2009 at 5:40 pm mearl wrote:

    Annie,
    I didn’t know where to put this comment. At the end of my recent thread, or in answer to what you said in Camille’s, but I decided that it was best to return to your Russisn post. I’ve already added my two centavos to your wonderful discussion above.
    Today (when I should have been making my living) I followed the link you left at the end of your comment to Camille’s latest post on the poetic line. http://www.cprw.com/Misc/finch1.htm
    “Grails and Legacies” is a heart-stoppingly gorgeous essay. Fluent, precise and plainly spoken. You obviously take a great deal of joy in metrics, and you avoid any hint at all of the stodgy, carping, reactive cant that most critics adopt when they start talking like prelates about the sanctity of the metrical subtext in a line of poetry. You wear your knowledge lightly.
    Example:
    “If free-verse poets were educated about meter again (as the great free verse poets of the early twentieth century always were) and meter became a more conscious part of such discussions, the mysticism would sound less subjective and futile and the quest for the true essence of “the line” would likely become, if not more fun, at least quite a bit less stressful.”
    Very wise; and that extra dash of pepper!
    Your essay gives us precise examples, precise information and, most importantly, makes metrics utterly relevant to our contemporary experience.
    And your examination of free verse, your bold categories, seems to me unparalleled in recent scholarship.
    It’s a fantastic essay.
    Martin

  • On March 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    Wow, Martin, thanks. That vote of confidence means a lot in view of my great respect for your critical judgment.
    I’m going to be checking out Esenin and Angela Livingstone-impressed once more with the depth of knowledge of visitors on this site.
    Annie


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, March 8th, 2009 by Annie Finch.