Prose from Poetry Magazine

Heaven Is Not Verbose: A Notebook

Why poetry is like earthworms, thought is like cud, and understanding is like insanity.

by Vera Pavlova

My writing: hard-boiled. My life: scrambled soft.

The cud of thinking: by the evening my jaw aches.

An elderly poet called me “the most beautiful woman in the world” because he could not recall my name.

There are moments when I feel the universe expand.

Mandelstam: “Poetry is the certainty of being right.” Brodsky: “Poetry is the school of uncertainty.” I am not certain about either assertion.

—Mom, how much is 95 times 60?
—Liza, I am busy working on a poem. If it weren’t for that, I could possibly give you the answer.
—And how much would it be?

Poetry should be written the way adultery is committed: on the run, on the sly, during the time not accounted for. And then you come home, as if nothing ever happened.

Time is like a diatonic scale: it consists of major and minor seconds.

Pick a piece of wood floating in the river and follow it down the current with your glance, keeping the eyes constantly on it, without getting ahead of the current. This is the way poetry should be read: at the pace of a line.

Went to bed with an unfinished poem in my mouth and could not kiss.

Inspiration: when I have confidence in myself.

—I will never use makeup as long as I live, and then at the funeral parlor they will put it on me!
—Not if you expressly forbid it in your will.
—Why should I? Let them: for once in my life I will look pretty.

To write in spite of everything, even when generally speaking there is nothing to spite.

On Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space: his last name comes from the Russian gagara, a flightless bird.

To help a poem hatch, I went to get some groceries. Paid the cashier, got my change, came home with a finished poem and no groceries.

How do I feel about people who do not understand my poetry? I understand them.

—Mom, on the exam should I play “March of the Wooden Soldiers” with inspiration or with no mistakes?

More and more often, I come around to the conclusion that my dad is the sole true censor and critic of my poems: seriously drunk, in the kitchen of our country house, he squints after each poem I read to him and says, “Crap. Next.”

My ninety-year-old grandmother is hard of hearing; it took her a while to understand the news, and then she said: “If they gave such an award to our Vera, how lousy poetry must be these days!”

Being well-known means knowing almost nothing as to who knows you and what they might know about you.

Suddenly you realize that only what you have put into poems can be considered lived through. That is how you become a poet. And at that point you begin, consciously or otherwise, living the kind of life that is fraught with poetry. That is how you cease being human. The former happens abruptly, the latter gradually, both irrevocably.

From the memoirs of Akhmatova’s last physician: she died at the moment when her cardiogram was being recorded. Her death has been recorded in the form of a straight line. Ruled paper ready-made. Go ahead and write.

“The ovaries of a newborn girl contain up to 400,000 egg cells.” All my poems are already in me.

Poetry begins when not only the reader but also the author starts wondering whether it is poetry.

Not to envy others is easy. It is difficult not to feel pleased when they envy you.

In her homework (“Describe your room in ‘Eugene Onegin’ stanzas”) Liza wrote: some dolls and books are on the bed...
—That is not really true, because the books were on the shelves. But I put them on the bed, to make sure that my verses were true to life.

My love for Pushkin has something marital about it.

Any one of my poems fits on a palm of the hand, and many on a palm of a child’s hand.

There is still so much room for happiness in my breast! And everywhere I look, I see quotations from my yet unwritten books.

Postmodernism: vulgarity trying to pass for irony.

In a poem a word is not equal to its meaning as it is defined in a dictionary, because either the meaning in a poem is totally different, or it is the same but a thousand times more precise.

Drafts in my notebook are written in a barely legible scribble; fair copies are in impeccable calligraphy. My handwriting is much better than my muse’s.

I write to equalize the pressure from without and from within, to prevent being squashed (by misery) or being blown apart (by happiness).

Tolstoy: “Man should live as if a beloved child were dying in a room next door.” As for me, I live as if that child were dying in my womb.

—Do you understand that understanding is impossible?
—I do.

In a poem, poetry is a guest. At times the guest stays long, but never for good.

I’ve asked myself: Did I get ahead of the calendar? Counted the poems I wrote this year: 366 of them.

By giving my books as presents, I mark my territory.

The primacy of poetry: in its origins, European prose goes back to The Lives of the Troubadours.

“You are my first and my last/Bright listener of the dark raving.”—Akhmatova to her lover Garshin in “The Poem Without a Hero.” After they broke up, she changed the line to “You, not the first nor the last/Dark listener of the bright raving.” (From Lydia Chukovskaya’s The Akhmatova Journals.)

“Understanding is insanity for two.” (V. Podoroga)

I put words into poems the way I pack a suitcase for a trip abroad, choosing only what is the most necessary, the most presentable, the lightest, and the most compact.

Lying in a hot bathtub, I look for a line to finish a poem, find it, and feel cold shivers down my spine.

Madness is inspiration idling in neutral.

I live my life moving forward on rails that I lay myself. Where do I get the rails? I dismantle the ones I have gone over.

My diaries are letters from my former self to my future self. My poems are replies to those letters.

Prose: a soccer game shown in its entirety.
Poetry: the same game shown only in scoring or near-scoring episodes.

Reader: So you want me to feel as if I were reading a letter addressed to someone else?
Poet: I want you to feel as if I had read a letter addressed to you by someone else and am shamelessly quoting from it.

Inspiration is an intercourse with language. I can always tell when language wants me. I never say no to language. For me, it is always good with language. And for language? I am afraid for language it is never as good as it is for me.

“Accusing an erotic poet of depravity is as unfair as accusing a tragic poet of cruelty.” (Evgeny Baratynsky in the preface to his poem “The Concubine.”)

Stravinsky: “I like writing music more than I like music.”

A poetaster’s poems: karaoke singing.

As I am learning to speak English, I catch myself saying in it not what I want to but what I can say. Then I realize that much the same happens when I speak my native Russian. Only in poems, at times, I manage to say what I want. On such occasions, I feel I am speaking not Russian but some other language that is truly my native.

Just as I expected, everything has come out not the way I had expected.

—Wow, what are all those things you’ve got hanging in your toilet?
—Those are my awards.
—And what do you do for a living?
—I’m a poet.
And then we both went after our respective business at hand: the plumber proceeded to fix the commode, and I continued to make fair copies of poems.

In a dream Pushkin tells me: “The three sources of my writing are gramophone, frog, and nightingale.”

A cowbell is the opposite of an alarm system: when you hear it, everything is fine; when you don’t, something is wrong. My poetry is a cowbell, not an alarm system.

On how I relate to my reader: There is an acoustical anomaly in a vaulted hall at Grand Central Station in Manhattan. My reader and I are standing at the opposite corners of the hall, facing the walls, and I am reading my poems in a whisper. The two of us are separated by the moving crowd and the racket of the train station, yet I know that the reader can hear every one of my words. If he or she is still there.

A fisherman told me: “Writing poetry must be like digging for earthworms: you grab the critter by the end and pull. Pull too hard, and it’ll break; not hard enough, it’ll get away.”

Brodsky: “Prose is infantry, poetry is air force.” I would add: a translator is a paratrooper, a Green Beret.

If poems are children, poetry readings are pta meetings.

You must not write in verse about what you do not know or about what you know for sure, only about what you vaguely suspect, hoping that poems will either confirm or dispel your suspicions.

From a letter of a young poet: “I write when I feel bad. When I feel fine, I don’t write.” With me, it’s the opposite: when I write, I feel fine. I feel bad when I do not write.

I write about what I love. I love writing even more than what I write about. And what do I do it for? To love myself, if only for a brief while.

“Is there any need for poetry? The question in itself is enough to realize how bad the situation with poetry is at present. When everything is fine, no one has the slightest doubt that there is absolutely no need for poetry.” (B. Pasternak)

A poet who speaks of himself speaks of any man. Any man who speaks of a poet speaks of himself.

A slip of the tongue cannot happen to a poetaster. In poetry, to commit such a slip you need to have a tongue to speak with.

Rules in poetry can be broken, but that should be done with gusto, without looking back, the way D. drives his Ferrari on the highways of Europe: so much over the speed limit that radars cannot catch him in their photo frames.

What is the difference between destiny and hype? Destiny has better taste.

Cleanliness kills identity: K.’s wife washed her hands so frequently that eventually they would leave no fingerprints.

I know all my poems. It’s just that some of them I have already recalled, and some not yet.

Truly beautiful are those who are not afraid to seem ugly. The same holds true for poems.

Towards the end of his life Mikhail Kuzmin, one of the best Russian poets, believed he was truly knowledgeable only in three fields: Gnosticism, music of the period between Bach and Mozart, and the Florentine Quattrocento.

A new collection by a great poet: when I was reading it with my eyes, the words chirped and hopped on the page; when I was reading it aloud to S., the words died in flight one by one. S.: “There is a category of classified documents called ‘Eyes Only.’ Highly secret!”

According to the rules of Tuvan throat singing, only the soloist can sing in polyphony, whereas the choir must sing in unison. Polyphony in the choir is perceived as singing out of tune.

The sense of life is in living to the fullest the moments when life seems to make sense.

A Swiss winemaker told me that rose bushes are planted along the edges of vineyards not for embellishment but to alert about blight: being sensitive, roses become blighted long before the grapevine does. That is when I understood that Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” is not about being spoiled, but about the difference between a true poet and an imposter.

An ideal poem: every line of it can serve as a title for a book.

“In his books, and only in his books, a writer can do anything he pleases, provided he has talent. In real life, however, a writer cannot be overly lax, so as not to let people guess that in his books he tells the truth about himself.” (L. Shestov)

Reader: Do you want me to recognize my everyday world in your poems?
Poet: No, I want your world to seem unfamiliar to you, once you take your eyes off the text.

—I have the gift of finding lost things, such as a tiny screw from sunglasses in thick grass of a lawn. I have a method of my own: I relax and wait until the lost object calls out to me: “Here I am!” Things like reading glasses, a notebook, an elastic hair band ... I can recognize them by their voices!
—But isn’t that the way you write poems?
—How true! Except that with poems I never know what’s been lost. All I know is that a) it’s something urgently needed; b) something that is somewhere near, probably in the most visible of places; c) others have failed to find it; and d) it’ll be such a joy when I do!

Only in poetry can it happen that words affirm, rhythm negates, syntax doubts, while the poet does not know who is in the right. And even if he does, he won’t say.

Reading poetry in public is a form of betrayal. Having been entrusted with terrible secrets, I blurt them out, share them with total strangers, and thus let down the keepers of secrets who may lose confidence in me.

In the beginning, S.’s superiors used to tell him: “You need to smile more when you’re working!” My mentors used to tell me: “There is not enough pain in your poems.” At the time S. was working as an interpreter at oncology hospitals. I was writing about happy love.

When a true poet dies, we realize that all his poems were about death.

The longer a poem, the weaker the impression that it has been dictated from above: Heaven is not verbose. Besides, the more you talk, the more you lie.

Reader: Yevtushenko claims that in Russia a poet is something more than just a poet. Is that true?
Poet: No, nothing can be more than a poet.

A full stop at the end of a poem is an exclamation mark seen from above, driven into the page up to its cap with one precise blow.

Originally Published: April 2, 2012

Translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour

COMMENTS (9)

On April 2, 2012 at 6:09pm evrgrnjaye wrote:
This is such a beautiful piece! I'm positively awestruck.
Thank you for your brilliance, Ms. Vera Pavlova! Much
continued success and words that shoot straight to the
sky.

On April 5, 2012 at 12:20pm Nicolette Marié wrote:
I've smiled and nodded in recognition at each and every entry in this notebook.

To me, Vera's words are heaven in an insane world.

On April 9, 2012 at 6:07am François Rossignol wrote:
Very funny material. I already used some of it in conversations!

On April 9, 2012 at 8:36am Veronica Zielke wrote:
Oh how many times have I feel the things you describe! It was humbling to read as well as letting me know I am not alone. Thank you very much for your piece and I will truly take and keep it at heart.

On April 9, 2012 at 7:16pm Neelam wrote:
Beautiful. I am inspired. I'm taking a poetry class starting next week
and I will re-read this beauty before that class.

On April 9, 2012 at 8:36pm ed wrote:
truly enjoyable.

On April 10, 2012 at 1:47pm Irmi Willcockson wrote:
Loved it. In honor of poetry month I read an excerpt to
my son. Thanks for putting our experiences into words.

On April 30, 2012 at 3:14pm don toledo wrote:
Like eating peanuts, cheap, plentiful, common; yet with a whiff of the monkey house.

On February 24, 2014 at 1:32pm Patrick wrote:
Enrapturing

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This prose originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2012

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 Vera  Pavlova

Biography

Vera Pavlova was born in Moscow. She graduated from the Gnessin Academy, specializing in the history of music, and is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, four opera librettos, and lyrics to two cantatas. Her works have been translated into eighteen languages. The poems in this issue are from her first collection in English, If There Is Something to Desire, published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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