Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Poetics of Uselessness

June 20, 2012Print This Post         

by Jamie Olson

Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi,
by Gennady Aygi, translated by Sarah Valentine,
Seattle: Wave Books, 128 pp.

Even though Gennady Aygi, who passed away six years ago, began writing poetry as a student in Moscow back in the 1950s, it was only in the early 1990s that his first major book collection appeared in Russia. What accounts for the time lag? On the one hand, it was not unusual for prominent Soviet-era poets to have to wait until the perestroika years to see their work in print, but on the other, Aygi’s seems an extreme case. A number of previously censored poets—Marina Tsvetaeva, Joseph Brodsky, Elena Shvarts, and Timur Kibirov—had all been published in late Soviet Russia before Aygi’s first book appeared in Moscow. It was not just that he was unpopular with the Soviet authorities. Something else kept him out of print longer than the rest: namely, his formal experimentalism.

In his introduction to a 1992 collection of poems, Daniil Chkonia described Aygi as “a poet known only yesterday in Russia to a very small circle of friends and admirers,” although Aygi had by then won several awards in Western Europe. [1] Chkonia wondered what Aygi’s belated appearance in print might reveal about Russian literary values. “Publishers can rejoice or deplore the priorities of domestic publications,” he wrote, “but is it worth taking pride in debts repaid so late?” While it may have been obvious to Chkonia that Aygi was a major poet who deserved a wider readership, other Russians probably found his work bewildering. Those accustomed to the formal traditions of conventional Russian poetry would have had difficulty accepting Aygi’s poems, since he stands far outside the status quo. As translator, Sarah Valentine explains in the introduction to her new selection of Aygi’s poetry, Into the Snow, his work has always been controversial precisely because it rejects the standard Russian model of rhymed, metered poetry in favor of free verse.

In part, Aygi’s formal experimentalism is a matter of poetic lineage. He found inspiration not so much in the neoclassical tradition of Acmeists like Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, as in the avant-garde Futurist poetics of Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh, who sought to challenge inherited verse forms. But the mainstream of Russian poetry ended up flowing from the Acmeists, not the Futurists. In the end, this accident of literary history made Aygi’s work less palatable to the reading public in Russia and accounts for his belated appearance in print. That is not to say that his poems are not worth reading; on the contrary, Valentine’s new translations give English readers a chance to encounter a body of work that offers an illuminating alternative to the big names already familiar to us. And actually, in terms of style, Aygi’s poetry is far closer to the mainstream of contemporary American and British poetry than most other Russian poets we tend to read. It should naturally appeal to us.

Certainly, Aygi diverges from the Acmeists in his use of free verse, but he also had a completely different sense of what poetry should do for its audience. While Mandelstam and Akhmatova stood opposed to tyranny and seem to offer in their poems an ethical truth that transcends any sociopolitical reality, Aygi—a political dissident himself—wrote poems that turn away from direct ideological engagement and even rejected the notion that poetry has any obvious utility. Without question, he would have agreed with Auden’s maxim that it “makes nothing happen.” Rather, poetry for him is valuable precisely because it is useless. Perhaps the clearest formulation of Aygi’s poetics of dissent comes in his poem “Silence”:

I know uselessness like the poor know their last piece of clothing
and old utensils
and I know that this uselessness
is what the country needs from me
reliable like a secret pact:
muteness as life (11)

The pact that the poet describes in the lines above is almost certainly a response to Mandelstam, who also saw poems as secrets shared between author and reader:

The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing. [2]

The difference between Aygi’s ars poetica and Mandelstam’s lies in the way the two poets represent poetry itself. Both of them believe that other aspects of experience lack something essential, but while Mandelstam implies that the aesthetic power of poetry can fill that gap, Aygi dismisses even his own art as powerless. If a dissident is one who rejects the dominant ideology, then for Aygi that rejection applies in some sense to poetry as well.

From the very beginning of his career, Aygi took stances antagonistic to the literary establishment and sought to subvert the Russian poetic tradition. As Valentine explains in her introduction, when Aygi was a student at the Literary Institute in Moscow in the 1950s, he made the unconventional choice—against the advice of his mentor Boris Pasternak—to write in his native Chuvash, rejecting the dominance of the Russian language and its literary models. In the end, this choice did not turn out to be sustainable, since it limited his audience to just a handful of intellectuals in Soviet Chuvashia, but Aygi did end up publishing his first book of poems in his native tongue, with the unfortunate result that he was kicked out of the institute after the Soviet censors labeled it “hostile poetry” (xii).

Fortunately, the contrariness of Aygi’s poetics has little to do with the language of composition, and even after the switch to Russian, his poetry continued to be “hostile.” If anything, his poems in Russian represent an even more radical departure from traditional models. While rhymed tetrameter quatrains predominate in mainstream Russian poetry, almost everything in Valentine’s selection is free verse, with hardly a stable metric or stanzaic pattern to be found anywhere. Some of Aygi’s poems push the limits of poetic form so far—by Russian standards, not English ones—that we might even hesitate to call them poems at all. For instance, the poem “Untitled” consists of two lines of verse, a paragraph of prose, and two Malevich-like red squares (16). But Aygi goes even further. “Untitled” is paired with another text (a poem?) on the facing page, entitled “On Reading the Poem ‘Untitled’ Aloud,” that gives directions in prose to those who would declaim the poem (e.g., “The title is stated calmly and softly”), replete with two bars of piano music to replace the red squares (17). Ironically, this second text is about twice as long as the first.

But another poem, “Field: At the Height of Winter,” dedicated to the French avant-gardist René Char, is far more representative of Aygi’s poetics, reproduced here in its entirety:

god-fire! — this clear field

letting everything through (mileposts and breezes and faraway
windmills: still — from this world — in a dream — the horizon: o all
of it — sparks — the perpetual flames of an immortal fire)

alpha-omega — with no worldly traces

immortally shining

god-fire (55)

The images in this poem, with its setting of a midwinter field shot through with light, are archetypal for Aygi, and its free-verse technique is masterful: the descriptive details pile one upon the next in a catalogue broken by dashes and colons, forming a surreal sequence that defies paraphrase even as it amasses spiritual significance. Near the center of the poem is the “alpha-omega”—implying motion from beginning to end, hence closure—but as we reach the final line we discover that we have been transported back to the beginning: the “god-fire” remains as enigmatic and ubiquitous as ever. In the end, therefore, “Field: At the Height of Winter” resists interpretation, thereby falling right into line with Aygi’s so-called “hostile” poetics.

Still, not everything that Aygi wrote was free verse. At least one poem in Into the Snow, the beautiful lyric “Mother,” is made up of the same kind of rhymed, tetrameter quatrains that one finds everywhere in modern Russian poetry. Not coincidentally, however, “Mother” was composed in Chuvash; Aygi’s poems in his native tongue hew much more closely to mainstream literary conventions than his Russian poems do. Here is the opening stanza:

Do not confront me when I come home.
Open the door, leave the garden.
I have left my needlework on the bench —
I’ve had stockings that fasten for a long time. (23)

The trouble is that, besides breaking the poem into three quatrains, Valentine has not translated its form at all. English readers might never guess that these lines ought to be rigidly rhymed and metered. One must locate a copy of the Chuvash original—and at least be able to read Cyrillic—to figure it out. Naturally, it would have helped if the translation had been accompanied by the source text, but as it stands all readers can do is guess what the form might have been by gazing at the quatrains.

In fact, because poetic form—or rather, its lack—is so essential to understanding Aygi’s poetry, one wishes that the editors at Wave Books had allowed Valentine to supply originals for all of her translations. That way, readers could see for themselves, sometimes even when they do not know the source language, how cleverly she engages with Aygi’s Russian (and occasional Chuvash) both formally and lexically. For instance, a facing-page comparison of Valentine’s translation of “Field: At the Height of Winter” with its Russian source text would reveal how she altered the line and stanza breaks in a way that strengthens the emotional impact of the poem. Her light touch guides us gently through Aygi’s block of text.

Finally, I should mention that, even though Into the Snow brings together poems from many different collections of Aygi’s verse in Russian, readers will notice a strong coherence of themes from start to finish. Looking through the titles and tables of contents of his Russian collections from across the years, we see that many of the leitmotifs from the Wave edition are repeated elsewhere. Without a doubt, Aygi returns to certain images again and again—snow, fields, light, emptiness, silence—and one wonders how these might have been used to structure the book. What exactly was Valentine’s selection process? How did she winnow down the 1200 pages of Aygi’s collected works in Russian to the mere 94 pages of English we are given here? It is a shame that she does not offer us a rationale for her editorial choices, or at least something to indicate which poems come from which collections. (We might also ask what Valentine’s translation contributes to the numerous Aygi collections already translated into English by Peter France.) In any case, the recurring themes of the poet’s oeuvre as a whole match up with the recurring themes of Into the Snow, so clearly Valentine has done something right.

But how do we interpret these key themes, particularly in the work of someone who casts aside the poetic models from which readers of Russian poetry learned the art of interpretation? Why all the snow? Why the empty fields, especially in poems by someone who chose to spend his adult life in Moscow? Where are the cities? Luckily, Valentine gives us some help. In her introduction, she writes that “for Aygi … each word of each poem was part of a grander project, an exploration of the nature of existence, of our place in this universe—whatever that is—of what lies beyond the limits of our knowing, and of how, through a humane art, we can maintain our connection with all of it” (xvii). Urban life in twentieth-century Russia is simply beside the point. In his prose poem “A Few Notes on Poetry,” Aygi explains that his art seeks to express “an orientation toward the human in his or her connection with nature—with its unchanging miraculousness” (35). Somehow, by turning away from rational thought and the trappings of modernity, we can tap into something meaningful, and if we are lucky, we will perhaps even achieve a kind of enlightenment. But for the moment, it seems, we are getting in our own way. This mode of thinking reaches its pinnacle with the book’s well-chosen final poem, “Field — Without Us,” where the light, no longer impeded by humanity (though we linger behind the scenes cheering it on), finally gets the chance to make it to its destination:

the road glimmers, ever closer: like it’s singing
and laughing!
light — though full — of mystery
as if shining brighter with its own light
God — endless and sudden! . . — o let
it not falter— let it reach
that abandoned little tree! (94)

Let’s hope we get there too.


Notes:

[1] Editor’s introduction, Teper’ vsegda snega: stikhi raznykh let, 1955-1989 (Moscow: Sovietstkii pisatel’, 1992), Vavilon.ru, 2006, web, 30 May 2012.

[2] The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (New York: NYRB Classics, 2004), p. 89, print.

About the Author:

Jamie Olson teaches in the English Department at Saint Martin’s University, just outside of Olympia, Washington. His translations from Russian have recently appeared in Anomalous Press, Cardinal Points, Chtenia, Crab Creek Review, and Ozone Park Journal. He writes about poetry, translation, and Russian culture on his site The Flaxen Wave.

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