Russian poetry and the culture of memory

from Robert Chandler’s introduction to the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:

A friend—a well-read poet and editor—once told me how astonished he had been to discover, many years after first reading him, the Mayakovsky—the Poet of the Russian Revolution—always wrote in rhyme and metre. My friend does not know Russian and all the translations he had seen were in free verse. And he had taken it for granted that a revolutionary poet would want to be free of traditional form… Russian poetry, however, has developed differently from the poetry of most other European countries.


In most of Europe the invention of print made it seem less important that a work of literature be easy to commit to memory. The decline of a magical or religious worldview also did much to encourage the rise of prose and the decline of poetry. Russia, however, has never seen the full emergence of a rational and secular culture—the official ethos of the Soviet era, though avowedly secular, was supremely irrational—and poetry has, throughout most of the last two hundred years and in most social milieus, retained its importance. Almost all Russian see Pushkin, rather than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as their greatest writer.


As for such poets as Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and others disaffected with the new reality, they were soon living in what Akhmatova called a “pre-Gutenberg” age. They could no longer publish their own poems and it was dangerous to write them down. Akhmatova’s Lydia Chukovskaya (1907–96), has described how writers would memorize one another’s works. Akhmatova would write out a poem on a scrap of paper, a visitor would read it and Akhmatova would burn the paper. “It was like a ritual,” Chukovskaya says. “Hands, matches, an ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter.” Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. Had his handling of rhyme, metre and other formal devices been less perfect, his widow might have been unable to preserve his work in her memory and much might have been lost.

Russian poetry has been forced, again and again, to return to its oral origins. This is especially evident with regard to the Gulag. There are many accounts of how people survived, and helped their fellow-prisoners to survive, through reciting poetry. The poet and ethnographer Nina Gagen-Torn has written how, in 1937, she and a cellmate were between them able to recite most of Nikolay Nekrasov’s Russian Women, a poem of at least two thousand lines about two aristocratic women, who, in 1826, chose to follow their husbands—participants in the failed December Revolt—to exile in Siberia. Ten years later, imprisoned for a second time, Gagen-Torn recited Blok, Pushkin, Nekrasov, Mandelstam, Gumilyov and Tyutchev. Every day her cellmates would ask her to recite more. Afterwards it was (in her words) “as if someone had cleaned the dust from the window with a damp sponge—everybody’s eyes now seemed clearer.” Gagen-Torn goes on to reflect on the role of rhythm: “The shamans knew that rhythm gives one power over spirits. He who had power over rhythm in the magic dance would become a shaman, an intermediary between spirits and people; he who lacked this power would fly head over heels into madness. Poetry, like the shaman’s bells, leads people into the spaces of ‘the seventh sky.'”