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.'”

Everything to think about and much to remember

from the final section of Fahrenheit 451:

“What have you to offer?”

“Nothing. I thought I had part of the Book of Ecclesiastes and maybe a little of Revelation, but I haven’t even that now.”

“The Book of Ecclesiastes would be fine. Where was it?” “Here,” Montag touched his head.

“Ah,” Granger smiled and nodded.

“What’s wrong? Isn’t that all right?” said Montag.

“Better than all right; perfect!” Granger turned to the Reverend.

“Do we have a Book of Ecclesiastes?”

“One. A man named Harris of Youngstown.”

“Montag.” Granger took Montag’s shoulder firmly. “Walk carefully. Guard your health. If anything should happen to Harris, you are the Book of Ecclesiastes. See how important you’ve become in the last minute!”

“But I’ve forgotten!”

“No, nothing’s ever lost. We have ways to shake down your clinkers for you.”

“But I’ve tried to remember!”

“Don’t try. It’ll come when we need it. All of us have photographic memories, but spend a lifetime learning how to block off the things that are really in there. Simmons here has worked on it for twenty years and now we’ve got the method down to where we can recall anything that’s been read once. Would you like, some day, Montag, to read Plato’s Republic?”

“Of course!”

I am Plato’s Republic. Like to read Marcus Aurelius? Mr. Simmons is Marcus.”

“How do you do?” said Mr. Simmons.

“Hello,” said Montag.

“I want you to meet Jonathan Swift, the author of that evil political book, Gulliver’s Travels! And this other fellow is Charles Darwin, and this one is Schopenhauer, and this one is Einstein, and this one here at my elbow is Mr. Albert Schweitzer, a very kind philosopher indeed. Here we all are, Montag. Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

Everyone laughed quietly.

“It can’t be,” said Montag.

“It is,” replied Granger, smiling. “We’re book-burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Micro-filming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it. We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it’s here. And the hour is late. And the war’s begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colors. What do you think, Montag?”

“I think I was blind trying to do things my way, planting books in firemen’s houses and sending in alarms.”

“You did what you had to do. Carried out on a national scale, it might have worked beautifully. But our way is simpler and, we think, better. All we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe. We’re not out to incite or anger anyone yet. For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good. We are model citizens, in our own special way; we walk the old tracks, we lie in the hills at night, and the city people let us be. We’re stopped and searched occasionally, but there’s nothing on our persons to incriminate us. The organization is flexible, very loose, and fragmentary. Some of us have had plastic surgery on our faces and fingerprints. Right now we have a horrible job; we’re waiting for the war to begin and, as quickly, end. It’s not pleasant, but then we’re not in control, we’re the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war’s over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world.”

“Do you really think they’ll listen then?”

“If not, we’ll just have to wait. We’ll pass the books on to our children, by word of mouth, and let our children wait, in turn, on the other people. A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can’t make people listen. They have to come round in their own time, wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can’t last.”

“How many of you are there?”

“Thousands on the roads, the abandoned railtracks, tonight, bums on the outside, libraries inside. It wasn’t planned, at first. Each man had a book he wanted to remember, and did. Then, over a period of twenty years or so, we met each other, traveling, and got the loose network together and set out a plan. The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves was that we were not important, we mustn’t be pedants; we were not to feel superior to anyone else in the world. We’re nothing more than dust-jackets for books, of no significance otherwise. Some of us live in small towns. Chapter One of Thoreau’s Walden in Green River, Chapter Two in Willow Farm, Maine. Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell. Pick up that town, almost, and flip the pages, so many pages to a person. And when the war’s over, some day, some year, the books can be written again, the people will be called in, one by one, to recite what they know and we’ll set it up in type until another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing over again. But that’s the wonderful thing about man; he never gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth the doing.”


But now there was a long morning’s walk until noon, and if the men were silent it was because there was everything to think about and much to remember. Perhaps later in the morning, when the sun was up and had warmed them, they would begin to talk, or just say the things they remembered, to be sure they were there, to be absolutely certain that things were safe in them. Montag felt the slow stir of words, the slow simmer.