But now I’m frightened. I have
Got to present myself, smile at
Them all and fall silent,
Hugging my lace shawl.
She who was I, in her black agate
Necklace–till the valley of God’s anger
Bring us together, I’d rather
She kept out of my way…
Are the last days close upon us?
Your lessons I have forgotten,
Sloganwriters, false prophets,
You haven’t forgotten me.
As in the past the future is maturing,
So the past is rotting in the future–
A terrible carnival of dead leaves.
–“Poem Without a Hero” by Anna Akhmatova
translated by D.M. Thomas
Among the greatest Russian poets, Anna Akhmatova‘s work and fascinating biography during Russia’s tumultuous twentieth century should be irresistible to any poetry or history fan. Her poetry, biography, and Russian history are inextricably linked. She lived through an era that included the Russian and Bolshevik Revolutions, civil war, both World Wars, the Stalinist regime, and the imprisonment and executions of millions of her people. Her most famous works, the long poems “Requiem” and “Poem Without a Hero,”are perfect examples of this melding of art, life, and history.
After early critical and popular success, Akhmatova began to feel the pressure of unfolding political events. When hundreds of thousands of people fled the turmoil of the revolutions and wars, Akhmatova insisted on remaining in her country despite the dangers. Her loyalty and outspokenness led to her status as a poet of the Russian people.
Ironically, Akhmatova’s work was criticized for being too personal. As Max Hayward writes in his introduction to the poet’s selected works, Andrei Zhdanov, who was director of the Soviet Union’s cultural policy and one of Stalin’s lieutenants responsible for thousands of executions and arrests during the Great Terror, imposed a period of censorship of Akhmatova’s work. In 1946, he wrote:
Akhmatova’s subject matter is utterly individualistic… A nun or a whore–or rather both a nun and a whore who combines harlotry with prayer… Akhmatova’s poetry is utterly remote from the people… What can there be in common between this poetry and the interests of our people and State?
This and an earlier proclamation effectively silenced the poet for two decades. She and other writers lived in such fear of persecution that they would burn written drafts of their poems, memorizing their own and others’ to preserve the art in case of its creator’s arrest and execution. Akhmatova’s first husband was executed for treason. Her son was imprisoned for years. Like hundreds of others, Akhmatova waited outside the prison daily hoping to hear news or pass warm clothing to her loved one. In spite of the oppression and despair she and her country suffered, she found a way to express her experience. The poem “Requiem” begins with the prose segment:
In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.” And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.
–translated by D.M. Thomas
In clear negation of her alleged irrelevance, Akhmatova read to a crowd of three thousand people in Moscow in 1944. They honored her with a standing ovation. (Hayward writes that Stalin responded, “Who organized this standing ovation?”) When she died in 1966, after receiving international awards and an honorary degree from Oxford University, thousands of people attended memorials in two cities.
Reading poetry in translation is a different animal from reading poems in their own languages. Poetry’s subtlety of language, attention to sound, syllable and rhyme, and concern with idiom and connotation can elude rendering to another language. The poet Jane Kenyon discussed her opinion after translating Akhmatova’s work:
That’s why I say translation is a necessary evil. Either you sacrifice the sound patterns in order to keep the images intact or you sacrifice the images in order to keep the sound intact… and of the two the one I would be most reluctant to lose is the integrity of the images. The images in a good poem come from a deep place, and they give the poem a sense of cohesion. Almost everything else can be tinkered with, but if that is tinkered with, the whole work flies apart. Again and again I saw translations of these poems that had no respect for their psychic wholeness. The translators might have been fairly clever at their rhymes, but it was word games, not poetry. I came to believe in the absolute value of the image when I was working on these poems by Akhmatova.
Admirers and critics praise the musicality of Akhmatova’s work. Whether or not you understand Russian, you can hear the music of her work in her native language in this recording of the poet.
When possible, I compare as many translations as possible to glean the spirit of the original work from the subtle differences among translators’ choices. Luckily, many talented writers have translated Akhmatova, including Nancy K. Anderson, Lyn Coffin, Judith Hemschemeyer, Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, Richard McKane, and D.M. Thomas (whose translations and notes are my favorite) and others. Historical context can be equally important to informing writing that addresses historical events. I recommend A Brief History of Russia by Michael Kort to accompany Akhmatova’s work.
More than anything, Anna Akhmatova’s life and work speak to the power of art. Like any true masterpiece, her poetry transcends time, culture–even language. As her beloved city’s name changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg, wars raged and waned around her, and regimes and leaders rose and fell, Akhmatova’s poems remain transcendent. Far from being personal grievances of a single woman, her poetry speaks to the ability of one person’s story to express a nation’s spirit, and to demonstrate the humanity that remains in the face of devastation and enormous challenge.