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“Prologue 3” Conversations on the Arts, Politics and History Between a Russian and an American

robinson jeffers

Round One

Gary Corseri: Hi, Victor. … I hope you’re well in Kiev! I’ve noticed that it’s just about a month since we last collected our thoughts and had the termerity to post them! Are you ready for another go-round?

Victor Postnikov: Yes, now is a good time! So many thoughts I feel impassioned to share before they steal away!

GC: Last time we exchanged a flurry of notes, the news in the macro-world was much about the US-Russian relationship. All the tension then was about whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, how the former National Security Agent was holed up at the Moscow airport, seeking asylum, and about to “spill the beans” about a lot of things the US considered “Top Secret!” And now, just a month later, this testy US-Russian relationship is once again front and center… but this time it’s focused on our mutual entanglements in the cauldron of the Middle East! This collision-course situation has me very much in a knot… and I wonder what mere poets—or any artists--can do to stop the madness?

VP: Wars happen despite all wailing and protests. No poet has ever deflected a war. But that doesn't mean that poets stay unconcerned. They speak another language. They're different. This poem of Jeffers comes to mind:

Be Angry At The Sun


That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.

Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors,
This republic, Europe, Asia.

Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.

You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante's feet, but even farther from his dirty
Political hatreds.

Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.

GC: I know that poem well, having read and taught it decades ago... and I've read it many times since. It is one of his great poems. This is Jeffers at his "inhumanist" best, perhaps, turning his back on the "political" frays, wandering among the crags of Big Sur, California. That was one of his "moods" or "modes of expression"; but, at other times, he could be more political, directly critical of Roosevelt or Stalin, for example, mentioning them with scorn in his poems.

I wonder if we have the "luxury" of "turning our backs" these days? Given all that we know, with the new world of the Internet, etc.—and our ability to speak out… even across continents and oceans?

VP: I don’t suggest “turning our backs.” On the contrary, we must see what’s happening and try to understand why. But, I would prefer detachment-- the more so because this war is male-dominated and ambiguous! This is an agony of the old macho-world of Obama, Putin, Assad and many others.

GC: Getting into a discussion like that could open a "can of worms." But... I think it's a can that needs opening! We not only have a “war of words” ongoing between our former Cold War rivals, we have a “clash of civilizations,” as well. Putin wants to hold onto traditonal Eastern Orthodox values—so Russia is not undermined by an avalanche of Western norms and mores that tear at the fabric of that multi-national, multi-ethnic nation. The West’s way of making war seems to be with 5th Columns of NGOs that shout about “democracy,” but really have conquest in mind!

VP: It's well understood. ... Since the fall of the USSR, Russia has been desperately trying to adjust to the modern world--technologically, politically, mentally—and, at the same time, to save its historical face. It's a hell of a job. The greatest problem is the cultural gap. So, I see our mission as trying to narrow this gap--through poetry, art and philosophy. For a long time, I've preferred poets who speak the universal language of humanity—poets like Jeffers and Whitman. I saw the closeness of two of my best-loved poetesses--Dickinson and Tsvetaeva. We need to hear their voices today-- in our rude, male-dominated world.

GC: Because of the "Feminist Movement" of recent decades, many American women have been "masculinized." These women crave power for the sake of it! They are in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher of England, Golda Meir of Israel…, and now we have Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor Susan Rice or US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Powers, etc. It's a very different world than the one in which I grew up!

VP: The women in politics mimic men and sometimes look ugly! It has nothing to do with feminism. It's a surrender!

Art may serve a twofold purpose: to detract (from lies); or, to speak truth. Both ways are useful. The important thing is--it ought not be trivial! In fact, we should discuss those two poets--Emily Dickinson and Marina Tsvetaeva. It’s crucial that we focus on these two female poets in this macho-dominated, war-mongering world. Personally, I consider myself an adherent of “eco-feminism,” a new paradigm that awaits humanity.

GC: Emily Dickinson is a long-time favorite of mine. … You’ll have to introduce me, and, I suspect, most of our readers to Marina Tsvetaeva. And, of course, we need to hear more about your ideas on “eco-feminism”! I’d certainly like to get back to the concept of “Mother Earth”—and not raping and mutilating her body with weapons, fracking, and other ecological catastrophes!

VP: Both of these poets have tremendous power over us because they dont speak trivial things, and, they ignore meanness!

GC: Let’s combine our views on the contemporary, political world with reflections on poets who make us think, as well as feel! The idea is that poetry &/or the Arts can be the steady keel through these perilous waters.

VP: Yes!... Before we get into a discussion about them, I’d like to pick up on your note about how culture can undermine a nation’s power structure. I’d like to share this with you:

How To Undermine the System


Of all things,

the $ystem hates poetry,

especially, the s l o w
p h i l o s o p h i c a l one:
it shudders from metaphors,
chokes from hyperboles,
frets from allusions,
irks from allegory,
enrages from irony,
and breathes its last from sarcasm.

Do write poetry, Children.

GC: Thank you! I like it! ... I like the way you wrote “$ystem,” and your use of poetic terms to "undermine" it! I like your use of verbs--the strongest part of speech. That’s a fine way to end this Round! Now, for the next Round, let’s consider Tsvetaeva and Dickinson. …

VP: It’s a wrap!

ROUND 2 (after a couple of days--)

VP: Welcome back, Gary! I’m glad you liked my translation of the Tsvetaeva poem… and, thanks for the nuances that you’ve corrected. (Nuances are very important! Sometimes a sole phrase is worth the poem—that’s hermeneutics!) Here is my most recent version:

Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva, by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer (2005)



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Nostalgia--a hassle,

I’m absolutely pointless
Where to go--

Along the streets of cobble,
I drag myself,
To some unknown barrack
I call “my place.”

I’m absolutely passive
If I must snap
Like a lion captivated
By a human crowd--

Or, ousted, hide in private,
Like a bear,
Can’t bear innuendos

I won’t be either flattered
By native tongue,
Don’t matter in what language
I’m cursed by one!

Those who engage in

Papers, fond of buzz!--

They’re eager for the Century--
I can't care less!

I’m like a lifeless trunk
Left from a tree--
All people look alike
To mindless me!

Or maybe even days
I held most dear—

My soul, my precious soul,
Could not secure!

That land was so unfeeling
Even a sleuth
Would not detect a birthmark
'cross my soul.

Each home, each dome is foreign,
But should I meet a rowan
On the street. …

GC: I had to look up "rowan." I don't think I've ever seen such a tree in North America!

VP: Rowan” is a very common plant in northern Russia (“ryabina”). I‘m sure you saw it many times in Northern America. Dark red grapes, with sharp bitter-sweet taste. “Ryabinovka,” a popular Russian vodka, is infused with rowan. But the poem is bitter indeed!

GC: The ending is as unusual as the rest of the poem. One expects more... but it's kind of a puzzle-poem anyway. One take-away is, "I'm myself, sui generis. Like Gretta Garbo in the movies--"I want to be alone!" But, more fundamentally, I think it's a poem about a lack of "solidity," a sense of floating in a strange, no-longer familiar world. I think that’s a universal in our modern world—with accelerated change, “future shock” everywhere.

VP: Yes… “alienation.” It was written in 1939, after she returned from exile in Paris, Prague and Berlin (where she lived in increasing poverty) to Russia, with glowing expectations. But she found only the Stalinist regime and the same humiliation as in the West. Her husband was arrested (and later shot by the NKVD), and everyone, including her “friends,” left her for fear of persecution. Russia remained for her only as the bushes of rowan.

GC: Your note can add much to the appreciation of this poem. …Didn’t Akhmatova have a similar fate—husband killed, son imprisoned?

VP: Yes.

GC: I like the poem. … It’s whimsical, tight. I don’t think it’s a “great” poem—as I feel about Jeffers’ poem…, but I’m now curious about Tsvetaeva’s work, and I want to read more. When I was 14, I read an anthology of English and American poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer, called “Great Poems.” There was much biographical content about the poets, and that material enhanced the poems for me. Later, when I was a grad student in English, I learned about the so-called “New Critics” of the 20th Century—who were adamantly against any kind of biographical references or insights into the nature of the work. As a young Instructor and Prof, I briefly held to that view, but I soon began to develop my present stance: All insights are valid, no matter where derived—biographical, historical, and, of course, what we get from “close reading.” I wouldn’t over-emphasize any kind of input—biographical or otherwise. I think the important thing is to converse with the work, bring all we can to it… and then, listen to it!

VP: Yes! Empathy matters, especially if you are a translator. It’s hard to articulate my reverence towards Marina Tsvetaeva. All the ardour of pain, history, Russia is contained in her beautiful verse. To me, she’s the greatest Russian poetess. An heir to Blok and Mayakovsky. After she returned from exile to Stalin’s Russia, her life went from bad to worse. She committed suicide on a summer day in 1941. You can look her up on Wikipedia.

GC: I just looked her up. She looks delicate, almost pixieish, and sad. “Still waters run deep.”

VP: Generally, "historical" accounts of poets and artists, or philosophers, have an educative and enobling effect on the public. And carry more truths than the “straight” history of an era. My father wrote a fascinating account of this era (1920s - 1990) through the eyes of scientists and poets. (Not historians and politicians). I have editied a Russian edition and published his (and my) memoirs in 2006, in a centenary book. BTW, you can see more translations of Tsvetaeva’s work here, or, her original poems in Russian here. (I hold the copyright for my translations. …)

GC: I think we’ve made a good beginning for “Prologues #3”. If you keep making good beginnings… eventually, you wind up at your goal! (At least that’s the hope!) I think we have convergent views, and we’re focusing on things worth saying—covering a broad spectrum of politics and the arts, and marking how they intertwine. Our “prologues”are difficult to compose... but, I think they are well worth it! It is something new! A new approach to criticism: Instead of 1 guy pontificating, there are 2 cerebral chaps engaged in hermeneutics! And various truths may be told this way!

VP: Hermeneutics postulate that the meaning/understanding is being exposed, or attained, only through dialogue (or “multi-logue,” I’d say). For the last few days I've been reading and translating some interesting stuff on hermeneutics in Gadamer's “Truth and Method,” and particularly its liaison with language, culture and history. I found many supporting ideas in this exciting book. For example, it explained how a single line of a poem can convey the meaning better than the whole text.

GC: I've been re-reading Rilke recently--one of my favorite poets... and that’s certainly true of his work in "Duino Elegies" and elsewhere. There are spectacular lines--images, concepts, wording... and others that actually seem to detract from the totality of the long composition.

VP: And, more generally, the totality of poetry is such that some old poets can speak through the ages while others have only a fleeting, immediate effect. As Gadamer writes, understanding occurs through interpreting, and every translator is an interpreter par excellence. For me, as a translator, it became clear: we can understand others through the totality of language. And language is equal to a dialogue, and dialogue is equal to Being. You see, all life is a dialogue. Thus, all wars can be seen as a failed dialogue.

GC: I agree! War as “failed dialogue.” Let’s continue with these themes in our next “Prologue.”

VP: We haven’t said much about Emily Dickinson, though. … We must talk more about her, too! I have thought that she and Marina are like sisters. …

GC: She’s such a strange, wonderful person! A major intellect in 19th Century America. We’ll have to come back to her! This is one of my favorite quotes from her: “Tell all the truth/ but tell it slant.” Roughly interpreted, that could mean: Be honest… and be interesting! Most people can’t take the truth when it comes at them straight-on, in their face. That’s where the artist can work his/her magic. Telling the truth, but telling it slant.

VP: There are lots of reasons why Tsvetaeva appeals to me. Not least, that she wrote socially-minded verse full of bitter irony and force, the verse that we need today. She wrote some stunning "dark" verse. Dickinson did the same. Generally, poetry is dark. Because truth is dark. As Jeffers said, "Consider what an explosion would rock the bones of men into white fragments and unsky the world if any mind for a moment touch the truth." Any great poet feels this danger of "touching the truth". Therefore, too many great poets have been killed or commited suicide--

GC: Or died too young—from despair… or just gave up.

Victor Ivanovich Postnikov

VP: It takes great effort not to slip and lose balance, as if you are walking on a tightrope. All great poets walk on a tightrope. On a thin line between life and death.

Gary Corseri and Victor Ivanovich Postnikov