Stray thoughts of a stray dog, this afternoon... Have been reading the translation of Mandelstam, by Oleg Lekmanov, a sober, concise, and poignant biography. Came upon this passage, quoting a letter (written to his wife in the spring of 1935) of Sergei Rudakov, a writer who spent some time with the Mandelstams during their exile in Voronezh. Rudakov :
"I have never seen anything like this in my life... At a distance it is impossible to measure or relate. I am standing before a working mechanism (perhaps even organism - it would be the same) of poetry. I see the same thing as in myself, though in the hands of a genius, which will mean much more than it is possible to understand now. There is no human anymore - there is Michelangelo... For the sake of 4 lines, literally 400 are pronounced. He does not see anything. He does not remember that some of these lines belong to his earlier poems and repeats these lines again. Then by eschewing the old lines he creates new poems." (Mandelstam, p. 144)
Anna Akhmatova's memoirs are then quoted, reflecting on the same period : "It is amazing that the sense of space, breadth, deep breathing appeared in Mandelstam's poetry in Voronezh, when he was not at all free."
There are several statements here worth pondering. I just want to focus on what they triggered in my thoughts. First is Rudakov's impression of the "biological organism" at work. The sense I have here is of an artist who has ripened and sharpened his talent over a lifetime. This is not a dilettante, but a kind of word-sculptor ("Michelangelo"), who is refining - in compositional "real time", so to speak - his own conception of Russian poetry as a totality, and his own individual idiom, purpose & sense of occasion - within the theatre of creation which is the making of the particular poem.
Secondly, these pages got me thinking about works of art & poetry as monuments, turning points, as benchmarks of cultural refinement. As great expressive achievements : quintessential, incomparable.
This sort of window on poetry seems unfashionable these days. We don't think of poems (or poets) as "rare" : in fact we go out of our way to encourage everyone to be a poet. We don't understand this picture - a poet composing out loud, not writing anything down - reciting 400 lines in order to melt them down to four. The whole idea is alien to us.
Poetry today is nothing if not transitive, direct, colloquial, and above all informal. Every line is a throwaway line. Every line is a "hook." Even our current "experimental", formalist poets lay out their organizing principles very explicitly, as if on a blueprint, or as a Powerpoint presentation. We are meant to see & appreciate exactly how A leads to B.
Difficulty is conceptualized as "technical difficulty". Poetry is evaluated by the sharpness or effectiveness of its rhetorical weapons.
This is not to deny that sharp, effective rhetoric has not always been a part of poetry. But what's missing in art & poetry today (in large part, if not everywhere) is some kind of elusive spiritual dimension. The strange epileptic seizures or fits of passionate composition which we behold in Mandelstam should be understood as the culmination of decades of committed labor at his craft; yet they must also be seen as Mandelstam's own conscious submission to the wave of inspiration. He cannot fully control what he is making, because it is happening out of the improvisatory process itself; and yet it is guided by a kind of overall sense of wholeness or cultural mission - a critical sense - which shapes and informs his artistic "oracles".
Mandelstam refines 4 lines out of 400 lines because he senses he is not just writing "for himself" but is composing something which has objective meaning for the Russian people as a whole, and perhaps for humanity as a whole. Poetry is not solely a private egotistical achievement, but is part of a vow, a "commission", to produce these integral, free-standing objects or monuments of harmonic song. They belong to everyone, and he is somehow aware of this, and his awareness reinforces his effort to sing it exactly right.
This is perhaps one interpretation of the retort Mandelstam offered, when asked by an apparatchik interviewer for his "definition of poetry." Mandelstam simply replied : "the poet's sense of being right."
Where do we find this sense of mission in American poetry? Where do we find a poet relinquishing the calculations of rhetorical guile, and submitting to a more profound source of inspiration? Where do we find a poet refining & refining lines out of an obscure sense of enunciation, of oracular speech?
I'm not arguing such poetry is not out there in America now. I just think perhaps it's a little hard to find, under the unceasing bombardment (from what Mandelstam called "the horde of scribblers") of easygoing, unctuous, smarmy, clever, cozening, glib, prosaic, tossed-off, complacent, shallow, and trivial so-called works which offer themselves to the public in the name of poetry.