I'm re-reading Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoir, Hope Against Hope, which I must have last (re-)read about 20 years ago. This book has always been my Bible (aside from the Bible).

It seems as if the simple power of this book sort of spoiled me for contemporary American poetry. The basic organizing factor of contemporary American poetry seems to me to have been the ignorance of this book. "Simple power" is a good phrase for it. Reading it is like drinking cold, clear water. After it, most things American seem too nervous, too baroque, too cynical, too ironic, too self-centered...

I guess my stance might be abjured for a number of reasons. It would be seen as either naive & irrelevant hero-worship, or self-serving one-upmanship. All I can do is refer back to the power of the book itself, and the impact it had on me, for the first time, around 1977.

Passages like this :

"M. told me that in his poem about the singer with the low voice there was a merging of two images: the woman from Leningrad and Marian Anderson [whom he'd heard singing on the radio]. On the day he was composing this poem, I didn't realize he was working, because he was lying quiet as a mouse. Restlessness was the first sign he was working on something, and the second was the moving of his lips. In one poem he says that his lips can never be taken away from him, and that they will still move when he is dead and buried. This has indeed happened."

[see the opening of Stubborn Grew. I don't think I was consciously thinking of Mandelstam when I wrote the first line : "Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay."]

Or this passage :

"The work of the poet, as the vehicle for world harmony, has a social character - that is, it is concerned with the doings of the poet's fellow men, among whom he lives and whose fate he shares. He does not speak 'for them', but with them, nor does he set himself apart from them : otherwise he would not be a source of truth.
"I was always struck by the absolute character of the urge to serve - with and among one's fellow men - as an instrument by which harmony reveals itself. I can understand Shevchenko's lament - which M. appreciated only too well - about the way his poetry would not leave him alone, bringing him nothing but misery and not allowing him to pursue his craft as a painter, the one thing that gave him pleasure. The urge ceases to be felt only when the poet's material begins to run out - that is, when his contact with the world at large is broken and he no longer hears his fellow men or lives with them. There can be no poetry without such contact, which is the source of the poet's sense of 'rightness'."

The "absolute character of the urge to serve" as an "instrument by which harmony reveals itself". Good will, in other words. Good will & the vocation of the poet. This is very simple & profound & 'right'. [quotes taken from translation by Max Hayward, edition publ. by Modern Library]

& I guess I was somewhat prepared for the simple power of this book by prior intensive reading (roughly 1973-1977) of... the Bible.

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