Justin Doherty on Acmeism

"...there is an unchasteness of attitude in both the doctrine of "Art for life," and that of "Art for art." In the first case, art... has value only to the extent that it serves goals extraneous to it.... In the second case, art becomes effete, grows agonizingly moonlike..." - Nikolai Gumilev, "The Life of Verse" (tr. by D. Lapeza)

For 30 years or so, ever since I happened upon a book of Mandelstam's selected poems in a local bookstore, I've been fascinated with his work & that of other Russians he led me to : Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gumilev, Brodsky... I think I've delved as deeply into it as someone who works in an academic library, & never gets past the beginner stage of learning Russian, can possibly delve... & then I come upon something new, & I realize how much I haven't really understood. Justin Doherty's excellent book has had this effect : The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford UP, 1995).

One of the things this study has done is lift my perspective beyond a focus on Mandelstam, toward the underlying principles of the group of Petersburg poets with whom he affiliated. Acmeism grew out of various practical associations, especially the so-called "Guild of Poets" - who convened regularly in semi-formal meetings to read and discuss each other's work. This friendly proximity helped foster a kind of professional outlook - a "guild" mentality - which in turn helped the poets to establish some common principles, seen as grounding characteristic, universal elements of poetry, and allowing for a degree of critical objectivity.

I can't adequately paraphrase or even summarize Doherty's book. All I can do is try to point toward some of these salient principles. Nikolai Gumilev, one of the founders of the Acmeist group, can be credited with formulating them, while Mandelstam further elaborated their implications. Here's my rough sketch :

1. The Acmeist movement appeared in Petersburg around 1910, as a critique of the then-reigning but waning Petersburg phenomenon, quite accomplished & sophisticated, known as Symbolism. Russian Symbolism took a mystical view of art and poetry, proposing a categorical divide between the material and the noumenal or spiritual worlds; poetry served as a kind of cultic & mystagogic pathway from the debased world of time and the senses, to a supernal spiritual world of Beauty and Eternity. Poetry was equivalent to gnosticism : a way of knowledge. The Acmeists, on the other hand, committed themselves wholeheartedly to the real, visible, ordinary world of living things, time, and space. They firmly rejected Symbolism's otherworldliness, as well as its amalgam of art and cultic spiritualism.

2. A key defining term for Acmeist poetics is : integrity. Gumilev used a special word for this : "chasteness", or "chastity". We can speculate on his motive for this terminology : integrity (which he also used frequently) has primarily either a structural/physical or a moral sense; "chasteness", in Gumilev's usage, involves these aspects, but perhaps also adds an aesthetic element, a sense of beauty. What did the Acmeists mean by this? As a consequence of their rejection of Symbolism, they affirmed the inherent value, the wholeness of things : that is, of natural life, of language (the "Word"), and of poetry itself. "Integrity" meant that all these things had a "right to exist", and, as Gumilev put it, "on a higher level, a right to be of service to others" [inexact quote from memory]. Thus an acceptance and affirmation of life-on-earth displayed an ethical dimension, and under the umbrella of this overall stance of affirmation, a fundamental equilibrium was established, between the freedom of poetry to be itself, of value in itself, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inherent value of life & culture at large. The two realms were distinct, symbiotic & complementary, all at once.

3. Acmeism, from the Greek "akme" - the acme : perfection, fulfillment, flowering, wholeness... these qualities had more than an ideological or quasi-philosophical reference. For Gumilev and his associates, wholeness and fulfillment had a specific meaning for poetics. The approach was basically Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on poetry's organic (living) wholeness. Gumilev built on Aristotle's sense of the poem as displaying a unity of beginning-middle-end, of proportion of parts & whole; he developed an "anatomy" of the poetic word with analogy to the systems of the living human body. & this focus on the organic qualities of poetic language helps distinguish such language from other kinds of discourse. The Acmeists began to build a series of interlocking "wholes" of this kind, into a synchronic sense of joyful "philology" - the expression of the poetic Word as a shared effort within a single world tradition, an "Hellenic domesticity" (Mandelstam) crossing all barriers of time & space - centered on the human, and human culture - as sanctioned, reflected, guaranteed by the freedom of the "Word".

4. Acmeism also displays a "reflexive" dimension : standing between Russian Symbolism and Futurism, they thematized (in the poetry itself) the special quality of poetic language as self-fulfilling, as of inherent value. The material of poetry was the living Word. Whereas the Symbolists subsumed poetic speech under the "higher" dimension of music, and the Futurists reduced language to the equivalent of a physical material, something to be smashed, split & distorted at will - the Acmeists accepted the simple denotative meaning(s) of the word as the core, the substance of its value. The inherited language of a culture was to be affirmed & loved along with all other things (in Gumilev's "chaste" vision); the shaping power of art worked in tandem with the given world of nature, not in isolation or alienation. To repeat : this clarity & firmness of expression, the recognition of the akme or beauty of the living language as such, became the bond which united the free & independent sphere of poetry with the actual & ethical world at large. Gumilev & the other Acmeists, again, called this state "equilibrium" (or "integrity") : a synthesis of ethics & aesthetics.

These are just a few very basic aspects of the Acmeist movement. What this suggests to me - as it has for years - is that these concepts, & this attitude, have relevance and application for poets today. We can learn from their shared sense of an objective standard - a "judgement about poetry", as Mandelstam put it. We can learn from their affirmation of the (meaningful, beautiful) Word, and the "world of which it was a part" (W. Stevens); we can learn from the complementarity they discover between the equilibrium of the poem and the normative ethos of civilization, the "teleological warmth" of "domestic Hellenism." The Acmeist's "judgement of poetry" is also a judgement of our own poetry, and the poetry being produced around us now...

Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, & their son Lev, ca. 1913

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