Why I am a Russian poet


                Brown Univ. Bookstore, Providence, RI.  July 18, 2012

Stuart and I are here today as part of the Bookstore’s Local Authors series.  And we are local authors – very local.  But we’re involved with something global, even universal.  Poetry is a world endeavor, and we are caught up in that, each in our own way.  For my part, I consider myself  a sort of  Russian from Minneapolis.  I’ve been inspired by a group of poets based in St. Petersburg around 1910, who called themselves Acmeists : Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam.  Mandelstam defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture”.  This is a concise summary of their sense of poetry as an enterprise in building civilization, and as poetry as a global, trans-historical continuum, a tradition stretching back into prehistory.  

Orpheus, legendary ur-poet of Greece, was priest of Apollo, god of music and medicine : a pairing which suggests that art and song are about healing.  For the Greeks, this meant a restoration of health and balance through reason, justice, clarity, wisdom.  Orpheus, Apollo’s representative, fell victim to the frenzy of the cult of Dionysius : the music of the word was sacrificed to the fury of desire amputated from understanding.  Poetry appears at the edge of this polarity, between mind and sense, intellect and feeling, consciousness and dream.  The Acmeists looked to their national poet, Pushkin, as embodying such an equipoise – at the cusp between alternating waves of neo-classicism and romanticism.  

Mandelstam wrote : “Classicism is revolution.”  This had a special implication in the context of revolutionary 1920s Russia.  The Acmeists were seeking a paradigm, within art, for the sanity and equilibrium – the “nostalgia for world culture” – which they recognized in the poetry of the ancient world.  The Roman poet Virgil was searching for such balance in his own day.  His Georgics, ostensibly an agricultural manual in verse, was really a meditation on a world which had fallen from a Golden Age of rural peace, into an Iron Age of violence and war.  The “audacity of the poet”, as Virgil put it, was to re-imagine that Golden Age, by way of an all-embracing pity : compassion for a world oppressed by the rule of brutality, force and chaos.  This is the fundamental Apollonian vocation : through imagination and song, to bring mankind, us, back to our senses – our intuition of profound justice and harmony.  This is the inner meaning of Mandelstam’s “nostalgia for world culture” : he thought of Classicism in this sense as the future.  

To my mind, these ideas bring us back to the local, as well : for here we are, in Providence : we are Providence poets.  Providence, to Roger Williams, the city’s founder, is a theological term, closely bound up with the RI state motto : Hope.  Providence signifies a cosmic plan : the Master Architect’s (or Musician’s) intention to restore all things to their original well-being.  Note how the meaning of this word resonates with Virgil’s, and the Acmeists’, sense of the poet’s vocation.

Today we are awash in aggressive discourses, a feverish babble of new technological means and motives.  Many today would advance the image of the poet as master communicator : rock star, rapper, stand-up comedian, celebrity, social spokesperson, political activist, promoter of recondite ideologies.  But I think the most basic stance of the poet is as listener.  Dante wrote, “Love speaks, and I follow after, noting down her words like a scribe.”  The poet listens to a mute song : the whisper of conscience, the music of understanding.  And this means that we are all poets here – Stuart and I and each of you, who are also listening.                                                                                                                                                                                                             


No comments: