Saturday, November 10, 2007

Poets: Osip Mandelshtam

"Perhaps my whisper was already born before my lips."

While I wished to write of a women poet and intended to take up the genuis of Gwen Harwood today. It is rather I turn to another who has so provoked me in my own life to the point of my making life decisions based on the poetry that he wrote. I refer to Osip Mandelshtam, a poet of such high standing that he is perhaps one of the greatest of all time.

Osip Emelievich Mandelshtam was born in Warsaw, Poland on January 15 [O.S. January 3] 1891 to well-off family of Jewish merchants. He attended university in 1908 at the Sorbonne but moved to the University of Heidelberg in 1909 (Old French literature). In 1911 he returned to St Petersberg University (Philosophy) where is family had moved shortly after his birth and he had grown up.

Mandelshtam's first poetic compilations were Stone, published in 1913, Tristia published in 1922, and Second Book, published in 1923. In 1925, a collection of prose entitled Egyptian Stamp and a collection of critical articles On Poetry were published. In the next seven years, from October 1930, to July 1937, Mandelshtam wrote more than 200 compositions. His last two books: Voronezh Notebook (1966), and Conversations on Dante (1967), were published after his death in 1938.

While the Acmeist movement had been underway since 1911 it was in 1913 that an attempt at a manifesto was written by Mandelshtam. In 1919 The Morning of Acmeism by Mandelshtam was published. Looking at it today it seems to hold a great amount that is worth considering:

If one is thus to regard the sense as the content, then one must consider everything else in the word as a simple mechanical appendage that only impedes the swift transmission of the thought. "The word as such" was slow aborning. Gradually, one after the other, all the elements of the word were drawn into the concept of form; up to now only the conscious sense, the Logos, has been erroneously and arbitrarily regarded as the content. Osip Mandelshtam Utro Akmeizma p1

We do not wish to divert ourselves with a stroll in the "forest of symbols," because we have a more virgin, a denser forest--divine physiology, the boundless complexity of our dark organism. Osip Mandelshtam Utro Akmeizma p4

Form and content is united within the "boundless complexity of our dark organism" as all we can read is all we understand in what constitutes a potentially endless system of meaning. The product in the individual from such a situation is surprise, wonder, the marvellous of the everyday that makes life poetry and poetry life.

The Age

My beast, my age, who will try
to look you in the eye,
and weld the vertebrae
of century to century,
with blood? Creating blood
pours out of mortal things:
only the parasitic shudder,
when the new world sings.

As long as it still has life,
the creature lifts its bone,
and, along the secret line
of the spine, waves foam.
Once more life’s crown,
like a lamb, is sacrificed,
cartilage under the knife -
the age of the new-born.

To free life from jail,
and begin a new absolute,
the mass of knotted days
must be linked by means of a flute.
With human anguish
the age rocks the wave’s mass,
and the golden measure’s hissed
by a viper in the grass.

And new buds will swell, intact,
the green shoots engage,
but your spine is cracked
my beautiful, pitiful, age.
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
a creature, once supple and lithe,
at the tracks left by your paws.

Osip Mandelstam 1922

Such an attitude was not going to get you far in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Mendelshtam, I read somewhere, performed his poems in public readings, in the sense of the shaman, in rituals of spontanous catharsis. He travelled as well and the 1933 text Journey to Armenia is a masterpiece of free prose as travelogue:

"To see, to hear and to understand - all these notions were once blended in one semantic bundle. At the most initial stages of speech there were no definite notions, but only directions, fears and desires, needs and apprehensions. The notion of "head" had been shaped in the course of many thousand years out of a bundle of hazy notions, and it's symbol became "deafness". However, you will get it all confused anyway, my reader, and it's not for me to teach you..." Notes to Journey to Armenia

Mendelshtam did not take regular employment but lived from writing and teaching, translating and earned a small income as a published poet. He gave many of his manuscripts away to friends and it was only because his wife memorised many of his poems that they were later published in the 1960's and 1970's. In November 1933 Mendelshtam wrote 16 lines of verse. Osip Mandelstam's poem on Joseph Stalin (the Kremlin mountaineer) was written in November, 1933. Ossette was a reference to the rumour that Stalin was from a people of Iranian stock that lived in an area north of Georgia.

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders -
fawning half-men for him to play with.

The whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,

One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

He was soon arrested and exiled to Cherdyn. Stalin was interested in Mendleshtam personally and ordered he be "isolated but protected". He was allowed to return to Moscow in 1937, and starving, homeless and unemployed he wrote an Ode to Stalin in an attempt to be given some work and a place to live, but he was arrested again in 1938. The terror of this time so effected Mendelshtam that he attempted suicide (by jumping out of a window, his wife tried to stop him, grabbing his jacket which came away in her hands while he lept, leaving her holding the empty garment).

Mandelshtam under arrest 1934

The final arrest in 1938 was the end. He was sent into exile to a labor camp in Siberia. The Soviet government reported that Osip Mandelstam died at Vtoraya Rechka, on 27th December, 1938. His body was placed in an unmarked mass grave somewhere in the snow. He had a letter smuggled out of the camp shortly before he died:

My darling Nadia - are you alive, my dear?

I was given five years for counter-revolutionary activity by the Special Tribunal. The transport left Butyrki on September 9, and we got here October 12. My health is very bad, I'm extremely exhausted and thin, almost unrecognizable, but I don't know whether there's any sense in sending clothes, food and money. You can try, all the same, I'm very cold without proper clothes.

I am in Vladivostok. This is a transit point. I've not been picked for Kolyma and may have to spend the winter here.

The Final Arrest 1938

On the Web there is much of Osip Mendelshtam

A Collection of Poems

Books and Writers

OSIP EMILYEVICH MANDELSHTAM (1889-1938) Russian Poet by Vitaly Charny

20 Poems

Author:Osip Mandelstam on Wikisource
A large collection of texts by Mendelshtam

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