Sunday, December 30, 2007

Contemporary Poetry from Russia

A Night in the Nabokov Hotel.
20 Contemporary Poets from Russia

Dedalus Press, Ireland, 2006

ISBN 1 904556 55 8

Introduction, English translations © Anatoly Kudryavitsky 2006

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
in any form or by any means without the prior permission of the copyright holder.

Publisher's note:

A Night in the Nabokov Hotel is a major new bilingual anthology of contemporary poetry from Russia. Translated and edited by Anatoly Kudryavitsky, it "seeks to capture the frustration, the suppressed ambitions and the hidden energy of several generations of poets, ranging from those who endured the Communist regime, with its strict censorship, to those who began writing in the almost unrecognisably changed Russia of more recent times."


(some links are clickable)

Gennady Aigi Elena Katsuba Vsevolod Nekrasov
Ivan Akhmetiev Konstantin Kedrov Rea Nikonova
Gennady Alexeyev Igor Kholin Genrikh Sapgir
Vladimir Aristov Victor Krivulin Asya Shneiderman
Sergey Biryukov Anatoly Kudryavitsky Sergey Stratanovsky
Vladimir Earle Alexander Makarov-Krotkov Alina Vitukhnovskaya
Dmitri Grigoriev Arvo Mets Contemporary Russian Poets Database


A saying has it that Russia produces more than it can consume locally. Should this also refer to Russian poetry? Western readers are well acquainted with poetry written in that country over the last three centuries, from Alexander Pushkin to Anna Akhmatova, mostly through translations. Some other Russian poets, including Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky, felt at home writing in English. This book offers an opportunity to hear a few newer voices.

As Vladimir Nabokov once put it, ‘Literature belongs to the department of specific words and images rather than to the department of general ideas.’ Unfortunately, the general idea in the Communist Russia was to encourage and publish only those writers who supported and even glorified the regime. It was Government policy, especially strict after the last world war. It is unconceivable now that any Irish poet could write a paean for Bertie Ahern or Enda Kenny, but we have to bear in mind that in Communist Russia, even in the 1980s, this sort of poetry was a commonplace. Other poets ran the danger of being treated with suspicion by each and every literary vigilante. Should we be surprised by Marina Tsvetayeva's line: ‘All the poets are Jews’?

‘After Pasternak, Russian poetry sustained a pause,’ the late Genrikh Sapgir used to say. It was destined to be a long pause. In fact, the generation of Russian writers that emerged in the early 60s grew up reading and studying in college Russian poetry from the 1920s. Some of them were particularly inspired by Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam, some others by Velimir Khlebnikov and other Russian Futurist poets.

Genrikh Sapgir is the most prominent figure of the writers that came to be associated with the now well-known Lianosovo group, which also included Vsevolod Nekrasov and Igor Kholin. These Moscow poets sought out new models and positions, and exploited the possibilities of including common speech directly in their texts. Each of them had a Dostoyevskian eye for everyday Russian life, which made their work immediately accessible. No wonder that they once found themselves uncomfortable with authority and orthodoxy, and also with the authorities and the Orthodox Church, suppressed under the Communists but still powerful, as far as the minds of the Russians were concerned. These were real rebels, unlike a few other Russian poets who enjoyed virtual pop-star status, unthinkable if transposed to other parts of Europe. In reality, the latter were far from any sort of protest against Soviet totalitarianism and therefore could not be regarded as anything other than naughty children of the regime.

Some of the Russian poets of those days chose to refrain from publishing anything openly, others were banned from publishing. Writing ‘into the table’ became customary for them. Their work captured frustration, suppressed ambitions and hidden energy of several generations of Russian people. As Vassily Kandinsky once put it, ‘Even absolute silence is a loud speech.’ Joseph Brodsky in one of his lectures compared Mark Strand and Charles Simic, well-established American ‘poets of silence’, as he called them, to Russian ‘unofficial’ poets who had to dwell in silence, due to having no other literary space. Rea Nikonova, the poet from the South of Russia, even produced a catalogue of different kinds of silence. She knew very well what she was talking about, as she had lived in a small Russian town for much of her life.

The idea of a cultural centre was particularly dispiriting for those who were geographically distant from Moscow and therefore felt marginalised. Gennady Aigi and Arvo Mets are typical of the rise of poets who settled in the Russian capital and preferred to write in Russian rather than in their mother tongues, in this case Chuvash and Estonian respectively. The sources of their poetry were different; no wonder that their verse sounded different and enriched the Russian language to a great extent. Poems by Gennady Aigi are sometimes derived not even from words but from single syllables and sounds. He created his own language, an independent and unique speech or, if you prefer, chant. Interestingly, both Gennady Aigi and Arvo Mets made a great deal of translations, and so participated in an exchange of ‘poetic air’ with other cultures.

Those who followed were quick to learn from the emotion of poems by Sapgir and other poets of Lianosovo and the variety of poetic forms elaborated by Aigi and Vsevolod Nekrasov. The poet Sergey Biryukov, born in the South of Russia, inhabits approximately the same territory as Aigi, but is enclined to experiment with syntax and language rather than with the available voices. Behind Biryukov stand the famous Russian Futurist poets, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh. In Moscow, a younger generation of miniaturists – notably Alexander Makarov-Krotkov and Ivan Akhmetiev – experimented with shorter poetic forms, shorter even than those used by Arvo Mets, and succeeded in dismantling traditional forms of irony and understatement. They saw their work published only after Soviet imperial ambitions died a hard death.

Of course, it was inevitable that magic realism became one of the main trends in Russian poetry. The great figures of Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Bulgakov cast long shadows over Russian writing. In his essay Catastrophes in the Air, Joseph Brodsky defined the way in which writers of that strand worked. He described the metamorphose of Andrei Platonov, the prominent Russian magic realist of the beginning of the 20th century, a novelist and short story writer, in the following terms: ‘He tells the story about his own language, which turns out to be capable of generating a fictitious world, and then falls into dependence on it.’ Language used by most of the Russian magic realists has always been saturated with metaphors. Mandelstam was as much of a revolutionist as any Bolshevik, and Russian poetry can never be the same since his verse was published.

Poets of the Moscow-based Poetry Club mostly followed the customary metaphorical trend. A few of them, namely Vladimir Aristov, as well as Tatiana Shcherbina and Ivan Zhdanov – not included here, – were trying, quite successfully, to escape the negative inheritance of newer Russian poetry: its ironies and superficiality. Different realities and different times coincide in Aristov’s verse, unmistakeably ‘in a culture’ – but also multicultural. It seems that one can occasionally trace foreign presences in work by some Russian poets: e.g. William Blake and Saint-John Perse in Genrikh Sapgir and T S Eliot in Vladimir Aristov. The author of these lines must confess that in his green years he was much inspired by the work of such different poets as William Carlos Williams and Zbigniew Herbert.

The poets of the DOOS group founded by Konstantin Kedrov and Elena Katsuba in 1984 claimed that they invented meta-metaphors. True or not, their work is not merely aestheticism but also offers a critique of bankrupt vocabularies of ‘official’ Russian poetry – simply by suggesting newer and more interesting options of using the language. The writing of Alina Vitukhnovskaya, who emerged in 1990s, is energised by a tension between ironic social naturalism and ideological aspirations. She violently denounces any kind of violence, and ridicules the complacency of the Establishment. Her poems, though radically anarchic in their conception, are fairly sound and ‘well-built’.

As we know only too well, Russia has always been a huge and bipolar country. The difference between poetry from Moscow and St. Petersburg can make one feel that these two cities are located in different countries. The so-called New Leningrad school of poetry that emerged in St. Petersburg at the beginning of 1970s was extremely influential in the then seemingly invisible culture of the Russian literary underground. The group included the famous Joseph Brodsky, as well as Victor Krivulin, Sergey Stratanovsky and Elena Shvarts. Victor Krivulin’s obsession with Dante set him on a mental journey through the circles of some sort of hell, or ‘counterfeit Eden’, which he found in his urban habitation, but also inside many of his countrymen’s minds. Now the leading St. Petersburg poets, Elena Shvarts – not included here – and Sergey Stratanovsky, display a determination to remind us of the great cultural traditions of St. Petersburg, the former capital of Russia, and their deterioration under the Communists.

Incidentally, many St. Petersburg poets of 1990s seemed to take after Brodsky who had been exiled in 1972; some others developed pretty sophisticated poetry according to good old canons. Gennady Alexeev was the first St. Petersburg poet ever to choose vers libre as his poetic device. His texts are quite recognisable as something having its roots in his own emotional expressionism. He preserved a relatively unadulterated singleness in the first person, as did Vladimir Earle in his rather unusual melodious poems written in the 1970s. Younger St. Petersburg poets – notably Dmitri Grigoriev and Asya Shneiderman – rarely find it possible to locate a single self in their work. Dmitri Grigoriev often portrays urban blight and paranoia, while Asya Shneiderman gets an inspiration from shades of the Cimmerian or even biblical past, seemingly quite distinct and pictorial in her inner sight.

The work collected here documents poetry in Russia responding to challenges of the time by forging a radical new poetic, reconsidering writing techniques and language itself. Some of the poets represented in this book have only just begun. Alongside the fellow poets of their generation, they are destined to shape up poetry in the Russia of the future. What they have achieved is considerable, but they all have a potential for a great leap forward. In his essay The Keening Muse, Brodsky asserted: ‘Language is older than state, and prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history, all it needs is a poet.’ In Russia, we always had plenty of those!

Anatoly Kudryavitsky

Dublin, July 2006


Unknown said...

Nice blog!

I'm hoping you might be able to help me out or point me in the right direction ...

I'm looking for a Russian poem that I half-recall ... the subject matter is thus:

The subject of the poem is on his deathbed, recalling all the scents of the places he's travelled to .. Seville smelled of roses, etc ... the only scent he cannot remember is the smell of his homeland, of fresh russian snow. The poems ends: " Y uzhye tolpyat tyeni u poslyednovo poroga" - and already the shadows are crowding on the final threshold.

Do you know what poem this is?!?

Thanks for your time!

Virginia Price

Jean said...

Virginia, I know you left your comment a long time ago, but in case you happen to notice this, the poem you're looking for can be found here:
I typed the line you remembered in Cyrillic and googled it. The poem is called "Города и Годы" (Cities and Years) and it's by Дон-Аминадо (Don Aminado).
And thanks for writing this blog post, Anatoly. I've been trying to research contemporary Russian poetry, and this really helps.

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About Me

I was born in 1954 Moscow of a Polish father and half-Irish mother. Having lived in Russia and Germany, I now live in Dublin, Ireland. Educated at Moscow Medical University, I later studied Irish history and cultural heritage. In the following years I worked as a researcher in immunology, as a journalist and as a literary translator. I started writing poetry in 1978, but under the Communists was not permitted to publish my work openly. Since 1989 I have published a number of short stories, seven collections of my Russian poems, most recent being Graffiti (1998) and Visitors’ Book (2001), and a book of my English poems entitled Shadow of Time (Ireland, 2005). My poems and short stories were translated into nine languages. In the 1990s I edited Strelets/The Archer literary magazine, an anthology of new Russian poetry entitled Poetry of Silence (1998), and Zhuzhukiny Deti (2000), an anthology of Russian short stories and prose miniatures written in the second half of the 20th century. I was the founder and first President of the Russian Poetry Society. In 2006 I founded the Irish Haiku Society ( with Siofra O'Donovan and Martin Vaughan.