December 17, 2015

5 Reasons Silver is as Precious Poetically as Metallically


5 Reasons Silver is as Precious Poetically as Metallically

As a metal, Silver means second place; as a period of poetic production in Russia, the Silver Age is unparalleled. Even while hearkening to the prior Golden Age (think Pushkin), the years 1890-1925 (give or take) stand out for the explosion of poetic voices, forms, and innovations. With help from the recently published Russian Silver Age Poetry (edited by Sibelan E.S. Forrester and Martha M.F. Kelly, published by Academic Studies Press, and henceforth RSAP), we explore five things that set that period apart.

1. The Apocalypse

The Silver Age straddles the bookends of two centuries, and those bookends weren’t particularly calm ones. The era is also known as the fin-de-siècle, which literally means “end of the century” but was widely accompanied by anxieties that the end of the world wasn’t too far off either.

Dmitri Merezhkovsky – a mystic and member of the “old guard” of Symbolism, gives a good example in his poem “Morituri”:

Oh, Sun of the future, we’ll meet you,
And in your matinal brilliance,
Greeting you, we shall die!​
'Salutant, Caesar Imperator.
Te morituri
.’ All our people,
Like gladiators in the arena,
Await death before the new era.

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That grim outlook had something to do with the rapid social change sweeping Russia and beyond. That included violence, radicalism, industrialization, and war, but also – and just as frightening for some – critiques of the old ways of doing things, sometimes by authors who were Jews, women, from various class backgrounds, or otherwise different from the folks who had held sway til then. 

2. The ladies have their say

Sure, there were earlier women poets, but the Silver Age was when they were recognized on their own terms (not with the tacit sneer that had gone with “lady poet” up till then). Innokenty Annensky, a poet at the time, noted that “Lyrics by females are one of the achievements of that cultural labor which will be bequeathed by modernism to history” (p. 361).

But don’t take Annensky at his word: let the lady lyricists speak for themselves. Zinaida Gippius was Merezhkovksy’s wife, and had an apocalyptic streak of her own:

She’s scabrous, scratchy – and she’s pointy, prickly –
She’s cold and clammy – she’s a slinky snake.
I’m sorely wounded by her jagged-slippery,
Repulsive-scorching, scaly-sly physique.

Let alone the punchline (“This gruesome fantasy is called – my soul”), Gippius’ lyrics at once show her skill with wordplay and her somewhat thorny take on the world.

Perhaps the most famous woman of the Silver Age is Anna Akhmatova. In addition to an ample selection of her poetry, RASP makes her the guinea pig for a showcase of how one poem can have various lives through translation. E.g.:

  • We are all carousers and loose women here (Judith Hemschemeyer)
  • We’re all drunkards here. Harlots. (D.M. Thomas)
  • All of us here are hookers and hustlers (Paul Schmidt)

And three more on top of those.

Sofia Parnok and Maria Shklapskaya deserve a nod, but to wrap up, here’s a “feminine” meditation on poetry by another great of the era, Marina Tsvetaeva:

Every poem is a love-child,
A penniless first-born
Bastard, set by the roadside
To beg from the winds.

3. Words, words, words

The Silver Age also saw unprecedented linguistic experimentation (as Tsvetaeva’s love-child might imply). For Symbolists, this meant that a rose could mean the sun or a woman, and a woman could mean eternity. In other cases, the new possibilities were less about signification, and more to do with sound games, as Vladislav Khodasevich demonstrates:

I love to utter words
That aren’t entirely suitable.
Tangle me up, blueness,
With threads that all but ring!

And Velimir Khlebnikov (whose wordplay may ring a bell from last week’s humor blog) leaps across language, grasshopper-like:

Glitter-letter wing-winker
gossamer grasshopper
packs his belly-basket
with credo-meadow grass.
Zin! Zin! Zin!
Sings the raucous racket-bird!
Swan-white wonder!
Brighter, brighter, bright!

4. Zhiznetvorchestvo

No, it’s not another example of Khlebnikovian wordplay. Zhiznetvorchestvo means “life-creation,” and in the Symbolist context it refers to a practice “focused on the aesthetic qualities and trajectory of the individual’s biography and arc of experiences as an aesthetic work” (Introduction, xlvi) In other words, a poet composes poetry, and also composes a life history; in the realm of zhiznetvorchestvo, the two are one and the same.

Take Konstantin Balmont:

I am the refinement of Russian sluggish utterance,
Other poets before me all warn of my coming,
It was I first uncovered this speech’s declivities,
Polyphonally, wrathfully, tenderly tolling…

And for another life-creator (see if you can guess his name):

I, the genius Igor-Severyanin,
am drunken with my victory:
…I have mastered all of literature!
I’ve eagled, thundering, to the throne!

Not all works in this genre were so focused on, well, tooting one’s own horn. But these fellows make it clear that where there’s talent, there’s plenty of personality.

5. Poetic schools are basically a soap opera

Egos, illicit romance, marriage, a bit of each (as with the Blok-Bely-Mendeleeva triangle) – that’s just the beginning as far as the intrigues of the Silver Age. The attempts to define, set apart, and prove the superiority of the specific schools of the time is a drama in itself.

Symbolism has to separate itself from Modernism; Acmeism stabs Symbolism in the back; Decadence smokes a pipe on the sidelines and goads everyone on; Futurism is above it all and just gives everyone a slap in the face (including public taste). Now there’s a lesson for Days of Our Lives.

The second section of RSAP helpfully includes essays (or manifestoes) by the poets at that time, from and about the Silver Age and its cast of characters. The debates cannot be summed up in a mere blog post, but one feature is central: the primacy of art in these poets’ worlds, and their urge to create, evaluate, and enjoy art both for its role at that moment of history, and for its own value.

To give the final word to Valery Bryusov:

“[Unsophisticated people] forget there are many things in the world that are completely useless in terms of human life, like beauty, for example, and that they themselves constantly commit acts that are totally useless – they love and they dream.”

What can we learn about Russia, now and throughout history, from its poetry? This month we try to find out, with help from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (released later this month), as reviewed in the November/December issue of Russian Life, and Russian Silver Age Poetry: Texts and Contexts, released earlier this year with Academic Studies Press


Poems cited from RSAP

Dmitri Merezhkovsky, “Morituri” (1891), translated by Sibelan Forrester, p. 67.
Zinaida Gippius, “She” (1905), trans. Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, p. 72.
Marina Tsvetaeva, “Every poem is a love-child” (1918), trans. Paul Schmidt, p. 223.
Vladislav Khodasevich, “I love to utter words” (1907), p. 95; trans. Sibelan Forrester, p. 95.
Velimir Khlebnikov, “Grasshopper” (1908-1909), trans. Paul Schmidt, p. 85.
Konstantin Balmont, “I am the refinement of Russian sluggish utterance” (1902), trans. Sibelan Forrester, p. 36.
Igor Severyanin, “I, the genius Igor-Severyanin” (1913), trans. Sibelan Forrester, p. 191.
Final quotation from Valery Bryusov, in “Keys to the Mysteries” (1904), trans. Ronald E. Peterson, p. 269.

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