Posts Tagged ‘poetry’


The Rigors of Anna Akhmatova

June 11, 2011

Born into pre-revolutionary Russia, Anna Akhmatova lived through nearly every epoch of life within the Soviet Union. A poetess first published in her early teens, Akhmatova was well-known as a thinker and muse amongst the intelligentsia. However, while her ability was clear prior to the revolution, it was her role as witness that has made her legacy. Executions, imprisonment, abandonment, suicide, and slow death defined day-to-day living. Oppression of thought through spies and bugs were typical. And memory became the greatest tool of rebellion.

At one point in this history, for seventeen months Akhmatova waited outside a prison each day to bring food to her son, or to advocate for his release. Published in the St. Petersburg Journal in the New York Times is an account of the day she was recognized:

“One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

‘Can you describe this?’

And I said: ‘I can.’

“Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”

Central to this retelling is the ability of the poet to stand as a witness to the misuse of power and the horrors of reality.

Which leads to the question of how can poets be witnesses? The poetry throughout the ages has served different services. Whether to convey liturgical material, regional news, or to instruct, poetry has been a mode of communication steeped in tradition. In classical times, the poetic emphasis lay in form and craft—as seen in both epic works and smaller sonnets (Homer or Sapho). However, the closer one moves toward Modernism, the more the emphasis moves from transcendental romantic themes, toward symbolism—which argued that art should represent absolute truths which could only be described indirectly. Metaphor and the liberation of technique from tradition were both central to the Symbolism Manifesto.

Maturing into the beginning of the 20th century, Akhmatova came into the poetic world just as Symbolism was becoming popular in the western world. Even prior to the revolution, the divide between east and west was strong, and the poets of Russia headed in a different philosophical direction. Developed in 1910, Acmeism was a school of poetry, which focused on the Greek root for acme, “the best age of man.”

Acmeist poetry celebrated craft and rigorous form over the mysticism of imagery—permanence over transience. Choosing not to emigrate, Akhmatova was harshly censored and closely watched throughout the majority of her life. However, her classical diction and direct details revealed not only the factual authenticity, but represented the stark emotional grounds the country was traversing internally.

Here are two examples of her poetry:

Song of the Last Meeting

My heart was chilled and numb,

but my feet were light.

I fumbled the glove for my left hand

onto my right.

It seemed there were many steps,

I knew—there were only three.

Autumn, whispering in the maples,

kept urging: ‘Die with me!

I’m  cheated by joylessness,

changed by a destiny untrue.’

I answered: ‘My dear, my dear!

I too: I’ll die with you.’

The song of the last meeting.

I see that dark house again.

Only bedroom candles burning,

The yellow, indifferent, flame.


‘ What does a certain woman know

                               of the hour of her death?’  Mandelshtam

Tallest, most suave of us, why Memory,

forcing you to appear from the past, pass

down a train, swaying, to find me

clear profiled through the window-glass?

Angel or bird? How we debated!

The poet thought you translucent straw.

Through dark lashes, your eyes, Georgian,

looked out, with gentleness, on it all.

Shade, forgive. Blue skies, Flaubert,

insomnia, late-blooming lilac flower,

bring you, and the magnificence of the year,

nineteen-thirteen, to mind, and your

unclouded temperate afternoon, memory

difficult for me now—Oh, shade!

In these poems, we can clearly see how the emphasis in Acmeism of traditional form provides a container for the chaos that ensues within the lived world. Rhyme scheme, meter and verse counter the stress and harsh reality of the themes explored there in. Likewise, the use of realistic imagery creates a simple relationship with a reader. The identification of the audience with the author finds common ground in windows, homes, and flowers—possibly the only commonalities available between 21st century America and revolutionary Russia, they allow for some type of identification throughout time and cultural boundaries.

The rigors of Anna Akhmatova are confined to the strict structure of her poetry. The discipline that the Stalinist Soviet Union instituted on its people is paralleled in her craft. However, the themes and hidden memories bear witness to the tears that have fallen, vanished love, and loneliness of lost time.



Narrative and Myth: Exploring Identity through Mythopoesis

June 1, 2009

Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything

and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

The reshaping of a myth into a contemporary form is one of the great challenges of 20th century literature. The modernist poet and critic, T.S. Eliot wrote about the mythical method, which gave form and called on the archetypal power of the classics to serve as platforms for new works of art and thought. However, it is impossible in discussing the re-visioning of myth from the modern to post-modern literary periods, it is impossible not to speak of identity. Myth provides a context for man’s identity to be explored. In the 20th century, globalization, technology, capitalism, and world wars deconstructed what was previously conceived to be true and beautiful. Born at the turn of the century in Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges lived and wrote about many of the identity struggles that faced the soul of the world. Working in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, Borges’ used a variety of form to explore pervading questions. Specifically, in his short work “Borges and I,” he explores the relationship between literary narrative and myth.

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales Marie Louise Von Franz summaries Jung’s concept of the Self. “The unknown fact is what Jung calls the Self, which is the psychic totality of an individual and also, paradoxically, the regulating center of the collective unconscious. Every individual and every nation has its own modes of experiencing the psychic reality” (2). To know the self in the world has been the primary challenge of philosophers, artists, writers, and religious thought for thousands of years. Many of the creative challenges of the 20th century have dealt with seeing the horrors of the Self, the split of identity, and the challenge to continue on. A visual example is found in the Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica. In this painting the mythic structures unite with modern horrors through cubist techniques. Likewise, many artist strove to develop a mythic vocabulary to voice concern, horror, and hope for the human condition. “Borges and I” is an example of  how mythology, narrative, and existential questions combined to develop into a mythopoetic vision. Specifically, this is achieved through the narrative structure, mythological personage, and psychological questions being explored.

“Borges and I” is archived within Borges’ poetry. However, the form of the short work is not written in meter, nor does it call on any familiar poetic cues. However, the writing is short, and more importantly, it reads with the feel of poetry. The narrative has a feeling of spontaneity that is often over burdened by prose. The lightness of text, is matched by meditative musings. Though I am reading this piece in translation, one of the most effective narrative strategies is Borges use of clauses. For example, “I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary.” If this sentence was reformatted using line breaks in addition to the punctuation it could easily be recognized as a poem. However, the combination of poetic voice with narrative flow allows the reader to enter into the stream of perception without the boundary of form that poetry so often utilizes. Borges’ break with traditional narrative serves the mythological objective to reassemble a vision of the world by mixing form and content.

The mythological references of “Borges and I” are engaged through the author/subject relationship. In the text Borges is personified, or inscribed with mythic power beyond that of the Borges who exists in day-to-day life. “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” These opening lines, distance the narrator by through the use of “one.” In addition, it is made clear that Borges is active, while the narrator is passive. The contrast between active and passive may be likened to the idea of “soft and hard” world mythology. Events could happen when the world was soft, before it became hard and fate was decided.  Another example is when the narrator explains how he is being consumed by Borges, “Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.” The implication of this statement is that if Borges did not have some greater mythological power, than there he would not be able to consume the narrator. If Borges were just perverse, then there would be no great attraction. Finally, the narrator shares a time when he tried to escape from Borges, “Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things.” This is a very important statement in that it connects mythology to the intention of Borges. As with the pages of the book, the narrator explores the different possibilities of mythic identity, but instead discovers that Borges is authoring even the presumed escape. Borges extends to mythic proportions and the idea of authorship to divinity is suggested.

The true power of this piece is realized through the psychological suggestions surrounding authorship. The reader understand that the author, Jorge Luis Borges, is writing a piece entitled “Borges and I.” One would presume that the poem will be about an assumed narrator learning about the author. While this is true on some levels, what makes this piece existentially interesting is that it is the Self encountering Self. Specifically, it is Borges expedition into himself as an active author, and passive human being. The “perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things” is rationalized by being the creative genius that motivates Borges writing. In Jungian terms, “Borges and I” is the Self encountering it’s shadow. For the narrator, the character Borges personifies many characteristics that he feels to be dark, consuming, and manipulative. In many ways, it is clear that the narrative voice could wish for another existence stating that his life “is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.” As the author Borges personifies himself as the wishful musings of himself as a man consumed by his writing, thus providing a model for how the self must learn to negotiate the different facets of identity.

As Jorge Luis Borges strives to navigate the different facets of himself through narrative and mythic portrayal, a final twist is given to the story. For the reader, this final detail elevates the work from being an identity project into mythopoesis. As we have established, the premise of the poem is in two parts of Borges meeting each other, the writer and the man. But, the final sentence changes this relationship. “I do not know which of us has written this page.”  Here the narrator is discovered to also be a writer and the entire piece is thrown end over end. The mythic agency of author is no longer clear-cut and the layers of self-authorship can no longer be explored rationally, and enters into a realm of existential intuition. The challenge of 20th century creative perspective is achieved through the destabilization of intellectual rationale. As with the world, the reader can not presume to assert control over the author, nor can the author assume to have agency over the text. Myth, narrative, and mythopoesis must work together to create an organic experience independent of what has previously been imagined.

© 2009 Cerena Ceaser



December 2, 2008

Suzuki Harunobu

Toe touched length

crests mild ripples

of sea scapes

Looking left

she moves straight

away from sand-patterned shore

a figure of memory

lost in swaying future lines