Saturday, August 15, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 4: Direct Lament—Akhmatova's "Requiem"

Now I’d like to talk about two very different approaches to lament. One is what I would call direct lament. In this sort of work, the author makes it very clear that she or he is mourning the defeat or loss of something. The writer describes the condition of that loss in clear terms and the reader is in no way unaware or confused about the emotion the author is expressing.

Anna Akhmatova as sketched by Amadeo Modigliani in Paris, 1911
A good example of direct lament is Anna Akhmatova’s classic poem “Requiem.” Akhmatova wrote this poem in several parts during the darkest stays of the Stalinist terror, when all of the Soviet Union was in horrible fear of the deportations to Siberian labor camps, executions, and internal exile that marked this period in Russian history when the Communist Party ruled with through a network of repressive institutions. Akhmatova and her family and friends suffered greatly during this persecution, when as many as 14 million people were sent to prison or forced labor camps. The Stalinist purges took the lives of two of her husbands and her son spent many years in forced labor camps.

Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem” about the Stalinist terror was written at great personal risk. The secret police had searched her house in surprise dawn visits and went through all her papers. She only was able to retain this long poem by having various friends memorize pieces of it, and then she reassembled the friends and the poem after Stalin’s death. One section was lost for years when she lost touch during World War II with one of the memorizers, and Akhmatova only was able to reconstruct that section years later when the two of them met accidentally on the street in Leningrad—there were no phone books allowed in the Soviet Union.

Here is the Prologue of “Requiem” in the English version by D.M. Thomas in his Akhmatova translation, Selected Poems:

In those years only the dead smiled,
Glad to be at rest:
And Leningrad city swayed like
A needless appendix to its prisons.
It was then that the railway-yards
Were asylums of the mad;
Short were the locomotives’
Farewell songs.
Stars of death stood
Above us, and innocent Russia
Writhed under bloodstained boots, and
Under the tyres of the Black Marias.

Black Marias were the vans that the secret police used to transport prisoners.

This is clearly a poem of direct lament. The reader knows that the writer is describing a terrible loss, and in deep mourning for that loss. One of the lines that haunts me is “Leningrad city swayed like/A needless appendix to its prisons.” The prisons have become the raison d’être, the reason for being of this great cultural capital, which Akhmatova describes as now mainly good for supplying inmates for the gulag.


“Requiem” is a masterpiece, and even more moving because Akhmatova somehow turned her country’s most terrible hour into something stately and, well—beautiful. That is an enormous victory, even while her family and her nation and justice suffered so many awful defeats. I recommend reading the whole poem to get a fuller sense of her enduring achievement.

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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