Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Influence of East Asian Literature on Western Poetry: Part 2: The Akhmatova Bridge

In the first blog in this series, I talked about the early French translations of anthologies that introduced Western fans of literature to Chinese and Japanese poetry, including Le Livre de jade [The Book of Jade], and the craze for all East Asian art in the West in the late nineteenth century, called Le Japonisme.
Russian poets were well aware of these trends in Parisian culture, and Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966, was no exception.

Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet, 1889–1966

Anna Akhmatova and her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, visited Paris on their honeymoon in 1910, and returned to that city the following year.

Nikolai Gumilev, Russian poet, 1886–1921

Clearly they collected all of the available anthologies of East Asian poetry in French, since Gumilev produced a compilation of these anthologies that he translated into Russian. Gumilev called this chapbook of poems Farforovyi Pavilion: Kitaiskie Stikhi [The Porcelain Pavilion: Chinese Poems], which he published in 1918.

The Porcelain Pavilion: Gumilev's anthology of East Asian poetry, 1918

He based the book on four different French anthologies of Chinese classical poetry, including Gautier’s and Saint-Denys’.
At the same time that Akhmatova and Gumilev were visiting Paris and collecting these volumes of translations, Akhmatova was working on the book that would turn Russian poetry upside down, the book that launched modernist poetry in the Russian language. This was her first collection, Vecher [Evening], published in 1912.

Frontispiece of Akhmatova's collection Evening, published 1912

Before Akhmatova’s volume, Russian poetry was dominated by the symbolist movement. Symbolism was a school of poetry that often strove to create crystalline word structures that described an otherworldly reality, often an otherworldly love. One of the most famous symbolist poems is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” Poe was a symbolist avant la lettre, before the term “symbolism” even existed:

It was many and many a year ago, 
   In a kingdom by the sea, 
That a maiden there lived whom you may know 
   By the name of Annabel Lee; 
And this maiden she lived with no other thought 
   Than to love and be loved by me. 

Where is this kingdom? What sort of relationship is this where lovers think only of one another? What kind of language is this that marches along with a rhythm unlike the phrases that people usually speak? This was not a world or a style that was useful to Anna Akhmatova as a poet.
Instead, Akhmatova tried to find a different model for poetry, one that dealt with real people living in real places who had real experiences and emotions, spoken in a voice not that distant from daily speech. Akhmatova found that model in East Asian poetry.
She was particularly influenced by the traditional topic in East Asian poetry of the woman who waits all night in vain for her lover to arrive. Akhmatova may well have known a poem by the mother of the Commander Michitsuna.

Mother of the Commander Michitsuna, Japanese poet

This Japanese poet wrote in the tenth century C.E. and was married to the Regent Kaneie. The poem appeared in French translation in de Rosny’s 1871 anthology of Japanese verse. Here is the U.S. poet Kenneth Rexroth’s English version:

Have you any idea
How long a night can last, spent
Lying alone and sobbing?

This traditional tanka is a powerful and concise statement of an emotion. It sums up a relationship in just a few lines. The poet emphasizes the length of the night spent waiting for the lover. The speaker of this Japanese tanka never mentions her lover explicitly, but she does address him with a question.
In her poem “White Night” from her first collection, Evening, Akhmatova revived the traditional East Asian theme of the lover who waits in vain all night for her beloved, but she transported it to a modern, Russian setting. The title refers to the long days of the Nordic summer, when the sun barely sets:

White Night

I haven’t locked the door,
Nor lit the candles,
You don’t know, don’t care,
That tired I haven’t the strength

To decide to go to bed.
Seeing the fields fade in
The sunset murk of pine-needles,
And to know all is lost,

That life is a cursed hell:
I’ve got drunk
On your voice in the doorway.
I was sure you’d come back.
                                                            1911, Tsarskoye Selo

(translation copyright © by D.M. Thomas)

The lover in this poem is so distraught that she doesn’t even bother to light the candles once it finally gets dark, or to drag herself to bed when she realizes the man she’s waiting up for is not coming home. She can’t help keeping the door unlocked in the hope that he will still arrive. The daylight that goes on and on mirrors the insomnia and unstoppered pain of the speaker who waits up.
Akhmatova heightens the emotion implied in poems such as the tanka just discussed. She adapts the traditional theme of the jilted lover to her own purposes. As in the 10th century tanka, the speaker addresses her lover directly, but in “White Night” the speaker throws her accusation of callousness right in her lover’s face: “You don’t know, don’t care,/ That tired I haven’t the strength/To decide to go to bed.” Akhmatova made use of the East Asian classical tradition of the lover waiting all night in vain, but she interpreted the tradition in her own empowering way.
This forcefulness in Akhmatova’s work caught the ear of North American women writers when they were looking for their own poetic models during the feminist revival that began in the second half of the twentieth century.
In “White Night” Akhmatova employs another device common in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean verse—she choreographs imagery to embody emotion—the sunset and the fading pine needles represent her waning hope. We have the sense that this is not the first time she’s been disappointed by this man, though the last time is getting close.
Interestingly, Akhmatova ends her poem with the date and place of its composition: “1911, Tsarskoye Selo.”

Tsarskoye Selo

Her use of a time and location represents a significant extension of the East Asian tradition. Every one of Akhmatova’s poems ends with the date below the last line of the poem, a stamp of authenticity indicating that these experiences were not simply invented. Many classical Chinese and Japanese poems feel autobiographical, and Akhmatova again expands on this tradition. Akhmatova uses the date at the end of her poem to indicate that she is bearing witness to the events of her heart, just as she witnessed the horrors of Stalin’s dictatorship later in her life. By making the date the conclusion of all her poems, Akhmatova was turning her verse into an ongoing diary of her personal experience, a stance that became the foundation of much of the poetry written by North American women in the 1970s and 80s.
The addition of the name of the town Tsarskoye Selo gives “White Night” an even more personal identification. Tsarskoye Selo was the Versailles of Russia, the site of the tsar’s summer palace. Significantly, it’s also the town where Akhmatova grew up and where she lived with Gumilev, tying the poem more closely to her first marriage.
In a passage from her memoirs, My Half Century, Akhmatova discusses the importance for her of writing out of her own experience. She contrasts her approach with that of the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning: “I’m somewhat anti-Browning, He always spoke in another character, for another character. I do not let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself….” This passage reads like a manifesto for the North American poetry of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when writers such as Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Linda McCarriston, and many others used autobiographical material as the source of their poetic inspiration and politics.
This outspokenly autobiographical stance of the Acmeist poets was expressed even more explicitly by Nadezhda Mandelstam. Nadezhda was the the wife of Akhmatova’s friend and closest literary ally, the poet Osip Mandelstam: “In poetry, every word is a confession, every finished work is a part of the poet’s autobiography….” (quoted in Justin Doherty, The Acmeist Movement in Russian Poetry: Culture and the Word).

In short, what Akhmatova found in the East Asian tradition was a poetry of personal narrative. This personal narrative was sorely missing in the European and American poetry of the late nineteenth century, dominated by otherworldly visions of the symbolists, the medieval revivals of the pre-Raphaelites, and the displaced emotions of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues. Why the personal narrative of the East Asian tradition? Personal narrative is a sort of bearing witness, and where there are witnesses, there can be judgments, there can be remedy.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts on 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 TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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