Today I finished reading Poems of Akhmatova. In my last post I said that I was afraid I might have selected the wrong text, but having read the book I now think I picked just the right one for someone with minimal familiarity with the poet's life and work. The Russian poems on the left pages that I feared would be like flies buzzing didn't distract me at all. I quickly adjusted to just reading the right-hand pages. The Introduction by Max Hayward is very readable and informative. I learned that Akhmatova was reticent in her personal life, a quality reflected in the economy of her poetry. She hated the term "poetess." So do I! Petersburg, where she spent the first sixteen years of her life, had a lasting influence on her work. The importance of place is seen throughout her poetry. She married Nikolai Gumilev, another poet, but it was not a happy marriage and ended in divorce. She was influenced by another Russian poet, Innokenti Annenski, who did for her what she would later do for Jane Kenyon. Reading his work changed hers and helped her find her own voice.
Like other poets of her day, Akhmatova was very interested in architecture. She followed the advice of Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote the introduction to her first collection. He advised, ". . . be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity—then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beautiful clarity." That still sounds like good advice.
My collection contains only 40 poems, a good number to begin with. I also liked that they are arranged in chronological order so I could trace Akhmatova's evolution as a poet. As time went on, her poems became longer, more personal, and more political as she witnessed the upheaval in Stalinist Russia and was profoundly affected by it. She was a popular poet, on one occasion reading for an audience of three thousand people. But she was silenced and prohibited from publishing her work. Her son Lev was imprisoned, later released, then imprisoned again, and released and imprisoned a third time. After the third arrest, she burned all her papers. For a brief period she was compelled to write poems in praise of Stalin. One can hardly fault her for this with her son in prison. Later, she was permitted to travel and to again have a public life as a poet. Hayward concludes that at the end of her life she believed that she had fulfilled her destiny.
I want to include some of my favorite poems. Instead of trying to locate them on the internet, I'm going to type them in here. I want the poems to go through my eyes, into my brain, down into my heart, and out through my fingers. A total infusion.
"Heart's Memory of Sun . . ."
Heart's memory of sun grows fainter,
sallow is the grass;
a few flakes toss in the wind
The narrow canals no longer flow,
they are frozen over.
Nothing will ever happen here,
In the bleak sky the willow spreads
its bare-boned fan.
Maybe I'm better off as I am,
not as your wife.
Heart's memory of sun grows fainter.
What now? Darkness?
Perhaps! This very night unfolds
"Three Things Enchanted Him . . ."
Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
. . . And he was tied to me.
These two early poems were written during the years of Akhmatova's marriage to Gumilev.