A Week In Books: Poetry's remarkable survival

By Boyd Tonkin
Saturday 21 December 2002 01:00
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What do Russian Bolshevik enforcers have in common with today's ITV executives? It turns out that both sets of commissars treat writing poetry as a dangerous deviation that ought be kept safely out of the public gaze. Even in Andrew Davies's sawn-off – though sporadically powerful – adaptation, viewers will have twigged that poetry meant as much as medicine to Dr Zhivago. But did we hear it? Not a line. In the novel, Boris Pasternak – himself one of greatest of modern Russian poets – avoids having to portray Yury spouting verse by appending a 40-page supplement of "Zhivago's poems". This is no mere optional extra, but the moral and artistic core of his hero's anguished pilgrimage.

Maybe viewers would not have reached for the zapper in their millions had they heard a few brief snatches of Zhivago's inner music. On a seasonal note, some might actually have welcomed exposure to one of the finest of the Zhivago poems: "Christmas Star", which shares a theme, a mood and a chilly climate with T S Eliot's "Journey of the Magi". In Pasternak's (or Dr Zhivago's) interpretation of the gospel story, the arrival of the shepherds and kings coincides with a vision of the human future, good and evil: "All the pranks of goblins and deeds of magicians; All the Christmas trees and all the children's dreams".

Before and since Zhivago's era, the Russian people have suffered more than their just ration of goblins' pranks, with very few magicians' deeds to balance them. As despots and elites have succeeded one another, Russia's poets have stood as a bulwark of honour and humanity. In the West, many imagine that mass media tell the truth about real life while poets spend their days dreaming up airy-fairy fantasies. Russians know the opposite is usually the case.

But how securely can an English-language reader hope to grasp this spiritual lifeline? Many well-qualified writers warn us about how much of Russian poetry goes missing in translation. (The translators of Dr Zhivago, by the way, made no great aesthetic claims for their rendering of the poems, but simply aimed for a reasonable accuracy.) True, no doubt; but the quality of what we can enjoy still strikes me as consistently impressive. Take Elaine Feinstein's recent Collected Poems and Translations (Carcanet, £14.95), which has already starred in our Christmas Books supplement but richly merits another recommendation. Feinstein includes almost 150 pages of translation from the 20th-century Russian giants: above all, from Marina Tsvetayeva, whose gripping and explosive lyrics migrate beautifully into her tough-but-tender English idiom.

Almost all Russian poets trace their literary ancestry back to Aleksandr Pushkin – who, like Pasternak, endured plenty of trouble from state busybodies. He paid them back with the imperishable gold of his satire. Yet Pushkin is, by common consent, the most demanding Russian bard of the lot for translators. He sounds so light; but cuts so deep. In English, we have strong versions of Eugene Onegin but of precious little else. So Antony Wood deserves a vodka toast for his witty and nimble translations of three Pushkin verse tales in The Bridegroom (Angel Books, £7.95): the titular eerie ballad, the rustic comedy of Count Nulin, and – best of all – the satirical fairy-tale of The Golden Cockerel.

In this mordant squib, a vain and warlike tsar scorns a sage and comes to a humiliating end. Autocrats mistreat visionaries at their peril, hints the fable – and the spurned artist has the last, longest laugh. Pushkin and Pasternak flourish; the courtiers and apparatchiki who thwarted them rot. "Poetry makes nothing happen," wrote W H Auden in a weary moment, "it survives". Yes – but, eventually, its survival looks like the most remarkable happening of all.

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