Thursday, October 21, 2021

Osip Mandelstam


All I want to do is
escape the madness here.
To rise into the light
where I can disappear.

Where you can be like light--
and happiness is mine!--
and learn from every star
what it means to shine.

All I want to say is,
the whispering you hear--
that's the sound of light
I whisper in your ear.

The thing that makes us light
the thing that makes us shine
is that I whisper words
and that this voice is mine.

-Osip Mandelstam (tr. Paul Schmidt)

I've been reading Mandelstam in W. S. Merwin's translation and I'm afraid that has sent me back to reading those few poems of Mandelstam's that are in Paul Schmidt's collection of 20th century Russian poetry The Stray Dog Cabaret. I don't know, but for me, the best thing that can be said about the W. S. Merwin translations are that there are more of them. (And, yes, that is damning with faint praise.) What was (is?) it about American (and Canadian) poets of a certain era that they were so very afraid of rhyme? Whether it's appropriate or not for one's own poetry, it feels false to translate somebody like Mandelstam without it.

This poem dates from March 23, 1937. Mandelstam had been arrested in 1934 after the Stalin Epigram came to light. He had assumed its discovery would mean a death sentence, but after interrogation and torture he got off lightly (?) with internal exile to the Ural mountains, only to be rearrested in 1938. He died later that year.


  1. I love this poem...especially the first stanza. Thanks for introducing me to this poet. :)

    1. It's a lovely one. It's a bit astonishing he could be even as hopeful as this under such circumstances.

  2. i feel sorry for Osip and anybody else suffering under vindictive government. Seems like there's more of them every day... i don't know what's the matter with humans in power; they just lose all their marbles... through uncontrollable greed, i guess...

    1. I don't know either. Obviously Stalinist Russia in the 30s was one of the worst, but there are plenty of contemporary examples humans behaving badly once in power.

    2. I just listened to a speech by Putin today saying that what is happening in the West reminds him of the Bolshevik revolution under Lenin. The parallels he drew were very eerie. It completely changed my (probably rather uninformed) opinion of Putin. I thought he was bang on.

    3. I'm curious: what did he say? It's not a comparison that would have occurred to me.

      Putin, of course, is not one of the good guys: shuttering the free press, jailing and assassinating political opponents. I think of him as reinstalling Stalinist totalitarianism.

    4. You can read it here and the video is at the end of the article; worth listening to:

      Interestingly he criticizes the Bolsheviks and the Revolution, comparing it to what is happening in the west, an advent of Marxism. Honestly it shocked me as well. I never expected to agree (mostly) with Putin. It's like being in the twilight zone where people have exchanged personalities. Just weird.

    5. my impression has been that Putin is pretty devious...

    6. Interesting. I'm not especially fond of excessive wokeness, but mostly it strikes me as a bunch of college students getting carried away. Which then gets played up into a much bigger thing than it actually is.

      But it's a bit rich for Putin to complain about intolerance of other people's opinions. If AOC or whoever is his example of intolerance, she hasn't assassinated anybody yet.

      I'm also not exactly thrilled by those purported Russian virtues of the 19th century. Serfdom, spy networks, anti-Semitism, and absolute monarchy. I'm much happier living in the West now thank you very much, Mr. Putin. I really don't know where he gets off with that sort of thing. We haven't felt the need to ignore or the capability to ignore election results like somebody in Russia. He only stays in power by ignoring the vote and then shuttering newspapers when they point this out.

      It does worry me that conservative media has decided to lionize Putin who's much closer to a Stalinist Bolshevik than anybody in office in the West. He's a thug and a dictator. What does that say about the Daily Wire's values? What was bad about the Bolsheviks was not all that other stuff but that in Oct of 1917 they overturned the elected government of Mar of 1917 and then proceeded to shoot the people they didn't like. Which kind of means to me the more things change in Russia the more they stay the same...

      Anyway . ;-)

    7. I think so, too. (About devious...) I don't wonder if he isn't trolling us all...

      Anyway, one rant is enough for today! I try not to think about politics any more than I have to...

    8. I'm sorry! I didn't mean to raise your blood pressure, lol! I'm completely unqualified to judge Putin or his actions, as my knowledge of him and his time in office is sketchy, I was only trying to say that I thought many of his observations were quite astute. Perhaps even a dictator and thug can speak truth at times. In any case, it's his opinion to which he's entitled.

      Your comment is interesting though and has made me realize that I need to read more of current Russian events.

      Be at peace, my friend!

    9. No, no! That's quite alright. And of course he's entitled to his own opinion and he's got a country to run--in his own way. But he's not one of the good guys. I'll leave it that! ;-)

  3. I echo Mudpuddle's comments. We humans tend to make the same mistakes over and over again and are completely blind while making them. Quite unbelievable. And yes, poor Osip!

    1. Even worse: sometimes they're not blind, they know and just don't care.

      Still there's beauty in the world and in the word, too!