Anna Akhmatova and the Creation of a Poem

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Anna Akhmatova came into my life about a quarter of a century ago, though I cannot remember the day. Probably by means of a thin paperback volume of her verse, Russian on one page, English opposite on the other, which I found on some second-hand bookstore shelf. Shops like that abounded in the area surrounding Stanford University in those days, though most have now vanished. I still have the volume. It has been joined by several others much more complete, though no more loved, than itself. 

Anna was born near the Black Sea in 1889 and died in Moscow in 1966. She was a major poetic voice before the Russian Revolution and was part of the short-lived avant-garde group, known as Acmeism, with which some of the most illustrious writers of Russia’s pre-revolutionary Silver Age are associated: Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Kuzmin, Georgii Ivanov, and Nikolai Gumilev, Anna’s first husband. Using ideas taken from ancient Greece, the Acmeists favored the ideal of Apollonian clarity, especially as opposed to what they saw as the Dionysian ‘frenzy’ of emotion and expression evident in the works of those writers who were associated with Russia’s Symbolist movement. Great works of the Acmeist movement include Mandelstam’s ‘Stone’ (1912) and ‘Tristia’ (1922). The Acmeists prized clarity and compactness of expression, along with the use of direct and precise imagery. Unfortunately most of them came to grief in the course of the revolution and its aftermath: Mandelstam died in a Siberian labor camp and Gumilev was shot. Anna herself lived a long life in official disfavor and experienced all the horrors of the Soviet period, including the imprisonment of her son and the deaths and suicides of many of her friends, recording a number of these things in her own verse. 


In grad school I did some translations of my own of Akhmatova’s verse. I’m happy to share one of them here. It was written in 1936, at the height of the period of terror which preceded the Second World War, and describes Akhmatova’s own conception of the processes involved in the creation of a poem:

‘It goes like this: a certain lassitude;
In my ears the incessant chiming of a clock;
In the distance a roll of thunder abates.
Unfamiliar, captive voices
Come to me, and plaints and groanings,
A kind of secret circle draws smaller.
But in this whispered and ringing chasm
Rises one all-triumphant sound.
Around it, such an irretrievable silence
That the forest grass grows audibly,
And evil, with its knapsack, walks the earth…
Now words already are heard 
And the light rhymes of signaling bells.
Then I begin to understand
And the dictated lines easily
Lie down on the snow-white page.’
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