Anna Akhmatova
August 20, 2012 3:17 PM   Subscribe

Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to intricately structured cycles, such as Requiem (1935–40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her style, characterised by its economy and emotional restraint, was strikingly original and distinctive to her contemporaries. The strong and clear leading female voice struck a new chord in Russian poetry. Her writing can be said to fall into two periods – the early work (1912–25) and her later work (from around 1936 until her death), divided by a decade of reduced literary output. Her work was condemned and censored by Stalinist authorities and she is notable for choosing not to emigrate, and remaining in Russia, acting as witness to the atrocities around her.

Here she recites her poem "Muse":

When at night I await the beloved guest,
Life seems to hang by a thread. ”What is youth?” I demand
Of the room. ”What is honor, freedom, the rest,
In the Presence of her who holds the flute in her hand?”

But now she is here. Tossing aside her veil,
She considers me. ”Are you the one who came
To Dante, who dictated the pages of Hell
To him?” I ask her. She replies, “I am.”

- trans. Lyn Coffin
posted by Egg Shen (11 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
The evening light is broad and yellow,
Tender, the April chill.
You are many years late,
Yet I’m glad you are here.

Sit down now, close to me,
And look with joyful eyes:
Here it is, the blue notebook –
Filled with my childhood poems.

Forgive me that I lived in sorrow,
Rejoiced too little in the sun.
Forgive, forgive, that I mistook
Too many others for you.

- trans. A.S. Kline
posted by Egg Shen at 3:18 PM on August 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

That's really weird. I was randomly considering doing a post about Akhmatova after reading through Jane Kenyon's collected poems - she did a book of translations in the '80s. I guess our minds are in synergy, Egg Shen.
posted by Think_Long at 3:22 PM on August 20, 2012

Wild honey has the scent of freedom,
dust—of a ray of sun,
a girl’s mouth—of a violet,
and gold—has no perfume.
Watery—the mignonette,
and like an apple—love,
but we found out forever
that blood smells only of blood.

posted by nathancaswell at 3:23 PM on August 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I once marched from the Garden District to the French Quarter—in the snow!—while reading Akhmatova aloud. (Sadly, I lacked a lobster to lead on a leash.)
posted by octobersurprise at 4:18 PM on August 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was going to link to a clip of Akhmatova reading "The Muse," but her reading voice is similar to Neruda's and… takes some getting used to.
posted by Nomyte at 4:27 PM on August 20, 2012

I always loved "Lot's Wife", her great poem about exile. It gives some insight into why she chose to stay in Russia. Excellent Richard Wilbur translation:

"The just man followed then his angel guide
Where he strode on the black highway, hulking and bright;
But a wild grief in his wife's bosom cried,
Look back, it is not too late for a last sight!

Of the red towers of your native Sodom, the square
Where once you sang, the gardens you shall mourn,
And the tall house with empty windows where
You loved your husband and your babies were born.

She turned, and looking on the bitter view
Her eyes were welded shut by mortal pain;
Into transparent salt her body grew,
And her quick feet were rooted in the plain.

Who would waste tears upon her? Is she not
The least of our losses, this unhappy wife?
Yet in my heart she will not be forgot
Who, for a single glance, gave up her life."

posted by zipadee at 4:51 PM on August 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

I throw into this mix Isaiah Berlin's momentous time with Akmatova in his words.
posted by jadepearl at 5:47 PM on August 20, 2012

Ah, fiddly NY Times link, the essay by Berlin is ‘Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956’ from his collection, Personal Impressions. This is available through Google books.
posted by jadepearl at 6:07 PM on August 20, 2012

A portrait in porcelain of Akhmatova from 1924 by Natalya Dan’ko.
posted by misteraitch at 1:41 AM on August 21, 2012

Lot's wife is a fucking awesome poem.
posted by angrycat at 3:49 AM on August 21, 2012

I learned about Akhmatova from Catherynne M. Valente's excellent novel Deathless.
posted by lumensimus at 5:37 PM on August 21, 2012

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