“I alone did not mix my voice with the howl”


This Thursday, at the Dallas Institute (at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers), I will give faculty remarks on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 1918 poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям,” translatable as “Good Treatment of Horses,” “A Good Relation with Horses,”  “Kindness to Horses,” or something similar. I will not duplicate my remarks here; instead, I will comment on what came out of memorizing the poem.

To memorize a poem, you have to learn its architecture and interior; you learn to find your way in the dark. You know what comes next, because it must come next; moreover, you know where it may pivot, sweep upward, or drop down. Some lines and words hold up the entire structure; when you know them, you know the rest.

For me, these were the lines in which the speaker separates him from the crowd laughing at the fallen horse. They change the rhythm and direction of the poem.

Лишь один я
голос свой не вмешивал в вой ему.

I alone
did not mix my voice with the howl.

“Лишь один я” is difficult to translate. It has triple emphasis; “Лишь” means approximately “only”; “один,” “one” or “alone”; and “я,” “I.” Each of the three words suggests singleness and separation; together, they proclaim it. This separation from the crowd opens up into introspection and relation, where the horse and speaker shed tears in parallel, and the speaker tells the horse that “each of us is in his own way a horse” (каждый из нас по-своему лошадь).

Then the horse comes with new strange vigor–maybe, the speaker thinks, she didn’t need this nursing at all, maybe even the idea seemed vulgar to her–but all the same, she dashed, stood on her feet, neighed (“rzhanula”), and took off. (The words for “vulgar” and “took off”–пошла–are homophones and homonyms, one of various kinds of twins in the poem). Maybe the horse is independent of the speaker; maybe the words meant nothing–but all the same, something has happened, a lift back onto the feet, into the stall, into work and life and youth. But this becomes the speaker’s own song; the near-homophones “стойло” (“stall”) and “стоило” (“it was worth it”), coupled with “встала” (stood up) and “стала” (“stood”) create a secular yet mysterious hymn of dignity.

So my recitation (recorded just now; to be perfected later, when I am back in NYC) has a quieter tone than some. I love the performance by the actor Georgy Sorokin (and was somewhat influenced by it); it sounds to me the way Mayakovsky himself might have wanted it. It makes pictures of sounds; it bursts through the usual and dares us all to do the same. But the poem can be heard in many ways; much depends on the phrases that the reader singles out, which in turn bring out the others and the whole.

I keep coming back to the beginning, with its ablaut-filled play on sounds and words:

Били копыта.
Пели будто:
– Гриб.

The hoofs beat.
It seemed they sang:

Each of those syllables (grib, grab’, grob, grub) suggests (or is) a word with meaning; they suggest mushrooms, the imperative “rob,” a grave, and something or someone coarse, respectively. But because of the vowel gradations, they seem like pure sound as well, the sound of hoofs on slippery streets. From the outset, there are two poets: the speaker and the horse, trading roles, joining together, interpreting each other.

You can read the poem in Russian and English here. Thanks to Andrey Kneller for translating so many poems and posting the Russian and English together.

As for my recitation, when I re-record it (in early August), I intend to refine the pronunciation and maybe the interpretation too. This one is a start.


Image credit: David Burliuk, Peasant and Horse (Крестьянка и лошадь), 1910.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.

The Homework Conundrum

Unlike Alfie Kohn and others, I believe that homework has meaning and carries benefits. This is partly because I teach at the high school level. You can’t discuss Plato if you haven’t read Plato, and the only time to read Plato is outside of class. If you read Plato in class, then there’s no time to discuss it. It’s as simple as that. The subject matter in high school demands independent work.

It does in elementary school as well, though not quite as much. Children do need to read books at home, sometimes for school. There isn’t enough time in the school day for all of their reading. They need to practice math problems, a language, a musical instrument. If they are writing a report, they need to go to the library to look up information. At the same time, they need free time—time for play, exploration, thinking, and being with their family and friends.

Now, back to high school. The homework volume doubles and triples for an unfortunate reason: if you give students a reading assignment without a writing assignment, many will interpret this as no homework at all. So you pair reading assignments with questions. There’s the conundrum: to help ensure that the homework gets done, you end up doubling it.

This means more work for teachers as well as students. I have 259 students in all, and I carry large stacks of homework home. I find it important to read and comment on homework (and enjoy doing so) but sympathize with students’ complaint that it takes a lot of time. What can we do about this—in general, throughout our schools?

Students shouldn’t have to write for every subject every night. It makes sense that they should read on some days and write on others. But they have to treat the reading as a serious assignment, even though it doesn’t result in a concrete product right away.

For this to happen, we have to stop treating concrete products as the be-all and end-all of education. Yes, education should result in good work, but students should learn to hold things in their minds, to work without immediate results. They should develop integrity as students, pondering the material even when there’s nothing to turn in.

Students don’t develop these habits overnight. The best way to help them get there is to set a good example. That means showing them, in class, how to take interesting things into the mind, to make sense of them, to question them, to ponder them again. If I am introducing my students to Blaise Pascal, I expect them to remember what I tell them—and to bring it up in class discussion or on an exam. But I expect still more: they should be willing to enter Pascal’s Pensées (or the short selection we will be reading this week), puzzle through it, recognize its argument and its subtleties, and carry some of it with them.

It takes a long time to build such practice. An individual teacher can encourage it, but it is really the work of a school and of many schools. The life of the mind is almost a lost concept; we need to revive it. It begins with a strong foundation in elementary and middle school—not only in math and reading, but in literature, history, science, music, art, and drama. Students should memorize and recite poems from a young age, so that they develop an ear and a repertoire. They should learn to work through math problems that require skillful framing. In addition, they should learn to persist with things that they do not fully understand: sentence structures that bewilder them at first, terminology that seems out of reach, or melodies and harmonies that seem at first too complex to sing.

Last week a student told me that she had struggled with a passage from the Book of Job. She read it slowly, again and again, and started to glean its meaning. That’s what should happen on a larger scale. When students take the reading that seriously, there’s no need to check up on them every day—and they arrive at greater, not lesser, understanding.

But it is all too easy to cave in to the cultural demand for immediate rewards and punishments. Turn in your homework, and you get two points. Don’t turn it in, and you get a zero. Kids understand that language, and it makes sense that they would. It isn’t bad as a starting point; it can help them get on track. It should not be the end goal.

Homework should have meaning, but meaning does not arise in a vacuuum. It comes with the subject matter, with cultural values and habits, and with persistent teaching.