“Za kaplishchei kaplishcha”

drops

After yesterday’s post on Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “Хорошее отношение к лошадям” (approximately “Kindness to horses”), I was left thinking of the lines,

Подошел и вижу –
за каплищей каплища
по морде катится,
прячется в шерсти…
И какая-то общая
звериная тоска
плеща вылилась из меня
и расплылась в шелесте.

which I translate (differing substantially from Andrey Kneller here):

I step close and see —
drop after drop
falls down the face,
hides in the fur,
and some kind of common
animal yearning
splashing spilled out of me
and shook into stream.

The “face” of the horse (морда) is beautifully ambiguous; the word typically means “face of an animal,” but it can also refer to a “mug,” or unappealing face of a person. The horse is not named here, so already horse and human seem to overlap. The horse’s tears are matched by “какая-то общая / звериная тоска” (some kind of common (universal, general) / animal yearning.”

But most beautiful of all (in these lines) are the words “за каплищей каплища,” “drop after drop,” or, more accurately, “after drop, drop,” because of the way they sound, and the way they echo the earlier “за зевакой зевака.”

As for the photo above, I took it this morning in Dallas.

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

peasant-and-horse-1910

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.
Грабь.
Гроб.
Груб.-

The hoofs beat.
It seemed they sang:
–Grib.
Grab’.
Grob.
Grub.–

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.

More Pushkin: “The day’s luminary has died out….”

I enjoyed recording and commenting on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “To the Poet” yesterday, so I will do the same with another favorite, “The day’s luminary has died out.” Recording it was a bit like Living in Oblivion; again and again, something went wrong, and I thought I might end up retaking it into infinity. I was on the verge of completing a good recording when my cat jumped on the desk and started playing noisily with paper clips. Finally I recorded it from start to finish.

Pushkin wrote this poem in 1820, when traveling by ship across the Black Sea. It is full of sea and memory; it has to do with seeing a shore in the distance and recalling past friends, sensual encounters, betrayals, vices, wounds. The speaker calls on the sail and the sea–for the sake of voyage, then for the sake of memory, and finally in order to forget.

I could not find an acceptable translation online, so I translated it literally for the purposes of this post. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to preserve the indentation in WordPress (I can do it in HTML, but it disappears here), so the English translation will appear without indentation. For the Russian, I scanned the text as an image so that I could display it properly.

When looking for a translation, I came upon Andrew Kahn’s commentary on the poem: “Pushkin wished to inject enough personal detail to satisfy the demand for autobiographical disclosure that travels with the Romantic persona. With the familiar topoi of premature ageing”–

Stop right there! With all due respect to Kahn, I find this interpretation limiting. I heard this kind of thing in graduate school. It has been fashionable to view Pushkin as a self-fashioner, acutely aware of the poetic trends and capable of playing with them cleverly. There’s an element of truth to this, but as a dominant interpretation, it misses something. Yes, Pushkin is aware of Romantic tendencies; yes, he plays with them, and cleverly, too. But he also makes them come to life. How does he do this?

Look at the poem. Its shape suggests the ocean, with shorter and taller waves, and irregular lapses between them. There is a refrain–“Rumble, rumble, obedient sail, / Morose ocean, stir up under me” (“Shumi, shumi, poslushnoe vetrilo, / Volnuisia podo mnoi, ugriumyi okean”)–that occurs three times and changes meaning profoundly with the repetitions. The first time, it is literal, as the speaker is sailing over the sea. The second time, the “stirring up” is the excitement of old memory and emotion, a mixture of excitement and regret. The final time, this “stirring up” is the rumbling needed to bury the old pain. I hear those last two lines as something close to a hush.

In poetry, refrains should change meaning, however subtly, with the repetition, or they become tedious–but the changes in this particular poem stand apart. The “stirring up” seems to go deeper down into the water (and into the soul) each time. The first time, it is on the surface, or close; the second time, somewhere in the middle; and the third time, so far down that it can barely be felt.

Also, this refrain is built on word-play. The refrain’s first line, “Шуми, шуми, послушное ветрило” (“Make noise, make noise, obedient sail”) has the word “poslushnoe,” “obedient,” which has the root “slukh-” (“hearing” or “ear”; “slushat'” is “to listen”). Thus in the noise of the sail there is also a sense of listening. In the second line, “Волнуйся подо мной, угрюмый океан” (“Stir up beneath me, sullen ocean”), the word “volnuisia” (“stir up”) suggests “volna,” “wave.” Thus in telling the ocean to stir up, the speaker is telling it to make waves, or, rather, to be itself. All of this gives the sense of an internal conversation.

I will not comment any more on the poem. Here is the Russian (as a picture, with formatting preserved), and here is my recording (in MP3 format).


And here’s my rough English translation (unperfected, just intended to give readers a sense of the poem):

The day’s luminary has fallen into dark;
An evening fog has spread across the sea.
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
I see a shore from far away,
Enchanted vistas of the land of noon;
With agitation and yearning I strive toward it,
Intoxicated with memory…
And now I feel: the tears are born again;
The soul boils up and then subsides;
A familiar dream flies around me;
I remember the mad love of past years,
And everything I suffered, and all things I hold dear,
The wearying deception of desires and hopes…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
Fly, ship, take me to the distant limits
By the stormy whim of the deceptive seas,
Only not to the sorrowful shores
Of my foggy native land,
The country, where with passion’s flame
Feelings for the first time burst in fire,
Where tender muses slipped me secret smiles,
Where, early on, my lost youth
Wilted away in violent wind and rain,
Where light-winged joy showed me its other face
And my cold heart committed itself to pain.
A seeker of new sights and sounds,
I ran from you, paternal lands,
I ran from you who drink the milk of pleasures,
Unlasting friends of my unlasting youth;
And you, mistresses of depraved delusion,
To whom I lovelessly devoted all,
My peace, my fame, my freedom and my soul,
You too have left my mind, unfaithful dames,
Secret intimates of my golden spring,
You too have left my mind… But the old wounds of the heart,
The deep wounds of love, nothing has ever healed…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.

(August 1820)

Note: I made some minor improvements to the translation since the initial posting, but it is still rough.

“Poet! do not cling to popular affection….”

So begins Alexander Pushkin’s sonnet “To a Poet” (which could also be translated “To the Poet”). The gist of the poem is clear: don’t cherish popular opinion or affection; live alone; enjoy the freedom of integrity. But what makes the poem memorable is the sternness and liberty of the language. I have been thinking about how this sternness and liberty go together. The liberty is hard won and all too easily surrendered–especially through careless language. Here there is nothing careless.

I recorded and uploaded the poem so that anyone can  hear how it sounds–in my reading, at least. (I found an online recording by someone else, but it has an awful rock beat in the background.)

This sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ABAB ABBA CCD EED. The C rhyme has the same vowel sound as B, and D rhymes obliquely with A. Thus the final sestet carries sonic hints of the first two stanzas–as well as interesting word associations and contrasts: for example, “narodnoi” (popular), “kholodnoi” (cold), “svobodnoi” (free), “blagorodnyi” (noble), “khudozhnik” (artist), and “trenozhnik” (tripod).

The first stanza can be translated literally as follows:

Poet! do not cling to popular affection.*
The temporary noise of ecstatic praises will pass;
You will hear the fool’s judgment, the laugh of the cold crowd,
But you must remain firm, calm, and morose.

In Russian, it’s much more majestic and severe:

Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдет минутный шум;
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодной,
Но ты останься тверд, спокоен и угрюм.

It’s in a slow-paced iambic hexameter, with word ordering that English does not allow (e.g., in the second line, “Of the ecstatic praises will pass the momentary noise”). The last word “угрюм” (“ugrium, ” “morose”) stresses the seriousness of the matter. This is no pleasant conversation-piece.

In the second stanza, the emphasis shifts to the poet’s internal liberty, once he has established the conditions for it. The language is gentler and more whimsical, with repetition of the word for “free”:

You are a tsar; live alone. By way of the free road
Go wherever your free mind draws you,
Perfecting the fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Not asking  any rewards for your noble feat.

In Russian, you can hear the stanza’s fluidity:

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечет тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Then the final sestet reflects the first two stanzas in a kind of skewed symmetry. The first tercet continues to refer to the artist and his work; then the final three lines, like the first four, return to the crowd and its judgments, contrasted with the poet’s work. In Russian:

Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?

Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник.

And in an literal English translation:

They are inside you. You are your highest judge;
More strictly than anyone can you appraise your work.
Are you satisfied with it, exacting artist?

Satisfied? Then let the crowd treat it harshly
And spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And your tripod oscillates with childlike friskiness.

This translation does not come close to capturing the last two lines: the plosive of sound of “plyuyet” (“spits”) and the tripod wavering through friskiness. To me, everything builds to that final line, which is as strange as it is vivid.

As I was reciting the sonnet this morning, I heard the combination of liberty and severity in the sounds themselves. The poem is didactic but goes far beyond its overt lesson; one comes close to that tripod and feels it wavering–not out of hesitation, but out of vitality.

*Note: I have been dissatisfied with my literal translation of the first line. I changed it to “Poet! do not cling to popular affection”–which, though not literally exact, feels much less awkward than the previous “Poet! do not cherish the love of the people.”