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Unread 07-21-2023, 12:15 PM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
Join Date: May 2020
Location: England
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Default The poetry of Osip Mandelstam

Since people seem interested in Mandelstam and are writing about him, I thought I'd show you some of the most beautiful prose I found on him. I normally read literary criticism like I eat KFC: as a light, slightly unhealthy break from "literature": the imagination. Like a relaxing. But this transcended that. It probably shouldn't be a surprise since Celan writes as piercingly as Emily Dickinson but this caught me off guard. I understood Mandelstam from the bottom up all over again:
I hope this helps some people who are thinking about reading him. I would recommend the James Greene translations.
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Unread 07-28-2023, 11:10 AM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
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This hasn't had many views. Maybe the taste for Mandelstam has passed. That would be a shame.
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Unread 07-28-2023, 06:24 PM
mignon ledgard mignon ledgard is offline
Join Date: Mar 2021
Location: Florida
Posts: 303

Dear Cameron,

I'm reading the poems and they are beautiful and modern. I hope some scholars stop by with more incisive comments.

Your poems are a delectation and I like the effect the ampersands have in my reading. It is silent, understood, and almost invisible, to me. It floats me to what follows. I think of it as a way to establish pace, more than meaning. Often, if left out, the meaning would not change, though it may call for a comma.

Thank you!
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Unread 07-29-2023, 09:18 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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Iíve been reading this, Cam. I have translations I read also. I find myself not able to say much about his poems, which I think is what he intended. Thanks for this.
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Unread 07-30-2023, 08:50 AM
R. Nemo Hill's Avatar
R. Nemo Hill R. Nemo Hill is offline
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I just ordered the Greene translation.
Thanks for the tip.

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Unread 07-30-2023, 10:24 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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I should make more of an effort to move past Voronezh Notebooks but that sounds easier than it is.


When the goldfinch, in his airy confection,
Suddenly gets angry, begins to quake,
His spite sets off his scholar's robes,
Shows to advantage his cute black cap.

And he slanders the hundred bars,
Curses the sticks and perches of his prison--
And the world's turned completely inside out,
And surely there's a forest Salamanca
for birds so smart, so disobedient.
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Unread 07-31-2023, 09:22 AM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
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I read an article by Davis recently. I sympathised greatly with this:
"This is Mandelstam's great gift: through a kind of synesthesia, a freak of consciousness heightened by a cultural linguistic predisposition, Mandelstam heard sense in rhyme and cadence. Sound is absorbed, and honored, as an essential vehicle of meaning, or better, as meaning itself."

And I wondered if this paragraph was spoken directly to Carl and I:
"How, then, to respond as a translator? To imitate the structure of the poetry would be to violate the essential principle of Mandelstam's prosody, which is the organic, indivisible relationship of sound and meaning. The only possible course is to obey that principle, to reimagine the poem, in a way re-hear it, in one's own language and in one's own time. Is it then so strange that the gorgeous pyrotechnics of Mandelstam's response in Russian should become, in contemporary English, a subdued, a dogged muttering?"

Last edited by W T Clark; 07-31-2023 at 10:19 AM.
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Unread 07-31-2023, 09:55 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
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Are the Davis translations "dogged muttering?"

Maybe I don't want to know.
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Unread 08-01-2023, 12:43 PM
W T Clark W T Clark is offline
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Originally Posted by John Riley View Post
Are the Davis translations "dogged muttering?"

Maybe I don't want to know.
Here is Davis' version of a poem from the Voronezhe notebooks:

Breaks in round bays, and shingle, and blue,
And a slow sail continued by a cloud—
I hardly knew you; I've been torn from you:
Longer than organ fugues—the sea's bitter grasses,
Fake tresses—and their long lie stinks,
My head swims with iron tenderness,
The rust gnaws bit by bit the sloping bank...
On what new sands does my head sink?
You, guttural Urals, broad-shouldered Volga lands,
Or this dead-flat plain—here are all my rights,
And, full-lunged, gotta go on breathing them.

February 4, 1937

And Here is James Greene's version:

Breaks of the rounded bays, shingle, blue,
And the slow sail continued as a cloud –
I’m parted from you, scarcely having known your worth.
Longer than organ fugues and bitter is the twisted seaweed,
Smelling of long-contracted falsities.
My head is tipsy with the tenderness of iron
And rust gnawing gently at the sloping shore …
Why does another sand lie under my head?
You – guttural Urals, muscular Volga,
These steppes – here are all my rights, –
And I must still inhale your air with my entire lungs.
(366) 4 February 1937
Or these lines. Davis:

Like a postponed present,
That’s how winter feels —
From the first I’ve loved
Its uncertain extent.

Fear makes it beautiful,
Something terrible might occur —
Before this forestless circle
Even the crow’s lost its nerve. (44)

And Greene:

Like a belated present,
Winter is now palpable:
I like its initial,
Diffident sweep.
Its terror is beautiful,
Like the beginning of dreadful deeds:
Even ravens are alarmed
By the leafless circle.
But precariously more powerful than anything
Is its bulging blueness:
The half-formed ice on the river’s brow,
Lullabying unsleepingly …
(336) 29–30 December 1936

I like Davis version of this poem:

And I don’t paint, I don’t sing,
Don’t rosin the black-voiced bow:
Just empty myself into life, and love
To envy the seditious imperious wasp.

If only I, stalling sleep and death,
Could somehow, someday catch
The chirp of the air and summer warmth,
Hear the slipping earth, the slipping earth … (68)BANNED POST
And Greene's:

I neither sing, nor draw,
Nor scrape a black-voiced bow across a string:
I only sting life, and love
To envy the energy of subtle wasps.
Oh if only heat of summer, sting of air,
Could – sidestepping sleep and death –
Some day goad me into hearing
The buzz of earth, buzz of the earth.

Which, do you think are more pyrotechnical?
But I do not have the Davis. If anyone has a pdf of it, I would love for them to send it to me.

Last edited by W T Clark; 08-01-2023 at 12:46 PM.
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Unread 08-02-2023, 06:16 AM
Carl Copeland Carl Copeland is offline
Join Date: Apr 2022
Location: St. Petersburg, Russia
Posts: 1,497

I don’t know how to gauge pyrotechnics, but here are a few comments on the latter two translations (all I have time for at the moment):

L2: M’s verb doesn’t have the harshness of “scrape,” and once he’s chosen that verb, Greene has to add “across a string” to clarify it. Davis’s “rosin,” though less literal, solves those problems and is lovely.

L3: M’s verb means something like “dig into.” (Mayakovsky used it to describe a tick digging into an ear in “Brooklyn Bridge.”) Greene’s “sting” is closer, though it implies the inflicting of pain, while Davis’s “empty myself into” opens up avenues of thought that just aren’t there in the original.

L4: A more literal translation would be “mighty, cunning wasps.” Davis’s “seditious, imperious” is too grand, and Greene’s “energy” isn’t quite right either.

L5: Davis’s “stalling” is a nice word, but “bypassing,” “skirting” or “sidestepping” is M’s meaning.

S2: Greene follows M’s grammar here, while Davis has “reimagined” the stanza, adding “catch” and “chirp” and making the N a potentially active hearer, rather than one forced to hear. (Literally, M says, “If only the goad of air … could force me to hear,” but I like the way Greene has replaced “goad … force” with “sting … goad.”)

L8: The original wording is “earth’s axis, earth’s axis.” There’s no “slipping” or “buzz,” but M is playing on the similarity between os (axis), osa (wasp) and Osya (short for Osip), so some reimagining is justified here.

As a free verse poem in English, I suppose Davis’s is more satisfying. As a translation, I vote for Greene’s. It’s closer to the original sense, and the iambic undertow throughout and hint of rhyme in S2 keep us from completely forgetting M’s form. To be fair, Davis’s more even line lengths also give a hint of formality.

Last edited by Carl Copeland; 08-02-2023 at 08:05 AM.
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