A guest post by Jamie McKendrick, whose Selected Essays, The Foreign Connection: Writings on Poetry, Art and Translation, appeared with us in September 2020. This is a new piece, not drawn from the book, but stands as a sort of postscript to it.
‘A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. It is part of its nature never to quiet down’. (This and all subsequent quotations from Mandelstam are in Clarence Brown’s translations.) In his Conversation about Dante Osip Mandelstam makes this observation about Dante’s use of earlier writers in the Commedia. The Russian poet goes on to distinguish this ‘keyboard of allusions’ from mere erudition. It is a vital, even violent principle of the art: ‘one detail after another is torn away from its object, leaves it, flutters out, is hacked away from the system, and goes off into its own functional state or dimension...’ A notion akin to this acted for me as an organizing principle in gathering together the writings on poetry, art and translation in The Foreign Connection.
I’ve had Clarence Brown’s Mandelstam to hand for some forty years but only reread the chapter ‘Phaedra’ after finishing my book. There, Brown writes about two of Mandelstam’s poems inspired by Racine’s Phèdre, and cites the Russian critic Zhirminsky’s use of Schlegel’s phrase ‘die Poesie der Poesie’, which I take to mean poetry that is made from poetry. At first it sounds like the most rarefied venture, like cakes fashioned out of cakes, at least something redundant and unnutricious. On reflection, it begins to describe an essential element of the art, and one that in my own book I was trying to trace through various routes, through translation, through the traffic between poetry and the visual arts, and through the transmission of images between different cultures and eras. Though I refer in passing to Brown’s book, I’d forgotten this meditation on how Mandelstam in the traumatic 1920s had used and transformed the C17th French playright, especially the line
Que ces vaines ornements, que ces voiles me pèsent —
It would have suited my purposes, even if I’d have had little to add to his incisive argument (except its consonance with the Dante essay). By way of Mandelstam’s Ossian poem – “another skald will write the song he’s come by / and sing it then as if it were his own” – Brown examines the way Racine’s play animates two of Mandelstam’s poems: No. 81 (the last poem of Stone) and No. 82 (the first poem of his second book Tristia). In the first of these, which begins ‘I shall not, in an old many-tiered theatre,/ see the famous Phèdre’, Mandelstam transmutes that line into ‘How repellent are these veils to me...’ but also disperses the image through a series of further mutations: ‘A curtain waving in deep folds’; ‘Classical shawls fall from shoulders’; ‘Disentegrating posters rustle once again’...all cut from the same cloth. The second poem makes the line resonate with more austerity in its opening lines:
— How heavy to me amid my shame is the splendor
of these veils and this attire!
In assembling a book of essays, there’s an ample component of the fortuitous, especially for someone whose culture is as piecemeal and random as my own, so this counts as a scrap of belated serendipity. Still, during this year of the virus, of lockdowns, of peaks and dips in the infection rate that has coincided with our arduous and embattled self-extraction from the EU, the salient theme of my book – the connections between foreign cultures – seems as pressing as ever. A more hostile terrain could hardly have been prepared by the gods of the continent for the UK’s flailing hopes of sovereignty and separation.
The first brief piece of The Foreign Connection, written just before the referendum, foresaw an ominous silence hovering over the Channel to be followed by a silence on the Scottish border, and it very much looks as though the SNP have been handed their opportunities on a gilded platter. Whatever the ability of the UK, and of the EU for that matter, to stumble on into a shaky future, the question of our openness to other times and to other cultures and languages will have a determining effect on the kind of lives we lead. If any border is merely ‘a line on the grass’, to adapt the title of a poem by Tom Paulin, the kinds of walls then erected on this arbitrary line will cast long shadows.
Though I believe in the claims I make in the book and stand behind the instances I give, I am aware of, and touch on, the counter-arguments. Perhaps the most obvious and persuasive one, which I don’t rehearse, is that a poet listens most deeply and ineradicably to the poetry composed in his or her own language. The most potent influences are bound to be those with which we have been on intimate terms for longest, in the language that is most deeply interiorised. Robert Frost’s skepticism about translation (“Poetry... is that which gets lost in translation”) is likely due to his perception that other languages are exterior, that sentence sounds can only be inferred in a living language, that is: one that the poet is alive to. I can see this, but want to stress the role of the unfamiliar as being also, if not equally, essential to the growth of any poet’s mind.
Returning to Mandelstam, in the chapter I mentioned, Brown asks
Is this Racine’s Phèdre or Mandelstam’s? But the question is too limited. Why should one exclude the predecessors of Racine – Euripides and Seneca – from the question of proprietorship?’
It’s an especially relevant question, as it’s admitted by Racine himself in the opening words of his preface to the play:
Voici encore une tragédie dont le sujet est pris d'Euripide. Quoique j'aie suivi une route un peu différente de celle de cet auteur pour la conduite de l'action, je n'ai pas laissé d'enrichir ma pièce de tout ce qui m'a paru le plus éclatant dans la sienne.
[Here yet again is a tragedy whose subject is taken from Euripides. Although I have followed a different path from that of this author with regard to the plot, I have not failed to enrich my play with all that seemed to me most striking in his work.]
By his inclusion of these predecessors, the Greek, the Roman and the French, Brown shows how the Russian poet has laid claim to as well as extended a wide and millenial culture. During a reading in the early 1930s, in answer to a potentially perilous question as to how he would define Acmeism, the movement to which he had belonged as a young poet, Mandelstam’s famous and loaded response was ‘A nostalgia for world culture’. One can only feel nostalgia for something lost or at least vanishing, and his remark delivered at a time when Stalin’s policy of ‘Socialism in One Country’ was underway was in itself a risky declaration and rightly suggested quite how fragile and imperilled such a concept was, and is.
© Jamie McKendrick, 2021