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When it comes to pre-WWII Russian literary critics and poets, Vladislav Khodasevich is not well known, particularly in the West. Compared to someone like, say, Bunin or Tsvetaeva, he’s been largely ignored. But Khodasevich deserves attention, both as a skilled memoirist and poet, and as one of the few who chronicled the whole journey of his generation through the realities of WWI and the White exile, grappling with issues of right, honor, and Russian identity, especially for those who carried non-Russian blood in the vast multiethnic empire.
Born in Moscow in May of 1886, Khodasevich was the son of a Polish nobleman and a Jewish woman. Unlike the union of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, though, theirs was not an unusual act of mutual tolerance. Jacob Brafman, Khodasevich’s maternal grandfather, was a famous convert from Judaism to Orthodoxy, who wrote The Book of Kahal, a forerunner to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He entered the law faculty of Moscow University in 1904, then switched to history and philology the next year, staying on until 1910. It was during his time at the university that Vladislav met Samuil Kissin, a law student and aspiring poet from Orsha who was a year older than he. Twenty years later, he said Kissin, whom he affectionately nicknamed Muni, was “как бы вторым «я»” (like my second self) and reflected on how “we lived in such a faithful brotherhood, in such close love, which now seems wonderful to me.”
Despite his training, Khodasevich did not want to be a historian or a philologist, but, like Kissin, a poet, and dropped out in the final year of his course. He frequented Moscow’s literary salons and cafes, and published articles and poems for famous literary magazines, like Golden Fleece and Libra. Although he was the descendant of a noble family, his father had come to Russia impoverished, and Kissin, who hailed from an observant Jewish merchant family (he was trained in Hebrew and the Talmud at home during his childhood) actually had a much more secure financial position, though he was always willing and happy to support his friend along with himself.
The moment was forever
when tongues of fire were born.
We watched in aweful silence
descending of the storm.
A noise of Being speaking
without the fire we heard;
a thunder-shaking vision
without the Rabbi’s word.
The firestorm fell among us,
but peace would hold us still
as noise of fire was parted
by Heaven’s hidden will.
The flames were storm no longer,
with musical select;
a note within the mystery
for each of the elect.
First Posted April 14, 2008. Thirteen years later to the day, I took two walks under clear blue skies. Last Saturday it snowed and sleeted and our driveway remained a sea of churned-up mud. Because of the ooze and ice, I haven’t been able to go on a decent walk around here since January, and last week […]
Apparently April is Poetry Month (did anyone else know?) and every morning the English Department at our high school publishes a poem at the end of the daily announcements. I felt inspired to contribute something and as I was skimming through works by my favorite poets, I came across this poem by one of the […]
Khamsa of Nizami British Library, Or. 12208 is not a very interesting sounding document. Indeed, to most Westerners, Khamsa of Nizami means nothing at all. But this illustrated manuscript, which now resides at the British Library in London, tells three extraordinary tales: the poems of Nizami, the profound (and unappreciated) bond between art and the written world in the early modern Islamic world, and the relationship between two great empires. Let’s start from the last.
What does it mean for something to be holy? I think it means that a thing or person directs us to God or expresses His presence. Holiness is connected with pious awe.
What artistic works seem holy to you? Which are the most peculiarly holy — holy in some unusual and perhaps less obvious sense? Is there some work of sculpture or architecture, painting or music, oration or literature that draws you closer to God in a way your associates don’t fully share?
One of the great reads on Shakespeare is Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1. What a teacher this man must have been! (Head of the English Dept. at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s.) Published in 1950 by The Chicago University Press, it has never been out of print. […]
When Sergei Dovlatov, finally having run afoul of Soviet censors one too many times, was encouraged (i.e. told he was going) to leave the Soviet Union in 1979, he never doubted his destination: New York. Of course, the large Russian community there, which his wife and daughter had settled into a few years previous, played a role in his decision. But so did the presence of an old friend. Joseph Brodsky, an established poet two years his senior who shared a similarly combative relationship with Soviet authorities, had been forced into exile in 1972, and had chosen New York as his final destination.
Brodsky was something of a literary older brother to Dovlatov. The two met in the winter of 1959, when Dovlatov was a student in the faculty of Finnish language at Leningrad State University, and Brodsky, who at various times had worked in morgues, geological expeditions, and naval boiler rooms, was beginning to find a prominent place on the Leningrad literary scene. Only a year later, he would meet his mentor, the famous poetess Anna Akhmatova, who helped him reach fame all over the country. The young student, though, was already impressed: “He pushed Hemingway out of the background and became my literary idol forever.”
Dovlatov’s new idol quickly found his fortunes reversing. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was officially denounced, and, on charges of social parasitism and with a diagnosis of sluggish schizophrenia, he was twice placed in mental institutions. Not yet twenty-four, he was put on trial, and, when he replied to one of the People’s Judges, on asking who had made him a poet, “No one. And who put me in the ranks of humanity?”, he was sentenced to five years hard labor in the Arkhangelsk Oblast of northwestern Russia. Meanwhile, his new friend had flunked out of LGU and was subsequently drafted into the Soviet Internal Troops, used a camp guard in between stints as a boxer.
Imagine, if you will, that those white triangles are islands in a sea of black. You have a continent in the middle, a couple isles nearby, and more and more islands and islets the further away you get from that central continent. It’s bad water for navigating in because there’s an infinite number of rocks, pebbles, and even smaller navigation hazards poking up out of the surface of the water. Maybe it’s more of a swamp than an ocean. Okay, now zoom in. Let’s say you’re small enough that you live on one of the islands. You can deduce the pattern; you know that just over thataways there’s a bigger island. Is there another, larger one beyond it, or are we looking at the top of the pattern?
Its stuff that rhymes. Only it doesn’t always rhyme. Usually the stuff that doesn’t rhyme is bad, but then if you look at poetry in other languages and traditions sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme at all. Hmm… maybe I should back up a bit. What I’d like to do is try and characterize poetry from a scientific perspective. That means I’ll be observing three samples of poetry captured in the wild to see what we can learn about them. Let’s move right to the first:
I come home during the 2016 campaign and @MattBalzer says to me “Hillary Clinton just called Trump supporters a ‘basket of deplorables.'” You know how I responded? “I don’t often have a good word to say about Hillary Clinton, but that’s a good phrase right there.”
One late summer day in 2005, I was meandering through a local cemetery looking for inspiration for a topic in a local writing competition. Cemeteries are pretty reliable sources for quirky names, odd epitaphs, lonely souls, and the like. Not to mention just the isolation and quiet peace of the dead.
But these old Appalachian hills hold surprises. On the southern half of the Asbury Methodist Cemetery, I happened upon a small, heart-shaped tombstone. This is what it read:
Bonnie Kate Phillippi
Born Dec 25, 1905
Died Dec 25, 1905
Je chante les combats, et ce prélat terribleQui par ses longs travaux et sa force invincible,Dans une illustre église exerçant son grand coeur,Fit placer à la fin un lutrin dans le choeur.C’est en vain que le chantre, abusant d’un faux titre,Deux fois l’en fit ôter par les mains du chapitre :Ce prélat, sur le banc […]
A Poem to CongressWritten by Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov, and read by him to the United States Congress on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Congress, March 2, 1989: To the Congress of the United States Entering Its Third Century, with Preface. Preview Open
If I were a pirate, I’d steal thy heart,
For something must a pirate steal, matey.
Ah, talking this way is not such a start.
No, no, we must discourse matters weighty,
Such as how to get representation
Of damsels fair of form in pirate crews
And thus to improve the pirate nation.
No people stands for long without it woos.
And men alone get up to deviltry
When left to their devices comical,
They turn their hands to outright ribaldry
And vile pursuits far more inimical.
Left are we to mull over thy beauty
And how that begets thy solemn duty.
It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day once more, a foolish bit of frippery. What better way to address one bit of foolishness than with another? Are you a participant in this ersatz holiday?
Fishing bores me. I hate the taste of fish, so I would just be torturing the critters. Sure, I could sit in a boat or on the shore all day, maybe with a book. But fishing? It reminds me of Mark Twain’s description of golf, “A good walk spoiled.” And movies? Generally I had rather […]
Myron J. Ferch is not a household name, perhaps even among the Ferches. But Myron Ferch served as a private from 1941-1945 in World War II, notably in Papua New Guinea. He wrote a slim book of poems, Wartime and Other Poems. The cover shows him and his dog in front of a sheep wagon (Myron was from McCone County in Montana). His niece, Sally, owned a copy, signed by the author and autographed, “To a very nice niece. I hope your trail is a pleasant one.” Sally gave the booklet to her daughter, who gave it to me.
Myron set his down his war experiences in verse. I’ve chosen this one to share, entitled “The Letter from Mother”: