Saturday, February 5, 2011

Passion of Pasternak

Pasternak's longevity as a Soviet poet is remarkable. Few gifted writers or poets of the first order of talent survived the age of Stalin, who knew Pasternak well enough to call him from time to time. Pasternak, famous in America for his romantic novel Dr. Zhivago, was a brilliant poet, worthy of the Nobel Prize nomination he declined out of deference (or fear) of the Soviet government and literary establishment.

Soviet Roulette hasn't yet hired a poetry editor, so I'll have to do the work of analyzing George Reavey's translations of The Poetry of Boris Pasternak. In brief, I'll call this poetry inventive, intelligent, and exceedingly obtuse. (Reavey adds the adjective, optimistic, here too). At times, Pasternak seems to have bowed to political and social pressures in produce poetry that transparently served the interests of the the Soviet state. Although his political poems (on 1905, Stalin, and World War II) are limpid, they somehow seem uninspired and far less profound than his lyrical treatment of natural themes. But when Pasternak addresses a natural topic, he's in his element: confident, impersonal, reverent, and expressive.

While it's usually very difficult to discern the author's meaning with any certitude, line by line Pasternak is almost always rewarding. The phrasing is complex, rich, and relentlessly unexpected. To me, Pasternak's poetry resembles Virginia Woolf's prose, which, at the level of the sentence, is sometimes so beautiful and complex that it overpowers the meaning of the paragraph in which it finds itself. In fact, the comparison need not end there. In both cases, the sound of the words--the alliteration, the rhyme, the cadence--is at least as important as its communicative purpose. This isn't a criticism: perhaps poetry is supposed to work this way; perhaps a poem ought to resemble a riddle more than an an article or treatise.

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