Monday, October 22, 2018

Marina Tsvetaeva

Someone in the movie, The Big Short, says that "[t]he truth is like poetry--and most people fucking hate poetry."  Like many others, I concur.  In theory, I like poetry a lot.  It seems important, and most literary people I respect say that are devoted to the stuff.  But upon reflection, I'm forced to admit that poetry isn't something I actually understand all that well.  When I teach literature To steal a phrase from the popular website,, I like "the idea" of poetry more than I like the poetry itself.  Marina Tsvetaeva's book of prose, Earthly Signs, 1917-1922, may have finally changed all that.  The book gives readers a rare, and infinitely intimate look, at the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution.  But it's glimpse into the mind of one of Russia's greatest twentieth century poets is perhaps even more valuable.  Perhaps no two poets are alike, but Marina Tsvetaeva's diaries entries and essays suggest some qualities that are no doubt commonplace among poetic geniuses.  Finishing the book, I thought that I was probably feeling something akin to what an inspired reader of Tsvetaeva's poetry must feel.  In awe, I just wrote down a long list of words that came to mind when I tried to clarify to myself why her way of thinking seemed so different from that of most novelists I encounter.  This list included the following words or phrases:  intelligence, creativity, honesty, objectivity, erudition, ambition, awareness, playfulness, openness, ruthlessness, arrogance, wisdom, other-worldliness, joyfulness, cleverness, relentlessness.  

For me, Tsvetaeva was relentlessly experimental, and couldn't help but play with words, sounds, juxtapositions, metaphors, similes, alliteration, assonance, and allegories.  Tsvetaeva had an ear for words, sentences, grammar, and sound.  But she also had a kind of mathematical intelligence.  She analyzed concepts and people playfully, but she also needed her ideas to make sense according to the rigid rules of formal logic.  This poet's equations and equivalencies were always very precisely balanced.  Tsvetaeva was also incredibly well-educated and seemed to have read everything there was to read in three different languages: Russian, French, and German. Thus, her prose (like her poetry?) is both strikingly original and the product of a long dialogue with all prior writers (and poets?).  

Tsvetaeva's biographies sometimes portray her as a fragile woman, incapable of managing daily life.  Her suicide somehow seems like the inevitable result of this weakness.  But Moscow Diaries depicts a woman who was brave enough to resist Bolshevism, at least on an intellectual or private level.  Again and again, she speaks her mind about the tragedy of the October Revolution and communism in general.  To be sure, it would be difficult to verify if her diary entries are entirely accurate in terms of her dangerous anti-revolutionary comments to others.  But even if she was only honest in her own journal, her freedom of thought would be worth celebrating.  in any case, apart from their critical tone, Tsvetaeva's diary entries shed light on the difficult life everyone faced in these years.  Like others, Tsvetaeva (and her children) suffered endlessly uncertainty, the threat of violence, worry about distant loved ones (her husband, mainly), bureaucracy, and, above all, unremitting hunger.  

The book ends with an essay by Tsvetaeva about a fellow poet she reviled, Briusov.  The polemic is pure genius, and somehow does honor to its victim by its very virtuosity and sustained intensity.  In terms of Briusov's reputation, one can't help but think it has ultimately benefited from Tsvetaeva's attention.  After all, why would a woman like Tsvetaeva waste her time pillorying a man who lacked all virtues save diligence?  But anyhow, the essay isn't really about Briusov at all.  It's about Tsvetaeva, and her understanding of poetry.  Tsvetaeva knew that Briusov worked hard at his craft but thought Briusov lacked the true poet's sense of fun.  Without wordplay, joy, and fun, effort wouldn't (and couldn't) ever move us a little closer to the divine. 

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