Best Poems I've Never Read

Todays Reading: Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems, pp. 158-183

Remember those alarming, spectacular lines of Anna Akhmatova’s I quoted here a while back: “Change has made me weary, / Fate has cheated me of everything.” I read them in a copy of Akhmatova’s Selected Poems that happened to be hanging around town, and they inspired me to pick up her Complete for myself. It’s a different translation, and in it those lines from my previous post read like this:

    The whisper of the autumn in the maples
    Was pleading: “Die with me!

    I am betrayed by my doleful,
    fickle, evil fate.”

Yikes. That sucks. Right?

So, do I question the quality of this $30, thousand-page doorstop I just acquired? Or do I have to concede that the lines that seduced me into buying it in the first place were more the creation of a translator (there are a few different Akhmatova selecteds, so I’m not sure which) than of the poet herself? The truth may lie somewhere in between, but my guess is more towards the latter, since the Collected is, I think, a more recent translation, and why would you take those lines out except for fidelity to the original?

But I’ll probably never know for sure. If it were French or Spanish or even German I could look at the original and take a decently educated guess, but Russian?—they don’t even use real letters! I admit to reading very little poetry in translation, and this is maybe why. What a helpless feeling, to be looking right at something so beautiful and yet not really be able to hear or see it, not even to verify if it’s really there. Actually, it’s not so out of tune with the melding of desire and despair in so many of Akhmatova’s poems:

    I no longer smile,
    A freezing wind chills my lips,
    One less hope becomes
    One more song.
    And this song, against my will,
    I devote to desecration and mockery,
    Because it is unbearably painful
    For the soul to love silently.

Wow. Okay then, if there’s some poetry lost in this particular translation, there’s still plenty left in which to rejoice.

On a sort of thematically related note, someone at Harriet is blogging about what might be my favorite book of poetry that I’ve never read, Alice Notley’s At Night the States. That I’ve never read because it seems to be tragically out of print; my favorite because of the thrilling poems it contributes to Notley’s selected, Grave of Light. But Emily Warn seems to have shelled out for a used copy (starting from only $65 on Amazon!) and is writing about it, along with my favorite Notley book that I have read, Margaret and Dusty.

I hope she’ll get around to writing about the title poem as she promises. In the meantime, you can read that poem at the Poetry Foundation’s website, or you can hear Notley read it herself at Pennsound. (Oh internet!)