Ben Winch's Reviews > Poems of Akhmatova

Poems of Akhmatova by Anna Akhmatova
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's review
Jun 18, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: russian, poetry, mainland-european, 5-stars

It's unfortunate the way that Goodreads treats various collections by the same poet as one, especially when they each have a different translator. To clarify, I'm reviewing the Stanley Kunitz translation, Poems of Akhmatova, and I recommend this as the best introduction. True, not all the major poems are represented, but to my ear it is the most musical, and if I understand Akhmatova correctly this musicality would have been supremely important to her. Of the other versions, Judith Hemschemeyer's The Complete Poems is clearly essential for the devoted fan - it's comprehensive, informative, eminently scholarly - but unfortunately to my ear it's pretty clinical. D.M. Thomas? Not bad, but not substantially different from Kunitz and certainly not superior. As to Lyn Coffin's Poems, I never liked the selection, and after dipping into it once or twice spent all my time on the Kunitz and the Hemschemeyer.

It's difficult to know what to say about an icon like Akhmatova. At this remove, knowing no Russian and only the bare bones of her life, I feel as if whatever I say will sound dilettantish, especially given that I have none of these books in front of me as I write this. Nevertheless it troubles me that a cheap Vintage edition of her poems can sit on the shelf in the bookstore where I work for 3 months before finding a buyer, when I can see no reason why she shouldn't be as widely-read as Emily Dickinson, as Orwell, as The Master and Margarita.

Akhmatova was a born poet. With or without the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, her destiny was to sing. Witness her early poems, already tragic in their impetus when speaking of nothing more than failing love affairs, already heart-stoppingly beautiful. And if you hear her, in your heart, in this early incarnation, take the ride. This ordinary young woman - not starving, not oppressed, not unlike you or me - will now (slowly in the Hemschemeyer book, quickly in the Kunitz) be transformed before your eyes into martyr, prophet and saviour, a figure who was treated with near-religious reverence in her homeland, and shaped to fit this role by history. What would have become of her without Stalinism? Probably she would still be a key figure in Russian literature, but thanks (or no thanks) to history she is more than this; she bears testament, yet always in that pitch-perfect singer's voice which sounds, even in English, like nothing else on Earth.

Akhmatova's is the most all-consuming body of poetry I know. 2 or 3 times in my life I have sat or lain with it for days, inhabiting it, suffering through it, exalting, weeping, attempting to reconcile it. This is not a task to be taken lightly - reading her will change you. You will wish like anything that you could hear her in the Russian; you will strain to listen as if to a distant sound from beyond. But if you read the Kunitz version, sometimes you will sing - you will sing along with her. And you will yearn - to get closer, to hear better, and sadly, to turn back time, to spare her, to spare them all.

I would guess that - were such a thing measurable - the achievement of Anna Akhmatova is unsurpassed by any artist in any field in the 20th Century. To the Russians who were her contemporaries she must have been analagous to a saint. It is one thing to bear witness; it is another to never lose sight of beauty.

No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger's wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.

('Requiem', translated Stanley Kunitz with Max Heyward)

I love this poet.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Jeff (new) - added it

Jeff Jackson Great review, Ben! Have you read much of her prose?

message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch No, none. Have you? I find it kind of hard to imagine!

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