Thursday, 2 April 2015

Осип Мандельштам: В лицо морозу я гляжу один

В лицо морозу я гляжу один,—
Он — никуда, я — ниоткуда,
И все утюжится, плоится без морщин
Равнины дышащее чудо.

А солнце щурится в крахмальной нищете,
Его прищур спокоен и утешен,
Десятизначные леса—почти что те...
А снег хрустит в глазах, как чистый хлеб безгрешен.



I had expected by now to start sharing some of the appreciation I've gained for Tang poetry. This has been an unexpected development in my study of Chinese, since the language is hard enough to appropriate that I never expected to have the time, or even the ability, to get much out of its poetics, especially when they are expressed in a more archaic form of the language than the contemporary 普通话 I am focusing on. After all, how much would one expect a Chinese ESL learner to get out of Shakespeare?

Well, that discussion will be left for another day, because my Chinese lately has been suffering some neglect thanks to an unexpected boom in my Russian reading. I've learned to just roll with it when a sudden breakthrough comes in a language, even if it isn't the one that I'm currently focused on. (Remember, Chinese itself was an unexpected breakthrough that came when I was trying to focus on Sanskrit.) Even if the last few months have set me back on my Chinese progress, reading hundreds of pages of Russian fiction makes up for it. After all, it's not as though I had any deadlines for any of these languages, except the goals I set for myself, and the overall benefit of these waves of progress ultimately ends up with me knowing and mastering a great deal more, than if I held myself to a narrow road arbitrarily.

Osip Mandelstam lived a hard life, and in context, the fact that he likely never got any exposure to Tang poetry probably comes in rather far down on the list of his hardships. That context notwithstanding, it is a shame all the same, since his Acmeist style seems like a reincarnation of Tang poetics, albeit in a language that could be not be more different, and in a time and place that could not be more different as well.

The poem above, written late in Mandelstam's untimely short life, creates such a pure image. It embodies to me what the Acmeist ideals are all about. At the same time, focusing as it does on nature, it harkens back to timeless themes. In Chinese (and Japanese) poetry, such minimalist poems are seconded by minimalist language, vague allusions and a sparse economy of words serving to enhance the perceived purity of the word painting. Chinese being an isolating language—and classical Chinese extremely so—means that almost no space be wasted on grammatical elements (number, tense, or any of the usual elements of conjugation or declension).

Russian could not be more different. It's a language that I would have thought would be poorly suited to this style of poetry. It's a—I don't know whether it's because of the poem's imagery but this is the word I have in mind—"slushy" language. Утюжится, морщин, дышащее... the words hang around, and flow into each other, with grammatical elements all over the place adding nuance and detail to their relationships.

It's precisely this paradox, not hidden in this poem but fully assumed, while still creating such a pure image, that makes this poem stand out to me, and made me want to share it.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Languages 
 
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Non enim id agimus ut exerceatur vox, sed ut exerceat.