I came across a parched, yellowed out, cracked book the other day as I was sort of starting a spring cleaning process. Taped covers, a remnant of a cover image, peeled pages stuck together, and words that came crawling out of the dust, gasping for air. If you listened carefully, a faint cry and a gasp of breath. A book of Poems that took me back to my childhood (a long long time back). A poet I first read when I was 10.
Poems. Memories of sitting through English classes listening to the teachers sing song through the Romantic poets, the Elizabethan movements. Poems were considered as a secondary form of literature, full of aesthetics, rhythms, meters and focused on beauty. Dare I say, some teachers impressed upon us the rather abstract symbolic nature of poetry relative to the more powerful and direct novel or short story. Much of the reading of poetry, when not in the vernacular, was of the romantic poets. Poems were all about romanticism and symbolism.
That notion ended when I was all of 10 and came across a poem that stood out for its stark beauty and expression with a very direct use of words. I remember crawling under the bed at night, with a torchlight for company, staying up past my bedtime trying to engage with these words that jumped out of the pages creating ripples along my soul. Who was this poet?
The search took me to the Stalinist period, one of the darkest periods in human history. The search led me to a poet as a witness. A witness to the period, best described by the words ” In those years only the dead smiled, glad to be at rest:”. The search led me to a woman, poet, member leader of the Acmeism movement in poetry.
Acmeism was a movement that preferred the virtues of classicism, firmness and structure to the rather vague use of words by the symbolism movement. Symbolism used metaphors rather extensively and were derisive of matter of fact descriptions or use of words. Acmeists, on the other hand, viewed themselves as skilled workers of words, direct in their interpretation and direct in their imagery. Poems were not a vague art of indirect messages but direct and from the world around them. To quote from Kuzmin (preceded the birth of Acmeism) ” I beg you be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax, be a skillful builder of words, both in small things and the whole, thrift in the use of words, precision, authenticity and you shall discover beauty, clarity”.
Anna Akhmatova, poet, woman, brought me to Acmeism. The Acmeist poets were considered anti Stalinist and suffered quite a bit. Akhmatova was no exception and saw her son imprisoned for several decades in the Gulag ( the novel by Solzhenitsyn on the Gulag is a must read for the sheer detail of misery). Her work was not allowed to be published and survived in her mind and the minds of a few close friends before they were smuggled out to the west in the post Stalinist period.
Akhmatova, touched me through her writing. Equally important, she was the person who broke my notion of poets as dreamy (dreary as well), symbolic and romantics, often living in a make believe world of metaphors. Akhmatova showed me a different style of writing and the importance of an artist as a witness. The artist as a survivor. The artist as a revolutionary.
Why do I write this? I hope you may move beyond the conventional notions of poetry and poets and explore for such gems in the vernacular literature.
May I share the poem that took me on this nostalgic path, my introduction to Acmeism
” There I learned how faces fall apart
How fear looks out from under the eyelids
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by suffering on people’s cheeks
There I learnt how silver can inherit
The Black, the ash blond, overnight,
The smiles that faded from the poor in spirit”
From the Requiem, Anna Akhmatova