Mandelstam, by way of Michael Eskin


In an appendix to his book Poetic Affairs (on Paul Celan, Durs Grunbein, Joseph Brodsky, and the kinship each poet shares with Osip Mandelstam) Michael Eskin deftly draws together some logical threads of Mandelstam's "Acmeist" poetics :

1. aesthetic : "Mandelstam's notion of the 'living word' ties in with the overall Acmeist endeavor to create 'an organicist poetics... of a biological nature' - a poetics predicated on biology and physiology, on 'the infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism,' and on the basic notion that a 'poem is a living organism'" [Poetic Affairs, p.139]. More than that : "The breathing, moving human body is the ultimate ground of poetry. The 'poetic foot,' Mandelstam notes, is nothing but 'breathing in and breathing out.' The poem is literally animated into existence by 'the breathing of all ages' to the extent that it is the articulation of the breathing, moving bodies of countless poets 'of all ages' [ibid.].

The image of poetry projected here is strikingly reminiscent of the ecstatic "speaking-in-tongues" event on the day of Pentecost, as described in the New Testament : poetry here is akin to the descent of the Holy Ghost, by means of which people from "all lands" begin speaking together, each in their own languages, yet mutually understanding each other.* Poetry is a physiological embodiment, shared "inscrutably" across time & space.

2. ethical : The Acmeist movement developed in the early 20th century as a dialectical response to the otherworldliness of Russian Symbolism. Eskin explains : "'Acmeism is not only a literary phenomenon,' Mandelstam notes in 1922... This new ethical force... consists first and foremost, in the reversal of the Symbolist denigration of the real, phenomenal world of the here and now... Mandelstam emphasizes the world's very reality and materiality as the Acmeists paradigm and horizon...
"A love for the here and now, for 'all manifestations of life... in time and not only in eternity' - a love for this world and this reality, for one's 'own organism,' for one's singularity, cannot fail to bear on sociopolitics. What kind of sociopolitical setup will foster and secure the possibility of this kind of Acmeist existence?... Mandelstam lays out his own sociopolitical vision:

'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'" [ibid., pp. 139-140]

Eskin notes how this stance had consequences for Mandelstam's personal fate, & which was echoed by Brodsky in his remark that the poet "is a democrat by definition" (& here we further note the shade of Pushkin, standing behind both Mandelstam & Brodsky).

Finally, Eskin reiterates Mandelstam's supremely dialogical concept of poetry. M's famous essay "On the Interlocutor" likens the poem to a message in a bottle, set afloat on the sea toward an unknown friend/reader in the future; when conjoined with the charismatic ("Pentecostal") sense of poetry outlined above, we understand that each reader, each one of us - when we truly encounter a poem - has become the intended recipient of the message. We are conjoined - in a kinship of friendly dialogue & companionship, across the sea of time & space - with the poet in person.

[*Note : these references to the Pentecost are my own interpolations, not not discussed in Eskin's text.]


& how would I relate all this to our Plumbline?

I feel a sense of weight : of the earthly weight of material things, and the weight of lived experience. & I relate this first of all to all those dimensions of poetry which remain unspoken : the submerged portion of the iceberg, so to speak : all the overtones & undertones & inexplicable feeling-tones & hidden meanings & unknowables which help give a poem its resistance, its resonance, its own specific gravity. & further, I relate this to living specificity and particularity, that vividness and local accuracy which are part of the glory of poetry - a synthetic brilliance of referential & evocative vision : faculties of Mandelstam's "infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism." These are dimensions which weight the "middle path" of our plumbline : tied deep down in the heart of faithful utterance, Wallace Stevens' "spirit of poetry" as the "companion of the conscience." & then I think of all this as impelling the poet to strive for a poetry that can speak... like this :

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
(- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")


Conrad DiDiodato said...


thank you for this (for me, at least)introduction to Osip Mandelstam with whose "Acmeist" poetics I'm not familiar at all. I'll add him to my reading list.

I miss that style of poetry grounded in the real ("the weight of material things", as you say,) too much already having been lost to theory and perhaps to experimentalism for its own sake. It's also nice to see Brodsky,Celan talked about, two of the most significant voices of the twentieth century. Perhaps Rilke's name could be added to the list of "Acmeists".

I'm reminded of Zbigniew Herbert's "Mr Cogito" poems: his way of referring to the tyranny of theory & its tendency to make us less real.

Henry Gould said...

Conrad, one of the very best books I've read about Mandelstam is by a Canadian :

Mandelshtam's Poetics : a challenge to postmodernism (Victoria Corrigan).

But the best of all is to start with the poetry, & with Nadezhda M's memoirs (Hope Against Hope, & Hope Abandoned). These are like "reality Dostoevsky".