Elena Shvarts Essay - Critical Essays

Shvarts, Elena


Elena Shvarts 1948-

(Full name Elena Andréevna Shvarts) Russian poet.

The following entry provides criticism on Shvarts's works 1989 through 2002.

Shvarts is considered one of the most innovative and talented poets in Russia. Critics laud her humorous, provocative verse that often focuses on universal aspects of the female experience. Her poetry has been compared to such prestigious Russian female poets as Anna Akhmatova, Olga Sedakova, and Marina Tsvetaeva.

Biographical Information

Shvarts was born on May 17, 1948, in Leningrad, U.S.S.R, which is present-day St. Petersburg, Russia. Her parents separated when she was very young and she was raised by her mother, who was a writer at the Leningrad Dramatic Theater. Her upbringing was privileged, and she was able to pursue her interest in poetry from a young age. She studied philology for a year at Leningrad State University and eventually graduated from the Leningrad Theater Institute. In 1973 her first poems appeared in the student newspaper of Tartu University; after a few years, her poetry was published in émigré publications outside of the Soviet Union. She began to travel to read her poetry and soon she attracted a strong following for her work. In the mid-1980s her poems appeared in more mainstream journals and a few were translated into English. Her collections have garnered growing attention in Russia. She continues to reside in her hometown of St. Petersburg.

Major Works

Using both short lyrics and long poetic cycles, Shvarts's verse often explores various aspects of the feminine condition. Although not overtly feminist in nature, her verse centers on metaphysical and physical elements of the feminine experience. In her long poetic cycle Trudy i dni Lavinii (The Works and Days of Lavinia, a Nun from the Order of the Circumcision of the Heart, 1987), she utilizes the character of Lavinia, a unorthodox nun who struggles to overcome her sexual desires, to investigate women's relationship to God as well as women's place in the world. Another of Shvarts's characters, the legendary Roman poet Cynthia, uses contemporary language to survey universal female concerns such as sexuality, societal expectations, and violence. In Shvarts's verse, the body has been a recurring image. In “The Invisible Hunter,” the poet compares the pattern of birthmarks on her body to that of constellations and a sheet of music. In “Elegy on an X-ray of My Skull,” the poet alludes to the myth of Marsyas, the poet tortured and killed by Apollo as punishment for his pride in his verse. The poem touches on issues of death, alienation from one's physical form, the role of artist in society, and the ephemeral nature of the physical body. Sensuality is another focus of Shvarts's work. “Horror Eroticus” includes repeated disturbing images of sexual intercourse—which is compared to assault and murder—as well as themes of guilt, disgust, and physical and emotional intimacy. In “And Then You Said the Words,” a couple's sexual relationship is compared to that of two cats, in which sex is a physical need but does not require sentiment or obligation. Another recurring theme in Shvarts's poetry is her identity as a Russian poet. In “Kindergarten After Thirty Years” she juxtaposes images of the vacant lots and abandoned industrial buildings of contemporary St. Petersburg against the rich cultural history of the city.

Critical Reception

Because most of Shvarts's verse collections have not been translated into English, her work has not garnered a wide popular following in the West. Yet in Russia, she is viewed as one of the most original and vital poets of her day. Critics commend her innovative use of the poetic form, which they assert results in vivid and dynamic verse. In addition, they laud the humor and irony in her poetry and consider the prominent role of religion in her work. Shvarts's utilization of images from her hometown of St. Petersburg as well as classical settings and historical characters and references has been another recurring interest for critics. A few reviewers have investigated her place in the Russian poetic tradition, and argue that she defies easy classification. She has been compared to such female Russian poets as Anna Akhmatova, Olga Sedakova, and Marina Tsvetaeva, as well as the renowned author Fyodor Doestovsky.

Principal Works

Krug 1985

Tantsuiushchii David [Dancing David] 1985

Stikhi [Poems] 1987

Trudy i dni Lavinii [The Works and Days of Lavinia] 1987

Stikhi [Poems] 1990

‘Paradise’: Selected Poems 1993

Zapadno-Vostochnyi Veter: Novye Stikotvoreniia 1997

Solo na Raskalennoi Trube: Novye Stikhotvoreniia [Solo on a White-Hot Trumpet] 1998

Stikotnoreniia i Poemy 1999

Dikopis' poslednego vremeni [Wild Writing of the Recent Past] 2001


Barbara Heldt (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Heldt, Barbara. “The Poetry of Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 381-83.

[In the following essay, Heldt provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Shvarts poetry.]

She does not fit any category and would not know how to begin to try and fit in. Unlike most of Russian literature, her works are in no way politicized. The fact that much of her poetry is religious seems as natural as if she had grown up in a religious country (and, in a sense, she has), but her theology is a far cry from Orthodoxy both capitalized and uncapitalized—it stems from something deeply personal. Such feminine voices as hers have rarely been canonized by any church; indeed, they have been called blasphemous. Perhaps she is a descendant of the Gnostics, or of one of the Russian heretical sects stamped out long ago, but not quite.

Elena Shvarts has defied poetic norms as well; in the history of Russian poetics, this is close to heresy. The conventions of Russian poetry incorporate a system of laws as strict as the more patriarchal ones of state and church. Her verse forms are irregular, not shocking to those of us used to poetry in English, but unusual for poetry in Russian.

Official acceptance is just now coming to Shvarts, bringing both bother and benefit. Having remained all her life in the Soviet Union, in the Leningrad/Petersburg atmosphere of a bygone intelligentsia who know and support each other in the teeth of well-subsidized official writing, she has, though never published officially, had an audience of the best and closest kind. Her informal network knows her poetry well. Recently they and others have heard her read (in the first week of December 1988) in the packed main hall of the Leningrad Writers Union (to which she has never been admitted). She has invitations to appear on television, and she took her first trip abroad this February, to a poetry festival in London. In a resonant voice she now reads her Lavinia cycle in a small theater in Leningrad. Having lived all her life with her mother and grandmother, she now has her own apartment.

Finally, a small selection of her poems is being printed by the Leningrad publisher Sovetski Pisatel (Soviet Writer). The principles of selection were interesting: the editors wanted poems that were the most formally regular, and Shvarts was advised to include “nothing physiological.” She thought that might be the personal taste of the editor, but I believe that anything too “female” has long been taboo in Russian/Soviet literature. Sometimes, self-censorship prevailing, Russian women simply do not write that way; but when they do mention female bodies or desires, even under glasnost', we learn they are advised not to—this (not religion) being the last censorship barrier.

Shvarts mocks the whole tradition of the woman poet's body in poetry in her 1975 poem “The Invisible Hunter,” published in very few copies in the semiofficial 1985 collection Krug. The speaker imagines that her entire value is perhaps in her skin, which is covered in birthmarks forming various patterns, which she compares to heavenly constellations, a sheet of music, a palimpsest. These patternings might have special significance as a curiosity, but “Does the sable, the mink, and the squirrel / Know its pelt's value in dollars?” Being human, however, she can read the signs and does not know where to hide.

The value of poetry as original as Shvarts's will never really be determined by the market, but her name certainly deserves wider currency, and has for some years. One deservedly successful Soviet poet, Bella Akhmadulina, has several times spoken out in the press for the publication of Elena Shvarts's work. So far, however, it has been broken up into small collections in different presses, unarranged by the poet herself, and in the Soviet Writer edition only parts of cycles (except for “Black Easter”) appear. Shvarts often writes a poėma or poetic cycle, frequently connecting the separate poems in the cycle with a speaker from another time and place. Since the city of Leningrad clearly stands as another time/place, all her writing seems to flesh out the outlines of this short autobiography in prose she wrote at my request last December:

I was born in Leningrad, in 1948, in the “Egyptian building” with pharaohs standing at the entrance and the god of writing on the gates. In the form of a bird. So there was nothing else for me to do but submit to his power and write, which I began to do around the age of seven, with poetry coming later, at thirteen. I was a poor student and constantly found myself in a state of war with the teachers. Then for a year I studied at the Philological Faculty of the University, but everything there was just like school, and I moved on to the Theatrical Institute as an external student. I graduated—why, I don't know—I'm an autodidact, so my knowledge is wide but superficial. The only things that have ever really interested me are poetry and theology, separately and together. My first two published poems were in the newspaper of Tartu University in 1973, and until 1983 nothing else was published in my own country; but any time now my first little book will be coming out here. Starting in 1978, though, a lot has been published in émigré journals, and then three books came out; two collections of poetry, one with Russica in New York, and one in Paris with Beseda; and a novel in verse (sort of) with Ardis Publishers about the mad nun Lavinia.

This tone of the casual inevitability of things seems to constitute a vastly more attractive poetic mask than that worn by the posing male poets of Russia, who prophesy to a world outside with heavy traditions of truth-telling unknown in that world.

Shvarts's poetic voice is full of humorous irony unknown to those weighty rhetoricians, but not unknown to women's poetry in general. Even an early poem like her 1974 “Burliuk” mocks her futurist predecessor in tones that blend the virtuoso modernist with the eighteenth-century satiric ode, addressing its...

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Darra Goldstein (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Goldstein, Darra. “The Heartfelt Poetry of Elena Shvarts.” In Fruits of Her Plume: Essays on Contemporary Russian Women's Culture, edited by Helen Goscilo, pp. 239-50. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1993.

[In the following essay, Goldstein commends the spirituality and sensuality found in Shvarts's poetry.]

The world of the unseen, with its spirits and demons, takes on nearly tangible form in the verse of the St. Petersburg poet Elena Shvarts. In visions both playful and somber Shvarts conveys a spirituality that derives from intense exploration of the self. Self-exploration is an attempt at purification—or “circumcision,” as she terms it.1 But...

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Michael Molnar (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Molnar, Michael. “Introduction.” In ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems, by Elena Shvarts, pp. 9-13. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.

[In the following essay, Molnar underlines the influence of Shvarts's hometown of St. Petersburg on her poetry.]

St Petersburg was founded in 1703; it is therefore newer than New York, yet it is a city uniquely riddled and obsessed with history. Not just its own, or even only Russian history, but also that of Europe and the Ancient World. This is partly an effect of its neoclassical architecture—its Greek columns and colonnades, the Roman perspectives down straight streets, the Dutch or Venetian views across water,...

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Philip Ramp (review date 1994)

SOURCE: Ramp, Philip. “Review of Selected Poems by Attilio Bertolucci and ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems by Elena Shvarts.” Critical Survey 6, no. 3 (1994): 392-96.

[In the following review, Ramp praises the verse in ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems as measured yet invigorating.]

The poetry of Elena Shvarts is about as far removed from the world of Attilio Bertolucci as it is possible to get. She is speaking of a ‘city laid out like a carcass / In the grip of savage anguish’. This city is, of course, St Petersberg—Petrograd—Leningrad—but it is also the great, dark, turbulent ‘soul’ of Russia we are all so familiar with from Russian...

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Catriona Kelly (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Kelly, Catriona. “Elena Shvarts (1948-).” In A History of Russian Women's Writing, 1820-1992, pp. 411-22. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1994.

[In the following essay, Kelly discusses the defining characteristics of Shvarts's poetry, viewing her verse as a successful combination of physical and metaphysical concerns.]

Though Elena Shvarts had not published a collection in Russia until 1990, poetry readings and Western publications had established her reputation long before that as one of the most boldly imaginative and accomplished young Russian poets. Born in Leningrad, she had an education there which, by comparison with the well-marked paths...

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Marjorie L. Hoover (review date winter 1995)

SOURCE: Hoover, Marjorie L. “Review of ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 174.

[In the following review of ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems, Hoover contends that Shvarts is “a keen observer of everyday reality down to its dirty depths.”]

The poet Elena Shvarts puts her title [‘Paradise’: Selected Poems] in inverted commas both to quote Peter the Great's name for the capital he wrested from sea marshes and to set off her own modern St. Petersburger's ironic attitude toward that city. Shvarts praises and blames more extravagantly in the poem “The Dump”; she calls the city...

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David MacFadyen (review date winter 1998)

SOURCE: MacFadyen, David. “Review of Zapadno-vostochnyi veter, by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 161-62.

[In the following review, MacFadyen argues that synthesis is the unifying theme of Shvarts's oeuvre and the poems in Zapadno-vostochnyi veter.]

To talk of Elena Shvarts as the most commanding female voice in contemporary Russian poetry is not to risk much. She was born forty-nine years ago in Leningrad, and while remaining outside Soviet institutions of both higher learning and professional literature, she garnered increasing respect through the medium of samizdat. Now long since projected into the relative security...

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Stephanie Sandler (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Cultural Memory and Self-Expression in a Poem by Elena Shvarts.” In Reading Russian Poetry, edited by Stephanie Sandler, pp. 256-69. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Sandler examines “the literary precedents, linguistic texture, thematic interconnections, psychological slant, and religious underpinnings of Shvarts's poem ‘Kindergarten After Thirty Years’.”]

Among contemporary Russian poets, Elena Shvarts stands out as a powerful voice that bespeaks fragility, a formerly underground poet who addresses the central concerns of her culture. Her short lyric poems and longer cycles range widely...

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Stephanie Sandler (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Elena Shvarts.” In Russian Women Writers, Vol. 2, edited by Christine D. Tomei, pp. 1459-464. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Sandler considers the religious, historical and corporeal themes in Shvarts's work.]

Elena Andreevna Shvarts was born 17 May 1948 in Leningrad. She is a prolific, compelling contemporary poet whose work mixes the skepticism of postmodern sensibilities with the haunted primitivism of ancient Slavic folk belief. Standard biographical accounts seem unusually inept when it comes to this poet. Shvarts has been quite private about her own life experiences and has never written what...

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Stephanie Sandler (review date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Review of Dikopis' poslednego vremeni, by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 224-25.

[In the following review, Sandler examines themes of grief and loss in the poems of Dikopis' poslednego vremeni.]

After the scorching poems of Solo na raskalennoĭ trube (Solo on a White-Hot Trumpet; 1998), Elena Shvarts has begun a quest for an understanding of writing itself, and of the time of writing, if we are to take seriously the metaphors behind the titles of these her two most recent books of poetry. In Dikopis' poslednego vremeni (Wild Writing of the Recent Past) she wonders how,...

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Further Reading


Sandler, Stephanie. “Elena Shvarts and the Distances of Self-Disclosure.” In Reconstructing the Canon: Russian Writing in the 1980s, edited by Arnold B. McMillin, pp. 79-105. Amsterdam: OPA, 2000.

Analyzes the role of self-disclosure in Shvarts's work.

Sandler, Stephanie. “Scared into Selfhood: The Poetry of Inna Lisnianskaia, Elena Shvarts, Ol'ga Sedakova.” Slavic Review 60, no. 3 (fall, 2001): 473-90.

Analyzes the relationship between anxiety and identity in the poetry of Shvarts, Inna Lisnianskaia, and Ol'ga Sedakova.

Shvarts, Elena with Valentina Polukhina. “Coldness and...

(The entire section is 130 words.)