Nina Cassian 1924–
Romanian poet, playwright, short story writer, illustrator, composer, journalist, critic, and translator.
Regarded as one of Romania's most prominent literary figures, Cassian has created a large and varied body of work, the main concern of which is passion: passion as desire and passion as suffering. Cassian's poems are marked especially by their physicality; they are intensely personal, rhythmically complex, and dynamic works that move easily from love to hate, from tenderness to severity. Cassian's dramatic poetry vividly portrays life experience. As Cassian notes, "Poetry is not to transcend life or to transform it, but it is life…. Art is as alive as an animal"
Cassian was born to working class parents in Galati, a town at the mouth of the Danube. By the time Cassian was eleven, she and her parents had moved twice, first to Brasov, a city in Transylvania, and then to Bucharest, Romania. These shifts in locale supplied Cassian with access to a wide variety of peoples, landscapes, and celebrations in which she reveled as a child. Cassian started playing piano, composing music, and writing poems at a very young age, and in high school she excelled in these arts—along with painting and foreign languages—to the detriment of her other studies. The rise of fascism in Romania, which forced her to leave her studies at the Pompilian Institute and attend a Jewish girls' school, led Cassian to embrace a staunch Communism. In 1943, Cassian married Vladimir Colin, a Jewish Communist poet, whom she divorced five years later to marry Alexandru Stefanescu, a Christian ten years her senior. She remained married to Stefanescu until his death in 1985. Cassian's creative output suffered in the early 1950s as a result of trying to change her writing style in response to a ruling of the Communist Party which deemed her poetry "decadent." A slight—and temporary—erosion of severe Stalinist Communism in the late 1950s allowed Cassian a period of great creativity and productivity. As a visiting professor of creative writing at New York University in 1985, Cassian was awarded both a Yaddo Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. Later that year, Cassian was informed that a long-time friend, Gheorghe Ursu, had been arrested for keeping a political diary, a diary that contained unpermitted, satirical pieces written by Cassian. Ursu died as a result of injuries sustained during his interrogation. Cassian subsequently received political asylum in the United States. She currently lives and works in New York.
Cassian's first collection of poems, La scara 1/1 (1948; On the Scale of 1/1), was denounced by the Communist Party, which claimed the work did not follow properly the Party's principles. In subsequent collections, including Sufletul nostru (1949; Our Soul), An viu, noua sute si saptesprezece (1949; Vital Year, 1917), and Tinerete (1953; Youth), Cassian attempted to adhere to the Party doctrine she admired. In these works Cassain tried to use simpler vocabulary and avoid metaphorical language as the Communist government preferred. Cassian now rejects these works for aesthetic reasons. With the loosening of restrictions in the late 1950's, Cassian wrote a number of books in which the pleasures of the body are prevalent; these volumes include Singele (1966; Blood), Destinele paralele (1967; Parallel Destinies), Marea conjugare (1971; The Big Conjugation), and the award-winning Numaratoarea inversa (1983; Countdown). In 1982, Cassian was awarded the Bucharest Writers Association Award for De indurare (1981; Mercy). Call Yourself Alive? (1988) collects love poems from various periods of Cassian's literary career. In Cassain's later works, including the award-winning Life Sentence (1990) and Cheerleader for a Funeral (1992), the poet considers the theme of ageing along with her usual themes of passion, love, loss, and suffering.
Cassian's work is admired by critics for the same reasons that it was disapproved of by Romania's Communist government; it is both highly personal and highly courageous. While she has been written out of the literary history of her native Romania, Cassian is greatly admired by literary critics who frequently comment upon the strength and the intensity of emotion in her work. Although critics are wary of the difficulties of translating Cassian's rhythms and word-play into English, all agree that the available translations are high-quality, capable of transferring much of the charged energy which defines Cassian's work.
La scara 1/1 [On the Scale of 1/1] 1948
An viu, noua sute si saptesprezece [Vital Year, 1917] 1949
Cintece pentru republica [Songs for the Republic] 1949
Sufletul nostru [Our Soul] 1949
Horea nu mai este singur [Horea Not Alone Anymore] 1952
Tinerete [Youth] 1953
Versuri alese [Selected Poems] 1955
Dialogul vintului cu marea: motive bulgare [The Dialogue of the Wind and Sea: Bulgarian Motives] 1957
Virstele anului [The Measures of the Year] 1957
Sarbatorile zilnice [Everyday Holidays] 1961
Spectacol in aer liber [Outdoor Performance—A Monograph of Love] 1961
Cele mai frumoase poezii [The Most Beautiful Poems] 1963
Sa ne facem daruri [Gift Giving] 1963
Disciplina harfei [The Discipline of the Harp] 1965
Singele [Blood] 1966
Destinele paralele [Parallel Destinies] 1967
Ambitus [Ambit] 1969
Cronofagie, 1944-1969 [Chronophagy, 1944-1969] 1970
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SOURCE: "Writing Children's Literature in Romania: An Interview with Nina Cassian," in The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 108-11.
[In the following interview, Cassian discusses her work in children's literature and her work's reception in Romania.]
[DeLuca]: Would you like to talk about the children's books you have written and about why you wrote them?
[Cassian]: I don't have children. If I write for them, I write for the child inside adults too. I am sure the way children react to my books—very warmly indeed—is due, especially, to the fact that I tried, and perhaps succeeded, in keeping intact the feelings of my own childhood and adolescence, the candor, the capacity for continually discovering the world. It is a cruelty anyway to divide our lives, which are so short, into periods. We have approximately seventy to eighty years to live and we insist on cutting them into childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, senility, and so forth. It's not only cruel, it's not real. I see life as a unique gesture from beginning to end. I think we can live our lives like those chess players playing several games of chess simultaneously, but we are expected to be excellent chess players! I don't give up what I have already lived, and if I am a real artist I live also in times I haven't reached yet. So being still a child, I address myself to myself and, of course, to...
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SOURCE: An introduction to Call Yourself Alive?: Love Poems of Nina Cassian, Forest Books, 1988, pp. vii-ix.
[In the following introduction to Call Yourself Alive?, Adcock praises the physicality of Cassian's poems. Adcock also notes that while the translations are very good, they cannot quite convey Cassian's "expertise in the more subtle and flexible rhythms of spoken language" that the original poems display.]
Nina Cassian is a notable phenomenon in Romanian literature: a poet remarkable for the vigour, the sensuality and indeed the savagery of her work, but also an intellectual, a critic, a journalist, and a writer of fiction and of books for children. Side by side with this prolific literary career she has also had a parallel career as a composer, with a sideline in book illustration. But it is as a poet that she is best known, with an established international reputation. She has been publishing poetry for forty years: the earliest poem in this book [Call Yourself Alive?] dates from 1947, the latest from 1987. This selection concentrates on her love poetry, with love being interpreted in its widest sense: not only sexual passion, but love of life, of freedom, and, in the splendidly sensuous final poem, of her own language.
Perhaps the most immediately striking feature of these poems is their startling physicality: Cassian never lets us forget that we have bodies, and...
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SOURCE: "Letters After Love," in Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1989, p. 200.
[In the following excerpt, Chamberlain favorably reviews Call Yourself Alive? and finds the collection a refined and emotive look at human experience.]
The refinement and strength of feeling which distinguish contemporary Romanian poetry have an eminent representative in Nina Cassian, who in this collection of poems from four decades translates her daily joys and disappointments into a glacial, hard-edged, barely real landscape. In "Winter Event" (1947) the snow throws into relief the fire and dazzle of a kiss glimpsed and heard like a passing fox. "The cold" of twenty years later describes a shameful contraction of humanity. The failure to forge bonds, our barely concealed lust for each other's blood ("Cold's lifestyle produces a strange impression of order") are mitigated by convention, "the pale, sweet sister of the law, / making it easier for us, if not to live, / at least, to survive".
A poem from 1965, "I wanted to stay in September", locates Cassian at her most happily sensual, knowing the nearness of cold but living in an easier season, "with one hand in the trees—the other / in the greying sand, to slip / along with summer into autumn". Yet she is "fated to be uprooted from landscapes / with an unprepared soul", and with that wrench we are in the emotional country that most of these...
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SOURCE: A review of Call Yourself Alive? : Love Poems of Nina Cassian, in World Literature Today, Winter, 1990, pp. 92-3.
[In the following review, Dorian praises the way in which Cassian's poetry captures the "wonderfully shocking metamorphoses and mutations of words and feelings, of people and objects."]
Nina Cassian is a prolific poet with a large number of verse collections (On the Scale 1/1, Songs for the Republic, The Ages of the Year, The Daily Holidays, Outdoor Show, Parallel Destinies, The Discipline of the Harp, Chronophagia, Ambitus, Lotto-Poems, Counting Backward, et cetera) and with a definite place in the generation of Romanian poets who began publishing at the end of the last war. Her poetry takes shape at the intersection of lucidity ("the platinum scalpel with which / I attempt the surgery of truth") with the games of imagination, the enticing, wonderfully shocking metamorphoses and mutations of words and feelings, of people and objects.
Taking the latitude and longitude of Cassian's work is no simple matter, however; for just as the charmed reader believes he is holding the map of the poet's passions and problems, she makes an about-face, scorns his admiration with an ironic grin, eludes him, reappears as fury, feline lover, murderess, buffoon, or ship's figurehead bringing in a new cargo of inventions, offering new projects and proposals. She may...
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SOURCE: An Introduction, in Life Sentence: Selected Poems, W.W. Norton and Company, 1990, pp. xv-xxiv.
[In this introduction to Life Sentence, Smith praises Cassian's intensity, gives an overview of pervading themes in her work, and offers biographical information on the poet.]
Nina Cassian comes to us, even in translation, as a poet of tremendous range and vitality. We are at once aware of her antecedents: a modernist, nurtured on those French poets who, through T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, helped to change the shape of twentieth-century poetry in England and America, she is at the same time very much the product of Romania. Her poetry has something of the clear line and the strikingly simple texture of her countryman, Brancusi, and, like him, her sophistication is grounded in folklore. There is great variety to her work and a comic spirit that recalls the theater of the absurd of her other countryman, Ionesco. Her themes are eternal, love and loss, life and death, and they are communicated with an immediacy as rare as it is compelling. Hers is a passionate commitment in the greatest tradition of lyric poetry. For this poet, life is indeed a tragic sentence. But the sentence that she composes in answer to life is made up of clean Latin vowels, with rational syllables "trying to clear the occult mind." Only in poetry does she reach "the word, the inhabited homestead." And in poetry she takes her...
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SOURCE: "Methods of Transport," in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 377-88.
[In this excerpt, Hunting investigates and applauds the energy and techniques in Life Sentence.]
Tietjens, Monroe, Bullis, Bollingen, Loines, Shelley, Crane, Lilly—what a long train of prizes and awards for the engine of poetry to pull! During a distinguished career, Mona Van Duyn has won them all. As well, she is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Then there are the fellowships and the honorary degrees…. A very long train indeed, traveling a steady track through a reliable landscape. For thirty years we have been privileged to watch its progress.
Now, rushing from another horizon, around a curve of history, suddenly appears on a quite different track a locomotive so powerful, so sweeping in speed and force, as to remind one of an iron Pegasus, pulling along with seeming effortlessness a train of assorted brightly painted and loosely coupled cars. Whereas its American counterpart travels through level heartlands, this exotic manifestation seems to have in the eye of its headlight the reflection of a landscape of violent juxtapositions, forests, rivers, mountains, steppes impinging on and jostling one another. Such is the impression made by the poetry of Nina Cassian, for over forty years a leading literary figure of Romania with an...
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SOURCE: A review of Life Sentence: Selected Poems, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn, 1991, pp. 13-14.
[In this review, Cassian's Life Sentence: Selected Poems is praised as "a remarkable book, full of joyous energy, utterly honest, and without self-pity."]
Nina Cassian's life has been disrupted …, but as the poems in Life Sentence show clearly, nothing has succeeded in vanquishing her zestful brio. Whether recalling childhood, as in the fine poem "Part of a Bird", a free monologue which finally dissolves into humorous non-remembering as if distracted by its own attempt to summon the past, whether describing her own face ('Disjointed shape I'm destined to carry around'), or writing of the implications of love, as in "Kisses" ('heavy, slow, hurtful / where blood, voice and memory all take part'), a sense of relish is never far away. Her real subject is indeed love—its delights, but even more its bleak aftermath and its hurts. Images of fragmentation and dismemberment are strikingly recurrent, as are those of birds and of flight, the attempt to escape upwards. In one poem which combines both, "Fable", an angel has its wings cut off and is told by God, 'aesthetics doesn't matter here, / only your ability to master imbalance.' Echoes of Baudelaire's albatross—but Cassian's poem ends with a characteristic lack of pretension, as the fallen angel is mistaken for a stork by...
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SOURCE: A review of Cheerleader for a Funeral, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter, 1994, p. 110.
[In this review, Dorian praises the seductive variety of Cheerleader for a Funeral, in which the author treats the themes of love, loss, and growing older both humorously and seriously.]
Is there life after death-and poetry writing after emigration? With her fourth collection of poems in English translation—following Lady of Miracles (1985), Call Yourself Alive? (1988), and Life Sentence (1990)—Nina Cassian, the Romanian poet and author of over fifty books of verse and prose who in 1985 asked for political asylum in this country, gives an affirmative answer as she consolidates her postemigration literary career. Cheerleader for the Funeral collects a number of Cassian's earlier poems (some, like "Dialectic" or "Dance," were written as early as 1963), together with a few recent pieces, among which three poems have been written directly in English, a triumph every exiled poet dreams of at some time or other.
Because the poems are not dated, one cannot find out more about the osmosis between poetry writing and living in a new language and a new tradition of poetry, or at what cost the writing of poetry in exile has been accomplished. New and old poetry blend well together here, however, partly because the selection for translation has...
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Cassian, Nina. "Notes on Romanian Poetry." Parnassus 18, No. 2 and Vol. 19, No. 1: 58-80.
Overview of major figures and trends in twentieth century poetry, focusing on the effects of rise of repressive government regimes in the mid-twentieth century.
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