In Chapter Eleven of Speak, Memory, is Nabokov trying to improve his poetry by finding words that work together?
Section 3 of Chapter 11 describes the particular problems that any aspiring poet has when trying to craft poems in the Russian language. As Nabokov explores, the Russian language does not unfortunately lend itself very well to the creation of poems with strict rhyme and rhythm patterns. As he describes it, the Russian elegy suffered "from a bad case of verbal anemia." The use of certain hackneyed phrases is something that was very difficult, even in the most expert hands, to avoid, and the youthful Nabokov, keen to write his first poem, fell into exactly this trap. However, he did work extremely hard to find the kind of words that would go well together, as the following quotation explores:
In fact, I was working at my elegy very hard, taking endless trouble over every line, choosing and rejecting, rolling the words on my tongue with the glazed-eyed solemnity of a tea-taster, and still it would come, that atrocious betrayal.
Even though Nabokov admits he took such time and effort to try and avoid the use of hackneyed phrases, still he reports that the "frame impelled the picture," and the Russian language drew him inexorably on into using phrases and words that were cliched and overused. Nabokov then did work extremely hard at trying to find words that would go together, but was straightjacketed by the Russian language and poetic form.