Form and Content

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Marina Tsvetayeva was one of twentieth century Russian literature’s greatest and most singular talents. She was also one of Russia’s first major women writers. A precocious but predictable poet at eighteen, several years later she was writing some of the most powerful and unexpected poetry in the Russian language. Art in the Light of Conscience: Eight Essays on Poetry is a short collection of her essays chosen, translated, and annotated by Angela Livingstone.

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Tsvetayeva began writing in short lyric forms, then gradually moved on to greater length and complexity in long poems and epics, and eventually arrived at prose. The move to prose was both natural and necessary. It was natural because, as her fellow Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said, paraphrasing military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, “prose for Tsvetaeva was nothing but the continuation of poetry by other means.” That is, her concern with intonation, with sound, with association, needed another territory to explore, and prose was all that was left. It was necessary because Tsvetayeva, who had followed her husband into emigration, was poor. She was an established, well-known poet at the peak of her powers in the mid-1920’s but she had difficulty putting bread on the table. Prose paid better, and at least for a time Tsvetayeva was a sought-after contributor to Russian-language periodicals in such centers of émigré culture as Berlin, Prague, and Paris.

In the late 1920’s, the young Soviet Union was beginning to close in: First, travel across the border became more difficult, then communication, as joint publishing projects faltered; writers and intellectuals living outside the Soviet Union found themselves either vilified or simply ignored. The émigré community began questioning how a literature, a culture, a language, was to exist at such distance from its homeland. Some were convinced it could not and clung to reputations and traditions established before the revolution. Others saw themselves as Russia’s only hope in the darkly looming Bolshevik age. A few others looked at the Soviet Union and, like Herbert Wells, saw the future. Émigré culture split into hostile camps—a division which would eventually help send Tsvetayeva back to the Soviet Union and death—but in the meantime she shared their preoccupations with poetry and history, poetry and time, poetry and morality, the role of the critic, and the relationship of poets to one another. She shared in the preoccupations, but she rewrote the categories: Tsvetayeva was opposed to definitions of “us” and “them”—except where it concerned questions of soul or “no-soul,” creativity (in whatever realm) or death. She tended to defend whatever camp she was not in at the time.

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, before she followed her husband and daughter back to the Soviet Union, Tsvetayeva wrote more than forty essays, including memoirs, reviews, and criticism. Livingstone has limited her selection to those that deal exclusively with poetry and poets, and moreover poets as creators rather than as personalities. Some, such as “Downpour of Light” or “Epic and Lyric in Contemporary Russia,” are passionate in praise and defense of individual poets. Others, such as “History of a Dedication” or “Two Forest Kings,” seek to set the record straight in fact or in language. Still others, such as “The Poet and Time” or “Art in the Light of Conscience,” assail common parlance and common assumptions about writing and the writing life.

Context

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As a poet, Tsvetayeva flouted convention, writing on traditional male themes such as war and valor as well as on traditional female ones such as love, jealousy, and abandonment. Her voice throughout is unapologetically, passionately female and her poetic personae are the whole of female mythology, from peasant girl to the Tsar-Maiden, Joan of Arc to Phaedra. Her insistent, magnetic voice, her innovative modernist poetics were officially ignored in the Soviet Union for decades but nevertheless influenced several generations of Russian poets, male and female alike.

Looking at Tsvetayeva’s prose in gender terms is not useful because the point of view that she adopts is that of the maker, the creator, the hand, the voice, the intelligence. Here there is no question of “the woman’s point of view,” not because Tsvetayeva is unaware of any difference (or, because aware, fears it) but because of the elemental levels of creation that concern her she finds it irrelevant. This is a woman who knows her own mind and speaks it (as opposed to speaking about it), in all of its odd and brilliant complexity. Tsvetayeva knew her own gifts, and if she considered herself an anomaly, it was not so much among women as among humans.

Bibliography

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Brodsky, Joseph. “A Poet and Prose.” In Less than One: Selected Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986. Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky discusses Tsvetayeva’s prose as an outgrowth of her poetry, unique in its relation to the Russian tradition.

Hingley, Ronald. Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981. Hingley intertwines life and work of all four of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets: Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva. A well-informed and readable account of an entire era.

Karlinsky, Simon. Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. Karlinsky wrote a pioneering study of Tsvetayeva in 1966 which introduced her to Western scholars. This later work is a reassessment in the light of new materials and is aimed at introducing her to the general reader.

Library Journal. CXVII, May 1, 1992, p. 82. A review of Art in the Light of Conscience.

Proffer, Ellendea, ed. Tsvetaeva: A Pictorial Biography. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1980. A rare collection of photographs taken from personal and official archives, accompanied by quotes and excerpts from Tsvetayeva’s work.

Taubman, Jane. A Life Through Poetry: Marina Tsvetaeva’s Lyric Diary. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1988. Taubman looks at Tsvetayeva’s nonnarrative poetry as created autobiography and, without oversimplifying the connections, discusses its relationship to her real life. Taubman does not deal with Tsvetayeva’s prose in depth, but her detailed discussion of the poetry is indispensable in any consideration of Tsvetayeva’s style. Her psychological portrait is both sympathetic and honest.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXVIII, Autumn, 1992, p. S122. A review of Art in the Light of Conscience.

World Literature Today. LXVI, Summer, 1992, p. 542. A review of Art in the Light of Conscience.

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