(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

This poem appears in Pasternak’s My Sister, Life, a collection of poems that is among his most popular with Russian readers. It is placed at the beginning of a section of the book called “An Exercise in Philosophy,” but it has little in common with abstract thinking about art.

The outer form of “Definition of Poetry” is conventional: four four-line stanzas. Each line is made up of three anapestic feet, that is, two weakly accented syllables followed by a strongly accented one, as in the word “Montreal.” In the first eight lines of the poem, seven finely chiseled images are arranged in neat verses. At the middle of them, Pasternak sharpens a gentle, timeworn poetic image with the claim that poetry is “two nightingales dueling.” He seems to say that to write poetry is not just to record moments of one’s intuition. Instead, it is the struggle of two equals, a vision that sees new connections.

Pasternak’s methods are not always readily apparent in translation. The rhythm is symbolic in itself, but almost impossible to reflect accurately. To the Russian listener, this particular meter creates an impression of solemn pronouncements, of a finger regularly stabbing the paper while pointing out inescapable truths. It tends, after a time, toward monotony, as does all sententiousness. Pasternak plays a game with the high seriousness of his topic, at times enhancing the solemnity, such as in the repetitions of “it is,”...

(The entire section is 438 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ciepiela, Catherine. The Same Solitude: Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Davie, Donald C., and Angela Livingstone, eds. Pasternak. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

De Mallac, Guy. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

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O’Connor, Katherine T. Boris Pasternak’s “My Sister—Life”: The Illusion of Narrative. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1988.

Rowland, Mary F., and Paul Rowland. Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967.

Rudova, Larissa. Understanding Boris Pasternak. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

Weir, Justin. The Author as Hero: Self and Tradition in Bulgakov, Pasternak, and Nabokov. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002.