Marina Tsvetayeva’s poetry is notable for its stylistic innovations, peculiarity of language, political sympathies, and autobiographical intensity. She did not immediately achieve mastery of style. Her early work shows that she was searching for a voice of her own, re-creating the language of Moscow’s high society in a rather stilted, overly elegant fashion, punctuated by allusions to childhood and romantic longings that do not always mesh with her aristocratic tone. By the time she composed the poems collected in Versty I, the ornate phrasing had developed into a simpler language, but one reflecting old, already archaic Russian usage, thus evoking the poetic diction of earlier centuries. At the same time, Tsvetayeva destroyed this historic illusion by incorporating deliberately incongruous colloquialisms and by placing sacred Church Slavonic phrases in coarse contexts. This stylistic violence is redeemed by the expressive, sometimes whimsical quality of her language, which became the trademark of her later work. She selects significant words, often creating new ones by building on familiar roots, which can evoke extended images or form connections to the next phrase without any grammatical links. One of her favorite devices is the verbless stanza: She achieves the necessary cohesion by clever juxtaposition of sharply delineated nouns, producing a brittle, succinct, almost formulaic precision of line. Her lexical and phonetic experiments, especially her neologisms, evoke the work of Mayakovsky and other Futurists, but she manages to maintain a voice peculiarly her own, which is partially the result of her skill in combining archaisms with colloquialisms to produce an incongruous but striking blend of tradition and novelty.
In much of Tsvetayeva’s later work, she also shifts the stress within the poetic line, carefully selecting her vocabulary to accommodate such prosodic deformation. Depending on the desired effect, Tsvetayeva drops unstressed syllables, adds dashes to represent syllables, or adds syllables to words, occasionally generating such awkward sequences that she feels it necessary to give intonation or pronunciation information in footnotes. Intensely interested in language expansion, she delighted in pushing poetic devices beyond existing limits. When employing enjambment, she broke the very word in half, creating odd, internal rhymes. These metric innovations, combined with her highly unusual diction, were responsible in part for the relative neglect that Tsvetayeva’s work suffered for some time.
Theoretically, Tsvetayeva favored lost causes and failures. The most prominent example is The Demesne of the Swans, a cycle of mourning for the defeated White Army. The same compassion appears in the 1930 cycle on Mayakovsky, following his suicide, and in the poems condemning the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her loyalty to and love for the past led her again and again to reinterpret motifs from classical literature, with a particular emphasis on Russia’s old epics and folklore.
A knowledge of Tsvetayeva’s life does not merely enhance an understanding of her work; it is vital to it. Her poetry is a kind of diary in verse, a chronological account of her experiences, often inaccessible without further elucidation. When preparing her work for safekeeping before returning to Russia, she recognized the hurdles facing the reader and provided explanatory footnotes for many pieces. Even so, her verse demands time and attention before it yields its richness, and she is generally considered to be a difficult poet. The phonetic and semantic interplay that characterizes much of her work poses formidable challenges to the translator. Her inability or unwillingness to exist harmoniously with her surroundings—she continually stressed her otherness—led to a crippling isolation long before political exigencies...
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