The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the greatest friendships in the life of the Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva was conducted wholly by letter during a few months of 1926 with the Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, one of the most important German-language poets of the twentieth century, represented for Tsvetayeva the ideal poet. After Rilke died unexpectedly on December 29, 1926, Tsvetayeva’s shock and grief took the form of several works in prose and verse that reacted to his death. “New Year Letter,” written in February, 1927, is an attempt to come to terms with Rilke’s death. It also represents one side of a companionable conversation between two poets about their craft and constitutes a statement about Tsvetayeva’s philosophy of poetry.

The poem, written in the first person and addressed to Rilke, opens with the traditional Russian New Year’s greeting, S novym godom, “Happy New Year.” Tsvetayeva calls the poem “my first epistle to you in your new/place”—that is, in the afterworld—thus implying that the poem is a continuation of their previous correspondence and denying the power of death. The poem then describes how Tsvetayeva learned of Rilke’s death when an acquaintance dropped by to ask if she would write a memorial piece about him for a newspaper. Tsvetayeva, who cannot conceive that the great poet is dead, and who regards an acknowledgment of his death as a kind of betrayal, refuses; most of the remaining part of the poem is concerned with her ideas about writing as an act of immortality, and about the life of the poet as both eternal...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“New Year Letter” is a poem of some 195 lines of varying length that uses a variety of metrical patterns. Rather than being organized into regular stanzas, the poem is divided into sections, ranging from four to thirty-two lines long, according to subject matter and to the rhythm of the poet’s thought processes. Sections sometimes contrast with the sections that precede them in tone or lexical level, as, for example, when an emotionally charged passage is followed by a laconic, colloquial one. One device that serves as a kind of structural leitmotif is the formula “Happy . . .,” which is used in the first line to wish Rilke a happy New Year. This phrase, with other objects substituted for “New Year”—such as “Happy break of day,” “Happy whole me,” “Happy new world”—appears throughout the poem. The phrase underscores the sense of new beginnings associated both with the day and with Tsvetayeva’s conception of the “third state” in which Rilke now finds himself. It also bears with it the theme of generosity and giving, which was important to both poets and figured in their correspondence.

It is difficult to explain the linguistic innovations of a poem written in one language to an audience who will read it in another. This is especially true of Tsvetayeva, whose uniqueness lies at least in part in her bold, fresh treatment of Russian. Her poetry is technically challenging even for a Russian reader. She is known for her strong, rapidly changing rhythms, which can resemble anything from jazz to a religious chant.

Equally characteristic is her unusual approach to rhyme. “New Year...

(The entire section is 667 words.)