Nina Cassian Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

Nina Cassian 1924–

Romanian poet, playwright, short story writer, illustrator, composer, journalist, critic, and translator.

Regarded as one of Romania's most prominent literary figures, Cassian has created a large and varied body of work, the main concern of which is passion: passion as desire and passion as suffering. Cassian's poems are marked especially by their physicality; they are intensely personal, rhythmically complex, and dynamic works that move easily from love to hate, from tenderness to severity. Cassian's dramatic poetry vividly portrays life experience. As Cassian notes, "Poetry is not to transcend life or to transform it, but it is life…. Art is as alive as an animal"

Biographical Information

Cassian was born to working class parents in Galati, a town at the mouth of the Danube. By the time Cassian was eleven, she and her parents had moved twice, first to Brasov, a city in Transylvania, and then to Bucharest, Romania. These shifts in locale supplied Cassian with access to a wide variety of peoples, landscapes, and celebrations in which she reveled as a child. Cassian started playing piano, composing music, and writing poems at a very young age, and in high school she excelled in these arts—along with painting and foreign languages—to the detriment of her other studies. The rise of fascism in Romania, which forced her to leave her studies at the Pompilian Institute and attend a Jewish girls' school, led Cassian to embrace a staunch Communism. In 1943, Cassian married Vladimir Colin, a Jewish Communist poet, whom she divorced five years later to marry Alexandru Stefanescu, a Christian ten years her senior. She remained married to Stefanescu until his death in 1985. Cassian's creative output suffered in the early 1950s as a result of trying to change her writing style in response to a ruling of the Communist Party which deemed her poetry "decadent." A slight—and temporary—erosion of severe Stalinist Communism in the late 1950s allowed Cassian a period of great creativity and productivity. As a visiting professor of creative writing at New York University in 1985, Cassian was awarded both a Yaddo Fellowship and a Fulbright Fellowship. Later that year, Cassian was informed that a long-time friend, Gheorghe Ursu, had been arrested for keeping a political diary, a diary that contained unpermitted, satirical pieces written by Cassian. Ursu died as a result of injuries sustained during his interrogation. Cassian subsequently received political asylum in the United States. She currently lives and works in New York.

Major Works

Cassian's first collection of poems, La scara 1/1 (1948; On the Scale of 1/1), was denounced by the Communist Party, which claimed the work did not follow properly the Party's principles. In subsequent collections, including Sufletul nostru (1949; Our Soul), An viu, noua sute si saptesprezece (1949; Vital Year, 1917), and Tinerete (1953; Youth), Cassian attempted to adhere to the Party doctrine she admired. In these works Cassain tried to use simpler vocabulary and avoid metaphorical language as the Communist government preferred. Cassian now rejects these works for aesthetic reasons. With the loosening of restrictions in the late 1950's, Cassian wrote a number of books in which the pleasures of the body are prevalent; these volumes include Singele (1966; Blood), Destinele paralele (1967; Parallel Destinies), Marea conjugare (1971; The Big Conjugation), and the award-winning Numaratoarea inversa (1983; Countdown). In 1982, Cassian was awarded the Bucharest Writers Association Award for De indurare (1981; Mercy). Call Yourself Alive? (1988) collects love poems from various periods of Cassian's literary career. In Cassain's later works, including the award-winning Life Sentence (1990) and Cheerleader for a Funeral (1992), the poet considers the theme of ageing along with her usual themes of passion, love, loss, and suffering.

Critical Reception

Cassian's work is admired by critics for the same reasons that it was disapproved of by Romania's Communist government; it is both highly personal and highly courageous. While she has been written out of the literary history of her native Romania, Cassian is greatly admired by literary critics who frequently comment upon the strength and the intensity of emotion in her work. Although critics are wary of the difficulties of translating Cassian's rhythms and word-play into English, all agree that the available translations are high-quality, capable of transferring much of the charged energy which defines Cassian's work.