Nina Cassian Essay - Critical Essays

Cassian, Nina


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.

Principal Works


La scara 1/1 [On the Scale of 1/1] 1948

An viu, noua sute si saptesprezece [Vital Year, 1917] 1949

Cintece pentru republica [Songs for the Republic] 1949

Sufletul nostru [Our Soul] 1949

Horea nu mai este singur [Horea Not Alone Anymore] 1952

Tinerete [Youth] 1953

Versuri alese [Selected Poems] 1955

Dialogul vintului cu marea: motive bulgare [The Dialogue of the Wind and Sea: Bulgarian Motives] 1957

Virstele anului [The Measures of the Year] 1957

Sarbatorile zilnice [Everyday Holidays] 1961

Spectacol in aer liber [Outdoor PerformanceA Monograph of Love] 1961

Cele mai frumoase poezii [The Most Beautiful Poems] 1963

Sa ne facem daruri [Gift Giving] 1963

Disciplina harfei [The Discipline of the Harp] 1965

Singele [Blood] 1966

Destinele paralele [Parallel Destinies] 1967

Ambitus [Ambit] 1969

Cronofagie, 1944-1969 [Chronophagy, 1944-1969] 1970

Marea conjugare [The Big Conjugation] 1971

Recviem [Requiem] 1971

Loto-poeme [Lottery Poems] 1972

O suta de Poeme [100 Poems] 1974

Spectacol in aer libero alta monografie a dragostei [Outdoor PerformanceAnother Monograph of Love] 1974

Suave 1977

Viraje [Orbits] 1978

De indurare [Mercy] 1981

Lady of Miracles 1982

Jocuri de vacanta [Parlour Games] (poetry and prose) 1983

Numaratoarea inversa [Countdown] 1983

Call Yourself Alive? : Love Poems of Nina Cassian 1988

Life Sentence: Selected Poems 1990

Cheerleader for a Funeral 1992

Other Major Works

Ce-a vazut Oana: versui si cintece [What Oana Saw: Poems and Songs] (juvenilia) 1952

Florile patriei [Flowers of the Homeland] (juvenilia) 1954

Nica fara frica [Fearless Niki] (juvenilia) 1956

Bot Gros, catel fricos [Big Muzzle, the Fearful Puppy] (juvenilia) 1957

Printul Miorlau [Prince Miaow] (juvenilia) 1957

Chipuri hazlii pentru copii [Funny Faces for Kids] (juvenilia) 1958

Aventurile lui Trompisor [The Adventures of Trunky the Elephant] (juvenilia) 1959

Incura-lume [The Mischief Maker] (juvenilia) 1961

Curcubeu [Rainbow] (juvenilia) 1962

Elefantelul curios [The Curious Little Elephant, adaptor; from a story by Kipling] (juvenilia) 1964

Pisica de una singura [The Cat Alone, adaptor; from a story by Kipling] (juvenilia) 1967

Povestea a doi pui do tigru numiti Ninigra si Aligru (juvenilia) 1969; published in journal The Lion and the Unicorn as "Tigrino and Tigrene," 1987

Atit de grozava si adio: confidente ficitve [You're WonderfulAdieu: Fictitious Confidences] (prose) 1971; revised edition, Confidente fictive [Fictitious Confidences], 1976

Pisica la televizor [T.V. Cat] (juvenilia) 1971

Ninigra si Aligru [Tigrino and Tigrene] (juvenilia) 1972

Intre noi copiii [Between Us Kids] (juvenilia) 1974

Naca fara frica [Fearless Niki] (juvenilia) 1984


Nina Cassian with Geraldine DeLuca and Roni Natov (interview date 1986)

SOURCE: "Writing Children's Literature in Romania: An Interview with Nina Cassian," in The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 10, 1986, pp. 108-11.

[In the following interview, Cassian discusses her work in children's literature and her work's reception in Romania.]

[DeLuca]: Would you like to talk about the children's books you have written and about why you wrote them?

[Cassian]: I don't have children. If I write for them, I write for the child inside adults too. I am sure the way children react to my books—very warmly indeed—is due, especially, to the fact that I tried, and perhaps succeeded, in keeping intact the feelings of my own childhood and adolescence, the candor, the capacity for continually discovering the world. It is a cruelty anyway to divide our lives, which are so short, into periods. We have approximately seventy to eighty years to live and we insist on cutting them into childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, senility, and so forth. It's not only cruel, it's not real. I see life as a unique gesture from beginning to end. I think we can live our lives like those chess players playing several games of chess simultaneously, but we are expected to be excellent chess players! I don't give up what I have already lived, and if I am a real artist I live also in times I haven't reached yet. So being still a child, I address myself to myself and, of course, to those who are more entitled to call themselves children than I am.

The first children's book I wrote was not really written by choice but from necessity. It was in 1950, during the dogmatic period in Romania. Socialist realism was, unfortunately, characterized by the restraining of structures and styles and vocabulary. During that period I lost my appetite for writing poetry. I did write some poems in the politically approved manner because I tried to be a "faithful child of the party." I had become a member of the Communist Party in 1940 when I was 15 years old. There was fascism and war in my country and I wanted to sacrifice myself for the happiness of humanity! So when I was asked to write in a rigid and simplified manner, I tried to do my best, but after awhile, I switched to literature for children because it was the only field where metaphors were still allowed, where imagination was tolerated and assonance was permitted. (It sounds crazy: what has assonance to do with the communist catechism?!)

[Natov]: Do you always write in verse?

If I were very proud—and I'm not—I could quote Ovid who said: "Quidquid tentabam dicere versus erat," which means, "Everything I tried to say became verse." No, I wrote two books of short stories but I mainly write and translate poetry. I also think that children are attracted by poetry with its rhyme and rhythm, especially in the early years: it's like playing and it's easy to memorize. That...

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Fleur Adcock (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to Call Yourself Alive?: Love Poems of Nina Cassian, Forest Books, 1988, pp. vii-ix.

[In the following introduction to Call Yourself Alive?, Adcock praises the physicality of Cassian's poems. Adcock also notes that while the translations are very good, they cannot quite convey Cassian's "expertise in the more subtle and flexible rhythms of spoken language" that the original poems display.]

Nina Cassian is a notable phenomenon in Romanian literature: a poet remarkable for the vigour, the sensuality and indeed the savagery of her work, but also an intellectual, a critic, a journalist, and a writer of fiction and of books for children. Side...

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Lesley Chamberlain (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Letters After Love," in Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1989, p. 200.

[In the following excerpt, Chamberlain favorably reviews Call Yourself Alive? and finds the collection a refined and emotive look at human experience.]

The refinement and strength of feeling which distinguish contemporary Romanian poetry have an eminent representative in Nina Cassian, who in this collection of poems from four decades translates her daily joys and disappointments into a glacial, hard-edged, barely real landscape. In "Winter Event" (1947) the snow throws into relief the fire and dazzle of a kiss glimpsed and heard like a passing fox. "The cold" of twenty years...

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Marguerite Dorian (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Call Yourself Alive? : Love Poems of Nina Cassian, in World Literature Today, Winter, 1990, pp. 92-3.

[In the following review, Dorian praises the way in which Cassian's poetry captures the "wonderfully shocking metamorphoses and mutations of words and feelings, of people and objects."]

Nina Cassian is a prolific poet with a large number of verse collections (On the Scale 1/1, Songs for the Republic, The Ages of the Year, The Daily Holidays, Outdoor Show, Parallel Destinies, The Discipline of the Harp, Chronophagia, Ambitus, Lotto-Poems, Counting Backward, et cetera) and with a definite place in the generation of Romanian poets who...

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William Jay Smith (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An Introduction, in Life Sentence: Selected Poems, W.W. Norton and Company, 1990, pp. xv-xxiv.

[In this introduction to Life Sentence, Smith praises Cassian's intensity, gives an overview of pervading themes in her work, and offers biographical information on the poet.]

Nina Cassian comes to us, even in translation, as a poet of tremendous range and vitality. We are at once aware of her antecedents: a modernist, nurtured on those French poets who, through T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, helped to change the shape of twentieth-century poetry in England and America, she is at the same time very much the product of Romania. Her poetry has something of the clear...

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Constance Hunting (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Methods of Transport," in Parnassus, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 377-88.

[In this excerpt, Hunting investigates and applauds the energy and techniques in Life Sentence.]

Tietjens, Monroe, Bullis, Bollingen, Loines, Shelley, Crane, Lilly—what a long train of prizes and awards for the engine of poetry to pull! During a distinguished career, Mona Van Duyn has won them all. As well, she is a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Then there are the fellowships and the honorary degrees…. A very long train indeed, traveling a steady track through a reliable landscape. For thirty years we have been...

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Lawrence Sail (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Life Sentence: Selected Poems, in Stand Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 2, Autumn, 1991, pp. 13-14.

[In this review, Cassian's Life Sentence: Selected Poems is praised as "a remarkable book, full of joyous energy, utterly honest, and without self-pity."]

Nina Cassian's life has been disrupted …, but as the poems in Life Sentence show clearly, nothing has succeeded in vanquishing her zestful brio. Whether recalling childhood, as in the fine poem "Part of a Bird", a free monologue which finally dissolves into humorous non-remembering as if distracted by its own attempt to summon the past, whether describing her own face ('Disjointed...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

Marguerite Dorian (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Cheerleader for a Funeral, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 4, Winter, 1994, p. 110.

[In this review, Dorian praises the seductive variety of Cheerleader for a Funeral, in which the author treats the themes of love, loss, and growing older both humorously and seriously.]

Is there life after death-and poetry writing after emigration? With her fourth collection of poems in English translation—following Lady of Miracles (1985), Call Yourself Alive? (1988), and Life Sentence (1990)—Nina Cassian, the Romanian poet and author of over fifty books of verse and prose who in 1985 asked for political asylum in this...

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Further Reading


Cassian, Nina. "Notes on Romanian Poetry." Parnassus 18, No. 2 and Vol. 19, No. 1: 58-80.

Overview of major figures and trends in twentieth century poetry, focusing on the effects of rise of repressive government regimes in the mid-twentieth century.

(The entire section is 37 words.)