Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
As with any poet, it is difficult to separate form from content, and in Tsvetayeva’s case such an attempt at separation would be not only difficult but also ill-advised: Her distorted or elliptical syntax, her verbal inventiveness, her startling punctuation, her magnetic, almost hypnotic incantations—all of these embody the very way she thought. Tsvetayeva is known for her technical brilliance, her virtuoso use of a whole array of poetic devices, but for her these were never (as they were for some of her contemporaries) ends in themselves.
The lyrics in this selection span more than twenty years, and during those twenty years Tsvetayeva’s voice changes several times. Yet there are always certain constants. First, her voice is always an assertion, a defining and re-defining of the self. Even in the longer poems there is always the impression of direct speech; the speaker urges, reproaches, praises, harangues. Early in her career, Tsvetayeva declared that her poetry was a lyric diary, “a poetry of proper names.” She later qualified that statement in a letter of 1923: “The choice of words is first of all the choice and purging of emotions. Not all emotions are equally valid, believe me; here, too, work is required.” Therefore, Tsvetayeva’s poetry of proper names is not confessional poetry as such. Instead, it is mythmaking—the transformation of emotion and experience into a different reality.
The different reality—a transcendent, spiritual reality versus the reality of everyday life—was just one of a whole set of varied but opposing notions that runs throughout Tsvetayeva’s work. Flesh/spirit, art/conventional morality, chastity/promiscuity, male/female—these and other paradoxes of human existence shape Tsvetayeva’s self and world. What is peculiar to Tsvetayeva is that these antitheses never resolve (or dissolve) into a synthesis, and one-half of the pair never entirely triumphs; they continue to exist as paradoxical complements. In a sense, Tsvetayeva is defining herself (and her characters) by refusing to define, to exclude: The resulting “I” of the poem, whether it be a version of Tsvetayeva herself or a gypsy woman or Lilith or Helen of Troy, is an intact, contradictory whole—unlike the ironically self-conscious split selves that abound in twentieth century modernist poetry.
Her antitheses took many forms, from the “I-unlike-all-others” of her early poetry to the subtler “I-unlike-Akhmatova” of her homage to that poet (in a style reminiscent of Akhmatova’s own) to the androgynous woman warrior, the Tsar-Maiden of the long poem of the same name. Feinstein did not include this poem because of its length, but there are many other examples of reversals in the nature of relationships: The female character is the stronger, brasher, more reckless. Even when the voice is not explicitly female, it may speak in defense of characters such as Shakespeare’s Ophelia and Gertrude, the Bible’s Lilith, mythology’s Phaedra and Helen. These women, traditionally objects of either pity or fear, may be tragic and self-destructive, but they are neither helpless victims nor vicious viragos.
The reversal of the expected, the overturning of cliché, lies at the heart of Tsvetayeva’s worldview and of her poetics. In Russian, word order is far more flexible than it is in English, and Russian syntax allows for startling reversals of logical sequence; Tsvetayeva may distort not only syntax but also the logical sequence of imagery, as in the beginning of “An Attempt at Jealousy,” where the image of an oar precedes the metaphor to which it belongs.
Tsvetayeva’s whole literary generation was extraordinarily word conscious, coining new words and rediscovering old ones. Tsvetayeva did the same things, varying the voices she used, varying their diction, sometimes combining folk dialect and street slang with Church Slavonic, the language of the Russian Orthodox Church, sometimes reverting to a more severely classical mode. Yet Tsvetayeva’s coinings and word play (unlike those of many of her contemporaries) were never purely musical or alliterative; she sought the hidden relationships between phonetics and semantics—that is, between sound and meaning. This is what she does in poems such as “Poem of the Mountain,” organized around gorá (mountain) and góre (sorrow), or “Wires,” based on the play between provodá (here, telegraph wires) and próvody (saying farewells, seeing someone off). The sound itself leads to the meaning.
She often wrote in standard meters and stanzas, but much of her jagged, forceful, and decidedly “unladylike” rhythm comes from her use of ellipses (dropping the verb, which Russian grammar permits because the noun endings change according to their grammatical function), idiosyncratic punctuation (especially dashes), and a preference for metrical feet made up of several stressed syllables in a row In Ratcatcher, for example, there is one four-line stanza consisting solely of four one-syllable words.
For all Tsvetayeva’s verbal and metrical complexity, however, she never leaves sense behind. She combines familiar, recognizable forms to reinvent Russian, not to invent some new esoteric language. Her poems are urgent, direct communication in which device is always subordinate to desire.
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