Form and Content
Marina Tsvetayeva is one of the four great Russian poets of the twentieth century. The other three, all Tsvetayeva’s contemporaries—Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova—are better known in the West, not least because of the almost insurmountable difficulties of translating Tsvetayeva’s peculiar poetic genius. Her poetry is difficult not because it is obscure or esoteric—on the contrary, it is passionate and direct speech—but because much of its expressiveness relies on verbal association, on sound compressed, contracted, and then released with tremendous energy. Although she was established and acknowledged as a major talent by the time she left Russia in 1922, Tsvetayeva never easily fit into any school or movement.
Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetayeva is a small volume intended to give the English-speaking reader some sense of Tsvetayeva’s life’s work. Poet and novelist Elaine Feinstein has based her versions on literal, nonpoetic translations done by Russian-speaking scholars and translators, and out of an enormous body of work (Tsvetayeva wrote more than two thousand lyric poems) has chosen mostly shorter lyrics and arranged them in chronological order. Although Tsvetayeva’s precocious adolescent verses, first published in 1908, own praise and recognition even during the literary boom of Russia’s prewar years, Feinstein begins with her more mature work of 1915 and 1916. Moving from old themes (her own singularity, her own isolation, her obstinate refusal to abandon the child’s sometimes startling view of the world) into new ones (passionate physical attraction and passionate physical separation from the beloved, states which in her world paradoxically and necessarily support one another), Tsvetayeva gradually moves into longer forms. Most often, she explores two states of being—love and poetry. Feinstein includes the poet’s famous cycles in praise of Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok and of Anna Akhmatova as well as several of her best-known long poems of the mid-1920’s—“Poem of the Mountain,” “Poem of the End,” “An Attempt at Jealousy”—which trace the course of an intense love affair.
During the 1920’s, Tsvetayeva also began writing prose essays and experimenting with even longer forms: narrative poems based on folklore or recent history. Feinstein includes excerpts from only one of these, Ratcatcher, which is a reworking of the medieval German legend of the Pied Piper. She ends with a few poems from the 1930’s, when Tsvetayeva was turning more and more to prose, and when the ferocious, exuberant energy of her earlier work was turning into a stark inner severity. The last poems in the book are from a cycle dedicated to Czechoslovakia, where Tsvetayeva had spent her earlier and relatively happier years of emigration.
This selection ends with the year 1939. Tsvetayeva did not live much longer: After following her husband and daughter back to the Soviet Union that same year and seeing them disappear into Stalinist prison camps, she and her son joined writers in wartime evacuation. Ostracized and destitute, she hanged herself in the town of Elabuga in 1941.
The grand nineteenth century Russian literary tradition, be it in poetry or prose, did not include women. Russian literature had no Jane Austens, George Eliots, or Emily Dickinsons. It was not a matter of ignoring major talents: They simply did not exist, and even the minor talents were few and far between. Except for sentimental album-verse for domestic consumption, and diaries and personal correspondence (which might eventually become a memoir), Russian women did not write. Social upheaval and cultural change in the last decades of the century finally gave women entry into places hitherto closed: universities, laboratories, political parties, and —this time as participants, not hostesses—literary circles.
Marina Tsvetayeva, like other women artists emerging from the Silver Age of Russian culture, was faced with the...
(The entire section is 1,106 words.)