The Man Who Died for Poetry

A Q&A With Christian Wiman, Translator of Stolen Air

When Osip Mandelstam died at age 47 in a Siberian work camp under the Stalin regime, he became one of twentieth-century poetry's most famous martyrs. Vastly talented and fearlessly subversive, he is perhaps best remembered for his scathing "Stalin Epigram," the poem that sealed his fate. A new selection of Mandelstam's poems (Stolen Air, Ecco/HarperCollins) appears this month, rendered in English by poet, translator, and Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman. Recently Wiman was kind enough to answer a few questions about Mandelstam's life and work, the differences between gulag-era Russian and contemporary American poetry, and his own experiences in confronting the ghost of an "overwhelming" genius.

BT: In your afterword you call these poems "versions" rather than "translations." Could you explain the distinction and describe your process in working with Mandelstam's poetry, including your collaboration with poet Ilya Kaminsky?

CW: I think of translations as passing some scholarly smell test: you can read the words of the translation and be reasonably sure of what the words are in the original. Not of the tone, mind you, and rarely of the form, but you can get the words. The translator is effaced, for better or worse, for the sake of the original. I don't think that someone who does not speak the original language can ever expect to produce a real translation in this sense.

A version aims at other things, depending on the translator. Usually, though, it's the tone that he's after, which of course is paradoxical if he doesn't speak the language. The tone has to be gleaned from other sources: the poet's prose, comparing multiple translations, working with native speakers, gut instinct.

I don't speak or read Russian. I did these versions from word-by-word translations provided by Ilya or Helena Lorman (a scholar at Northwestern) as well as transliterations of the originals (the Cyrillic changed to the Roman alphabet) so that I could tell where the rhymes were happening and get a sense of the sounds. I also worked with a lot of scholarly sources to help me think about the context of individual poems.

I wanted to call my poems versions, but as I say in the afterword, the marketing department wasn't keen on that, for sound reasons. They won.

BT: What are the signatures of Mandelstam's style? What in his voice do you find uniquely compelling? 

CW: Mandelstam's style is not singular. He could be stately and traditional, ribald and funny, hectic, elegiac. He could handle abstractions and ideas as well as Pope or Browning but then be so musical that other poems approach pure sound. I'm drawn to this range, that's for sure, but I suppose the thing that most appeals to me about Mandelstam is the sense you get from every poem that everything—the poet's very soul—is at stake.

BT: Several poems in this collection (for example, "Herzoverse") show off Mandelstam's lighter side. What is the importance of the comic vision in his work, and what are the challenges of representing it in English? 

CW: I think these poems are crucial. We think of Mandelstam as the quintessential twentieth-century European poet, hounded to death by an out-of-control state and writing poems of fierce, poignant protest. He was that, of course, but he was also, right up to the end, funny and friendly and crazed in the best sense. Poetry was fun for him. That's not to say that there wasn't existential anguish in both the process and the poems themselves, but there was also wild delight—which came, ultimately, from an intense love of life. Honestly, I think it's this pure and irrepressible lyric spirit that drove Stalin mad, even more than the famous poem that Mandelstam wrote in mockery of Stalin. Mandelstam—his gift and the untamable nature of it—was like a thorn in Stalin's brain.

BT: I was struck by the end of "Flat" ("Believe me, it won't be sweet Hippocrene / That roars through these walls in the end, / Though it will be ancient and sudden, / And will completely possess us, my friend"), which links political catastrophe with poetic inspiration. Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era "made" Mandelstam as a poet?

CW: Honestly, I don't think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.  

Then there's this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn't been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam's best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.  

BT: The story goes that Elizabeth Bishop used to assign Mandelstam to her students in order to remind them that people have died for poetry. Is his kind of life-or-death urgency missing from contemporary American poetry? If not, who shares it?

CW: I can't think offhand of any American poets who have Mandelstam's urgency, but it's a different country and a different time, and I don't think it would make much sense to say that this is something that's "missing" from contemporary American poetry. 

I would also say, again, that Mandelstam is the sort of poet who comes along very, very rarely.  Even the two Russian poets whose work is often linked with his—Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva—though their work is more "urgent" than most American poetry, seem to me to operate at a lesser charge than Mandelstam. That's not a qualitative distinction I'm drawing: these are three great poets. It's just that different emotions and perceptions demand different frequencies and intensities.  

BT: In what ways, if any, has Mandelstam's poetry affected your own?

CW: He seems to have silenced me. I've written virtually nothing since I fell under his spell. That's partly because I've been writing a prose book and partly because he's just so damn singular and overwhelming. But that's OK. Maybe all the work I've done to learn how to write poetry has all been aimed at this one book.

[Image of Mandelstam via Prague Writers' Festival.]

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