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Excerpts from an Interview with Valentina Polukhina (May 1994)
Now that time has put some distance between us and the 1980s how does the poetic landscape of that decade appear to you?

In the Seventies, the illegal “second” culture separated from the official culture in much the same way as oil separates from water; there was hardly any confusion. Towards the end of the Seventies things began to be shaken up again.

Official literature began to lose its aesthetic coherence, and many
discoveries of the “second” culture, at home and in emigration, were
adopted (for example, there was a growing fashion for imitating Brodsky, among already established writers).

With the arrival of Gorbachev the picture grew still more confused.
The generation of the Sixties merged completely with the Establishment at about that time, while as it were trying to arrange for a second debut, as persecuted artists. New names? It seems that the commanding heights were occupied by the Conceptualists and the more moderate “ironists”; apparently they were what became known as the “poets of perestroika”.

Who do you feel closest to among the poets of your own generation?

Really it is not so much a matter of feeling close to anyone; more, whose work excites and attracts me... First and foremost there is Elena Shvarts, a powerful poet with rare gifts; Ivan Zhdanov – his complex world, his imagery was something new in Russian; Sergei Stratanovsky has created a sort of poetic equivalent of Platonov’s prose; Viktor Krivulin, Sergei Chegin, Aleksandr Velichansky, Vladimir Lapin...

Let us talk about your own poetry. Close reading of it suggests that, in a way, you are emulating God in His creation of the universe, taking as the basis for it the elements: air, water, earth, fire.

I was not aware of that thematic thread in my work until you pointed it out a few days ago! But I do recall that from the very start, I felt more attracted to the non-human world or, rather the non-social-human world. Remember Batyushkov’s: “I love my neighbour but thou, mothernature, /art dearest to all in my heart”. When I was fifteen I was writing about the same things, but not as well as “gentle Batyushkov”: “And this is why I feel more intimate / with the language of the boughs, the language of the tree trunks...” or, differently put, this is a world where you can more easily lose your consciousness of self; people always force you to remember.

Among the thinkers of modern times that I’ve encountered, there is
a deeper feeling for the natural world in Goethe. This feeling can
engender not just elegiac lyric poetry but also scientific theory building. It is a sensing of the elements as meaning, as structure... For me the most disturbing element, the one I was least fond of, from childhood, was earth. It frightened me. Earth, when the snow has melted, out there on the other side of the garden fence... It is too alive, too like us, sensitive to pain in the same way as we are. I remember being scared to tread on it, especially in early spring; I would only want to use an already existing path. Most frightening of all was its too obvious vitality, its corporeality
...My favourite element was water: static or flowing, it drew me like a magnet. The sight, the sound, the touch, even the smell. There is an early poem of mine: “...and it was just that little bit lighter thanks to the smell of water...”

Perhaps it is only happenstance. Then again, maybe it is contact with
the extra-human world of nature, always one of the functions of art,
because forgetting about that contact is not only commonplace [...] but also has to do with our religious tradition, at least the Judaeo-Christian strain. Demands on one’s humanity almost always concern those closest to one; the eternal theme is always People, People in history, People in society [...]

Is not that the provenance of your own particular commingling of the four elements: “And water is the ashes of unknown fire” or “In the aerial water”, “on skyey earth”.

Your observations are provocative! Why do they change, one into the other? I think it’s because that is how it really is; Heraclitus knew it. But, generally, I have no great liking for final judgements. One result of such finality is tautology: water is water, fire is fire and so on... I would like every possibility to remain open, so that everything can be itself and something other and have the potential of transforming itself into something as yet unknown.

Do you see it as part of your artistic mission to bring harmony where harmony is almost unachievable? The trivial daily round – stale, boorish and vulgar – how can you bring harmony to that through the use of the word?

No, that is not my mission, not now, nor has it ever been. Perhaps this is precisely why I find myself in such a lonely position in the contemporary scene. Even those poets who are closest to me – Elena Shvarts, Ivan Zhdanov – [...] In Dublin I was asked by Carol Rumens what I felt about Sylvia Plath’s idea that poetry should be all-inclusive. My answer was that it was a question of your attitude, whether you were looking for extensivity or intensivity. Let us take Pushkin’s ‘Tale of the dead tsarevna’: for me that is all-inclusive. And it’s still true of the Sapphic fragments, just a few words – even Ezra Pound’s stylization of that sort of fragment in his ‘Papyrus’ (“Spring ... /Too long.../Gongula...”) manages to get everything in. You can “include everything” without even mentioning anything harsh, ugly or vulgar.

The inertia of downward movement is very apparent to me. That has
been the vector which art has been pursuing for centuries now,
“speculation about degradation”. It seems that even in Renaissance
times, art attempted to extend the realm of the aesthetic into the nonaesthetic, transmutation into a new, more complex, more spicy harmony which can barely be harmonized... But that movement in one direction alone has become senselessly inert... When Baudelaire discovered the beauty of the trivial, of evil even, it grabbed his reader’s attention as a widening of experience, in its own peculiar way an act of kenosis. It is no accident that in Rilke, the poète maudit is confronted by the image of St Julian, bestowing a kiss upon a leper.

You must understand that when I say that art is free not to find its
subject matter in chaos, the gutter and so forth, I do not mean that it
should exclude them completely and that we should return to writing
idylls about Chloe and anthology pieces about roses. That would be
simply dishonest. No, I think that, bearing all that in mind, knowing
about it, you can express new experience through the very intensity of language. What does excite me is the intensity of a word, its semantic, phonetic, grammatical force, and it is there that I see new possibilities. [...] Ugliness, evil, chaos lack a well-defined image and for that reason our consciousness is incapable of dealing with them. “I looked and went on”, as Virgil advised Dante in the Inferno.

Is there any one particular poet you feel breathing down your neck?

Your question seems to have been prompted by Brodsky’s famous
image of emulation as a stimulus to poetic growth. Poetic emulation is an ancient tradition, as ancient as the legend of the duel between Homer and Hesiod. I got to know Elena Shvarts’s poetry in 1975 or 1976 and it made me very envious. A great poet and living. I sensed her poetic primacy, the purity of her tone. But I knew it was another world and, though I felt less pleasure in my own, I could not follow in her steps. She made me feel freer in my world and that was invaluable and encouraging. I first encountered Brodsky’s poetry in samizdat (at university) in 1968. His themes, his music, were alien to me, but you sensed the inspiration, at its most intense in those early poems of his.

But to return to rivalries and influences. The most powerful influence
of my youth was Mandelshtam. What could one write after that? It was not a matter of writing post-Auschwitz, as they say now, but of writing post-Mandelshtam, writing in the wake of that new intensity and beauty, all that he achieved in his late poems... My next idol was Rilke, in whom I saw the Poet par excellence. In order to read him in the original I learned German. To read Dante I learned Italian. To read Baudelaire I mugged up on my French. Les Fleurs du mal had a major influence on me, which comes out in my book The Wild Rose. Of Russian poetry, Pushkin, who has always been more than a poet for all of us – as it were, the genius loci or the Orpheus of Russian literature.

What do you consciously reject, stylistically, thematically?

First of all I can tell you what I have not felt the need to reject, because it never attracted me. An emphatic style with inflated lines, with wilfully deformed imagery, anticipating, if not requiring, a certain response from the reader: a style which wants to lord it over the subject and the intended audience... But no less unattractive is inflated expression, or its polar opposite, over-smooth writing, what is generally called the academic style, “correct” writing, conforming to a standard that is somehow neither too laboured nor too fine. I find that style really just as aggressive as the other. And what both of them exclude is the accidental, the unexpected, air and open space...

When I think about what I have had to reject [...] Perhaps my own
prejudices. There were quite a few. I was afraid of anything lengthy,
narrational. Short poems, things with a maximum of tension – there was a time when I could not imagine another kind of poetry for today. Then certain themes, certain words seemed to be unusable. Politics, street talk [...] At the same time I was afraid of being too elevated, employing too hieratic a vocabulary, the sort of thing you find in Blok: blood, love, roses etc. Generally speaking I have had to “consciously reject” my own purism in its various manifestations.

How do you manage to eliminate the first person singular in poetry?

It is an illusion! I think I use the first person as much as anyone... In the final analysis, it is only a narrative strategy: you can talk about yourself in the third person. Nobody is really fooled as to the identity of the “sick man” in Pasternak’s ‘In hospital’, nor the identity of the “lodger in the raincoat, with a bottle of grappa in his pocket”in Brodsky’s ‘Lagoon’ and the same goes for the hawk in his ‘The Hawk’s Cry in Autumn’. [...] But there are examples of an upwards escape route, away from the romantic “I”. Rilke and his subjective lyrics... Or the “I” of TS Eliot, choral and representative. [...] It is not a matter of eliminating the first person singular and achieving some sort of impersonal point of view – that is a utopian task, even for a scholar. It is really a question of having something to look at from your own point of view, in order to avoid thinking about yourself – either judgementally or self-admiringly – like shielding one’s eyes with one’s hand, which hides the whole world. As it says in a Hasidic parable: “The world is so large but a man can hide from it with his own little hand.” [...]

Could you be more explicit about what you mean when you say “exceed yourself” in relation to poetry? To present the world with a new vision of things, to achieve self-betterment in the process of giving birth to the poem, or to improve the language?

We are accustomed to thinking that the poet at the moment of inspiration becomes greater than himself, another being altogether... But another postulate was known to classical antiquity, that a work of art is no greater than its creator. This presupposes the essential unity of personality and, as it were, the impossibility of transcending that personality. It seems to me that this antinomy does not require resolution; both poles are equally true. In reality an artist transmits through his work not only his talents but also his weaknesses; all that remains at his command when “silence falls upon the sacred lyre”. And we, I mean the readers, are able to recognize those weaknesses; particularly in the idiosyncrasies of form, which is where an author has least control.

And what does exceed oneself mean? I can, probably, only answer in a negative way and only by having recourse to someone else. Eliot talked of “the expurgation of intentions”. You approach things, unaware perhaps that your motives are not entirely pure, the best being, let us say, the perfectionist desire “to create something sublime”, to make an impression, please those in the know, overwhelm the reader. However, any deliberate motive is bound to spoil your work... All that remains is intention or, if you are not afraid of big words, service.

Service to whom or what: language, one’s talent, God?

That is the question! If I could answer it... But, it seems, nobody can, neither poets, nor philosophers, nor theologians, trying to determine the status of art in the spiritual hierarchy. Strange as it may seem, that old theme, the condemnation or justification of artistic creation from a spiritual standpoint, has now taken on a very particular reality. Apparently it has to do with our return to the Orthodox fold. Some of our enthusiastic new Orthodox zealots have declared war on Apollo; free creation seems to them to be the devil’s work, art is somehow at odds, in a big way, with piety, obedience, humility, what have you... It does seem to me though that when art is harshly repressed, it is religion that suffers. It is reduced to moral precepts and more or less closes itself off from the whole surrounding ocean of existence. It is left without the poetry of life, without the latter’s play and openness.

What role would you assign to poetry in Russia’s present rebirth?

[...] Poetry’s role? In the dead years, independent poetry circulated in manuscript. Along with the living, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich, Kuzmin and others were both cherished and vital as never before. They bore witness to the fact that our language was not dead, that man had not yet been transformed into an Orwellian cipher. Poetry foretold the end of that nightmare – and, in its daedalic way, led to it.

Do you see any specific problems facing Russian poets in the century’s final years, problems which did not trouble them at its beginning?

At times it seems to me that the potential of Russian poetry, for all its
great achievements, has scarcely been touched. That there are many
paths that have not yet been explored. That – and please forgive the
anachronism – the soul of Russian culture has not said all that is to be
said, and that much remains unexpressed. At the same time, there are many things that, to me, seem to be exhausted.

You have translated such major poets as Dante, Rilke and Eliot. When translating, do you see yourself as the poet’s ally, double, rival?

Our tradition of translation, as you know, unlike here [in Britain]
demands the complete reproduction of the original form. When Ezra
Pound did that, the result was published as his original production.
Really, the need to preserve both meaning and form is over ambitious. Yet there are many in our country who have mastered the art of doing precisely that. What to translate is mostly a matter of reading and thinking, “It’s a pity that’s not in Russian!”

As for the authors, personal contact, I don’t think about it. The poem is the thing... But accuracy is a problem. In reproducing the form you are forced to deviate semantically from the original. You have to change things selectively, but in which direction do you go? From what resources do you draw your changes? [...] The inner connections between images can be understood only through a knowledge of your author’s work as a whole: in translating a single poem you really ought to keep in mind the whole poetic world.

There is yet another side to translation. It satisfies the actor in one to
speak in the voice of a man, a wise man, like Rilke, or in the voice of a holy friar. When an actor works he uses his body; the poet-translator uses his state of mind. Of course the range of roles in my repertoire is limited. There are many styles and meanings I cannot play. But in choosing an author I seek not a reflection of myself (even an idealized, imaginary reflection), but what I lack – the firmness of a Dante or a Rilke, let us say, or the dryness of Eliot, Claudel’s sense of lofty comedy, St Francis’s purity. [...]
Translated by Chris Jones with Valentina Polukhina
 Excerpts from an Interview with Valentina Polukhina (May 1994)
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