“Šum stixotvorstva”: Mandel′štam’s Mythology of the Creative Process

Ona Renner-Fahey, Ohio State University

It is well known that the subject of poetic creation has concerned virtually every poet throughout literary history. (Indeed, as a poetic theme it may well rival that of love.) Questions of inspiration and the Muse have haunted these poets who, in turn, have had to supply their own answers to the enigmatic phenomenon of artistic creation.

In this paper I will be addressing how Osip Mandel′štam, in particular, grappled with these mysteries and will be proposing what I consider to be his personal mythology of the creative process. My method behind (re-)constructing this mythology has in part consisted of sifting through Mandel′štam’s entire oeuvre (poetic and prose) for any references to the themes of poetic creation. The work of scholars such as Kiril Taranovsky, Omry Ronen, Gregory Freidin, Jane Gary Harris, and Clare Cavanagh has profoundly informed my research as well.

The classic Mande’štamian themes of sounds, silence, memory, and breath are all interconnected within this mythology. He, like many of his contemporaries, such as Anna Axmatova and Marina Cvetaeva, connected the genesis of his poems with something similar to what T. S. Eliot, another contemporary, termed the poet’s “auditory imagination.” Thus, Mandel′štam’s numerous remarks on sounds play a vital role in his mythology of the creative process. Also significant are the numerous poems that begin with images of sounds, such as, for example: “Kogda, pronzitel′nee svista” (1913), “V raznogolosice devičeskogo xora” (1916) and “Slyšu, slyšu rannii led” (1937). The prevalent theme of silence in Mandel′štam’s poetry can be viewed in a new way once its place in this mythology is clarified: this particular theme, often considered to be a positive one by Mandel′štam scholars, actually metamorphosizes into a negative one. While Mandel′štam’s ideas on his creative process mature, silence moves from being a Tjutčevian ideal to a hindrance that blocks out the noises of his poetic imagination. (The poems “Zvuk ostorožnyj i gluxoj” (1908) and “Silentium,” (1910) can be cited as examples of Mandel′štam’s early, idealized silence, whereas those later poems such as “Kogda na ploščadjax i v tišine kelejnoj” (1917) and “Kvartira tixa, kak bumaga” (1933) serve to illustrate silence as an antagonist.) Also met with frequently in Mandel′štam’s work is the theme of memory since for him poetic creation is akin to the process of recollection. A highly telling discussion of this can be found in the essay “Putešestvie v Armeniju” (1933). Breath is yet another predominant poetic theme of Mandel′štam’s that is integral to this mythology, the most well-known example of which can be found in the poem “Dano mne telo” (1909). This theme can in turn be tied to the poet’s documented fear of asphyxia, which also plays a central role in his mythology of poetic creation and which can be connected with several poems in which the lyrical persona greedily drinks in air, “V xrustal′nom omute” (1919) among them.

My contention, then, to summarize very briefly, is that Mandel′štam perceived of his Muse not as an outsider so much as a part of himself, an “inner voice”, with whom he could, through a kind of dialogue, conjure up a memory. Mandel′štam likened the entire process to that of birth, where his poems were ultimately born through his throat and mouth. “Writer’s block” for Mandel′štam manifested itself as a form of asphyxia, for when the voice of his internal Muse/Mnemosyne ceased he was rendered speechless (i.e., poem-less). Consequently, he would attempt to induce inspiration “artificially”—through his breath.