State of the Field: Contemporary Russian Poetry,
Poetry in Contemporary Russia
What is happening in Russian poetry? Are today’s poets as good as they were
a hundred years ago? Where should a curious reader begin? Two well-known
specialists in Russian poetry, Gerald Smith and Stephanie Sandler, offer their
views of the scene in this second round of a new rubric on the State of the Field.
Russian Poetry Now
Less than at any time before can any individual lay claim to objectivity when surveying the current situation of Russian poetry, if one precondition of objectivity is comprehensiveness. It is impossible physically, and yet more so intellectually, for any one person to keep track of, let alone read carefully,
everything that comes out, even if they had nothing else to do with their time.
The principal reason for this situation is, of course, the rise of the Internet. One eloquent example: when accessed on 1 August 2009 the site http://www.стихи.ру/ proclaimed that up to and including that date, it had carried 7,291,028 pieces of work by a total of 224,209 authors. As if this were not monstrous enough, the site actively solicits more: ‘If you too write poetry, publish it with us!’ Who has the right to dismiss this Volga of verse out of hand as amateur rubbish that can and even should be ignored by a
serious reader? The Internet has done away with what remained of the topdown and/or self-imposed censorship that regulated Russian poetry in Russia before 1991. Whether or not there is any quality control on Internet sites such as стихи.ру is not clear, but there appears not to be. For some years now
Russia has had a free market in poetry, and it is a seller’s market, which leads to overproduction, even perhaps the existence of more poets than there are serious readers. Overproduction, that is, if one believes that authentic poetry is defined more by scrupulously crafted communication than by self-expression (or self-promotion or, dare one say, selfindulgence).
Should we rejoice in or should we rue the collapse of control? Not many people seem to care very much either way. As before, this situation has little to do with the literary merit of what is being created; there is a consensus in literary circles, however tentative and qualified, that Russian poetry is currently in
robust shape. That Russian poetry and the Russian poet have since 1991 lost their vaunted, if perhaps unduly hyped, social resonance is universally acknowledged, however (‘оравнодушивание народа’ is the watchword); how best to respond to the resulting situation has been the principal issue dividing poets
and critics alike for over a decade now. Poetry still occasionally hits the headlines, most recently with the bitterly charged controversy stirred up in February this year by Vitalii Pukhanov’s poem on the Leningrad blockade, admirably described and analysed by Stanislav L′vovskii and Il′ia Kukulin in Novoe
literaturnoe obozrenie, 96 (2009). The commentators involved ranged from government ministers to lowly amateur bloggers.The case offers a rewarding topic in cultural history, with its nexus of the literary (who is the notional speaker of the text, and how appropriate to the subject matter is the poem’s
stanza form?) and the socio-political (what is a ‛deviant’ treatment of the Great Patriotic War and who is entitled to articulate it?), the whole feeding into the ongoing debate about Russian national identity.
Editorial control manifestly still exists over the old-fashioned print outlets, the output of which has not diminished since 1991, though their circulation figures have plummeted. Everything they carry is available online, most conveniently at the site http://www.magazines.russ.ru/, which has a useful
author index link. For several years now there have been two titles that cannot be ignored by anyone wanting to keep up with the best in current Russian poetry, mainly because they are curated by
dedicated, highly responsible people of undogmatic yet discerning taste. The first is the venerable monthly Znamia, whose poetry content has long been overseen by Ol′ga Ermolaeva under the general editorship of two outstanding critics, Sergei Chuprinin and his deputy Natal′ia Ivanova. The second is the quarterly Arion, founded in 1994 and still run by Aleksei Alekhin, the first ever Russian periodical entirely devoted to poetry texts and criticism. The central cause promoted on its pages has been opposition to the formerly underground avant-garde that emerged blinking from the ruins of the Soviet literary system and was at one stage championed by Dmitrii Kuz′min’s pioneering website http://www.vavilon.ru/, which ran from 1988 to 2003. The indispensable special poetry issue of Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 62(2003) illustrates the best side of what Arion is up against (and much more besides). At this top end of the spectrum of professionalism, there is a panoply of annual prizes
which partly compensates for the lost royalties from the diminished print runs of collections. The lists of winners and even more the lists of judges for these prizes give probably the most accurate idea possible of who makes up the current poetry establishment in Russia; these lists are readily available via the
appropriate link on http://magazines.russ.ru/. To put flesh on these bones, Dmitrii Bak’s series of essays ‘Sto poetov nachala stoletiia,’ launched in Oktiabr′, 2(2009), is set to become an authoritative primary guide.
In this establishment, the ghost of Joseph Brodsky (1940-96) no longer haunts the battlements, at last. He paid his final debt to canonical status by dying prematurely, but it is no longer uncommon for Russian poets to maintain good form into their eighth decade. The outstanding example is Oleg
Chukhontsev (b. 1938; see http://www.chuhoncev.poet-premium.ru/), who has never sacrificed quality for quantity; the same was also true of the much lamented Lev Loseff (1937-2009). Natal′ia
Gorbanevskaia and Aleksandr Kushner (both b. 1936) still regularly turn out the polished miniatures familiar since the 1960s. For me the most consistently interesting Russian poet writing now is Aleksei Tsvetkov (b. 1948), though I cannot be the only devotee whose stamina is taxed by his productivity. His
website (http://www.aptsvet.livejournal.com/) buzzes with irreverent vitality; his inventiveness within the parameters of strict form seems infinite. Two other poets I also try to follow systematically are Vladimir Gandel′sman (b. 1948) and Boris Khersonskii (b. 1950), especially for the rich narrative and historical elements in their work.
No poet born after 1950 has yet indisputably attained comparable stature to those just named; sadly, the death of Aleksei Parshchikov (1954-2009) seemed to confirm that the acclaim accorded in some quarters to his cohort, with its studied incoherence and/or inconsequentiality, was indeed premature. That no generation-defining ‘Poet №1’ has emerged in succession to Brodsky seems to be generally agreed, and to give serious cause for concern, for reasons that are hard to fathom by outsiders. Some obvious contenders for major status can be found in two substantial recent anthologies. They are: An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women’s Poetry, edited by Valentina Polukhina and Daniel Weissbort (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005); and Contemporary Russian Poetry. An Anthology, edited by Evgeny Bunimovich and J. Kates (Urbana-Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008). The poets represented here whose work I turn to most often for pleasure and instruction are: Maksim Amelin (1970) and Marina Boroditskaia (1954), both of them captivating lyric poets and also superb translators; the ebullient Dmitrii Bykov (1967); the exceptionally versatile Maria Galina (1958); the modestly profound Svetlana Kekova (1951); Olesia Nikolaeva (1955), despite my reservations about the religiosity that has become fashionable since 1991; and Gleb Shul′piakov (1971), another very good translator. Sergei Gandlevsky (1952) is the only poet I wish would publish more than he does, so one could find out if the consistently superb quality of his carefully dosed output would be maintained. It goes without saying that one aspect of Russian poetry’s attainment of ‘normality’ is its internationalisation; in mentioning individual names above, I have deliberately not mentioned places of residence or publication. Nor have I mentioned another aspect of this process, perhaps more fundamental: what these people do for a living. The full-time professional Russian poet disappeared into oblivion along with the Soviet regime.
If there are far too many texts, there is far too little sustained textual analysis. For some time it has been a cliché of the Russian literary press that most of what passes for poetry criticism is produced mainly by poets themselves and consists of not much more than the decontextualised quotation of snippets, linked by self-serving commentary that privileges coterie allegiance (тусовка)—also a ‘normal’ aspect of the Western literary scene. This stricture clearly does not apply to Dmitrii Bak, Il′ia Kukulin, or Stanislav L′vovskii, whose critical work was mentioned earlier. With the death of M.L. Gasparov (1935-2005), Russian poetry lost its most authoritative academic interpreter; his Metr i smysl (M., 1999) remains the most important book ever published in the field, but its approach appears to have made little impact outside a small coterie. Mikhail Aizenberg’s judicious and supremely well-informed column
‘Vozmozhnost′ vyskazyvaniia’ at http://www.openspace.ru/ (link ‘литература’) offers important ongoing reviews of current poetry. (The same site offers the informative ‘Poetry News Weekly’, and specially commissioned audio-visuals of poets reading.) The pugnacious Igor′ Shaitanov has brought together some of his contributions to Arion and Voprosy literatury to form the most intellectually responsible available survey of the current scene: Delo vkusa: Kniga o sovremennoi poezii (Moscow: Vremia (Dialog), 2007). The title supports my contention concerning the inevitability of subjectivity, but the content does its best to fight against it. Shaitanov explicitly grapples with this and other major issues in his impassioned essay ‘Professiia – kritik’, Voprosy literatury, 4(2007).
As an example of the kind of careful reading of texts whose rarity I regret I would recommend the work of a collective of which I myself am proud to be a part: see ‘Encounters with Alexei Tsvetkov: Three Poems with Commentaries and an Interview’, Toronto Slavic Quarterly, 26(2008), published online at http://www.utoronto.ca/tsq/26. If this amount of time and intellectual effort were accorded to more poems, the possibility of comprehensiveness and even objectivity would retreat even further; but better less better than more worse. And the same is surely even more true of the poems themselves!
Russian Poetry Today
Where to find it
I begin with the location problem, always a challenge: it used to be that the books were hard to find, but now one has to figure out which of many possible leads to pursue. Gerald Smith’s statement offers a splendid road map of the contemporary terrain, particularly as it appears on the internet. Two additions: first, a huge website that is itself structured like a map, www.litkarta.ru. It charts Russian poetry’s many lives across the globe, with updated individual author pages and thousands of links to texts, audio files,
and reviews. It includes back issues of the singularly interesting journal Vozdukh, where, four times a year, one can read one poet in depth, along with dozens of selections by poets of different generations, theoretical directions, geographical locations, and temperament. (Incomprehensibly, Vozdukh is
not posted at www.magazines.russ.ru.) Both Vozdukh and litkarta are the work of Dmitrii Kuz’min, whose blog dkuzmin.livejournal.com is a fascinating site for ongoing debates and other poetry news. It is impossible to imagine contemporary Russian poetry without Kuz’min’s organizing, editing, publishing, translating, and energizing activity, of which we may never know the full extent. Many important poets maintain their own blogs. A good way to start the day might include a check-in at Aleksei Tsvetkov’s blog, followed by borkhers. livejournal.com (for Boris Khersonskii), and pbarskova.livejournal.com (for Polina Barskova). That we can follow poets at work in what feels like real time, and comment on new poems, ask questions, or just lurk quietly, enjoying all there is to read, is an element of contemporary cultural life that has surely reshaped relations between “poet” and “tolpa.”
What to make of it
In writing this short piece, I spent a good bit of time thinking about how I might both accommodate the variety of current poetry and also give some sense of how this work was being theorized. Fortunately and perhaps tellingly, many poets comfortably cross the theory / poetry divide in their poems. The leader
here has long been Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, whose poems circulated in the Leningrad underground in the late Soviet period and continue to appear to this day – a selection is in Znamia 8 (2009). Dragomoshchenko’s work exemplifies another important trend in his long-standing turn to American
language poetry and postmodern theory. He has worked with Lyn Hejinian, who produced remarkable versions of his poetry in English – the translations in Description (1990) are especially fine.
Like hers, his poems register thought in- process, turning the poetic text away from its legacy of perfectly achieved linguistic virtuosity toward a more open-ended form of verbal provocation
where stunning images and bizarre collocations abound. Dragomoshchenko’s most influential successor in Petersburg is Aleksandr Skidan. His work is easily available on the internet, and in the translations beautifully produced by Ugly Duckling Press in Red Shifting (2008). This agile shifting back and
forth along the poetry-theory border will appeal to readers trained on Nabokov’s or Borges’s prose.
Translation itself, as the example of Dragomoshchenko suggests, remains a crucial aspect of ongoing poetic practice. There are poets whose own poetry was fundamentally shaped by their work translating others, including Anna Glazova and Nika Skandiaka, but poet who is perhaps most significant here is Ol’ga Sedakova. She also works as a scholar and essayist. Poets’ habit of drawing new ideas, old words, and complex associations from the worlds they study has a venerable tradition in Russian culture – one thinks of Annenskii and Ivanov for starters – and it continues among younger poets, Glazova, Barskova, and Mikhail Gronas among them. Gronas typically writes a kind of minimalist poem that bears special
mention, too. Such concentration on tiny situations or passing scenes also shapes the work of Leonid Shvab, Vera Pavlova, and Mara Malanova. These poets advance what has been called a new form of epic poetry, not in terms of scale but in their deft use of narrative. Fedor Svarovskii is another such
compelling story-teller, creating what one critic called fantastic ballads. Just as unforgettable but entirely different are the stories of Elena Fanailova, a chronicler of gang violence, druggy eroticism, mass murder in Beslan, and the daily life of a single woman in Moscow. Just to see that list of topics is to realize how far poetry has come, and how much it might have in common with cinema, fiction, and photography.
How to read it
The poets’ innovations press us to read their poems in new ways (in effect, they give us directions, teaching us as we go along); still, the poetry’s shapeshifting capacities and its sheer variety
and complexity make it plenty elusive. Theorizing has been at its best in charting the way readership patterns and the dynamic between poet and reader have been changing, as is well demonstrated in the work of Il’ia Kukulin, formerly an editor at Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie. Excellent work has also been done at the boundary between poetry and other art forms, as in Gerald Janecek’s Sight and Sound Entwined (2000). In both these areas, critics again follow the lead of poets: dozens of fascinating poems have now been written about music, film, art, architecture, etc., many of them drawing inspiration for formal innovation from these modes of aesthetic expression. Janecek has especially championed
the work of Elizaveta Mnatsakanova, a leading visual poet whose formidable musical training enriches her every poem. Other poets who have reached across aesthetic boundaries include Dmitrii Aleksandrovich Prigov (with his affinities to the visual and musical arts), Boris Khersonskii (another leading story-telling poet, with tales of Russia’s Jews overflowing his books – but he is trained as a psychoanalyst and his latest book is entitled Spirituals ), and Sergei Biriukov, Sergei Sigei, and
Ry Nikonova (three remarkable visual poets). For visual poetry, the work of Ediciones del Hebreo Errante in Madrid must be noted: these thin, gorgeous books, both facsimile editions of earlier volumes and new publications, remind us why not every verbal and visual pleasure can be found on the internet.
These poets and dozens of others are rising to the challenge of making poetry in an age when Russia is, depending on your point of view, strangely flourishing in a new imperial mode because of its oil revenues or on the brink of total destruction because of its moral decay, starting with the war in Chechnya and ending on every rutted road in the provinces. Fiction and film can tell these stories in all their compelling variety but poetry offers snapshots of triumph and suffering, of spiritual confusion and
physical decay. Poetry has been at its best when it translates the social chaos into linguistic registers, an effort that many poets still pursue with estranged virtuosity. Look no further than the poems written in Jerusalem, Odessa, and Petersburg by Gali-Dana Zinger, Khersonskii, and Sergei Stratanovskii and Elena Shvarts to see how this work flourishes far outside the boundaries of Russia, and inside as well.
Why it matters
Ought we to be writing criticism about our contemporaries? Readers of Kuz’min’s blog will have come across his measured but firm riposte to an interview granted by the eminent scholar of Russian poetry Roman Timenchik, http://www.openspace.ru/literature/ names/details/11443/ . Timenchik essentially
dismisses scholarship about one’s contemporaries, even as he looks back admiringly to the formative work done by the Russian Formalists about modernist poets. His distinction between criticism and philology did not convince Kuz’min. A possibility not considered by Timenchik is that critical
attention to contemporary culture can change the way one thinks about literary scholarship in general. I began by suggesting that the poets can lead us to new ways of thinking, that they are in effect
leading us by example. It should be little surprise that their work takes up some of the topics that in turn enliven the criticism. Sergei Kruglov’s poem about the awarding of literary prizes opens his excellent first book, Sniatie Zmiia so kresta (2003). Elena Fanailova’s “Lena i liudi” is more than just a riff on
Pushkin’s “Poet i tolpa,” it is a smart, heartfelt and sassy self-portrait by means of an encounter with the cashier in an all-night convenience store (see NLO 91, 2008, http://magazines.russ.ru/ nlo/2008/91/fa16.html ). The poem appeared in Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, a canny editorial decision meant to show how much thinking about poets and readers fills this long poem. NLO invites further thought about the meaning of reader response in a lively discussion of Vitalii Pukhanov’s short poem about the Blockade, “V Leningrade na rassvete”(no. 96, 2009, http://magazines.russ.ru/nlo/2009/96/ ). If seven stanzas of trochaic verse can provoke a blog discussion that hits no. 3 on the Yandex charts within hours of its posting, then any notion of contemporary poetry as an irrelevant pastime has to be regarded
with suspicion. The discussion of this poem and of the overblown reactions to it is impressive: everything from the semantic aureole of the meter to the history of poetry about the Blockade comes
into consideration. The contribution by Irina Kaspe articulates the ethical challenge of coming to terms with the Soviet experience. As Kaspe brilliantly observes, the traditional mode of brave truth telling – even in a situation where there are multiple layers of lies to overcome – is no longer enough, nor is it, in
this postmodern age, fully possible. Yet where else, one infers, but to poetry can one turn for a credible, ethically responsible, and aesthetically adequate writing of the traumatic recent past?
I arrive at an endpoint remarkably similar to Gerald Smith’s, although having traveled a different path: the value of studying a single poem. The Plukhanov scandal shows current faultlines around issues of nation, ethics, history, and poetics. One poem at a time, readers and critics are creating a history of the
poetry of our lifetime. The Russians are rightly leading the way. Amid the hand wringing about the low state of criticism about contemporary poetry, quite a lot of interesting work is going on. Which is unquestionably true of the poetry, too.