12 March 2015

Poetry: A Truth to Live By

Posted by Robert Chandler DON'T USE

Ahead of his event at the London Review Bookshop on Russian 20th century poetry, Robert Chandler answers a few questions about his new anthology.

When you and your co-editors, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, set out to compile this collection, what parameters did you set?

Almost every Russian considers Pushkin – not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky – to be their greatest writer. This may be changing now, but it certainly did NOT change during the Soviet era. Our original title was Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky. We more or less kept to this, though we included two poets before Pushkin and a few poets after Brodsky. The Pushkin era is conventionally known as the Golden Age, and the early 20th century as the Silver Age. In reality, more great poetry was written during the Silver Age. An extraordinary number of great poets were writing in the 1910s.

Most people have heard of the quartet of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva. Why have these four been so visible?

First, all four truly are great poets. Second, there is something seductive about the idea of this “quartet”: two men, two women; two who died young and tragically, two who lived relatively long; two from Moscow, two from Petersburg. The symmetrical structure provides an illusion of completeness, making us feel we don’t need to bother to read anyone else.

If I were compiling an anthology, in Russian, of my 100 favourite poems under 12 lines, I would probably include ten by Georgy Ivanov (1894-1958). If he is still unknown in the West, this is largely because he doesn’t fit our preconceptions. Dying, as he did, in a home for stateless people near Nice is not what we expect of a C20 Russian poet.

Many of these translations are new. How did you decide what to translate afresh?

There are few good translations of Russian poetry. We were delighted to be able to republish outstanding translations by - amongst others - Frances Cornford, Michael Frayn, Angela Livingstone and the unjustly neglected Gordon Pirie. In most other cases it seemed better to translate afresh.

When you are translating, do you veer towards free verse or do you prefer to use a comparable form, in terms of metre or rhyme scheme, for example?

More often than not when translating, I use a comparable form. But it is important not to be rigid about these matters. Every poem is a unique event – and so is every poem in translation. Sometimes, of course, we did not “get around the problems”. Many of my translations ended up in the bin.

Robert Chandler, Stephen Capus, Boris Dralyuk and James Womack are at the Bookshop on Tuesday 17 March to read from their translations in the new Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Book tickets here.