"Light Breathing": Osip Mandelstam's "First" Poems, Pushkin, and the Poetics of Influence
After 1837, blood and poetry both rang
differently in the ears.
—Osip Mandel´shtam, The Noise of Time
How (even with all hindsight) can we
know the true ephebe, the potentially strong
poet, from the mass of ocean’s nurslings
around him? By hearing in his first voices
what is most central in the precursors’
voices, rendered with a directness, clarity, even
a sweetness that they do not often
give to us.
—Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading
In her memoir of Mandel´stam, Anna Akhmatova famously and perhaps hyperbolically claimed that
Mandelstam has no teacher. That is something worth thinking about. I don’t know of a similar case in all of world poetry. We know Pushkin’s and Blok’s sources, but who can show us the source of this divine new harmony, which we call the poetry of Osip Mandelstam?
Akhmatova’s emphasis on the importance of establishing a poet’s genealogy closely resembles Mandel´shtam’s own views on literary criticism, as expressed both as a general theoretical assumption and with respect to specific poets. For example, in his essay on Blok, “Barsuch´ia nora,” Mandel´shtam asserted that
Establishing the literary genesis of the poet, his literary sources, his ancestry and origin, brings us at once to solid ground. A critic does not have to answer the question: what did the poet want to say, but he is obliged to answer the question: where did the poet come from…
To be fair to Akhmatova, the problem facing the reader of Mandel´shtam is more complex than his advice to the literary critic might suggest, since his verse is so rich in allusions to and traces of other texts. A considerable amount of excellent scholarship exists on the various possible sources of Mandel´shtam’s “divine harmony”: it is generally accepted, for example, that there are a number of important Russian symbolist influences on Mandel´shtam’s formation as a poet. But there are other important sources too, including non-Russian influences; and the relative importance of certain influences can change at different stages—as Mandel´shtam himself suggested with reference to one of his elective affinities, Chénier, a poet may perhaps have various poetic systems at different stages of his career. Increasingly, though, critics and readers alike have decided that, although it is clear that Mandel´shtam was influenced by many poets and learned from or at least quoted many more, and that the discovery of sources does not in and of itself identify a “teacher” or “teachers,” Pushkin was Mandel´shtam’s “ultimate reference.” The past few years in particular have seen the appearance of a number of valuable specialized studies of Pushkin and Mandel´shtam, and the best subtextual studies have long since noted many allusions to Pushkin in Mandel´shtam’s oeuvre. Moreover, for many of these studies it is not simply a matter of linking Mandel´shtam to Pushkin, as all Russian writers are indeed or can be connected, naturally, with “nashe vse” (“our everything,” the best simple definition of Pushkin), as noted mordantly by Nadezhda Mandel´shtam in her overeagerness to dismiss Akhmatova’s own credentials as a Pushkinian poet (and thereby, presumably, increase Mandel´shtam’s chances of being accepted as such). Instead, one witnesses the almost blasphemous near-equating by Russian readers, critics, and above all writers of the two poets.
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