Sunday, July 26, 2015

Touchstone Poets Series: Marina Tsvetaeva by Vesna Goldsworthy

     If anyone were to trace my footfall in the poetry library in order to mark out my poetic “city state”, the map would show repeated visits to the collections of Akhmatova, Brodsky, Cavafy, Eliot, Rilke, Seferis, Tsvetaeva and Yeats. Poetry in my native Serbian remains a secret spot on the map. The names of my favourite Serbian poets – Crnjanski, Lalic, Dis – mean so little to the Anglophone reader that I hesitate even to mention them here. Theirs is the poetry I don’t need to revisit between the covers of a book because it lives inside my head. Instead, their lines arrive in unbidden snatches – when I am walking, taking a shower or making lunch – like palimpsest echoes of an earlier life.
     Russian poetry occupies a substantial quarter of this “city state”, a home from home. Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva are its chatelaines. If I were forced to choose one, it would probably be Akhmatova, but I reread Tsvetaeva’s Novogodnee (“New Year’s Greeting: An Elegy for Rilke”) at least once a year.
     Rainer Maria Rilke and Marina Tsvetaeva never met. They corresponded between May and December 1926. Rilke’s “Elegy for Marina” was written in June 1926, to accompany his gift to her, a copy of Duino Elegies, one of my favourite collections. In return, Marina’s elegy for Rilke, written in her Parisian exile on receiving the news of his death (he died of leukaemia on 29 December, having never told her that he was seriously ill) is a lament, an extended ululation which never fails to shake me to the core. It follows few poetic rules, but it defines a metaphysics of mourning.
     Tsvetaeva’s contemplation of the meaning of life, language, loss and love is too profound to do it justice in a blog. Joseph Brodsky only partly succeeded in analysing Novogodnee  in his glorious seventy-page essay “Footnote to a Poem”. Such is the complexity of Tsvetaeva’s verse that you can only ever succeed in part. Like the epiphanies that grow out of a painful life -- and few have known as much pain as Marina Tsvetaeva -- the poem is both staggeringly simple and resistant to periphrasis. It is also probably untranslatable from Russian, though its English translations are solid enough.
     The international translator who succeeded most fully, I believe, is the novelist Danilo Kis. His Serbian rendition of Novogodnee is one of the most beautiful poems of my mother tongue. I hear Tsvetaeva, even when I read her in Russian, through a gravelly, cigarette smoke stained gauze of Danilo Kis’s voice.
     Kis haunts my memories of my native Belgrade, propping up the bar of the Writers’ Club, or arguing something in one of the editorial offices of the many literary magazines which flourished on a shoe string in the dog-days of socialism. He was a symbol, an encapsulation of a writing life I had wanted to lead, a life now imbued with all the melancholy of a “future in the past”, a future which never happened.

     I met Brodsky once, in London, quarter of a century ago. Although our conversation was brief, I managed to eulogise Tsvetaeva’s poem, praise Danilo Kis’ translation most effusively, and not even refer to his “Footnote”. I no longer remember how we arrived at the topic. I suspect that I was no good at small talk with a poet whose verse had meant so much to me, yet I was also too self-conscious to flatter him. But this memory too is somehow in keeping with Novogodnee... it embarrasses me no more. 

Bio: Vesna Goldsworthy (née Bjelogrlić) is a Serbian writer and poet who lives in England. Her books include Chernobyl StrawberriesInventing RuritaniaThe Angel of Salonika (2011), a collection of her poems.[1] Her novel Gorsky was published in 2015. In 2010, she presented a BBC radio 4 programme on finding one's voice in a foreign land. She won the Crashaw Prize in 2011 and is from Belgrade. She is a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. Previously she worked for the BBC Serbian Service as a journalist.

Note: you can pre-order Vesna Goldsworthy's excellent new novel, Gorsky, from

© 2015 Vesna Goldsworthy

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Touchstone Poets Series: "Returning to Canterbury" by Frank Mundo


   Back in school, my teachers swore that Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton (each of whom had entire courses devoted to studying his works) were probably the greatest poets who ever lived. My Chaucer teacher even went a step further, dropping the “probably,” and calling Chaucer the Father of English poetry and the greatest poet of all time.
     And, after taking this class, and another two courses all about The Canterbury Tales, I agreed. I enthusiastically agreed! Chaucer was amazing, and I was hooked. Why hadn’t I heard about him before? Why didn’t anyone write like this anymore? I wanted to write like this. I wanted to write something epic, too – not the shapeless, rhyme-less, craft-less, whining, coded, confusing and inconsequential stuff I believed everyone else to be writing at that time.

Geoffrey Chaucer 

     There was just one problem.
     I was one of them. In fact, I still considered myself mainly a whiny and inconsequential fiction writer, not really a poet at all, let alone a poet of any merit. I was a dabbler at best whose main poetic ambition was simply “to get girls,” so this connection was a true life-changer for me. Nothing, before or since, has had the same effect on me that reading The Canterbury Tales had – not after hundreds or maybe even a thousand or more books later.
     And it wasn’t just the sheer size and scope of the work. I actually related to Chaucer for some reason – unlike Shakespeare or Milton or seemingly anyone else, not to mention any of the modern poets either, who, in my mind wrote nothing like these greats. Truly unique, The Canterbury Tales was highly structured and formal and yet so easy and enjoyable to read and to understand. It was musical and funny and clever. The decasyllabic couplets and mostly iambic rhythm seemed perfect for this kind of storytelling.
     A couple more years of studying Chaucer and almost a decade later, I’d written what I considered my first “real” poem, The Brubury Tales, an homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – a 65,000 word “epic” rhyming poem. Finally, I felt like I was a poet/storyteller, too. And while I’m no Chaucer and never will be, and no teachers care about my work enough to teach it to the future poets of the world, I still feel that strong connection to Chaucer and his work through my work. In fact, whenever I feel doubt about my ability (which is all of the time) or whenever my work gets rejected from journals or gets a bad review (which is all of the time), I can and do (and will continue to) return to Chaucer’s world for a little while to forget about the problems in mine.

 © 2015 Frank Mundo

Bio: Frank Mundo is the author of The Brubury Tales (foreword by Carolyn See), a modern version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales set in Los Angeles just after the 1992 riots.

Visit Frank Mundo's Amazon author page.