In Praise of Poetry - Excerpt
I have been making up poems since before I can remember. My mother wrote to my father—in China, I believe—telling him how I was learning to speak in rhyme, and she added: “Maybe she’ll be a poet.” When secretly reading other people’s letters (something I swear I have not done for a long time), I was never able to make them out in full, through to the end. Something like a surge of conscience would tug them away from my eyes like a third hand, and a kind of fear would rearrange the letters. And so I would read only the rhyme: “Nina—seen her.”
Unlike my young mother, I know that children often learn words through rhyme and that this has nothing to do with poetry. I find the idea of poets having a predominantly aural awareness to be exaggerated (“For the poet only sound is important,” as is often quoted from Trediakovsky). And I consider the call to
Evoke as sound in my heart
What you cannot express in words
to be a most cunning means of retreat. But I will tell you later, when the time comes, what I think about poetry.
At this time, my sister Irina had either not yet been born, or had only just been born. In one of the first poems that I remember, it was the discrepancy between reality and the way I represented it that assured the poem’s success among adults:
Spring has come
To us in the yard.
My sister has climbed
Up onto the fence.
(Then I used my hands and feet, rather than words, to show how she “fell off the fence and ended up in a hole.”)
Oh where am I?
And where’s my yard?
And where’s my spring?
And where’s my fence?
Here is another poem from my preschool years:
Not being a person
I then thinked:
What do we need these rivers for
And why is there water in them?
But being a person,
I now think:
We do need these rivers
And the water in them too.
[. . .]
It never seemed to me that anything depended on similes alone or on poetry in general. On the contrary, I saw poetry as an infinitely dependent thing, almost completely expended by its dependency—but on what? On the disposition of the stars, the condition of one’s liver, a rumbling underground? I cannot say. I love the fateful in poetry, although you may be surprised to hear which lines I find particularly fateful. For example:
Midst golden fields and greenest pastures
The lake spreads blue and broad;
Across its unknown waters
A fisherman drifts . . .
[. . .]
But despite making up rhymes all through my school years, the strange thing is that I had no idea about the inexpressible content that compels one to be a poet. It was pure poetastery, graphomania without the slightest inspiration, without a hint of simple sincerity. I never wrote about what excited me: I did not think this was allowed. For me the words “allowed” and “not allowed” decided everything. Anything that was not allowed was hateful and not to be desired. While doing my schoolwork I would place a portrait of Lenin in front of me. I needed a supervisor, better still—the author of those orders I was performing, for only the author could appraise my performance and reward me with his approval. Without any real or imagined praise (in the way, for example, this gilded portrait changed his expression) I would not do anything. In addition to having these traits of a fawner and prig, so unnatural for a poet, there was one more. I was inarticulate and unable to construct grammatically coherent sentences. Many people lack this ability, but not to such an extent. Alarmed by my severe inability to “express thoughts,” my parents would make me paraphrase books. This did not help: I simply learned whole paragraphs and sections by heart and repeated them. In the meantime a grammatical idiocy flourished. I found constructing my own normal sentences somewhat crude and dishonest, as if by articulating the theme and rheme and connecting everything by case and number, I was slipping into someone else’s dress—and an ugly one at that. Many people feel ill at ease when hearing inflated or stilted language, but for me all connected speech was inflated in this way.