Friday, April 15, 2011

Ism vs. Ism

Drawing by Nikolai Gumilyov / Image courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Today marks 125 years since the birth of Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov), one of the founders of Acmeism—a poetry movement that seems to find its parallel among the Anglo-American modernists in Imagism. The Acmeists defined themselves against another group of Russian poets, the Symbolists, about whom Osip Mandelstam wrote the following in his 1912 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” (Утро акмеизма):

The symbolists did not make for good house occupants. They loved to travel, but they felt unwell, not at home in their own bodies. … One can build only in the name of “three dimensions,” since any structure depends upon them. This is why an architect must be a good house occupant, but the Symbolists were poor craftsmen. To build means to do battle with emptiness, to hypnotize space.

The Acmeists saw themselves as doing practical, material work with language and even called their group a “workshop” (“цех”).  In his 1913 essay “The Legacy of Symbolism and Acmeism” (“Наследие символизма и акмеизм”), Gumilev explained that the poets in his movement sought “a greater balance of power and a more precise knowledge of the relationship between subject and object than had existed in Symbolism.” As I say, when reading statements like these, I can’t help but think of the Imagists, who advocated “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” and the use of “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation” (Ezra Pound, “A Retrospect,” 1918). Appropriately, what the Acmeists found objectionable in Symbolism—that is, abstraction—is the same problem that Ezra Pound is said to have helped another poet grounded in symbolism, W. B. Yeats, to remedy.

The Acmeists included two figures well known to American readers—Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who was married to Gumilev—and two others who I think may be somewhat less familiar—Mikhail Kuzmin and Georgy Ivanov. As for Gumilev, he famously met his end in 1921 at the age of thirty-five when he ran afoul of the Bolsheviks, placing him on that seemingly endless list of Russian poets about whom we wonder, “What else might they have done if they’d lived just a bit longer?”

 For a taste of what he did do, have a look at the poem “The Giraffe” (Жираф), available on the AGNI site in a skillful translation by James Stotts. Here is an excerpt:

… far, far away, on the distant shores of Lake Chad,
There roams a most majestic giraffe

Blessed with a handsome build and graceful carriage
And a coat painted hypnotic, magical patterns,
With which none but the moon above dare compare
When her light falls down to be scattered and rocked on the waters,

Passing like a blazing sail far out at sea
As she runs by, nimble and carefree as a bird in flight.

     (trans. James Stotts)

Apollon Davidson, whose article about Gumilev appears in today’s Novaya Gazeta, explains that this poem and others like it inspired him to “become an Africanist,” even though the poet’s books were banned in the Soviet Union until 1986. Luckily, Davidson’s family had copies that had been printed before the ban, and he began reading them during his prewar childhood in Leningrad. As an adult, Davidson tried to get some of Gumilev’s texts published, but to no avail:

How I wished that Gumilev could be “rehabilitated”! In the early sixties, at the time of the “thaw,” I thought, “And now will it happen?” I decided that it would be easiest to do it by beginning with his African travels and poems. I came to an agreement with an Eastern Studies journal. They also thought that it would happen soon. … But it never came out.

Only during Perestroika did Gumilev’s poems begin to be made available. And Davidson gladly reports that these days he sees more and more students developing an interest in the poet.

I’ll end this post with two poems that have always struck me as remarkably similar: one by a Russian Acmeist, and one by an Anglo-American Imagist. They both depend upon concision and seem to differ mainly in the type of image—aural or visual—that they convey:

Звук осторожный и глухой
Плода, сорвавшегося с древа,
Среди немолчного напева
Глубокой тишины лесной...

(The mute and cautious sound / of a piece of fruit fallen from a tree / amid the unceasing chorus / of the forest’s profound silence. – Osip Mandelstam, 1908)

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

                                    – Ezra Pound, 1913


  1. A curious coincidence: after writing this post, I learned from an article in Literaturnaya gazeta that "there is evidence of [Gumilyov's] meeting with Yeats" during the Russian poet's first visit to London in May of 1917. (He also met Chesterton.) Perhaps Pound wasn't the only anti-Symbolist influence on the Irish poet!

    You can read the LG article here:

  2. The first time I heard about Acmeism I immediately assimilated it mentally to Imagism, on which I cut my teeth as a young poet/reader (I was bored with the poets pushed on me in school, and discovered Pound's Selected for myself with sheer delight); I think I even thought of "In a Station of the Metro" when I read Mandelstam's little poem.

    Incidentally, I translated “Жираф” myself, and there have been two LH threads about the poem and various translations: GIRAFFE, ANOTHER GIRAFFE.

  3. Great post, great introduction to Acmeism! I have to advertise, in commemmoration of Gumilev and also of interest to all those who want to emulate Jamie, Languagehat, and James Stotts, a competition to translate Gumilev's poems organised by Robert Chandler and Cardinal Points magazine. You can see more information here:

  4. I knew I had seen reference to Gumilyov's "Giraffe" somewhere recently, but I couldn't quite remember the context: it was in LH's post "Another Giraffe," of course. Thanks for the reminder!

    And thanks to Dinosaur for sending the link to the Compass Award. I love their description of the prize itself: "The First Prize is a compass, which symbolizes the poet's travels in the realm of the same cardinal points of planet Earth that we find ourselves in — a century later."