Sunday, May 8, 2011

MPT: Poetry and the State

The new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation is out, and the theme this time around is "Poetry and the State." In their introduction to the issue, editors David and Helen Constantine argue that the "relationship between poetry and the State must always be – because of the autonomy of the former and the unfreedom of the latter – at the very least uneasy." They say that poetry claims as its right "the freedom to be plural, various, to entertain and essay all possibilities of being human." As an editorial criterion, this turns out to be a smart one, since it allows poets of various political stripes to be represented.

Of particular interest for Flaxen Wave readers are poems by Osip Mandelstam and Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had vastly different relationships with Soviet power. The Mandelstam poems, including the infamous "Stalin epigram" and excerpts from the Voronezh notebooks, were done by three different translators: Andrew Mayne, Peter France, and Alexander Cigale. As for Mayakovsky, the poem published in the issue is the canonical "Verses about a Soviet Passport," translated by Steven Capus. The issue also includes Sasha Dugdale's interview with Larisa Miller and a batch of Ukrainian poets in translations by Steve Komarnyckyj from the aptly named "Executed Renaissance" (as the editors put it, "poets so important, they shot them").

Not much of the issue is available for reading online, but you can have a look at Komarnyckyj's translation of Mykhailo Draj-Khmara's "Swans" (Лебеді), a poem that at first blush seems apolitical but which supposedly led to the poet's arrest and subsequent death. Swans as symbols may seem harmless, but I suppose these were the risky lines: "They destroy cynicism and despair / With their unconquered song." It didn't take much, back then and back there, to get one into deep trouble.

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