Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Continued Canonization

Cover of Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems (Persea Books, 1977), 
translated by Bernard Meares with an introductory essay by Joseph Brodsky

This year saw the release of new editions of work by the two poets who are, by my reckoning, the two major voices of twentieth-century Russian poetry: Osip Mandelstam and Joseph Brodsky. To at least one of these judgments, Brodsky himself would have agreed: he thought that Mandelstam’s poetry would “last as long as the Russian language exists,” as well as that Mandelstam’s stature as an artist could be measured by “the quantity and energy of the evil directed against him.” I can’t think of many artists who could beat Mandelstam in that contest.

The publisher Progress-Pléiade has now put out the third volume of Mandelstam’s Complete Collected Works and Correspondence (Полное собрание сочининий и писем), edited by N. G. Zakharenko and compiled by Alexander Mets, which completes the set. The first two volumes included Mandelstam’s poetry and essays, and this newest one contains notes, sketches, prefaces, and letters to family and friends. Some of these documents have apparently been published in this edition for the first time.

To mark the publication of the final volume, Ex Libris published a long piece in June by Boris Romanov called “Nostalgia for Mandelstam” («Тоска по Мандельштаму»). The article was not so much a review as it was an essay on the poet’s significance and the reception of his work over the decades, from the “typed samizdat sheets” that Romanov read as a student in the 1960s to the myriad editions that exist nowadays. Romanov mentions several other landmark volumes along the way, including the 1973 Poet’s Library edition that accused Mandelstam of failing “to get over all the ‘birthmarks’ of the past” and his own 1983 anthology of sonnets that ultimately contained only half of the Mandelstam poems that Romanov had hoped for. (As justification for the cuts, his publisher at the time said, “They have begun to publish too much of Mandelstam.”) But only in the final paragraph does Romanov say anything about the new edition in particular, and then he merely makes a general statement about its relevance:
We have always been accompanied by nostalgia for world culture, for Mandelstam, and for the new poet who is ‘as prepared for song as he is for glory’. Our nostalgia seemed especially acute during the Soviet years. Oddly enough, it accompanies poetry readers even now. This is why the new edition prepared by Alexander Mets of Osip Mandelstam’s complete collected works and letters will be gratefully read and reread.
As for Brodsky, the late Lev Losev edited a two-volume edition of his poems (Стихотворения и поэмы), which just came out in the New Poet’s Library series published by the Pushkin House in St. Petersburg. Those who have reviewed it – including Andrei Nemzer, who methodically analyzes the new edition as a cultural phenomenon – tend to focus on the friendship between Brodsky and Losev. (After all, it’s not every day that one poet makes friends with another poet that happens to be a scholar who devotes over a decade to editing the first poet’s body of work.) And everyone recognizes how unfortunate it is that Losev did not live to see the product of his labors. In an interview for OpenSpace.ru, Anatoly Barzakh, a member of the Poet’s Library editorial board, said that the new edition was “not only a ‘monument’ to Brodsky, but a ‘monument’ to Losev as well – his last work, one that speaks perhaps as much about him as it does about Brodsky.”

Reviewers also wonder what the new publication might mean for the Poet’s Library series (now “New,” apparently), whose role in literary canon-forming was so essential during the Soviet years but whose fate is no longer clear. Nemzer wonders, “Do we have a Poet’s Library … or not?” Its status at the current moment, not to mention down the road, remains uncertain, and he closes his review by calling for new volumes in the series by more modern poets. Likewise, during the interview with Barzakh that I mentioned above, Gleb Morev claims that “the publication of this collection of Brodsky is important not only for readers and researchers,” but for the entire series:
To my mind, this is also a crucial edition for the Poet’s Library itself. The first of the classic writers of uncensored literature from the second half of the 20th century has been published. It is perfectly natural that the first one was Brodsky: the ‘winning’ features of his biography are such that, if this book had gone against the unwritten rule that the Poet’s Library not publish living writers and had come out in the first half of the 90’s, when he was alive, nobody would have been surprised.
In any case, most agree that the new edition is a finely made object that brings together all of the poems from Brodsky’s six published volumes, as well as a selection of “poems not collected in books.” (That section includes a variant of “Odysseus to Telemachus” that I would love to see.) Ilya Abel, in a blog post for Echo of Moscow, describes the aesthetic experience of unwrapping the new book for the first time:
When you carefully remove the cellophane in which the publisher carefully wrapped the two solid volumes – no longer the familiar blue of the previous series, but now green – you see the wonderful white of the paper on which the books were printed and you smell the as-yet-unfaded odor of typographic ink. Most likely, this edition will not languish on the shelves of bookstores. And not because there was an entirely small print run of only 1500 copies. But because for the first time, really, Brodsky’s poetry has been presented how it deserved to be presented for decades.
And I find it hard to argue with that.

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