Cover of Russian edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (trans. Igor Melamed) / Image courtesy of РГГУ
One of the key concerns of The Flaxen Wave, which is also a key concern for anyone translating poems from Russian to English for an American audience, is bridging the gap between Russian poetry, where strict rhyme and meter are the norm, and American poetry, where free verse dominates. This problem often occupies my mind, but I rarely know how to take it on directly. American translators of Russian verse have batted around the question of form for decades, and even though I don’t intend to enter into that debate at the moment, I do sometimes find it helpful to consider Russian perspectives on the matter.
Not long ago, I read an interview in Ex Libris with Russian poet and translator Igor Melamed, whose thoughts on form seem to me more or less representative of the status quo in Russia. (Incidentally, this year Melamed published a Russian translation of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads.) When asked why he doesn’t use free verse in his own poetry, Melamed spoke of the “reckless creative freedom that dominates Western poetry and has practically killed it.” Like Frost, he would never consider playing tennis with the net down:
It turns out that the more libre you have, the less vers you end up with. Meter and rhyme are a welcome burden that keeps verse from falling apart and that, strange though it may seem, makes an impact on poetic thought as a whole. … Russian poetry has a viable enough rhythmic potential that we don’t need to hitch up our pants and go running after Eliot or Éluard.
When Russian poets—even those who translate poetry from English—hold such extreme views on poetic form, how does one even begin to think about translating their work for American readers, who judge rhyme and meter as old-fashioned at best? Personally, I feel obliged to stay somehow faithful to the form of the Russian original, but I strive to bring the poem to life in a particularly American way—and my ear has been shaped by years and years of reading American free verse. In fact, if any poet’s influence landed me where I am today, it was Eliot, Melamed’s straw man.
What can a translator do? It’s an impossible situation. On the one hand, you’ve got Russians like Brodsky, who thought that verse meters were “spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted,” and on the other hand, you’ve got John Ashbery, who thinks that poems should proceed “by fits and starts and by indirection,” and who distrusts poetry that is “arranged in neat patterns.” How do you bridge that gap?