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.