Poem of the Month: Anna Akhmatova

Welcome to the first Poem of the Month!

This month, November 2019,  we look at Anna Akhmatova.

Russian literature is known for being dour and gloomy. However, like literature from many countries, it is known more by its male writers than female writers.

I think my interest in learning more about female writers from Russia was piqued when a friend of mine randomly asked about it and I realised I knew about none!

Thus, coming across Anna Akhmatova’s work by chance in a bookstore helped me to dispel my ignorance when it came to female writers from Russia.

Muse
(Translated by D.M. Thomas)
When at night I wait for her to come,
Life, it seems, hangs by a single strand.
What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison
With the dear welcome gust, a flute in hand?
She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,
She stares through me with her attentiveness.
I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,
Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’

This poem is from her work, Reed. Though it is extremely difficult to pick only one single poem from such a gifted writer, I chose Muse, because the poem conveys an intimate conversation between the persona of the poem and a Muse.

In a literary heritage that creates a duality only of the male artist and the female Muses, this poem’s female persona in conversation with the Muse is spell binding. The persona does not seek her out only for inspiration but rather treats her as friend, patiently waits for her and speaks to her. Note that it is not the usual invocation of the Muses often depicted in English poetry. The Muse depicted in the poem is probably Euterpe who is often depicted as holding a flute. She is considered as the Muse of lyric poetry.

The persona’s questioning about whether she did in fact give inspiration to Dante in creating The Inferno, could be interpreted along several lines. One would be that the persona seeks similar inspiration as well and is asking for assurance for inspiration for her own work. The persona could also be trying to then equate herself to Dante himself, hoping that her work would be as divine as his. The persona can also be viewed as an extension of Akhmatova herself and her own relationship with her poetic output. She wishes to reclaim her writing prowess through conversations with the Muse.

Let us know in the comments below what you thought about this poem!

If you liked this poem, you should read one of her most famous poems, Requiem. It comprises of 10 shorter poems along with a Prologue and Epilogue and recounts the torturous wait of the many women (including Anna) who stood in long prison queues in Lengingrad hoping to get some news of their family members. It is a deeply mournful poem. Get to know more about the poem and read an interesting account of how this controversial poem survived the rigid press clampdowns instituted by Stalin. 

Her other famous poem, Poem Without a Hero, has an almost epic like quality to it. It indeed has no heroes, no protagonists but is rather her lifelong work paying tribute to her country and her beloved friends by using several allusions and personas. Though I am loath to compare her to male authors, this poem reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland because of both the poems’ suffusion of allusions and their sheer length.

Reference:

Have you read poems by Anna Akhmatova?
What did you think about her poems?
Share in the comments below!



Do you have a favourite poem you absolutely love? Share them with The Book Cafe as part of the Poem of the Month! Click here to know more.

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