!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: How Mandelstam Created His Poems

Sunday, September 07, 2008

How Mandelstam Created His Poems

The views of Osip Mandelstam concerning how poets "develop" imagery, as explained in his essay, "Conversation About Dante," featured in yesterday's post.

As a follow-on — and a lead-in to discussion in subsequent posts concerning the creative process — I quote below portions of the memoirs of Mandelstam's wife, in which she describes how Mandelstam composed his poems. (Nadezhda Mandelstam refers to her husband as "M.")

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

As many poets have said — Akhmatova (in ‘Poem Without a Hero’) and M. among them — a poem begins with a musical phrase ringing insistently in the ears; at first inchoate, it later takes on a precise form, though still without words. …

… At some point words formed behind the musical phrase and then the lips began to move. The work of a poet has probably something in common with that of a composer, and the appearance of words is the crucial factor that distinguishes it from musical composition. The ‘hum’ sometimes came to M. in his sleep, but he could never remember it on waking. I have a feeling that verse exists before it is composed (M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it and then copying it out). The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words. The last stage of the work consists in ridding the poem of all the words foreign to the harmonious whole which existed before the poem arose. Such words slip in by chance, being used to fill gaps during the emergence of the whole. They become lodged in the body of the poem, and removing them is hard work. This final stage is a painful process of listening in to oneself in a search for the objective and absolutely precise unity called a ‘poem’. …

I noticed that in his work on a poem there were two points at which he would sigh with relief — when the first words in a line or stanza came to him, and when the last of the foreign bodies was driven out by the right word. Only then is there an end to the process of listening in to oneself. …

If the poem won’t ‘go away’, M. said, it means that there is something wrong with it, or something ‘still hidden in it’ — a last fruitful bud from which a new shoot might sprout. In other words. the work is not finished.

. . .

The process of composing verse … involves the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words is an attempt to remember what is still to be brought into being (‘I have forgotten the word I wish to say, like a blind swallow it will return to the abode of shadows’ [a quote from one of Mandelstam's poems]). This requires great concentration, till whatever has been forgotten suddenly flashes into the mind. In the first stage the lips move soundlessly, then they begin to whisper and at last the inner music resolves itself into units of meaning: the recollection is developed like the image on a photographic plate.

… M.’s feeling that form and content are absolutely indivisible evidently came to him from the process of working on his poetry, which was always born from a single impulse — the initial ‘ringing in the ears’, before the formation of words, already embodied in what is called ‘content’. In ‘Conversation About Dante’ M. likened ‘form’ to a sponge — if a sponge is dry and contains nothing, then nothing can be squeezed out of it. The opposite approach is to think in terms of finding the ‘right form’ for a subject matter conceived independently of it. M. damned this approach (also in ‘Conversation About Dante’) and called its proponents ‘translators of ready-made meaning’
(From pp.82-83 and 224-225 of the 1973 Penguin paperback edition of Hope Against Hope. Hyperlink added.)


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