A friend wrote me recently and said, It’s amazing how someone can go to jail, even be killed just for what he or she wrote in a poem, but I guess I see that when I read these poems you’ve sent me. Maybe back then poetry was more feared?
I had sent him “Stalin’s Epigram” by Osip Mandelstam, as well as some poems by a few others writers.
Mandelstam wrote the following sixteen line poem in response to the famine in Russia. He was arrested for speaking out against Stalin’s atrocities. He would spend the rest of his days paying for his courage, ultimately with his life.
The Stalin Epigram
By Osip Mandelstam
Translated by W.S. Merwin
Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
Mandelstam wrote this piece in the fall of 1933. Within six months he was arrested and exiled to Voronezh, a province of Russia. Mandelstam is known for saying, Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?
He died in 1938—his words could not have been more prophetic. On August 12, 1952 as per Stalin’s orders, thirteen Jewish scholars were executed. The Night of the Murdered Poets as it’s been named, was carried out because Stalin, a man who killed millions upon millions, tried to obliterate that which he feared.
Wislava Syzmborska used irony and humor as a cover for getting her poetry past the censors in Poland. “An Opinion On The Question Of Pornography” deals with the corruption of ideas which makes using pornography an ingenious cover. She replaced free thought with pornography, and through her use of satire something far worse than pornography occurred. It’s interesting because this got past the censors in it’s disguise, yet the subject matter is quite serious. One must wonder how that was possible.
An Opinion On The Question Of Pornography
Translated by Clare Cavanagh
There’s nothing more debauched than thinking.
This sort of wantonness runs wild like a wind-borne weed
on a plot of laid out for daisies.
Nothing’s sacred for those who think.
Calling things brazenly by name,
risqué analyses, salacious syntheses,
frenzied, rakish chases after the bare facts,
the filthy fingering of touchy subjects,
discussion in heat—it’s music to their ears.
In broad daylight or under cover of night
they form circles, triangles, or pairs.
The partners’ age or sex are unimportant.
Their eyes glitter, their cheeks are flushed.
Friend leads friend astray.
Degenerate daughters corrupt their fathers.
A brother pimps for his little sister.
They prefer the fruits
from the forbidden tree of knowledge
to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines—
all that ultimately simple-hearted smut.
The books they relish have no pictures.
What a variety they have lies in certain phrases
marked with a thumbnail or a crayon.
It’s shocking, the positions,
the unchecked simplicity with which
one mind contrives to fertilize another!
Such positions the Kama Sutra itself doesn’t know.
During these trusts of theirs, the only things that’s steamy is
People sit on their chairs and move their lips.
everyone crosses only his own legs
so that one foot is resting on the floor
while the other dangles freely in midair.
Only now and then does somebody get up,
go to the window,
and through a crack in the curtains,
take a peep out at the street.
Syzmborska’s poetry is filled with hidden meanings. She published it because she disguised philosophical and moral ideas behind irony and humor. Her poems are strong on their own, but when one looks into the deeper meaning, they are provocative and compelling, as well as cunning.
Perhaps poetry was more feared than it is today. It’s important to remember that countless numbers of people remain voiceless still. Times are changing, certainly. There was a symposium on the new generation of Polish poets a few weeks ago in New York City. Polish poetry is becoming more diverse than ever before. For the first time, writers do not need to fear what they write. They are able at last, to write what they wish to write without looking over their shoulders. It will be interesting to see where that freedom will take them, what poetry it will produce.
Without censorship and fear, where would poetry be today? I cannot answer that. John Felstiner asks in Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan,
“Would we, if this were possible, trade Anne Frank’s diary for her life, give up those salvaged pages to let her survive unscathed in, in her seventies now? And would we forgo Charlotte Salomon’s Life or Theater?, her 1941 autobiography in 760 watercolors, if in exchange she were not to perish in Auschwitz? Would we, in effect, do without such indispensable human documents, relinquish them so as to secure the undeflected lives their creators might have lived?
Why yes! it goes without saying. But the question involves something more.” (Felstiner, xix)
This is the crux of poetry before there was freedom of language. Those who were courageous enough to write, have left us with invaluable information. In answer to my friends question, all I can say, is thank you to all those who wrote their truths.
Celan, Paul, Translated by Felstiner, John. Selected Poems And Prose Of Paul Celan. W.W. Norton: New York, 2001