A KIND OF SOFT CLAY.

A nice quote from Alexander Kushner (one of my favorite lyric poets), taken from a 2010 interview on Radio Liberty and translated by Jamie Olson for his blog The Flaxen Wave (Russian below the cut):

And the Russian language is arranged in such a wonderful way—it’s like a kind of soft clay that was created especially for poems: we’ve got shifting stresses, we’ve got wonderful suffixes. … It’s a very soft language. Take grammatical cases alone, or free word order within sentences: in our language, the subject can come at the very end, which doesn’t exist anywhere else. And it’s a shame that we’re moving over to vers libre, to free verse, and giving up on rhyme. I hope that it doesn’t actually happen.

I hope so too. (The idea that the subject’s ability to come at the end “doesn’t exist anywhere else” is the sort of charmingly naive assumption people are prone to make about their native languages.)

И язык русский устроен замечательным образом, он – как такая мягкая глина – специально создан для стихов: у нас ударения переходящие, у нас суффиксы замечательные. Одно дело – “нога”, другое – “ножка”, “пыль” и “пыльца”. Очень мягкий язык, падежи одни чего стоят, свободный порядок слов в предложении – у нас подлежащее может быть в самом конце, такого нет нигде. И жалко, если мы перейдем на верлибр, на свободный стих, откажемся от рифмы. Я надеюсь, что этого все-таки не произойдет.

Comments

  1. “charmingly naive” only in the best of cases. More often than I would like to think, it’s shockingly chauvinsitic.

  2. Bathrobe says:

    Leaving aside the chauvinism, I guess it’s nice to find an artist in love with his medium 🙂

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I wonder if your charming naiveté can explain something that puzzled me when I tried to learn Russian many years ago. We learned from a book by Nina Potapova in which she made the points that (1) Russian has very heavy stress with many weak unstressed syllables, (2) getting the stress on the right syllable is necessary, and (3) the spelling doesn’t tell you where it’s going to be; but she didn’t make the point that all three of these characteristics apply with almost equal force to English (especially as compared with, say, French, German or Spanish, or, if we want to go further afield, Hungarian). I’m not sure how much it would help an anglophone learner of Russian to have this pointed out, but it might make Russian seem less exotic.
    My recollection of other Russian textbooks for English speakers likewise emphasize the importance of stress in Russian but seem unaware of its importance in English.

  4. ” in our language, the subject can come at the very end, which doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
    It certainly seems chauvinistic when just a cursory familiarity with Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, or pretty much any Slavic language would lead you to conclude that that statement is obviously false. But I am still siding with naive, I think most people are very unaware of how languages actually work. I have also found that both Russians and Poles are often very quick to dismiss any suggestion that their two languages are actually fairly similar.

  5. Stravinsky said that Polish was like Russian with a lot of weird cognates, like saying that a perfume stinks good.

  6. Chauvinism aside, I’m not sure “naive” is the proper antonym for “linguist”.

  7. BTW, do you like izubr and vero4ka?
    For example, my favorite of vero4ka:
    Это как проснуться в пустой палате,
    повыдирать из себя все трубки, иголки, датчики,
    Выбежать во двор, в чьих-нибудь бахилах на босу ногу;
    Что они сделают, эти чертовы неудачники,
    С обреченным тобой, подыхающим понемногу;
    И стоять, и дышать, и думать – вот, я живой еще,
    Утро пахнет морозом, и пар изо рта, и мне бы
    Хоть бы день; а уже тишина начинает сигналить воюще,
    Уже сердце растет, как сказочное чудовище,
    Небо едет вниз по дуге, и ты падаешь возле неба.
    Твою душу легонько сталкивают корабликом
    Вдоль по вечной реке, и весь мир обретает краски
    И рельеф; а ты сам навсегда лежишь почерневшим яблоком,
    Поздним августом, на ступенечке
    У терраски.

  8. @Athel Cornish-Bowden: I think that stress in Russian can seem particularly salient to an English-speaker because it’s never where an English-speaker would expect it to be, and because it’s the main respect in which Russian spelling is opaque. (Unlike English, where all aspects of spelling are frequently opaque!)

  9. Russians and Poles are often very quick to dismiss any suggestion that their two languages are actually fairly similar.
    True, I’ve only learned to agree with this and appreciate the Polish sound, in the past couple of years, after a lifelong dismissal of Polish as a queer dialect of Russian.

  10. “Queer dialect of Russian”: I believe that it was Musorgsky who put some serious Ukrainian dialogue into one of his operas, only to find that the audience immediately burst into laughter. Ukrainian was apparently only to be used for low comedy, sort of like hillbilly or black dialect in the US up until not too long ago.

  11. Joseph Brodsky liked this idea (a kind of folk-linguistics, of course):
    “Что до хитросплетений, то русский язык, в котором подлежащее часто уютно устраивается в конце предложения, а суть часто кроется не в основном сообщении, а в его придаточном предложении, — как бы для них и создан. Это не аналитический английский с его альтернативным “или/или”, — это язык придаточного уступительного, это язык, зиждущийся на “хотя”. Любая изложенная на языке этом идея тотчас перерастает в свою противоположность, и нет для русского синтаксиса занятия более увлекательного и соблазнительного, чем передача сомнения и самоуничижения. Многосложный характер словаря (в среднем слово состоит из трех– четырех слогов) вскрывает первичную, стихийную природу явлений, отражаемых словом полнее, чем каким бы то ни было убедительным рассуждением, и зачастую писатель, собравшись развить свою мысль, внезапно спотыкается о звучание и с головой погружается в переживание фонетики данного слова — что и уводит его рассуждения в самую непредсказуемую сторону… Проще говоря: читая Достоевского, понимаешь, что источник потока сознания — вовсе не в сознании, а в слове, которое трансформирует сознание и меняет его русло”
    (“О Достоевском”)

  12. the sort of charmingly naive assumption people are prone to make about their native languages
    I was talking to a Taiwanese man about classical Chinese poetry, and he claimed that the way he learned to pronounce the verses was actually the way they originally sounded, and that “Chinese doesn’t change”. I didn’t argue with him, I was more interested in hearing what he had to say about poetry.

  13. According what I read most recently, Hokkien really is the most archaic surviving Chinese language. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the closest to the court language of the past, but it might be. Mandarin is notably poor for reading the classical poetry in.

  14. I was talking to a Taiwanese man about classical Chinese poetry, and he claimed that the way he learned to pronounce the verses was actually the way they originally sounded, and that “Chinese doesn’t change”.
    This is exactly how Greeks feel about Ancient Greek; it’s particularly ludicrous in their case, because the phonetically accurate spelling of the ancient language reveals with brutal clarity the falseness of the claim. (“So you really think the ancients wrote /i/ a dozen different ways just for variety’s sake?” “Homina homina homina…”)

  15. That claim was part of Taiwan nationalism when I was there. They also claimed that Taiwan is tectonically distinct from the mainland, and not part of the continental shelf.

  16. Alexei K. says:

    I suspect Kushner only had English, French and German in mind (and possibly Italian and Spanish), although he’s wrong about German anyway with its -leins and -chens similar to Russian diminutives. Not the first time Kushner has talked about things he doesn’t know well (not that Brodsky’s theorizing above is much more enlightened).
    Polish and Russian are close enough for me to be able to read Polish newspapers, but for a poet there’s a life-changing difference, namely stress. Polish is fixed-stress and much of its classical poetry is syllabic, like French (please correct me if I am wrong). This was tried in Russian between 1650 and 1750 and was found generally wanting. Then Lomonosov imported prosodic patterns from second-rate German versifiers and produced some great Russian poetry. These days though, a handful of eccentrics are trying to revive syllabic poetry in Russia — the UK-based Alexey Vernitsky is a great example.

  17. Mandarin is notably poor for reading the classical poetry in
    Among the most obvious peculiarities of Mandarin is that it’s lost all the stop consonants at the ends of syllables. That has to make some difference prosodically.

  18. “They also claimed that Taiwan is tectonically distinct from the mainland, and not part of the continental shelf.”
    Well I guess that settles that then. Clearly Indonesia should be divided at the Wallace line as well.

  19. Wikipedia is overall a wonderful thing, but one of the things I’ve learned about Wiki is that the articles on any topic of nationalist significance will be, at best, a garbled compromise mess produced by warring editors and an arbiter.
    The secret of Wiki us is knowing which 10-20% to cut out, sort of like cleaning fish. And rule one is what I just said about nationalism.

  20. Thanks for posting the translation. I really enjoyed the flow of it. Even though I don’t speak Russian it makes we want to find out who Alexander Kushner is and read some of his poetry.
    Shirley

  21. “Polish is essentially a light variety of Russian that even Germans can master.” —Jay Bowks

  22. JE: one of the things I’ve learned about Wiki is that the articles on any topic of nationalist significance will be, at best, a garbled compromise mess produced by warring editors and an arbiter.
    I wanted to add rule two, saying that the same applies to articles in the French WiPe on the French Revolution. But I suppose that is sorta covered by rule one.
    I’ve encountered a few non-nationalist WiPe topics that excite the same kind of adamant, sometimes hysterical squabbling: psychoanalysis, religious belief, who engineered 9/11, and fly-fishing.

  23. I’ve encountered a few non-nationalist WiPe topics that excite the same kind of adamant, sometimes hysterical squabbling
    I haven’t seen anything to compare with the pixels shed over the Mexican-American War. Should it be spelt with a hyphen or a long dash? Cue four months of merciless combat between the hyphenistas and the dashniks*. (See the talk page archives for the gory details).
    *Or should that be Dashnaks?

  24. Polish is fixed-stress and much of its classical poetry is syllabic, like French (please correct me if I am wrong).
    Yes, that’s right. Isosyllabic verse became standard in Polish poetry in the 16th century. Before that it was mainly heterosyllabic sequential (or “syntactic”) verse. (I get this from Giergiewicz’s Introduction to Polish Versification, which may be the only book in world with a section entitled “Presyllabic wrangle”).

  25. I’ve just found an interesting follow-up to Noetica’s monosyllabic comment in the “Vocabulary Test” post. Giergewicz, discussing Polish verse experiments, quotes a poem by Julian Tuwim made up of one-syllable words (except the final line):
    Krwi, snów, mknień, żądz,
    Gór, chmur, drżeń, zórz,
    Łez, chwil, róż, słońc,
    Łkań, gwiazd, gróz, mórz –
    O, życie moje!

  26. I haven’t seen anything to compare with the pixels shed over the Mexican-American War
    And it turns out our own Noetica was one of the fearless warriors in that battle!
    which may be the only book in world with a section entitled “Presyllabic wrangle”
    So it would appear; that’s the only hit in Google Books, and regular Google gives:
    Your search – “Presyllabic wrangle” – did not match any documents.

  27. @lukas: shockingly chauvinsitic
    Yes, indeed. Russians in deep denial that Slavic languages have any relation to Russian; Urdu speakers I know (who don’t know classical-literary Arabic any more than I do) talking about the untranslatability of the language of the Qur’an; and English speakers arguing about the vast superiority of English because of its humungous vocabulary. Heard it.

  28. I’m campaigning to have presyllabic wrangling recognised as an Olympic sport.
    FWIW the “wrangle” is over deviations from the octosyllabic line in Bernart z Lubina’s verse translation of Aesop’s life and fables (1522). 6.3% of the lines are irregular. The argument is whether Bernart was an incompetent versifier or if he was consciously doing this for artistic effect. I suppose there are parallels with the debate over irregularities in the iambic pentameter of pioneering Tudor poets, notably Thomas Wyatt. Though the subtlety of “They flee from me that sometime did me seek” suggests to me Wyatt knew what he was doing.

  29. That should have read “Biernat z Lubina” (or Biernat of Lublin).

  30. Dammit, Biernat z Lublina.

  31. Alexei K. says:

    JCass — what’s “mknień”? Ironically, Khodasevich (the Russian poet of Polish-Jewish heritage) wrote a poem of one-syllable words about the same time as Tuwim, but about death (a funeral) rather than life:
    Лоб —
    Мел.
    Бел
    Гроб.
    Спел
    Поп.
    Сноп
    Стрел —
    День
    Свят!
    Склеп
    Слеп.
    Тень —
    В ад!

  32. @JCass: Aren ‘t “krwi” and “drżeń” disyllabic? (Please forgive me if I’m wrong; I’m more familiar with Czech than with Polish.)

  33. As far as I can tell, “mknień” is the genitive plural of “mknienie”, which must be from the verb “mknąć”, “to fleet, to flash, to slip by.”
    Aren ‘t “krwi” and “drżeń” disyllabic?
    Again, as far as I know (and I’m willing to be corrected by those who know more), in Polish a syllable contains one vowel or one diphthong. So they are both monosyllabic, as is a word such as “źdźbło” (!).

  34. @JCass: Thanks! My mistake – I had no idea that Polish doesn’t have syllabic R or L. Guess I’ve never listened to spoken Polish carefully enough to notice.
    But you’re absolutely right. This difference between Polish and Czech is well documented, for example here.

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