I finally did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long time, and had my local library get a copy of Omry Ronen’s An Approach to Mandelstam for me. (I stupidly ordered another book at the same time, which I’ll probably have to return unread, because they’re both due on the 22nd, and I’ll be lucky to have finished the Ronen by then.) Ronen is one of the world’s main Mandelstam scholars, and this book is cited in just about everything I’ve read on the poet; I am at a loss to understand why it was published so obscurely (the cover says BIBLIOTHECA SLAVICA HIEROSOLYMITANA, the copyright page credits the Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, and adds “Printed in Israel at the Graph Press, Jerusalem”; Google has only a couple of hundred hits, the third of which is an earlier LH mention). At any rate, it’s the perfect time for me to read it, because it turns out it’s basically a line-by-line analysis of two long Mandelstam poems, “A Slate Ode” and “January 1, 1924“—187 pages on the former and 105 pages on the latter—and I’ve just reached “A Slate Ode” in my long march through the Collected Poems and gotten thoroughly bogged down. I thought once I’d worked my way through M’s longest poem, “The Horseshoe Finder” (or “He Who Found a Horseshoe” or “Whoever Finds a Horseshoe“), which involved memorizing it and reading a long article by Diana Myers (which I will be glad to send to any interested parties who can read Russian), I had gotten over the hump and it would be all downhill, but the “Slate Ode” threw me. I anticipate weeks of pleasurable immersion in the dense intertextual web that is the essence of Ronen’s method (learned at the feet of his great teachers, Roman Jakobson and Kiril Taranovsky); I will be getting a handle on not only the poems but on all of Russian literature. Just in the Preface, Ronen traces one short early poem back to Pushkin, Batyushkov, and Yazykov, and places “Concert at the Railway Station” in the context of passages in Gogol and Blok. This is my favorite kind of criticism; I’d far rather read an analysis of textual echoes than an exploration of psychology or imagery. Poetry is made of words.

Incidentally, the acknowledgments at the end of the Preface gave me a start; Ronen writes that his work on the first draft of the book was carried on at Yale between 1971 and 1978, almost exactly the years when I was there studying linguistics, and he thanks “the participants of my Yale seminars on Mandel’štam and on acmeism for challenging discussions and stimulating papers.” Had I gone into Russian rather than historical linguistics, I could have been at those seminars, and maybe I’d have written my own books on Mandelstam and acmeism by now. (And why the hell wasn’t Ronen’s book published by Yale?)


  1. Let me applaud Hat’s Mandelstam project one more time.
    Just in the Preface, Ronen traces one short early poem back to Pushkin, Batyushkov, and Yazykov, and places “Concert at the Railway Station” in the context of passages in Gogol and Blok.
    That’s the normal, predominant way Chinese critics work. There’s even an eight-volume reference work chronologically listing all the uses of thousands of two-character combinations back to the beginning. So if you see a phrase like “Jade Palace”, you can trace it back through the centuries to, for example, Li Po’s citation of a Taoist devotional text.
    If I live long enough I’ll even make use of that resource, but so far it’s aspirational.

  2. I was going to add, in college that kind of criticism tends to become puzzle-solving, and people end up forgetting that the author is working with the most familiar materials in his world.
    Imagine some twenty-fifth century scholar writing a detailed technical book about baseball references in twentieth century American literature, where baseball becomes technical knowledge certain serious people need to know for certain specialized purposes, instead of the common furniture it was used as. (In fact baseball is usually specifically a way to get away from the technical and move toward the common, though George Will probably ruined that ploy for everyone.)

  3. What an awful translation of the horseshoe poem. Especially because lines which the translator did not understand or could not convey were simply excised. Whoever taught him that needs to be shot.

  4. John Emerson: What’s the name of this 8-volume reference work of two character combinations? I could spend years going through that.

  5. mollymooly says:

    baseball is usually specifically a way to get away from the technical and move toward the common

    Most of the little I know about baseball derives from reading Stephen Jay Gould’s pop biology essays and running the analogies in reverse.

  6. It’s too bad I can’t learn pop biology from reading Roger Angell’s interminable baseball articles in the New Yorker.

  7. Victor Sonkin says:

    I hope you know this ( and other Gasparov’s works (there are two Gasparovs in Russian literary scholarship; M.L. is the real one). MLG was a polymath, but Mandelshtam research was one of his primary occupations, especially during the last 15 years of his life or so. I can’t imagine a better introduction to Mandelshtamiana that this.
    He also wrote a series of articles on individual poems, including a long discussion of one of the most arcane, “Стихи о неизвестном солдате”. Another moving experience is his reading of some poems, including a handful of Mandelshtam’s, including “Нашедший подкову” (downloadable here:; it’s an amateur recording. One should keep in mind that in ordinary conversation MLG heavily stuttered; it disappeared completely when he was reading poetry, but it explains some of his speech mannerisms. I like his reading much, much better than anything produced by actors (btw have you heard the chant of Mandelshtam reading his poems?), but then again, Gasparov is my cultural hero, and I deeply lament that he is undervalued even in Russia, to say nothing of the rest of the world; a better, clearer thinker the humanities hadn’t seen in ages.

  8. Victor Sonkin says:

    Oh, I don’t get baseball references at all. They are frequent in American academic and semi-academic works, partly because the authors assume their universal appeal. In fact, such metaphors make the matters more obscure for an uninitiated reader.

  9. Hey, I was at Yale in the same epoch– and knew a bunch of lit crit types, in spite of being a scientist.
    In retrospect it wasn’t much fun, truth to tell– many of the people I knew seemed to be engaged mainly in exploring the borderlands of serious depression. But maybe that’s just life in graduate school.

  10. Yes, I know Gasparov (I linked to his essay on the “Slate Ode” here), but I wasn’t familiar with his “Осип Мандельштам: Три его поэтики,” so I thank you for that. I downloaded the recording, but my computer doesn’t know what to do with .rar files, alas. (Mandelstam reading a couple of his poems can be heard here; his style can be offputting for those not used to the dramatic mannerisms of the early twentieth century, but it’s always enlightening to hear a poet read his own work.)

  11. many of the people I knew seemed to be engaged mainly in exploring the borderlands of serious depression. But maybe that’s just life in graduate school.
    Same here, and that’s why I got out while the getting was good and I didn’t owe a ridiculous amount of money. Abuse and depression, who needs it?

  12. Gudian Fuyin Si* *lin: lit. “Old-classics Double-sound Phrase-store *-grove.”
    My Communist dictionaries are not completely helpful, and my missionary dictionary is momentarily inaccessible. Chinese is a language for people who love unnecessary complications, but navigating between simplified characters and traditional characters and several different ways of indexing is a complication I could do without. The * characters above may actually have been purged as reactionary, for all I know.

  13. In Taiwan I tried using sports stories from the newspaper for reading practice, and it was a disaster. First, newspaper sports-ese is an arcane language full of literary references and cliches (e.g., punchlines to hundred-year-old-jokes (“Feets, do your stuff!”) which have been passed through five or ten generations of sportswriters. Second, few Taiwanese have much interest in sports. Third, the sports they’re interested in aren’t necessarily American sports.
    In short, the highly technical book on baseball in literature is probably being written now in China or Russia or France (oddly, the Japanese do play baseball.)
    Baseball language isn’t for universality but more for non-elitist chauvinist populism.
    And indeed, to read Wei-Chin Chinese literature you have to learn a fair amount about certain gambling games. And ox-racing. Edward Schafer, whom I love and hate, made a career out of decoding the most abstruse things in T’ang poetry.

  14. Ah, thanks J-E. 古典複音詞彙輯林 – there’s snippet view on google books, but that’s not very helpful for vertical text.

  15. I may mention, for potential English teachers in the Chinese world, my advanced class using recipes for writing and conversation practice was an enormous triumph. A foodie coversation class would also almost certainly work.
    I remember a rather long discussion trying to find an English translation of “gan” when used to describe tea. I suspect that “mellow” might be the best translation, but it’s been 16 years and the class has dispersed.

  16. You can expand the rar file to 15 mp3 files with decompression software, such as 7-Zip.

  17. I join John Emerson in his applause for this project, Languagehat! I’ll be interested in reading more about Ronen’s book in later posts.
    Would you mind sending me the essay about “Нашедший подкову”? That poem is in one of my collections, and I’d love to have Myers’s observations. I also found that one of my Mandel’shtam books has a 40-page article by Omry Ronen that was translated from English.

  18. I have read “Fallacy of the Silver Age in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature” by Owen several years back, you just reminded me of him once again.
    I didn’t know he had any other work out, I never looked into him further, I’ll have to have a look at this one..

Speak Your Mind