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?)