It’s very strange: I’ve been reading and memorizing great swatches of Mandelstam (I’m working on “Tristia” now), and just last night I was thinking that perhaps he was the greatest poet of the twentieth century; today I ran across an essay “Collecting Mandelstam” (pdf, Google cache) by R. Eden Martin (in the Caxtonian, November 2006) that makes the same suggestion:
Who was the greatest poet writing in any western language during the 20th Century? Many would answer: Osip Mandelstam…
Russia produced many excellent poets during the past century. Cab drivers in Petersburg regularly quote Pushkin at length. The very best Russian poets of the 20th Century would certainly include Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva—and one could make a case for dozens of others. I believe that many of these Russian poets were greater artists than any poet writing in America at the time, including Frost and Stevens. And some experts in a position to make such judgments believe that Mandelstam was the greatest of them all.
You needn’t agree with such an extravagant claim, however, to enjoy Martin’s essay, which provides a handy summary of the poet’s life and—since he is a book collector—includes photographs of some rare editions and (perhaps my favorite) an enticing one of a complete run of Apollon magazine (“the greatest Russian literary and arts journal of the pre-War era”), 1909-1917, as well as the title page of the August 1910 issue that included Mandelstam’s first published poems. I’ve just sent off for Clarence Brown’s 1978 biography Mandelstam; I’ll have to take Omry Ronen’s widely praised An Аpproach to Mandelstam (Jerusalem, 1983) out of the library, since it doesn’t seem to be available for love or money.
Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Russian literature, I also ran across a blog I’m surprised I haven’t seen before, Lizok’s Bookshelf, written by Lisa Hayden Espenschade, who says “I’m a writer and Russian tutor/teacher who loves reading fiction, particularly Russian novels,” and has very informative notes on Russian books she’s read or that have won prizes. Definitely worth a bookmark.
Oh, and happy new year! May 2009 be better for all of us.