It’s been too long since we had any Mandelstam around here, so I thank Trevor for sending me Alistair Noon’s translation, with a very interesting introduction, of Mandelstam’s Грифельная ода (Slate Ode; the link is bilingual, and for some reason calls it “Graphite Ode”). This has got to be one of the knottiest poems ever written; Omry Ronen devotes 187 pages to it in his An Approach to Mandelstam, and I can’t imagine its being translated really successfully (God knows I’ve tried); the best I know of is Ilya Bernstein’s (see this LH post), which begins “From star to star — a mighty bond,/ The flinty path from the old ballad.” As I told Trevor about this translation, there are some nice lines but on the whole the rhythm didn’t convince me — I know I’m an idiosyncratic reader, but to me rhythm is as important in poetry as it is in music. But it’s a valiant attempt and well worth reading, and the introduction is full of good stuff, like:
I like poems I can come back to again and again over decades and discover ever more, not ever less in them. I won’t pretend to and I don’t want to have fathomed “The Ode on Slate,” but I am pretty sure that Mandelstam didn’t write the thing as (only) an exercise in exegesis. What you get, you get, what you don’t, you don’t. We aren’t in the exam room here. And there’s plenty else in the poem to ponder and enjoy in any case.
A good way to look at it.