A critical essay by Marjorie Perloff on Nancy K. Anderson’s The Word That Causes Death’s Defeat:

Since no translation can quite capture the particular poeticity of Akhmatova’s verse, the best solution may be a bilingual edition (we have one in Kunitz, and in Hemschemeyer’s two-volume edition of the Complete Poems); I wish Anderson had given us one, framed by her very fine and useful biographical narrative, as well as her commentaries. As it stands, the problematic translation is not saved by the elaborate apparatus of critical essays, notes, and appendices. Indeed, the “critical” essays tend toward running commentary and explication rather than any serious analysis of poetic form. The assumption seems to be that these late, great poems need no justification and that, in the case of Poem Without a Hero, Akhmatova’s epic sweep and Pushkinian irony are self-evident. Anderson’s focus, accordingly, is on sources and influences, on biographical reference and allusion.
As literary criticism, then, The Word That Causes Death’s Defeat is unremarkable. But the compelling story of Akhmatova’s life—and of her astonishing modernist poems, still so little known in the West—makes this a curiously appealing book: a collage testament, so to speak, to the workings of poetic power.

I like Poem Without a Hero better than Perloff seems to, but I agree with her about the relative merits of the translations she excerpts (though all are hideously inadequate), and it’s an interesting read.
Also: The Places of Anna Akhmatova. (Both links via wood s lot.)


  1. For more than a week, I have hesitated over whether I should say this at all… Honestly, I read “Poema bez geroya” only recently and, excepting one or two or three excellent pieces, found little but boring, though well-made, poetry with every Silver Age cliché imaginable. I just can’t see why Perloff calls Akhmatova’s poems “astonishingly modernist” while A.A. is traditionally regarded as the most conservative poet of the Great Four. Akhmatova grumbled that some critics wanted to reduce her to a literary protegé of Gumilev and Kuzmin. A manifest exaggeration, but not devoid of truth.

  2. Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t call her “astonishingly modernist.” But I guess it’s necessary publicity; how many poems are you going to sell to American readers by calling her “the last flower of the nineteenth-century tradition of Russian poetry”?

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