Discovering Real Poetry.

I’ve started Valentin Kataev’s 1967 memoir Трава забвения (translated by Robert Daglish as The Grass of Oblivion) and have already fallen in love with it. He starts off describing a nervous visit to Ivan Bunin sometime in the early 1910s accompanied by a high-school classmate, each of them with poems they want the great man to look at (and hopefully praise). Then he backs up to explain how he came to know about Bunin. He grew up in Odessa as a not particularly literary adolescent, but like every literate person in the Russian Empire around the turn of the century he was obsessed with poetry and filled a journal with verse that he recited to everyone he knew; nevertheless, he felt he was ignorant of some vital secret that would explain what all those rhymes and meters and stanzas meant. He describes making the rounds of the newspaper offices and being told “Poems? Fine. Drop them off and come back in two weeks.” When he returned, he’d usually be told they weren’t needed (“We’re not taking poems any more, we’ve got too many”), but once in a while he’d be told one had been accepted:

“Which one?”
“I don’t remember — something about nature. Eight lines. As filler.”

Eventually one editor takes pity on him and says “Listen, kid, I’ll tell you the truth — nobody here knows a thing about poetry, including me. You should have a real writer read your stuff.” And he says there happens to be a real writer living in Odessa. We’re primed to think “Ah, now he discovers Bunin!” But no, the editor names Aleksandr Mitrofanovich Fyodorov. “You’ve surely heard of him?” “I haven’t.” He quotes a line about a barrel-organ playing outside a window at evening, wipes away a tear, and says “You have to know him. A. Fyodorov! He’s even in the encyclopedic dictionary!” This is marvelous comedy; the doughty Fyodorov was a writer, all right, who had an eight-volume Collected Works published in 1911-13 and even has his own Wikipedia entry, but he was never of more than local significance, and all the time we’re thinking “Bunin! What about Bunin?!”

So he goes, all a-tremble, to visit the great man at his villa south of Odessa; Fyodorov is displeased to be interrupted at work but realizes he won’t be able to get out of it without hearing this importunate young man’s attempts at verse, so he listens to them, then says “All right, now it’s my turn. I’m going to annihilate you.” He reads some of his own work, and Kataev says “Of course I was utterly slain. Here was a real poet!” Fyodorov is, naturally, flattered by his awed reaction and invites him back; they spend quite a bit of time together, and Fyodorov takes to calling Kataev his “talented pupil” and telling people “We read each other our poems.” Kataev says this idyll lasted for quite a while, but ended one day when Fyodorov said “Ah, Valya, this is all nonsense [Все это, откровенно говоря, вздор] … What kind of poets are we? Bunin, now that’s a real poet. Have you read him?” Kataev confesses he hasn’t, and Fyodorov quotes the wonderful 1905 poem “Все море — как жемчужное зерцало” [The whole sea is like a pearl looking-glass], lingering over this quatrain:

Вон чайка села в бухточке скалистой, —
Как поплавок. Взлетает иногда,
И видно, как струею серебристой
Сбегает с лапок розовых вода.

A seagull sits there in the rocky little inlet,
Like a float. From time to time he flies,
And you can see how like a stream of silver
The water runs down from his rosy feet.

Kataev is thunderstruck, and feels he finally understands the secret that has eluded him. He says he’d been focused on the appearance of poetry, the thin columns, the ellipses, all the technical tricks; he’d even had the “stupid thought” that if you made tables of all the rhymes and meters, “like multiplication tables,” you’d have the whole thing mastered. As for the content, everyone knew that: dreams, sadness, love, gardens, moon, river, greetings, passion, flowers, spring, winter, “more rarely summer,” kisses, night, morning, evening, “more rarely noon,” betrayal… Just mix and match! You could even have seagulls — but only in general. Even an inlet, but a general inlet. A bookish one, not a real one.

But here was, in the first place, not an inlet, but a little inlet, and in the second place, not a general little inlet but a rocky one, the same kind I’d seen many times in Arcadia or Maly Fontan and admired, never suspecting it could be a subject for poetry. The seagull too wasn’t an abstract seagull from the vignettes or colophons of books but a completely real Black Sea seagull, friend of the Bolshoi Fontan lighthouse, in this instance sitting in the rocky little inlet like a float — a comparison that literally crushed me with its simplicity and almost scientific precision […]

When he gets home he asks his father for a collection of Bunin’s poetry, and his father is overjoyed: “At last his blockhead son has come to his senses. He’s not asking for skates or a football or a toy gun or a tennis racket, but a book, and not Sherlock Holmes or Gaston Leroux’s Mystery of the Yellow Room but a first-rate book by a Russian poet. It may have been the only truly happy day of his life.”

I do have a question, though I doubt anyone can answer it. One of the bits of his own work Fyodorov quotes to slay his young visitor is “я слышу вздох: зачем меня хавас достал со дна для этих жадных глаз!” [I hear a sigh: why did khavas fetch me from the bottom for these greedy eyes?] That хавас [khavas] mystifies me; it’s not a Russian word, and in fact occurs only here in Russian as far as I can tell. Google Books snippet view gave me the relevant bit from the published translation: “I hear a sigh: Why, diver, didst thou take me from the deep to feast this avaricious eye?” Daglish renders хавас as “diver,” but I have no idea whether that’s based on anything or is just an attempt to fill out the line sensibly. If anyone can figure this out, I’ll be grateful.


  1. SFReader says

    Looks likeهوس#Persian

    Dari Persian هوس
    Iranian Persian
    Tajik ҳавас (havas)
    هوس • (havas)


  2. SFReader says

    Fyodorov who lifed in Ufa province and even wrote a novel about Bashkirs presumably would be familiar with Bashkir version of this word – әүәҫ (һәүәҫ) – “passion”

  3. Молодец! I should have had faith in the wide-ranging knowledge of Hatters. Thanks very much, that must be it.

  4. There is also a discounter chain called Havas:

  5. You have a resourceful group of readers! By the time I got to this, it was already answered. The Persian حواس , plural of حس , meaning senses, the senses, from the Arabic root حس , meaning, in various forms, to feel, to perceive, to hear, to probe, to touch, etc. By extension, passion.
    َIf you know Persian, you can read the definitions here in the great dictionary of Dehkhoda; more interestingly, you can see quotes from sources in which the word appears. Rumi supplies many of the examples.

    در هزاران لقمه یک خاشاک خرد

    چون در آمد حس زنده پی ببرد

    صحت این حس بجویید از طبیب

    صحت آن حس بجویید از حبیب

    From the Masnavi of Molawi, also known as Rumi, Book 1, lines starting around 302

  6. Thanks for that further background! I really should brush up my Persian.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    like every literate person in the Russian Empire around the turn of the century he was obsessed with poetry and filled a journal with verse that he recited to everyone he knew; nevertheless, he felt he was ignorant of some vital secret that would explain what all those rhymes and meters and stanzas meant.

    (If you remember the 60’s you weren’t there.)

  8. AJP Crown says

    I love the Incredible String Band, they remind me of John Peel.

  9. If I knew they were Scottish, I’d forgotten. Also, I didn’t know about Licorice McKechnie: “Her whereabouts have been publicly unknown since 1987, when she was last seen hitch-hiking across the Arizona desert.”

  10. Huh, that’s the first time I come across Licorice as a given name in real life. I have seen it in fiction, but in those cases had assumed it was a nickname or a made up by the author in question as a joke.

  11. It is a nickname; her given name is Christina.

  12. Hamid Ouyachi says

    In Persian and in Arabic غواص means “diver”

  13. Aha, the plot thickens! Arabic ghawās, pronounced qavās in Persian; the question is whether that’s what Fyodorov meant, but inexplicably spelled it with х, or whether Daglish mistook the word for this one.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    (If you remember the 60’s you weren’t there.)

    I recall telepathic communication from Austin to (via?) Mary Jane at a fireplace in SF. It’s no wonder people of less mental stamina never wanted to hang up.

  15. It is a nickname; her given name is Christina.
    Thanks for clarifying that!

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, Licorice may have gone AWOL but her bandmate Rose “later became Lady Mayoress of the Welsh town of Aberystwyth,” at least if you believe what you read on the internet. I always found the ISB one of those hippie-era enthusiasms that were difficult for those of us of subsequent generations to grok even if we worked very hard on appreciating other hippie-era musical artifacts from Trout Mask Replica to Odessey & Oracle and all points in between.

    I have however read with interest this memoir of being a teenage American ISB fan by Peter Case of the Plimsouls. (It’s also to me interesting because he was an ISB-besotted late-Sixties teen in the same town that my mother had grown up in in the rather different early/mid-Fifties; he’s six years younger than my youngest uncle on that side.)

  17. @languagehat: The “fetch me from the bottom” certainly suggests “diver” as the intended meaning, unless the whole thing is supposed to be a more complicated mixing of metaphors.

  18. Yes, it does, but the phonology bothers me, unless there’s a Turkic language Fyodorov would have been familiar with where the initial غ is /x/.

  19. AJP Crown says

    I’m interested in the ISB and I especially like the hedgehog one but I just want to say that I very much enjoyed reading the post and I hope we get to hear more written in a similar way. No pressure. I’ve never been anywhere near Odessa; I might go one day, climb the steps.

  20. Well, I’m enjoying Kataev’s reminiscences so much I’ve decided to do an Odessa read — after I finish Трава забвения, I’ll move on to his autobiographical young-adult novel Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams], then Jabotinsky’s Odessa novel Пятеро [The Five], and then maybe Olesha’s memoir-in-fragments Ни дня без строчки [No Day Without a Line] (he grew up in Odessa and was a good friend of Kataev’s) — so I’ll probably be posting more on the subject.

  21. It has to be a diver because the sigh is uttered by a pearl from the Persian Gulf bemoaning its fate. “It lives and breathes, and – God! – I hear a sigh…” It’s a pretty well made sonnet – made of clichés, regrettably. I found it by googling Александр Федоров жемчужина Персидского залива. Note the spelling: it’s хаввас in the poem.

  22. Well found!

  23. AJP Crown says

    after I finish Трава забвения, I’ll move on to his autobiographical young-adult novel Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams]
    I can’t wait to hear more.

  24. Белеет парус одинокий [A White Sail Gleams]

    My favorite.

    Could the ghawwas -> havas transformation be the case of Russian / Ukrainian bilingualism of Odessa mashing together plosive and fricative g’s?

    Also there is an al-Khawwas in one of 1001 Nights tales, “Christian King’s Daughter and the Moslem”, with a Russian translation, but I have no idea if there was a footnote explaining the name in there.

  25. Could the ghawwas -> havas transformation be the case of Russian / Ukrainian bilingualism of Odessa mashing together plosive and fricative g’s?

    Very likely!

  26. Also there is an al-Khawwas in one of 1001 Nights tales

    In Arabic, ḫūṣ خوص is “palm fronds” (used as a material for basketweaving, mat-making, etc.) and ḫūṣa خوصة is “plaitwork of palm fronds”. Al-Ḫawwāṣ الخواص is “the Basketweaver, the Mat-maker, the Mat-seller” or the like (someone who makes or sells objects plaited from palm fronds). It is formed in the same way that ġawwāṣ غواص “diver” is regularly formed from غاص ġāṣa “to dive”, using the usual Arabic pattern faʿʿāl for nouns referring to professions and habitual performers of an action.

    More explanation about the character here:

  27. Persian غواص ghavvās “diver” (from Arabic ġawwāṣ) figures in a well-known Sufi allegory found in many authors—the seeker of God attains wisdom in their heart by the effort of deep introspection and contemplation, like the diver obtaining a long-growing pearl from the oyster at the bottom of the sea.

    Here is the first passage I could recall and find on the internet that makes reference to the diver, from the Gulistan of Sa’di:

    غواص اگر اندیشه کند کام نهنگ
    هرگز نکند در گرانمایه به چنگ

    ġavvās agar andēša kunad kām-i nahang
    hargiz nakanad durr-i girānmāya ba čang

    “If the diver is worried by the crocodile’s jaws,
    he will never lay his hands on a precious pearl.”

    Fyodorov was doubtless playing with this theme from Persian poets.

  28. SFReader says

    OK, such sophistication is way beyond of what one can learn in Ufa province.

    Checked his bio and found out that

    In 1903, Fedorov traveled to the Far East, visited Turkey, Greece, Egypt, India, Japan, China. The impressions of this journey were published in the Rodnik magazine in 1904.

    He probably returned to Odessa via recently completed Trans-Siberian Railway.

    That would do it.

  29. OK, Fyodorov sounds more sophisticated and interesting than I thought; I’ll try to remember not to make fun of him!

  30. David Marjanović says

    If the diver is worried by the crocodile’s jaws

    Didn’t we once have a thread about the heart’s inner crocodile? I can’t find it.

  31. BTW Fyodorov’s “Pearl” turned out to be an anti-Semitic trope, with the pearl being horrified of the predatory gaze of its owner, a gray-sideburns Shylock of modernity.

  32. OK, I’m back to mocking him.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Oh, hidden crocodile…

  34. SFReader: “OK, such sophistication is way beyond of what one can learn in Ufa province.” Wherever there was a classical gymnasium, there was sufficient sophistication. Anyway, three Russian translations of the Gulistan appeared in the XIX century, including a complete prose translation by Ivan N. Kholmogorov, a Persianist (1882). Since it got published by Kuzma Soldatenkov, it must have been a reasonably priced edition for a wide audience.

    Fyodorov did not attend a gymnasium: coming from humble beginnings, he went to a real’noe uchilische (Realschule) in Saratov on a state scholarship. Some of those schools were very good, and they all taught modern languages (but no Latin or Greek). Fyodorov translated a great deal of poetry, mostly from English, French and Italian, and later from Bulgarian (he lived in Sofia in 1920-49). He was obviously well read and was mostly likely interested in all things “Oriental” – one of his first published works was a translation of The Light of Asia by Sir Edwin Arnold.

    @Dmitry Pruss: “BTW Fyodorov’s “Pearl” turned out to be an anti-Semitic trope…” It’s Shakespear’s Shylock trope combined with a Persian pearl trope. As I’ve said, a sonnet made of clichés. A formal exercise in combining prefab tropes. Blok panned Fedorov’s book of sonnets: an imitation of Bunin without Bunin’s originality.

    By the way, he was Akhmatova’s first crush: see her 1904 poem Над черною бездной с тобою я шла….

  35. I’ll be damned! The connections are endless…

  36. SFReader says

    By the way, Kataev’s most anti-Soviet piece – “Werther is already written” – is based on fate of Fedorov’s son – painter Dmitry Alexandrovich Fedorov (like Kataev himself, was member of the anti-Soviet conspiracy in Odessa in 1920, arrested, released by protection of people who visited his father’s villa and escaped to Romania).

    Elder Fedorov is portrayed unfavorably here – no doubt, because great writer escaped to Bulgaria leaving his wife and son behind (apparently taking with him a younger mistress instead).

    His abandoned wife Lydia Karlovna Fedorova (1866—1937) was shot during Purges.

    His son, painter Dmitry Alexandrovich Fedorov (1897—1948) after surviving arrest fled to Romania, lived there until new Romanian authorities deported him to Soviet Union where he died in Gulag camp.

    Writer Alexander Mitrofanovich Fedorov (1866—1949) lived in comfortable Bulgarian exile as a teacher in Russian gymnasium, survived the Communist coup of 1944 by quickly changing sides, received Soviet passport and died in his bed in Sofia in 1949.

  37. SFReader says

    Sorry, mixed up real life and fiction for a moment.

    Fedorov’s son was named Victor. He is Dmitry (painter Dima) in Kataev’s novella. (and elder Fedorov is, for some reason, successful lawyer instead of a writer – is this what Katayev thought of his literary talent now?)

  38. SFReader says

    Re: travels of Fedorov.

    Apparently at some point he became what we would call a travel writer (and even travel poet) – he came into some money by literary success around 1900 and since then he traveled to Italy in 1902, then in 1903 came the sea cruise – Turkey-Greece-Egypt-India-China-Japan and Trans-Siberian Railway-Odessa (he wrote a travel book and a book of sonnets based on impressions from his journey. The Pearl is apparently one of them)

    Of course, great writer had to have affairs (poor Lydia Karlovna!).

    In 1903 he had affair with Lisa Ditterichs, next year another affair with fifteen year old Anna Gorenko (Akhmatova).

    In 1906, Fedorov traveled to New York in a ship with 800 Jewish emigrants and wrote another travel book – “Beyond the ocean”.

    In 1910, he traveled to Egypt and Palestine and wrote yet another travel bestseller. In Palestine, he met greatest Russian Arabist professor Kvachkovsky who was his guide (OK, that settles it – he had the best consultation on Arabic language he could have get anywhere).

    In 1914, great writer was invited by the Russian military command to write about the war – visited Warsaw and the front zone and wrote new travel book – “At war”.

    He escaped from Odessa in 1919 with another young mistress Lydia Znoiko (apparently a writer too, but her work is completely forgotten), then he broke up with her and spent almost all he had on other young women and completely broke, went on to became a teacher in Russian school in Bulgaria.

    Fedorov with stepdaughter (from second marriage) Liliana Schulz, Bulgaria, 1944.

    His first wife, Lydia Karlovna Fedorova after famously saving their son Victor from execution (by begging secret policeman who used to be aspiring poet and visited their villa just like Katayev before the war) went on to turn their villa into a kind of guesthouse for Soviet writers, lived relatively comfortable life, but it was that villa which got her killed – Odessa city authorities apparently wanted Fedorov’s villa for themselves and got rid of its owner by accusing seventy one year old Fedorova of maintaining ties with white emigres.

  39. SFReader says

    Re:Orientalist sophistication of Fedorov

    “With heartfelt sympathy and appreciation, I recall the famous talented orientalist writer Ignatius Julianovich Krachkovsky, now working in the USSR, whom we met by chance in the wonderful garden in Jaffa, and then wandered together through Palestine, making horseback rides such as Jerusalem-Nazareth. I owe to his perfect knowledge of the Arabic language and the customs of the Arab people that many of the beauties and secrets of the East were revealed to me, which I used for my book on Palestine, “The Sun of Life” and the novella “Badera”, as well as my acquaintance with great Arabic and Persian poets and my translations of verses of the Oriental poet Abu l-Faraj al- Wawa of Damascus. We soon became close friends with Krachkovsky.” (c) unpublished memoirs of A.M.Fedorov

    Krachkovsky also mentions his own contribution to Fedorov’s novella “Badera” (its protagonist – Russian orientalist Sayanov working in Palestine is apparently based on Krachkovsky himself):

    “All poems, proverbs and other things are translated by me from Arabic. Fedorov even wrote down all the little things, individual words and other observations from my words, and in my opinion he distributed these things very successfully”.

    So, yes, we could expect some very deep knowledge of Arabic in works of Fedorov (partly from his own studies and travels, but mostly from consultations from the greatest Arabist of the Russian empire and USSR)

  40. There’s a chapter on Fedorov in Венеция в русской поэзии: Опыт антологии. 1888–1972 by Sobolev and Timenchik (НЛО, 2019). As SFReader notes, Fedorov became, among other things, a travel writer. He must have been commercially successful – unless he had married into money, how else would he have been able to afford the nice house by the sea where he received Bunin, Kuprin and many others?

    BTW, Chukovsky was impressed by his poetry as a young man and wrote with some warmth of Fedorov in his memoirs (“очень неплохой человек”).

  41. What a life! (Also: what an asshole!) Thanks for all that research; somebody should write a book about him, like Tom Reiss’s on Lev Nussimbaum (though hopefully better done).

  42. SFReader says

    There is such a book (in Russian)

    Very interesting – and author’s attitude to Fedorov is exactly like yours.

  43. Thanks, I’ve bookmarked it!

  44. SFReader says

    Small excerpt about Fedorov’s visit to the United States:

    The “Gregory Merck” moored at the Brooklyn pier in mid-November. The city caused in Fedorov a storm of emotions, which he could not figure out with while preparing the book for publication. He was enthralled by the Statue of Liberty, meeting immigrants, but was terribly depressed by “flat” skyscrapers and trains that rumbled before him on the ground, underground and through the air. Rumbling rails surrounded him everywhere. Alexander Mitrofanovich could not appreciate the genius of the creator of the American steel industry, Andrew Carnegie, thanks to whom the country was covered with a network of railways and approached the sky with skyscrapers built from metal structures. The traveler is amazed at the abundance of shops, staircases moving in them, elegantly dressed ladies and their relaxedness, as well as schools and libraries that look like palaces. He is shocked to learn that parents are punished if they do not send their children to school. Subway conductor boxes with passenger at stops. A couple of hits – and both return to the car to resume the fight at the next stop. The passenger wipes bloodied broken nose, but does not give up. The amazed guest resembles a character from Jules Verne novel, who fell on another planet.

    At the same time, he notes mechanistic nature of human relations and the glazed glances of the subway passengers. He categorically declares that in such a city there is no place for romance. With the story of O. Henry “Gifts of the Magi”, published a year before his appearance in New York, he apparently is not yet familiar.

    Fedorov talks about a visit to the Lower East Side, where Russian Jewry settled. He notes that houses of new Americans are stone, that is, solid, although they live a bit crowded…

    A city guest goes up the Broadway to the famous Trinity Church with a parish cemetery sandwiched from all sides. He himself would never have agreed to find the last refuge in such a noisy place. From the abundance of the public in the streets, the ringing of trams, the rumble of elevated trains, the horn of a car, the screams of the drivers, his head was spinning. Looking at the tasteless mansions of Fifth Avenue, the guest gets to Central Park. Here he takes a breath and for a minute or two comes to his senses. It’s getting darker. The lights come on. The last leaves fly around from bare branches. This image reminds him of home – Odessa …

    Fedorov repeatedly addresses the issue of employerrs in America squeezing the last juices out of their subordinates. Yes, they work here differently than in Russia, but they pay well. And ultimately, this determines a person’s attitude to work and to the country. If you know how and want to work, you will not be lost here! It is for this reason that the three sailors from the “Gregory Merck” decide to stay in America. Surprise! Surprise! – as the Americans say in such cases.

  45. I love the story about the subway conductor fighting with the passenger!

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