In this post I described the Brodsky symposium I attended earlier this month, and in a comment I particularly praised the contribution by Mikhail Gronas, an assistant professor in the Department of Russian Language and Literature at Dartmouth. Well, it turns out he’s a reader of LH, and he wrote me that for quite a while he had been meaning to send me a link to his article “Why Did Free Verse Catch on in the West, but not in Russia?” (pdf) in connection with this post. I’ve spent the last couple of days mostly reading the article instead of working, and I’m here to tell you that if you have any interest in either the titular question or the memorization of poetry (particularly in Russia), you should read it yourself. I’m going to provide some extended quotes from it below the cut, but first I’ll quote a comment from dale in the thread for that LH post that hits on Gronas’s main point:

If you’ve ever attempted to memorize long passages of genuinely free verse (with no regular metric rules, no syllable-counting, no rhyme schemes & no alliterative schemes to help bump your memory back on track) I think you’ll agree that memorization of poetry will tend to vary inversely (in a manner of speaking) with free verse.
Have Russians, I wonder, kept up the habit of memorization more than most of us have? When I have had American high school students memorize verse, it’s usually the first time they’ve ever been asked to do such a thing.

The answer to dale’s question is yes, yes they have, and Gronas goes into great detail about it. (I was also tickled to see that he cites an op-ed piece by Carol Muske-Dukes on the value of memorizing poetry that was the basis for this post from the early days of Languagehat.) And now to the quotes, which I hope will intrigue you enough to want to read more. First, a couple of passages that involve the central thesis:

When free verse started its triumphal progress through Europe, the leading Russian modernists did not lag far behind: Briusov, Blok, Kuzmin, and Khlebnikov tried their hand at it more or less simultaneously with comparable attempts in the West. Some of these attempts were undoubtedly successful. Thus, Mikhail Kuzmin’s free verse cycle Alexandrian Songs (1906) and Velemir Khlebnikov’s poem Zoo (1909) were among the most influential poetic texts of the period. The poems of Walt Whitman, frequently cited as one of the sources for French and European free verse, were translated and popularized in Russia by the most energetic, prolific, and widely read literary critic of the period, Korney Chukovsky — the best advocate Russian verslibrists could have hoped for. Thus, based on the close parallelism between Russian and European poetic histories and judging by the early successes of Russian free verse, one might well have expected that it would become the predominant mode of poetic diction in Russia, as it did in Europe and America.
* * *
Whereas the mnemonic use of poetry has been in continuous decline in the West, it was artificially propped up and sustained by the specific needs of both the totalitarian Soviet state itself and its population. Put simply, meters and rhymes and stanzas are mnemonic aids: when a society stops learning poetry by heart, phonic constraints are no longer needed, and that’s what happened in the West. In Soviet Russia, both the rulers and the ruled had reasons to continue memorizing, thus throwing a lifeline to rhymes and meters. I have intentionally formulated this idea to make it sound reductionist: and in fact I believe that the determining factors of cultural phenomena lie outside the culture itself, in the domain of the social uses of culture. In what follows I will try to flesh out and contextualize the causal connection between the mnemonic use of poetry and poetic form itself, and to sketch out some episodes in the history of poetry memorization in the West and in Russia.

But there is much more than a historical argument here. Gronas has an eye for a good story, as evidenced by this anecdote from footnote 7:

The importance of exact (verbatim) reproduction in the new mnemonic context, as opposed to the oral production that preceded it, may be illustrated by a novella about Dante included in Il Trecentonovelle, a collection of stories by the fourteenth-century Italian writer Franco Saccheti. In this (probably legendary) story, Dante encounters a smith who, while hammering on his anvil, sings to himself a poem of Dante’s as if he were performing a piece of folklore, “jumbling his [Dante’s] verses together, clipping them and adding to them.” The furious Dante, insulted by the lack of respect towards his text, rushes to the smith and throws his various tools into the street and then explains his behavior to the amazed victim of his fury: “‘You sing my book, but not as I have made it. I also have a trade, and you are spoiling it for me.’” Significantly, in the context of the present discussion, the story ends with the castigated smith taking up the singing of safer poems: “when he wished again to sing, he sang of Tristan and of Launcelot, but lef Dante alone” (quoted in Whitcomb 1903, 30). Tristan and Lancelot refer of course to popular romances with unstable texts, transmited through more traditional — and less stringent — oral channels.

And I find this passage quite moving:

Similarly, in the nonofficial culture, and especially under condition of forced mistrust and suspicion in the labor camps, knowing the same poems by heart could signal a cultural — and therefore social and psychological — affinity. Such a mnemonic recognition is described in Eugenia Ginzburg’s memoirs where she tells about meeting her son (future writer Vasily Aksyonov), from whom she had been separated since her arrest when he was a young child.

I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps. Like me, he too found in poetry a bulwark against the inhumanity of the real world. Poetry was for him a form of resistance. That night of our first talk together we had Blok and Pasternak and Akhmatova with us. And I was so glad to be able to offer him an abundance of those things that he looked to me to supply.
“Now I understand what a mother is….you can recite your favorite verses to her, and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left off.”
        (Ginzburg 1981, 266—67)

What is described here is akin to Aristotelian anagnorisis — the recognition of long-lost relatives by secret signs.

One aspect of his argument is nicely summed up by the quote “the readers expect memorable poems, the poets expect (or hope) to be learned by heart.” And the article starts off with an epigraph by the wonderfully named Revolt Pimenov (1931-1990), a courageous mathematician and dissident who spent seven years in the Gulag, saying that he wants his writing “to be learned by heart, rather than read”; if you’re just going to be a leisured reader, “You might as well go and watch TV.”


  1. xiaolongnu says

    Interestingly, when I took Russian as a freshman in high school, the first thing the teacher had us do was memorize this poem: I am Goya by Andrei Voznesensky. I think the point was to get the sounds of Russian into our heads (and the sonorous meter of the interior lines still tolls for me as I read the Russian on this webpage, even though I only took that one year and never learned to speak it in any meaningful sense, and certainly couldn’t recite the poem now). But I would have called this one free verse. Is it?

  2. No, it isn’t. There are rhymes in this poem, and metrics too (although they are not simple).

  3. Interestingly, when I took Russian as a freshman in high school, the first thing the teacher had us do was memorize this poem: I am Goya by Andrei Voznesensky.
    When I was studying Russian, I found a Voznesensky collection in the college bookstore and that poem was what made me buy the book; I memorized it on my own hook, because the language was so powerful. As Kabir says, it’s not free verse, it’s just not in a traditional metrical scheme.

  4. cf. Ludmila Petrushanskaya about Pushkin:
    “Для многих поколений людей, говорящих на русском языке, способность прочесть наизусть первую главу «Евгения Онегина» была условным знаком, по которому свои узнавали своих. Особенно в изгнании, в тюрьмах, среди скопища посторонних. Крестик на шее и «Мой дядя самых честных правил…”.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    In Soviet Russia, poetry memorizes you? If the rise of vers libre is the price we need to pay for avoiding tyranny and the Gulag, I suppose we on balance got the better side of that tradeoff. One can admire the heroic image of the poet surviving and inspiring others under the Bolshevik yoke (life of Akhmatova, passim), while still thinking “happy the land that needs no heroes.”
    I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s fully equivalent in literary/aesthetic/cultural terms, but for the last four decades and change many many people growing up in the Anglophone world have devoted many millions of person-hours in their teens to memorizing truly massive corpora of lyrics to rock songs, providing both a common set of cultural touchstones and allusions (like the Russians with Pushkin) as well as the benefits of anagnorisis for those who had mastered the lyrics of more obscure/cultishly-followed recording artists. That this was typically done voluntarily and without receiving any academic credit means it doesn’t get noticed by people complaining that these damn kids don’t get taught to memorize texts anymore and don’t know about the shores of gitchi-gumi and spare your country’s flag she said, but that doesn’t mean it’s not significant.
    Probably the longest song lyric I ever had fully committed to memory in my lost youth was Desolation Row (120 lines), whereas by embarrassing contrast the longest Official Lit’rary Pome I had completely down to memory was the mere 16 lines of An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. And Yeats was using shortish (tetrameter) lines to boot.

  6. and if you stop she will go on from the line where you left off
    What a wonderful definition!
    I knew someone who was slowly dying with Alzheimer’s. But she knew tons of poetry by heart, and when she couldn’t remember who I was, I would recite a line and she would continue and we could re-connect again.
    I can’t agree more with J.W. Brewer here. Where Western appetite was lost for ‘chamber’ poetry, it was gained for rock-pop-folk musick lyrics. In this sense Western poets still ‘rock the stadiums’.
    I would add the undiminishing popularity of nursery rhymes, limericks and football chants.
    What about the army chants – cadence calls? Are they still going strong? Renaissance Man with Danny De Vito links wonderfully Shakespeare to army chants.

  7. That’s an excellent point about song lyrics, which of course still generally use rhyme and meter, even if loose.

  8. Mark Etherton says

    Children in the French educational system still learn poetry by heart. My younger daughter was at the Lycees in Vienna and London, and was learning Apollinaire and Mallarme at the age of twelve. But French poetry uses free verse (or vers libre). Nor, obviously, are metre and rhyme necessary for a text to be remembered: I can still recite part of the Verrine Orations learnt at scholl 30+ years ago.

  9. “I can’t agree more with J.W. Brewer here. Where Western appetite was lost for ‘chamber’ poetry, it was gained for rock-pop-folk musick lyrics. In this sense Western poets still ‘rock the stadiums’.”
    This mirrors what happened in Irish poetry, when the aristocratic patrons for trained bards started disappearing. People started making “song meter” verse, because it was easier to memeorize and perform in ceilidhs at home. Long, mushy rhymed verse used to be published in daily newspapers as entertainment. That kind of thing went out of style and since then serious poetry in English has kind of disappered up its own ass, as far as most of the public is concerned. Song lyrics are picking up the slack. C&W lyrics in particular deal with quite meaty issues in a very accesble way, by which I mean that even I can follow them.
    “What about the army chants – cadence calls? Are they still going strong?”
    It depends on whether or not people still move around in formations. That’s what those cadences are for, to keep everyone in step. They do publish little booklets with these cadence lyrics – they look lame in print – and as far as I know people still march around in formation, since it’s the quickest way to get a large group of people from one place to another and make sure they all get there.

  10. A really good article, on the sort of subject that it’s hard to say anything very sensible about, because of all the historical and linguistic variables involved. I’ve often leaned towards the second of the explanations he initially lists: the relative youth of the Russian literary tradition. Among Slavic literatures, Polish is the obvious point of comparison: its poetic tradition goes back to the Renaissance; it was several centuries before Russian achieved anything comparable, and by the 20th century the cutting edge of Polish poetry, too, was in free verse. But an argument like this does imply a sort of “natural life cycle” for a poetic tradition, a notion that one could understandably be skeptical of, and find all kinds of contrary evidence for.
    The author’s emphasis on Pushkin is interesting and, I think, persuasive, though some might see it as little more than traditional Pushkinolatry. The evidence he gives of widespread, at times seemingly effortless memorization of Pushkin’s verse is pretty compelling. Some poets really are special that way. Homer, obviously, in ancient times (and later Euripides, as Gronas notes in another good story), and of course Shakespeare in English, at least until fairly recently. And in German, Goethe.
    There’s another interesting point of comparison. Though German poetry was much older, the advent of Goethe, just a generation before Pushkin, seemed to put it on a similar time scale. There are quite a few stories of Goethe being recited from memory in all sorts of dire circumstances, too. (On the other hand, when I asked a Berlin acquaintance his view of Goethe some years ago he told me a little wistfully that when he thought of the lines “warte nur, balde ruhest du auch,” he couldn’t help hearing it in the voice of an SS man.)
    It’s clearly true, as JWB noted, that for many English speakers song lyrics have largely taken the place of poetry. And that seems to further disprove that the dominance of free verse in “literate” poetry is due to any kind of natural life cycle. As others have noted, the same people who insist that rhyme and meter can’t work in contemporary verse often have a lot of those lyrics by heart.

  11. What about the call and response chants of political demonstrations?

  12. this poem: I am Goya by Andrei Voznesensky.
    that’s a very good choice! I’ve used it too with my students, but not so much for the sound as to illustrate how ‘is’ is dropped in Russian sentences. The repetitions are very useful as in Marshak’s poem ‘Baggage’.

  13. many people growing up in the Anglophone world have devoted many millions of person-hours in their teens to memorizing truly massive corpora of lyrics to rock songs, providing both a common set of cultural touchstones and allusions
    But that’s a bit different – in the Anglophone world memorization of song lyrics (or comedy routines or movie dialogue) often provides the benefits of belonging to a fairly small clique, not a common set of cultural touchstones that crosses geographical, generational and social boundaries. And Russian teens had the benefit of both – they also memorized “subversive” rock lyrics in addition to culturally sanctioned verse.

  14. Is this free verse? I read it and it seems strongly rhythmic (look e.g. at the fantastic fifth line) but I cannot find any pattern to the rhythms. “Los contados días” por José Cárdenas Peña:
    Esta peregrina a tientas
    como paso entre ruinas;
    este volver la cara al viento
    sin que el viento responda;
    esta frase instintiva de vivir y esperar
    sin encontrar a nadie;
    este clamor a Dios;
    esta duda, este amor, esta blasfemia;
    este horror de estar solo,
    de morir sin morir…
    duelen más que una herida,
    más que la propia tierrra,
    más que el ala del ángel,
    más que el crimen, más que la ausencia sorda…
    Y, cuando más grito “¡Aquí estoy!”,
    se parte en dos mi corazón desnudo.
    A first approximation of a translation is at my blog.

  15. No, it’s not free verse, it’s a loose three-stress line with occasional longer lines. To me, free verse has no apparent metric pattern at all.

  16. It’s also highly oratorical, with lots of word repetition, parallelisms, etc, which help create a strong cadence.
    That’s one side of the “free verse” spectrum. It’s the Whitman tradition, more or less, in our terms, and ultimately goes back to the bible. (Latin American poetry has been big on Whitman, too, of course).
    The other side is what many think of as free verse proper: no strong cadence, merely visual line breaks, no obvious principle of rhythmic organization.

  17. There’s also cadenced free verse, where there are repeating patterns of different line lengths. Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” is cadenced free verse, and in my not so humble opinion, could have been written in no other form: there is a perfect union of form and content.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    Contra vanya, now that the pre-rock generational cohorts in the U.S. are all on social security, I think there’s a very broad segment of the U.S. population (perhaps less among racial/ethnic minorities to be sure, but no doubt some of the the minorities in the CCCP were more resistant to Pushkinophilia) for whom knowledge of some texts — say Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Stairway to Heaven, and Free Bird, as examples — is as ubiquitous as that Pushkin line about the bronze dude on horseback supposedly is among Russophones. From there there’s obviously a continuum of increasing esotericism. So, for example, if I were to say “Waltzing Matilda whips out her wallet” (which is not all THAT obscure) and you were to pick up with the next line, we would have that in-group-bonding thing as opposed to the general cultural literacy thing that references to a bustle in ones hedgerow would imply.

  19. To save others the googling, that’s the first line of Lou Reed’s “Waltzing Matilda”: “Waltzing Matilda whipped out her wallet / Sexy boys smiled in dismay…”

  20. Anglophone world memorization … provides the benefits of belonging to a fairly small clique, not a common set of cultural touchstones
    I think it works both ways, clique-finding and touch-uniting. I think it’s what you learn at school, mostly primary, becomes a touchstone, whar you learn later, as a teenager or an adult, works as a clique sign. That’s why learning good poetry by heart early on is so important.
    Vanya makes an interesting point about crossing geographical and generational boundaries – it applies, I think, not only to Anglophonia. In my generation many learned Gospel via Jesus Christ Superstar, not the Bible. And English versions of Russian songs (Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Carnival Is Over, Those Were the Days) have all become popular in the CCCP in their own right.

  21. oh, J.W. Brewer, is there a standard way of pronouncing CCCP? The Italians say chi-chi-chi-pee.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    Sashura, were I to have occasion to say it aloud, I would say see-see-see-pee. But in speech as opposed to writing I would be more likely to say you-ess-ess-are.
    I would have described that line as the opening line of “Street Hassle,” but since that longer work comprises three named (and roman-numbered, I think?) sub-parts (with Street Hassle also being the name of the middle sub-part, which uses pretty much each standard English obscene word exactly once — itself perhaps a formal exercise in the contraints of poetic form?), I suppose the first line of the entire work can also correctly be described as the first line of the first sub-part. The text as a whole, in all three parts, is probably the second-longest I ever memorized back in my teens, after “Desolation Row.”
    Because of the obviously different prevailing conditions, certain recorded texts that were ubiquitous among Western youths (and thus more Pushkin-like) had to be obtained in a more surreptious, in-group, samizdat-like manner by Soviet-occupied youths of the same generation. I remember reading a very affecting interview with Dimitri Medvedev, who is almost exactly my age, about how when Pink Floyd’s The Wall came out, he couldn’t afford whatever ridiculous number of rubles would have been necessary to obtain a black-market copy. It’s probably not literally true that for me and my 9th grade classmates you couldn’t afford NOT to have your own copy, but it was close enough to that to make it not a useful text for anagnoristic [?] purposes on our side of the Iron Curtain, while perhaps having a different valence on Medvedev’s side.

  23. Many thanks to Steve and everybody who read the article and reacted to it for being so attentive to my text and so generous with your time. I could not hope for a more substantial discussion.
    I am Goya is probably Voznesensky’s best poem, and the only one that I still remember by heart (out of a good number I had memorized by the age of 16). In a sense, it is the opposite of free verse –thoroughly patterned, metered, and employs a peculiar device of continuous rhyme goya, gorod, golod, gorlo, nagoe. etc. Pasternak liked it, too.
    I agree with JBW’s main point: in the West the patterned (rhymed and metered) verse survived and thrived in the form of song lyrics; today’s rap poetry employs very sophisticated versification (rappers often refer to themselves as “rhymesayers”, “rhyming” in slang may be used synonymously with rapping ). This supports my main point, which, of course, is rather trivial: the use determines the form. European songs have remained rhymed and metered, because they are still meant to be sung along, from memory. A free-verse pop song would be unlikely to survive because it would not replicate (either in an individual’s brain, or in collective memory). However, when supplied with an alternative replication channel and in proper environment, a free verse song may actually become a hit, as was the case with http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1z2fPi2VtQI
    Sashura, thanks for the touching story about your friend. By the way, did you know that Bagazh is actually a translation from Yiddish by Kadya Molodovsky? And I did not know that Where Have All the Flowers Gone was a Russian song, which one?
    And Alan, thank you for additional arguments against the “natural cycle” theory. I’d add that if the switch to the Free Verse were a function of an old age of a poetic tradition, one would expect it to happen at different times in different poetries, whereas in fact Free Verse penetrated all European poetries more or less simultaneously, in a matter of a few decades. And then, of course, there are very “old” traditions in which formal verse continues to thrive ( e.g. Lebanese zajal, a quasi-ritualistic contest of poets, who improvise following very strict rules of versification).
    Thank you for mentioning Goethe and his mnemonic centrality, the parallel with Pushkin is very convincing. As for the SS man’s Goethe; does anybody know if Nazi propaganda encouraged poetry memorization and recitation? I have seen a couple of hints at it in memoirs, but nothing too specific.

  24. Where Have All the Flowers Gone
    is based on Колода-Дуда which appears in And Quiet Flows the Don. Pete Seeger read the book and the song inspired him to write Flowers. Seeger’s song is now performed in Russia to his music and lyrics translated back from English. The wikipedia article says it’s from an Ukrainian song, but Sholokhov quotes lines from the cossack Russian version, not Ukrainian.

  25. I didn’t know about Molodovsky/Marshak contorversy. It looks like they’re still arguing about true authorship, or is it definite?
    Another similar story is Fanny Gordon’s lyrics У самовара я и моя Маша – Leonid Utesov in 1930s made the foxtrot popular throughout the Soviet Union without acknowledging Gordon’s authorship. Gordon was recognised as the true author only in the 70s and was paid about 5 dollars fee!

  26. Mikhail — “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is based on the Russian folk song which is quoted at the opening of “And Quiet Flows the Don”.

  27. Where Have All the Flowers Gone is based on Колода-Дуда which appears in And Quiet Flows the Don.
    I did not know that! But I’ve learned all about it from this page (in Italian), which shows Sholokhov’s manuscript page, reproduces the relevant passage from the novel, and gives the lyrics in Russian. But I still have no idea how the original song sounded (Seeger used a different tune, of course).
    У самовара я и моя Маша
    “My Masha and Me by the Samovar”; here are the lyrics:
    У самовара я и моя Маша,
    А на дворе совсем уже темно.
    Как в самоваре, так кипит страсть наша.
    Смеется месяц весело в окно.
     Маша чай мне наливает,
     И взор ее так много обещает.
     У самовара я и моя Маша –
     Вприкуску чай пить будем до утра!
    This song seems to inspire Russians to heights of silliness and surrealism:
    Exhibit 1
    Exhibit 2

  28. That У самовара video is fantastic.

  29. As for the SS man’s Goethe; does anybody know if Nazi propaganda encouraged poetry memorization and recitation?
    I don’t know; Goethe and Schiller were certainly used for nationalistic purposes before the Nazis, and that must have continued when they were in power. Hitler quotes Goethe once or twice in Mein Kampf, I believe.
    My Berlin friend had no experience of the Nazi era, and his comment was mostly a joke, I think. Disillusionment with the German classics was not just a postwar thing, however. It goes back at least to the First World War.
    The exiled Brecht laughed when he first heard Eric Bentley speak German; it was just too beautiful, like Goethe and Schiller, he said. “We don’t talk that way any more, we all sound like the Führer now.”

  30. Some of Seeger’s reminiscences from when he was writing Flowers: http://www.fortunecity.com/tinpan/parton/2/where.html

  31. The exiled Brecht laughed when he first heard Eric Bentley speak German; it was just too beautiful, like Goethe and Schiller, he said. “We don’t talk that way any more, we all sound like the Führer now.”
    Similar things were said about Nabokov’s Russian, which preserved the elegance of prerevolutionary cultured Petersburg.

  32. mikahil gronas says

    This seems to be the original колода дуда (animated):
    and the text:

  33. This song seems to inspire Russians
    I like the Polish version too:
    Exhibit 1
    Exhibit 2

  34. У самовара я и моя Маша
    it has become an idiom in Russian, but what is peculiar, it means both ‘home sweet home’ and the tackiest petty bourgeoisie mentality.

  35. Here is a modern Russian version of Seeger’s Flowers Где цветы? I found it last year when Mary Travers died.

  36. Relevant in at least an oblique way to this thread, and interesting in its own right, is the epic poem of the Canadian nation, The Plains of Abraham.

  37. Which is by…?

  38. By Jack Mitchell — the front door is here: Plains of Abraham with links about the writing of the poem.

  39. (Mr. Mitchell’s comments on rhythm and meter are informative.)

  40. I like the idea of reviving performance epic. I think this is the link you intended.

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