Pound in Russia.

No, Ezra Pound did not visit Russia, but Ian Probstein’s article “I have beaten out my exile” (Make It New IV 4.3 [December 2017]) is a wonderfully detailed account of his reception there, from the first translator of his poetry into Russian, Zinaida Vengerova (1867-1941), to recent publications of his complete works, including two different Cantos. I could quote the whole thing, it’s so full of interesting material, but I’ll try to limit myself to a few digestible chunks and send you to the link for more if you’re interested. Probstein says “it was probably due to Vengerova’s essay that imagism became known in Russia, and it is not unlikely that it impacted the Russian Imaginist movement, with its series of manifestos, the first of which came out in 1919,” and continues:

The next connection between Pound’s circle and the Russian poets was established during the June 1917 visit to London of the prominent Russian poet and founder of Acmeism, Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (1886-1921), an outstanding Russian poet, critic, and translator, and one of the founders of the Guild of Poets, to which Osip Mandelstam also belonged.

In London, Gumilyov resumed friendship with his old acquaintance Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts (1894–1949), whom he had first met in St. Petersburg’s famous literary café “A Stray Dog” [Brodyachaia Sobaka] in December 1914. Bechhofer invited Gumilyov to stay at his house, introduced him to his numerous literary friends and acquaintances, and later published an interview with him in The New Age. During his two–week stay in London, Gumilyov met with W. B. Yeats, G. K. Chesterton, and John Cournos; on June 16–17, he visited Lady Ottoline Morrell and her circle, where he also met D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, and many others. However, there is no documented evidence that Gumilyov met Ezra Pound, although he had heard of him from so many people. In addition, it should be pointed out that Nikolay Gumilyov, like Pound, was attracted to Homer, Dante, and Guido Cavalcanti – the last was the hero of Gumilyov’s novella The Joys of Earthly Love [Radosti zemnoi liyubvi]. Like Pound, Gumilyov was fascinated by the poetry of Théophile Gautier and published both adaptations and translations of the French poet. Furthermore, Gumilyov was captivated by Africa, where he travelled extensively in 1909–1913, visiting several countries from Egypt to Ethiopia. He wrote about these travels in his poems, plays, short stories, and diaries. It is notable that Gumilyov wrote both about the Princess Zara, Zotar (akin to Pound’s “Zothar” of Cantos XVII and XX) and Hanno the Seafarer, the hero of Pound’s Canto XL. Finally, like Pound, Gumilyov was attracted to China and in July 1918 published a book of poems, Porcelain Pavilion [Farforovyi Pavilion], in which he included his adaptations and imitations of Chinese poems from Li Po, Liu Che, and others, inspired by Judith Gautier’s Le Livre de Jade (1867).

(A nitpick: Gumilyov’s Радости земной любви is not a novella but a short story divided into three sections which he called “новеллы” [novelly] for reasons of his own.) There follows a discussion of “the striking affinities between Ezra Pound’s and Osip Mandelstam’s views on nature, reality, and language,” something I’ve always felt but never explored, which I particularly regret leaving out, but it’s too long to reproduce and too tightly organized to excerpt. But I’ll quote his conclusion: “Although they never read a line of each other’s writing, the affinities between Mandelstam and Pound were due to the overlapping of their sources — Hellenism, High Antiquity, Medievalism, Dante, and Villon.” He continues:

It would be another Acmeist poet and the member of the Guild of Poets, Mikhail Alexandrovich Zenkevich (1886-1973), who would become a prolific translator and the first real translator of Ezra Pound’s poems in Russian. It was in the 1930s when Zenkevich first started translating Pound’s poems from Lustra: “The Garden,” “A Pact,” “The Rest,” the first five parts from “Moeurs Contemporaines,” and a fragment, “These Fought” from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. He also drafted an essay on Pound for the Anthology of New English poetry [Antologiya Novoy angliyskoy poezii], compiled and edited by Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky (1890–1939), the author of the seminal A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900, […] but before it went to print, Pound had become a staunch supporter of Mussolini and his poems were excluded from the book. It was only in 1994 that Mikhail Zenkevich’s translations were finally published in Russia. His grandson, Sergei Zenkevich, published an essay summarizing his grandfather’s achievements, emphasizing that Mikhail Zenkevich was the first poet and professional translator who seriously read and interpreted Ezra Pound’s poems. His essay was entitled “I weathered the storm” (or rather, if we translate it back from Russian into English, it would read: “I have sensed the storm,” and the last line would read: “I have chosen exile,” not “I have beaten out my exile.”)

There were various piecemeal translations (“A Girl” was translated by the composer Vernon Duke under his real name, Vladimir Dukelsky — see Boris Dralyuk’s 2020 post on Duke/Dukelsky, with images and a translation of one of his poems), but “the real breakthrough was Mark Freidkin’s (1953-2014) 1000–line book of 1992 called Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, which he compiled, edited and published in the independent publishing house Carte Blanche, which he established and maintained until the end of the 1990s. […] From that time on, poems by Ezra Pound have been regularly included in anthologies and published in periodicals.”

Since 2003, Pound’s cantos have been translated and commented (some of them were done in the 1990s, as described above). In 2003, A Draft of XVI Cantos with selections out of A Draft of XXX Cantos as well as some Pisan Cantos were supposed to be included in the second volume of Ezra Pound. Poems and Selected Cantos, but the publisher probably ran out of money and did not fulfil the contract. The entire project was conceived in the end of the 1999 as a two-volume edition of the 2003 book and the complete Cantos was translated by 2010 with the help of Boris Meshsheryakov, knowledgeable in Chinese, and Alexander Markov, a classical scholar. […] The commentary of the forthcoming edition of Personae–The Cantos itself comprises more than 100 pages and summarizes all the major achievements in Pound scholarship, including, but not limited to, Barbara Eastman’s textual work, seminal books by Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport, Peter Makin, Ronald Bush, Peter Nicholls, Christine Froula, Humphrey Carpenter’s Serious Character and David Moody’s invaluable 3-volume literary biography of Ezra Pound. I am especially grateful to The Cantos Project of Roxana Preda, and to Massimo Bacigalupo, who helped me comment on the most difficult places in The Cantos and correct some of the inconsistencies in the otherwise invaluable Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound by Carroll Terrell.

I was pleased to see Bacigalupo’s name; his magisterial The forméd trace: The later poetry of Ezra Pound has been a constant source of enlightenment for me since I was lucky enough to find a copy for a reasonable price at the Strand many years ago.

Pound’s popularity in Russia reached a peak in December 2016 when the opera Pound’s Cantos (an opera-mystery, with an implied subtitle “M’amour, m’amour”) for a 24-voice choir, orchestra, solo soprano and solo violin, was staged in the progressive Perm State Opera and Ballet Theatre named after P. I. Tchaikovsky. The opera was written by the young Moscow composer Alexei Siumak (1976-), who was also one of the authors of the libretto.

Alas, Probstein doesn’t think much of the opera. On the popularity, he very acutely says:

I believe that few people, even among the admirers of Pound in Russia, really understand that Pound and W. C. Williams shaped modern American poetry and poetic language […] Both Pound’s admirers and opponents, among whom we count the Nobel prize winner Joseph Brodsky, do not base their attitudes on an aesthetic evaluation of the poetry, but on philosophical, spiritual, and political ideas.

The regular reader of LH will be aware of my attitude toward “philosophical, spiritual, and political” approaches to art (I deprecate them). An equally acute footnote on Brodsky reads:

In my view, one has to live within a culture and language for a substantial amount of time trying to listen to the other (and really hear him or her) to get the insight. Joseph Brodsky lived in the US from 1972 to 1996, but he really read (and wrote about) the poets akin to him, whether Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Mark Strand, or Derek Walcott.

On the new translations:

Recently, Andrey Bronnikov, a poet and philosopher, in a tour-de-force manner, in less than 4 years translated and published the complete volume of The Cantos of Ezra Pound (St. Petersburg: Nauka [Science], 2017). The volume has a 50–page introductory article and index.

However, the main and the most challenging project, the Russian translation of Pound’s Personae and The Complete Cantos with the addendum of the poems from Personae (1909), Hilda’s Book, and selected Posthumous Cantos first published by Massimo Bacigalupo, is still being edited and copy edited. All of the translations mentioned in this article, starting with those by Zinaida Vengerova and Mikhail Zenkevich, are included either in the main corpus or in the addendum. We hope that in 2018, it will finally go to print.

I’ll have to see if it got published; maybe someday I’ll actually get my hands on one of those doorstops!

For those who have made it this far, some lagniappe: An Experiment in Following a Worm Through a Folded Letter.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    More on the opera, from an ESL-ish source:

    I was impressed by the attempt of Ezra Pound to realize something like Babylon Tower from different languages. Also interesting was his positive attitude to the contrarily political directions: from Rooseveld to Hitler. Pound saw the politics as a funny game. He was put into a prison by Americans, into a open air cell, and everyone who walked along watched him. Pound gave then a vow of silence. Pound was an Artist, which was seen as insane, mysterious, whose vision no one could share.

    Violin solo plays a role of the Artist, who has given a vow of silence and can say something only by not-distingue sounds. Other participants of the opera are a choir (musicAeterna) and percussionists, at the end electronics plays an important role as well.


  2. PlasticPaddy says

    I suppose there is also “Jerry Springer, the Opera”, so why not? Pound seems to appeal to some writers (e.g., Ulla Hahn) as some sort of crucified artist-Christ, I don’t really see it.

  3. Yeah, it’s a pretty silly idea. I hope even he would have thought so.

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