Osip Mandelstam, “The Poem”

The Poem (from The American Scholar)
Osip Mandelstam (trans. Christian Wiman)

White meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word
Painwaking particular earth…

Supplicants, tyrants, it doesn’t matter.
It is matter: unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself.


Wiman calls his work “versions,” not translations. (Still – preordering a copy of Wiman’s “versions” of Mandelstam will happen soon.)

We wonder about the Greek poiesis, with the general meaning “making” and a particular meaning of “making poetry.” It is matter, but perhaps not the matter regarding any particular political concern (“particular earth:” politics depends on saying “this is ours” and defending it to the death). It rather constitutes the world in its own eternality (“unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself”). Why the need for such romantic overtones, though? Because poetry is making itself?

Maybe, but then we don’t hear any odes to atoms or bricks. This is a peculiar kind of structuring. It descends almost pure from the cosmos and becomes more human through finitude. “Painwaking” is after separation and orphanage. Not just pain, but an awareness that begets a new reality, a new source of growth.

That’s poetry’s power contrasted with master/slave dialectic. A very rough, oversimplified Hegel: we compete with each other selfishly. Not for resources so much, but to be identified as worthy against each other. At a given point, some just submit and others rule. Our reputations are “made.” We have our names and titles and opinions about others, and that is us. Compared to that, poetry may still not be truth, but something far more significant. It is voice upon earth, perhaps even our actual voice.

1 Comment

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