Osip Mandelstam, “The Poem”

With a sluggish gait, my mind moves from half-formed thought to half-formed thought. Looking through older work of mine, I see more clearly where I failed to fully explain what I wanted to say. Real writers, well, I imagine their minds spring into wakefulness. They start saying what needs to be said and make amends for bad sentences. My brain instead decides to shut down. Not only pretend that I didn’t write trash, but that I couldn’t possibly write any better.

So now I’m staring at Mandelstam’s “The Poem,” wondering about Wiman’s beautiful gloss. Wondering, too, about all the not-so-good sentences out there. Do terrible lines merit white meteorite, infinity’s orphan, word painwaking particular earth? If the word creates, do bad words create abominations? Or can they not create at all?

The Poem
Osip Mandelstam (translated by Christian Wiman)

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

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

I’m partial to an answer of a certain subtlety. The heavily romantic vision of “The Poem” doesn’t discount verbal failures. White meteorite, for example. It can speak to the enthusiasm sensed behind an overwrought analysis or a writer trying to jam in everything that engages them. I’ll confess some things are a pain to read until they aren’t. In a few cases I’ve found myself asking “What is the author striving for?” after wanting to stab his draft. Somehow, the answer to the question became apparent and compelling.

Infinity’s orphan. Orphaned, unrelated, unable to engage the whole as it truly is: a flux beyond measure or definition. Perhaps there’s no greater slight on bad writing than arguing it shouldn’t exist. But then one could ask whether good writing should exist. Good writing can be horribly misleading. I can’t count the times I’ve been seduced by a few words into denying the obvious. I can’t count the times good writing aided me in failing to recognize my own interest.

Whatever makes writing necessary, important, and good for humanity has to do with “orphan.” The finite, the particular, the individual, the specific. These things begin with the pain of difference, rejection.

A vision of a meteorite striking a planet—word painwaking particular earth. It’s beautiful to witness, but no one thinks of their own writing as awakening entire worlds. However, everyone who loves to read has something they worship. I feel, at this point, like bad and good are not terribly relevant terms, though they can be helpful in certain situations. What takes precedence: infinity’s orphan, with whatever pained distance it has from beauty and completeness, describes the worst literary experiences we have and the best.

Mandelstam’s poem about poetry concludes with a comment about the audience themselves. Poetry does not suffer supplicants or tyrants. It is beyond them and holds them in irrelevance. If they read and find it relevant, that is peculiar to them as individuals; their excessive subordination or desire resists painwaking. This much I think I understand.

More complicated is the claim that poetry is matter—unbudgeable, unjudgeable, itself. I can make a smart sounding comment about the Greek word poesis, which means “making” and refers to the activity of Homer and the tragedians. They built worlds, they brought life to the gods. But that doesn’t help address the immediacy of unbudgeable, unjudgeable. Those words sound personal, alluding to the experience of moving and being moved. Poetry doesn’t move, but we want it to speak exactly for us. Nor does it need our judgment, even though we’d like to say some poems better describe us and others not so much. It just is, a building more than the activity of building. It gives life, but its objectivity is in focus for Mandelstam/Wiman. It’s an organic object we find ourselves resting against or upon.

1 Comment

  1. Your own writing is better poetry than you realize, and there is a beautiful dialectic marked here between poetry and power. Sorry for being a jerk in my previous comments.

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