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Anna Akhmatova

This book was featured as August's Pick of the Month.Selected Poems

Click to Order Akhmatova's Selected Poems (tr. Stanley Kunitz - soft $).

The following comes courtesy of Zhenya Rozinskiy, whose web site on "Great Names From Odessa," can be found here.


Anna Akhmatova, pseudonym of ANNA ANDREYEVNA GORENKO (b. June 11 [June 23, New Style], 1889, Bolshoy Fontan, near Odessa, Ukraine, Russian Empire--d. March 5, 1966, Domodedovo, near Moscow), was a Russian poet recognized at her death as the greatest woman poet in Russian literature.

Akhmatova began writing verse at the age of 11 and at 21 became a member of the Acmeist group of poets, whose leader, Nikolay Gumilyov, she married in 1910 but divorced in 1918. The Acmeists, through their periodical Apollon ("Apollo"; 1909-17), rejected the esoteric vagueness and affectations of Symbolism and sought to replace them with "beautiful clarity," compactness, simplicity, and perfection of form--all qualities in which Akhmatova excelled from the outset. Her first collections, Vecher (1912; "Evening") and Chyotki (1914; "Rosary"), especially the latter, brought her fame. While exemplifying the best kind of personal or even confessional poetry, they achieve a universal appeal deriving from their artistic and emotional integrity. Akhmatova's principal motif is love, mainly frustrated and tragic love, expressed with an intensely feminine accent and inflection entirely her own.

Later in her life she added to her main theme some civic, patriotic, and religious motifs but without sacrifice of personal intensity or artistic conscience. Her artistry and increasing control of her medium were particularly prominent in her next collections: Belaya staya (1917; "The White Flock"), Podorozhnik (1921; "Plantain"), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922). This amplification of her range, however, did not prevent official Soviet critics from proclaiming her "bourgeois and aristocratic," condemning her poetry for its narrow preoccupation with love and God, and characterizing her as half nun and half harlot. The execution in 1921 of her former husband, Gumilyov, on charges of participation in an anti-Soviet conspiracy (the Tagantsev affair) further complicated her position. In 1923 she entered a period of almost complete poetic silence and literary ostracism, and no volume of her poetry was published in the Soviet Union until 1940. In that year several of her poems were published in the literary monthly Zvezda ("The Star"), and a volume of selections from her earlier work appeared under the title Iz shesti knig ("From Six Books"). A few months later, however, it was abruptly withdrawn from sale and libraries. Nevertheless, in September 1941, following the German invasion, Akhmatova was permitted to deliver an inspiring radio address to the women of Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. Evacuated to Tashkent soon thereafter, she read her poems to hospitalized soldiers and published a number of war-inspired lyrics; a small volume of selected lyrics appeared in Tashkent in 1943. At the end of the war she returned to Leningrad, where her poems began to appear in local magazines and newspapers. She gave poetic readings, and plans were made for publication of a large edition of her works.

In August 1946, however, she was harshly denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party for her "eroticism, mysticism, and political indifference." Her poetry was castigated as "alien to the Soviet people," and she was again described as a "harlot-nun," this time by none other than Andrey Zhdanov, Politburo member and the director of Stalin's program of cultural restriction. She was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers; an unreleased book of her poems, already in print, was destroyed; and none of her work appeared in print for three years.

Then, in 1950, a number of her poems eulogizing Stalin and Soviet communism were printed in several issues of the illustrated weekly magazine Ogonyok ("The Little Light") under the title Iz tsikla "Slava miru" ("From the Cycle 'Glory to Peace' "). This uncharacteristic capitulation to the Soviet dictator--in one of the poems Akhmatova declares: "Where Stalin is, there is Freedom, Peace, and the grandeur of the earth"--was motivated by Akhmatova's desire to propitiate Stalin and win the freedom of her son, Lev Gumilyov, who had been arrested in 1949 and exiled to Siberia. The tone of these poems (those glorifying Stalin were omitted from Soviet editions of Akhmatova's works published after his death) is far different from the moving and universalized lyrical cycle, Rekviem ("Requiem"), composed between 1935 and 1940 and occasioned by Akhmatova's grief over an earlier arrest and imprisonment of her son in 1937. This masterpiece--a poetic monument to the sufferings of the Soviet peoples during Stalin's terror--was published in Moscow in 1989.

In the cultural "thaw" following Stalin's death, Akhmatova was slowly and ambivalently rehabilitated, and a slim volume of her lyrics, including some of her translations, was published in 1958. After 1958 a number of editions of her works, including some of her brilliant essays on Pushkin, were published in the Soviet Union (1961, 1965, two in 1976, 1977); none of these, however, contains the complete corpus of her literary productivity. Akhmatova's longest work, Poema bez geroya ("Poem Without a Hero"), on which she worked from 1940 to 1962, was not published in the Soviet Union until 1976. This difficult and complex work is a powerful lyric summation of Akhmatova's philosophy and her own definitive statement on the meaning of her life and poetic achievement.

Akhmatova executed a number of superb translations of the works of other poets, including Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Giacomo Leopardi, and various Armenian and Korean poets. She also wrote sensitive personal memoirs on Symbolist writer Aleksandr Blok, the artist Amedeo Modigliani, and fellow Acmeist Osip Mandelstam.

In 1964 she was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize, an international poetry prize awarded in Italy, and in 1965 she received an honorary doctoral degree from Oxford University. Her journeys to Sicily and England to receive these honours were her first travel outside her homeland since 1912. Akhmatova's works were widely translated, and her international stature continued to grow after her death. A two-volume edition of Akhmatova's collected works was published in Moscow in 1986, and The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, also in two volumes, appeared in 1990.

BIBLIOGRAPHY.

    1. Sam N. Driver, Anna Akhmatova (1972), combines a brief biography with a concise survey of the poetry.
    2. Amanda Haight, Anna Akhmatova: A Poetic Pilgrimage (1976), is a critical biography analyzing the relation of the poet's life to her poetry.
    3. Ronald Hingley, Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution (1981), defines the historical and social background of the four poetical titans of 20th-century Russia.
    4. Anatoly Nayman, Remembering Anna Akhmatova (1991; originally published in Russian, 1989), is a work of the poet's literary secretary who witnessed her last years.



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