A New Russian Modern: Peter Daniels on translating Khodasevich

Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems

Translated and edited by Peter Daniels

CWB: Vladislav Khodasevich is not as well known as many of his contemporaries: Osip Mandelstam, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Akhmatova, to name just a few. Both you, in your preface to Vladislav Khodasevich: Selected Poems, and Michael Wachtel, in his introduction, cite reasons for the literary obscurity of his work, but for those without the book before them, could you speak a little on Khodasevich, his poetry in context of his times, and the reemergence of his work in the last few decades?

Daniels: His career had an awkward pattern. He reached poetic maturity not long before the Revolution; five years later, in 1922, he took the chance to leave Russia, and settled into frustrated exile. In the West, dancers, composers and painters could work internationally, but writers in Russian only had each other as an audience. In the Soviet Union he was ignored or condemned, though his work still had some presence. Since publishing the book I’ve been given copies from the 1963 Moskva magazine, which in that brief period of thaw published some of his exile poems, and I’ve also heard how the poet Slutsky was influenced by discovering his work in an old house during the Second World War. Khodasevich was only available in samizdat, but he reappeared in print in 1989 under perestroika.

CWB: Poets are more often than not such strange figures in history. Many poets have almost mythical tales associated with them. What are some of the more memorable and perhaps little-known anecdotes from Khodasevich’s life?

Daniels: The portrait on the cover, painted by his niece, is from 1915, the year he was suffering from tuberculosis of the spine. In the poem “An Episode”, he describes watching himself die, and having to decide to get back into his body. Being disembodied becomes a recurring theme in his work.

As an infant, he fell out of an upstairs window and rolled down the roof, saved from falling further by the guttering. He refers to that in the poem “Not my mother…” about his nurse, a parallel to Pushkin’s nurse; while she didn’t have a store of folk tales like Pushkin’s, it’s from her love that Khodasevich stakes his claim as a Russian poet, despite his family being not Russian but Polish. Started in early 1917, the poem was unfinished until 1922, when he suddenly wrote the second half of it. That day, buying galoshes that were too big, he stuffed the poem inside so he could wear them; it turned up in the galoshes next year when he was in Berlin – though he had already memorized it (Russians do memorize their poems).

The vital link for us is Nina Berberova, with whom he started a relationship in his last months in Russia. They stayed together a number of years in exile until she found him too impossible, but she broke up with him very carefully (he was always on the verge of suicide) and she still cared deeply about him. In 1950, she left Paris for America where she became known for her own writing. She kept an archive of his manuscripts which is now at Yale.

CWB: Many English language readers familiar with Khodasevich’s name recognize it in relation to Vladimir Nabokov and his various comments and lectures on Russian literature. Nabokov gives very high praise to Khodasevich’s poetry as well as Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg. Wachtel observes in his introduction that Nabokov’s novel The Gift is, in part, inspired by the life of Khodasevich. These two authors, Khodasevich and Bely, are so little known in the common canon of English language readers, and yet Nabokov’s name is large enough to carry them both into our awareness. What do you think it was about them that so spoke to Nabokov?

Daniels: He grew up with their literary world. Khodasevich and Nabokov both considered themselves continuing the tradition of Pushkin, and Nabokov wanted to champion him as an émigré, ignored by both Westerners and Soviets. Nabokov had the advantage that he could write in English and become noticed on his own merits.

CWB: Khodasevich was a loner in style and innovation during his time. While he plodded along with traditional forms, groups that sought to break all expectation of poetic forms were in emergence. A group that exemplifies this radical--though, for the time, more common--poetic practice is the Russian Futurist Poets. The more extreme examples of Futurist verse can be found in Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov’s poetry, wherein the poets attempt to make meaning out of a pure language. Khlebnikov sought, for example, to render the songs of birds into verse, not through a known vocabulary, but rather through vowels and consonants arranged to resemble the language of birds. In the face of this decadent turn in style, Khodasevich must have seemed rather old-fashioned. Still, there is something starkly modern about Khodasevich. How, while clinging to form, was Khodasevich a pioneer of poetry in his age and language? Was he indeed a pioneer?

Daniels: “Plodded along” and “clinging to form” are rather loaded terms! The Futurists made much of breaking verse form and reinventing it, and writing “beyond meaning,” which draws attention, as the avant garde usually does. Khodasevich didn’t want to be beyond meaning – answering the Futurists, he says paradoxically about language, “I love its rigorous freedom, / I love its twisting laws...” Tsvetaeva worked on changing the form of Russian verse in a truly remarkable way, creating her own twisting laws, but also wrote standard rhyming quatrains, as Mandelstam, Pasternak and Akhmatova did. Mayakovsky’s “staircase” layout looks maybe like W.C. Williams, but it’s still rhyming verse spread across the page.

Khodasevich was a modernist, and recognized the brokenness that is the modernist subject. By the Revolution, he was a mature poet who understood Pushkin’s magical way with Russian verse and could use it himself to make some sense of the brokenness around him. Around 1918, he wrote several great poems in blank verse, so perhaps he was thinking of a future without rhyme; blank verse is unusual in Russian, though Pushkin wrote some. One poem, “2nd November,” is about the immediate aftermath of the Revolution in Moscow, and does all those things that 20th-century modernism considered essential – no ideas but in things, telling it slant.

He didn’t have Pound to instruct him in the primacy of the image, he just got it. He was a friend of Viktor Shklovsky, who formulated the theory of art as “making strange” and “making the stone stony,” and in its own way, Khodasevich’s work embodies that, despite not being self-consciously strange like the Futurists’.

CWB: Tonally, that is in cadence and temperament, I found Khodasevich’s poetry to be closest to Osip Mandelstam’s when considering his contemporaries. Khodasevich, I would say, prefers the metropolitan, while Mandelstam prefers to draw on the rural for materials, but otherwise they speak to a certain spiritual essence of the everyday. I find this theme becomes, for both of them, more predominant as their poetry develops.

My personal wonder, when I consider their similar backgrounds as political misfits (in relation to their times), is whether or not a taste for daily life is a sort of crutch for the dislocated. Similar poets, to my mind, include Ovid, Cesar Vallejo, and George Seferis. Is this thought of mine gibberish? As a scholar of Russian language poetry, do you find that I am off my mark when I compare Mandelstam and Khodasevich?

Daniels: Everyday detail is vital to Khodasevich – in “2nd November” he gives you the world-shattering event through the small facts of a day in the ruins of Moscow. The everyday is a crutch for the dislocated, but it represents the dislocation itself when the details no longer match your world. In exile, the poems he wrote about Berlin, Sorrento and Paris are about that.

As well as other differences from Western poets, the Russians’ experience of the Revolution and its aftermath makes comparisons harder. Even a shattering event like the First World War doesn’t make Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas comparable, though there are similarities. There is something like Robert Frost in the way he uses form and everyday detail very naturally, but of course their lives are vastly different. I’m sure there are also similarities with Ovid, Vallejo and Seferis, though I don’t know them deeply enough to say anything meaningful.

I have to say by the way that I’m really not a scholar, especially not of Russian poetry. I had the chance to study Russian at high school and I followed it up again later, visited some friends of friends in Russia, and took the A Level exam (that’s university entrance level) when I was nearly 30. Then I got distracted by other things and let it slide for a long time.

CWB: When did you first feel drawn to Khodasevich’s poetry?

Daniels: When I revived the Russian. I’d stopped writing – I finished a creative writing masters in 2003, which rather burnt me out, and then I started a busy job. But I needed something and I started going to poetry translation workshops at the Poetry School in London, working from a number of languages that didn’t include Russian, but it made me want to revive the language. I was unexpectedly invited to take up a Hawthornden Fellowship at the end of 2009, four weeks in a Scottish castle undisturbed. I was reading Michael Wachtel’s book The Development of Russian Verse, where he used some Khodasevich examples. “The Dactyls” immediately made me want to work on this poet, and I found that he was very little translated. So those four weeks gave me a good momentum, and I just carried on.

CWB: How long was the process of translating Selected Poems? Did you seek feedback during the translation process and, if so, from who?

Daniels: It took about three years – not continuously, in bursts (I’d already left the busy job and was freelancing). My mentor has been Masha Karp, a former editor for the BBC Russian Service. I’d get a version together with the dictionary, she’d show me the idioms, nuances and cultural references I’d missed, and then I had something reliable to work on as an English poem.

CWB: Are you currently working on any new translations? Who, as a scholar, would you be eager to see better known among Russian poets in the English speaking world?

Daniels: Finishing the Khodasevich book, I felt I should work on someone else, especially as my knowledge of other Russian poets is sketchy in comparison. I have attempted a couple of famous poems of Lermontov and Pasternak, and one Khlebnikov poem, which was good fun (not his most birdlike, though). I’ve looked at Mikhail Kuzmin, who hasn’t yet grabbed me the way Khodasevich did; Nikolai Kliuev is another possibility. It might need another retreat like the four weeks at Hawthornden to let me get on with another project like that.

CWB: You are not just a translator, but a distinguished poet. What are your current poetic endeavors? Do you have a new collection or project that you are currently at work on?

Daniels: I’m sorting out a lot of poems I’d forgotten about, to see whether they are any good, and improve and send them out for publication. I noticed that my computer folder called “Working On” contained about 200 – far too many, and a lot of dross, but enough worth attention. I’m still writing new ones, and there are others I like that didn’t fit the 2012 book Counting Eggs, so somewhere in this heap there might be a reasonable book.

CWB: As the majority of our readers are Americans, what contemporary English poets and publications would you recommend? And considering contemporary English and American poetry, what are some differences that you see between the two?

Daniels: I probably most admire the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, whose versions of classical poets like Homer and Ovid bring his own world and theirs into a wonderful relationship, and he’s a great nature poet. Sinead Morrissey (another Northern Irish poet) has just deservedly won the big T.S. Eliot prize – she has a wonderful scope, a way of giving a poem a lovely arc of meaning. David Morley brings a scientist’s eye to nature and is linguistically very lively. Publications: Poetry London, Magma, Poetry Review, The Dark Horse, New Walk.

Online I like Ink Sweat and Tears, but I haven’t gone overboard for poems online, I like to get away from the screen to read.

Differences: America is bigger, so Americans get on with their own thing, and having invented various kinds of modern poetry they tend to concentrate on what that’s about. But the internet is making huge differences to the natural divide. Online submissions can happen anywhere, and judging from Facebook, Americans and Brits mingle more, share blogs and so on. We still have “innovative” and “mainstream” schools, but that seems to get less important, especially to younger poets who like to mix it. I don’t know how true that is in America.

CWB: What are some of your more notable habits when drafting a poem or translation? Do you keep notes in a notebook or does new work just pour out? How many times do you draft a poem before considering it for a manuscript or literary submission?

Daniels: I work away from the computer at first. Translation happens with a copy of the original that I scribble vocabulary on, and then start looking for ways in for an English version. One reason for those forgotten poems is because I write longhand in the early morning, with a few random triggers. Roughly monthly I type up what’s in the notebook, then usually forget that monthly output for as much as a year, though there’s no pattern to it. It often seems written by someone else, and I spend a while looking at what it means, reordering it, checking sound patterns, reading it aloud. If it’s a serious contender, I take it to a workshop group, but that’s only once a month and I could do with more of those – I like to know how a poem looks to a few readers. I also attend another group where a subject or a form is set as homework. A reasonable hit-rate from those. This sounds rather mechanical and formulaic, doesn’t it! But revising is what counts, and I do take years over some of them, though not all.

CWB: What are you currently reading? Are there any forthcoming publications in 2014 that you are eagerly awaiting?

Daniels: I’ve been giving myself stuff I feel resistant to. Anne Carson’s Red Doc> was worth the read. I’m now getting down to J.H. Prynne, who has a big mystique around him, which I think is unfortunate. I’m looking forward to the new Penguin Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky.

Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich (1886–1939) was born and grew up in Moscow to a Polish-Lithuanian and partly Jewish family, although he was Russified by his education and gained a deep knowledge and love of Russian poetry. Younger than the Symbolists like Blok and Bely, he published in his early twenties but took some time to find his own style, coming to maturity as a poet around the time of the Revolution in 1917, when had turned thirty. He left Russia in 1922 with his partner Nina Berberova, at first to join Gorky in Berlin, but they eventually settled in Paris, working in the exasperating Russian émigré literary world. Khodasevich wrote less and less poetry in exile, but was considered by Nabokov to be the finest Russian poet of the 20th century. He died in June 1939, little known in the West and deleted from history by the Soviet authorities, but he has now become much appreciated in Russia.

Peter Daniels has won first prize in a number of poetry competitions including the Ledbury (2002), Arvon (2008) and TLS (2010), and has twice been a winner of the Poetry Business pamphlet competition. He published his first full collection Counting Eggs with Mulfran Press in 2012, but also has a number of chapbooks since 1992 including three from Smith/Doorstop, Mr Luczinski Makes a Move (HappenStance, 2011) and the historically obscene Ballad of Captain Rigby (Personal Pronoun, 2013) based on court records at London Metropolitan Archives. He has Masters degrees in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, and in Modern Literatures in English from Birkbeck College, London. During a Hawthornden Fellowship he began his translations of Vladislav Khodasevich, now published by Angel Classics (UK) and Ardis/Overlook (USA).

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