Why this postscript? I was left with a haunting sensation that this project is incomplete without at least accounting for the phenomenon of Alexander Blok, what he means to Russian poetry and to Russia generally, and why. In fact, the Silver Age has been called The Age of Blok. He, almost as much as Pushkin, is Russia's most popular poet, its sentimental, Romantic favorite. All the classic Russian poets who followed in his footsteps (Mandelstam, Akhmatova. Pasternak, Tsvetaeva) literally grew up on him, and his death in 1921 was experienced as the end of an age.
In his apocalyptic vision of the long poem The Twelve, Blok had accepted the historical necessity of the October Revolution (many are not aware there were two revolutions, the first in February a democratic one; see Constituent Assembly) and then fell into near-silence for the remaining three years of his life. There is nothing minimalist about Blok, a maximalist to the hilt: even his double quatrains —particularly those— are symbolically charged, and the essentially lyrical gift of his verse suffers the most in translation. Blok was the central transitional figure, being among the first, after Annensky, to have loosened the strictures of the predominant Russian meter, the iambic tetrameter, and to attempt a freer verse.
In this section, I have veered from a strictly chronological arrangement in order to once again suggest, by way of a summary, the overarching historical themes. We begin with perhaps Blok's single most renowned poem which reverberates with the theme of eternal recurrence. We then fill a missing hole from the 19th C. with another of Russia's many civically-minded poets, Nikolay Nekrasov, primarily in order to suggest why Blok is so resonant and essentially Russian, as well as one might say the last of the Romantics. Though poets, along with all independent thought, were not silenced until the late 1920s, the relationship between the poet and the nation had been changed irrevocably. By way of contrast, I suspect that Russia currently is roughly where it was in its historical development in say 1925, during the New Economic Policy, a period during which poets were no longer needed and the one who was, Mayakosvky, turned to writing ads, slogans, and public education campaign materials in verse.
To understand the position of poetry in Russian society, the historic role of the Russian poet, it is essential to appreciate the poets’ identification with the nation and its people. This was the case before modern media, when public recitals (and memorization and dissemination by others, the oral tradition) were an immensely popular form of entertainment. This was still the case with the Futurists, whose barnstorming national tours in the 1910s were sold out; and it was precisely this phenomenon that, 50 years later in the so-called 60s generation, was repeated to full stadiums by the Russian bard poets in the age of mass media (Yevtushenko, Akhmadulina, Voznesensky, Vysotsky). This characteristic of public performance and of the social role of poetry is referred to in Russian as estradnost’ or stage-worthiness. By comparison, the immense popularity of the Beats was similarly due to their Romanticism and social role, outsiders who are simultaneously members of a permanent opposition. We living poets must at least acknowledge that the public taste remains for popular, either Romantic forms or for social commentary, and that the poet-as-social-critic role of poetry in our culture has been supplanted by Rap, Rock n' Roll, Slam, and cowboy poetry.
After Blok and Nekrasov, I again mostly defer to chronology to offer other major poets of the Silver Age and to sketch out the primary historical conflict, between so called Reds and Whites, between those who fled and those who stayed behind, and also to hint at the introduction into cultural life of homosexuality (though that contribution to aesthetics and to society is outside our scope, the reader can begin researching the subject through reading the biographies of Russian poetry's Sapphos, Gippius and Parnok; the first gay poet, Mikhail Kuzmin, cannot unfortunately be represented through miniatures. We close with a flashback to the three preceding generations, of the Golden Age and of its own precursors (Derzhavin, Karamzin, Pushkin, Lermontov,) whose representative short poems here announce what is perhaps Russian poetry’s eternal theme, the poet's self-identification with the nation's fate and so his/her turning of the mirror upon himself/herself and itself.
While I don’t intend to hypothesize here from the Russian example toward the appropriate forms of a contemporary poet’s social engagement – that is a two-sided relationship and one that has not, for a number of reasons, ever taken root in America – I do think we should at least pause and consider what work might be, in William Carlos Williams’ phrase, “In the American Grain.”
Regarding my earlier discussion of Minimalism as one possible marker for a transitional point between Modernism and post-modernism, I would again add a few observations of post-modernist tendencies in the work of the poets of the Silver Age. One overarching conceptual tool to mark the shift between Modernism and Post has been proposing as a margin a paradigmatic shift from epistemological to ontological concerns, from construction of knowledge/meaning to various forms of relativism. In this respect, the Zaum program was certainly not the “death to language” it may at first appear to have been. Quite the opposite: it was laden with utopian, teleological aims for an Uberlanguage, for a natural lingua franca (unlike Esperanto) based —of course— on Old Slavonic. The unseating of tradition by the Futurists – throwing out Pushkin et al. on the heap of history– proposed replacing one hegemony with another which, though appealing for the support of the working and farming classes, constituted but another revolution from above (a suspect avant-gardeism). In addition to these relationships to language and tradition, characteristic of Modernism are issues of technique (fragmentation, the anti-symbolism of concreteness) and another major category of issues related to authorship: personalism vs. impersonalism, self-reflexivity, conceptualism, the last perhaps best characterized in the words of Wallace Stevens as “the poem of the mind” that in his framework constitutes the Modern poem.
The personalism and self-reflexivity so clearly manifested in Futurist lyric is of a highly subjective sort, possessed of an inflated ego that is practically a poster child for the “lyrical interference of the ego as individual” of Late Modernist Olson's Projectivist manifesto and the earlier stated goals of the Objectivists. In terms of personalism/self-reflexivity vs. impersonalism, there is certainly a marked detachment and self-directed irony in the work of the Absurdists (Kharms, Oleinikov) that is specific to Absurdism. However, the fact that this is missing from the tragic perspective of the others is again a matter, I would think, of historical imperative. The irony and detachment of post-modernism is a luxury most generations have not been able to afford. The evidence is contradictory and so it may be used to argue either point of view regarding a Modernist/post-Modernist divide. My preference is the old anti-Scholastic one, Ockham's razor: the evidence being contradictory, the post-modernist mountain is only as useful as it is pragmatic, and as long as the angels on the head of its pin are not multiplied unnecessarily (i.e. to keep making career babies).
I would sign off with three off-the-cuff predictions for 2020:
- The pace of cultural recycling had sped up from its three decade cycle, so that the popular-culture dog has now so to speak caught up with its tail. In the last 20 years we have recycled the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In the 2010s, we will not be recycling the 90s; what is there left to recycle? Or is Reality Television the permanent revolution?
- The new New Age is an era of neo-primitivism. In poetry, Zaum, Dada, Absurd, Theater of Cruelty, and various archaisms (even the abomination of initial capitals!) will again be in style.
- Post-modernism is a historical phase in the maturation of the information age, of mass media (à la McLuhan). The future will still seek itself in a hall of mirrors, but it just might see deeper into the past.