A Lyric Voice: A Lyric Essay on Osip Mandelstam

Ilya Kaminsky

When a great singer sings, the skin of space and of time go taut, there
     is no corner left of silence or of innocence, the gown of life is turned
     inside out, the singer becomes earth and sky, time past and time to
     come are singing one of the songs of a single life.

            –John Berger

     And if the song’s in search of earth, and if the song’s
     Ensouled, then everything vanishes
     To void, and the stars by which it’s known,
     And the voice that lets it all be and be gone.

            –Osip Mandelstam

“I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives,” wrote Osip Mandelstam, “I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice, while all around the bitch pack writes. What the hell kind of writer am I!? Get out, you fools!”
     To introduce this voice, one must first ask what is a lyric poet, and what is a lyric impulse. A lyric poet is a self-professed “instrument” of language who changes that language. And a lyric impulse? Here is Marina Tsvetaeva, a contemporary of Mandelstam’s:

     My difficulty (in writing poems—and perhaps other people’s difficulty in
     understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to
     use words to express a moan: nnh—nnh—nnh. To express a sound using
     words, using meanings. So that the only thing left in the ears would be

January 3rd, 1891, Warsaw. To Emil and Flora Mandelstam, a boy is born. Mandelstam:

     My father had absolutely no language; his speech was tongue-tied and
     languagelessness. The Russian speech of a Polish Jew? No. The
     speech of a German Jew? No again. Perhaps a special Kurland accent?
     I never heard such…speech…where normal words are intertwined with
     ancient philosophical terms of Herder, Leibniz, and Spinoza, the
     capricious syntax of a talmudist, the artificial not always finished
     sentence: it was anything in the world, but not a language, neither
     Russian nor German.

                                                * * *
When as a boy Osip Mandelstam brings his poems to a venerable journal, the editor observes:

     Mandelstam did not feel the Russian language as his own; he observed
     it lovingly as if from a distance, finding its beauty…listening into it,
     flaming from mysterious victories over it. . . . The Russian language
     itself was beginning to sound anew.

I bring these testimonies not because they have to do with Mandelstam’s father—and, to some extent, with the poet himself—being a non-native speaker of the Russian language. I bring them because I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called “proper” language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar but in slant music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, Cesar Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”

                                                * * *
But how to show this privacy of Mandelstam’s Russian language while we discuss him in English? What is an English equivalent for this: “Voronezh; / Uronish ty menya il’ provoronish, / Ne veronish menya ili vernesh, / Voronezh – blazh, Voronezh – voron, nosh.” Reading these aloud, we cannot help but recall Gerard Manley Hopkins’s internal rhyme, alliteration, and other sound structures. The comparison with Hopkins also brings to mind Louise Bogan’s claim that “many effects in Hopkins which we think of as triumphs of ‘modern’ compression are actually models of Greek compression, as transformed into English verse.” Substitute “Russian” for “English,” and she comes close to describing Mandelstam. Here is what Mandelstam’s Greek instructor remembers:

     He would be monstrously late for our lessons and completely shaken
     by the secrets of Greek grammar that had been revealed to him. He
     would wave his hands, run about the room and declaim the declensions
     and conjugations in a sing-song voice. The reading of Homer was
     transformed into a fabulous event; adverbs, enclitics, and pronouns
     hounded him in his sleep, and he entered into enigmatic personal
     relationships with them… He arrived the next day with a guilty smile
     and said, “I haven’t prepared anything, but I’ve written a poem.” And
     without taking off his overcoat, he began to recite…He transformed
     grammar into poetry and declared that the more incomprehensible
     Homer was, the more beautiful…Mandelstam did not learn Greek, he
     intuited it.
He intuited it. From the inarticulate comes the new harmony. The lyric poet wakes up the language; the speech is revealed to us in a new, unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth. “You have no idea what kind of trash poetry comes from,” Anna Akhmatova wrote of her own process. From the very beginning of his literary life, the readers of Mandelstam saw his ability to remake the Russian language. They said he saw Russia with a stranger’s eyes. They said he wrote of an “imagined Russia.” They said, sometimes disparagingly, that he was lost in his “own language, his own Russian Latin.” But you could say this about any great lyric poet.