Notes on Poetry by Vadim Shefner

Once when I was on the platform at a literary evening someone sent me up a note: "What do you think poetry will be like in twenty years?" In reply I mumbled something about not being prepared for such a question. Later I realized that if I really knew what poetry would be like in twenty years' time I should already be writing that kind of poetry. Between ourselves and the future there is a wall. Sometimes we deceive ourselves that it is transparent, but this is not so. It is, in fact, a mirror reflecting the past. The past is the only basis we have for our guesswork about the future. And guesswork it is.

Some people prophesy that technology will oust poetry, and will itself become the poetry of the future. I do not believe it. Technology produces the functional. When we alight from a plane and turn our backs on it, it ceases to exist for us. Technical devices are like artificial limbs. With the aid of the radio we can hear words spoken thousands of kilometres away, thanks to television we can see across vast distances, thanks to computers we can carry out lightning calculations. But we are the ones who are talking on the radio, performing on TV. In cybernetics it is people who are struggling with their own complex affairs.

We are told that electronic machines can already be taught to compose verses at the level of the average hack, and that in future the standard will be raised. There will, of course, be a public for such verse. Yet I do not think that genuine poetry need fear any competition. Even the most highly developed machine cannot create anything new, for it can only speak in the words of others. Poetry begins with wonder, and only a living human being is capable of that.

A doctor once remarked to me that anatomy is no longer a science but a sum total of knowledge (referring, of course, to normal, and not to pathological anatomy). Science has discovered everything about the structure of the human body, has studied all man's internal organs, bones and tendons, and has compiled a precise atlas of them. So now anatomy has ceased to be a science.

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that when geography has removed the last blank spot from the map and measured the ocean deeps to the last centimetre, it, too, will no longer be a science but a sum of knowledge. But poetry will never be a sum total of knowledge, or a means of applying knowledge. It will exist and develop as long as man exists, as long as he is capable of wonder, joy and sorrow.

With all that, however, it must not be forgotten that we live in a technical age, and that technology has an effect on our lives, and thus on poetry.

In consequence of the fantastic development of the press and communications, for example, many images and concepts fade with extreme speed. There is no depth of information; poetry read over the radio in Leningrad is heard simultaneously in the cities of the Ukraine and the townships of the Siberian taiga. Information does not spread gradually, from one starting point. It rises to the surface everywhere at once, and is then wiped out by a new wave. The accessibility and universality of the printed and spoken word, and also its abundance, leads to its rapid consignment to oblivion.

In our hurried age, crammed with events and emotion, what kind of poetry can stand the test and make a lasting impression? I imagine the kind in which the poet considers the essence of things and phenomena, and does not simply describe them. Not those in which the poet serves up the world in a gay, modern package of crisp Cellophane, but the kind in which he carefully takes the wrappings off fundamentals, even at the risk of revealing truisms.

Poetry is being coaxed along this path gently but firmly by its readers, who expect to find in it something I do not think they can get from prose so far. It seems to me that with the rapid tempo of life today, prose, despite its justified claims to merit, does not manage to "digest" things, to produce works that are really universal. Because of its mobility, poetry succeeds in giving the reader some kind of generalizing formula, a compass in a sea of events.

Probably this superiority of poetry over prose is temporary, and cannot be regarded as a law. But over the past five or six years one has been able to get a better idea of contemporary man from poetry than from prose.

Critics who attempt to penetrate to the heart of the matter have been talking and writing a great deal about the poetry of thought, or intellectual and philosophical poetry. Their ideas do not come from out of the blue. Increasing numbers of poets are writing verse that does not simply describe life but tries to interpret it for the reader.

This is not all gain for poetry. There is a certain loss, too. There are fewer poems about love today. Or perhaps it is truer to say that while much is written about love, it is subsidiary to the main theme of the poetry.

How can thoughts (which to us seem profound) be combined with depth of feeling? How is the poet to convey to the reader not only the thought but the feel of the thought? From whom can one learn to do this - and in general is such a thing possible?

It is obviously inadequate to base a poem on ideas, even the most clever and newest ideas, and then to throw in a few rhymes. At its very source the ideas must be combined with personal reflection and emotion.

On occasion we are over-serious, and philosophize in cases where we could get by with humour. Of course it is good for a poet to be conscious of his responsibility to his readers and the contemporary world. But in the past neither great nor minor poets had qualms about writing poems in people's albums, and did not worry if they wrote bad verse now and again. They were not all professionals, but all of them lived, ate and drank poetry.

Sometimes we are too professional. I think a poet should be 99 per cent the master of his craft and 1 per cent the bungling amateur. If he is a 100 per cent professional he ceases to be a poet.

Sometimes we should not think only about who may be our guest tomorrow, but should give a thought to those who may have to stand by our graves. They may be quite different people.

When one considers the matter it is clear that books are a greater miracle than television. They contain ideas in cipher - in printed characters, and the reader himself

decodes them. He is his own television set, but his images are a thousand times richer than those on the TV screens, for they are coloured by his personal attitude to what he reads. A goose may watch TV, but only a human being can read a book.

So-called traditional poetry is not a fixed category. It is a general concept rather than a precise term. There are many poets working in the "traditional manner", and they are all different, all write differently, make different mistakes and have differing degrees of success. There is now such a vast store of Russian poetry that from this building material one could build verbal hovels, palaces, profitable apartment houses, military pill-boxes and ultramodern blocks.

Where is the border-line between traditional and innovation? Is it a hard and fast one? It seems to be constantly shifting. As soon as a talented young poet with something new to say appears on the scene he is drawn into the process.

The best of the really new features of his work are absorbed into the very veins of poetry and thus become part of tradition. Genuine, worthwhile innovation is itself the seed of tradition.

At times I feel that new ideas (or ideas that seem to us to be new) are better expressed in traditional verse forms. Then less energy is expended on trying to digest the substance. But if all poets felt like that, what would happen to poetry? It would stand still. That is the contradiction.

As the years go by we not only gain all kinds of things, we lose something on the way, too, but without noticing it ourselves. We lose our freshness of perception, and in poetry this is more important than experience. If great poets go on writing great poetry for years, that is not because of their experience but because of an eternally youthful spirit.

A townsman may know his town inside out, yet the impressions of a country boy visiting it for the first time may be fuller and more penetrating. The poet must be such a youth, lost in wonderment at all he sees.

Poetry is neither your aid nor your salvation. But it can impel you to the rescue of another.

Poets come and go, but their poems remain among the living and are weighed on the scales of life. It is not death that dooms a poet to oblivion but life, its onward surge, changing generations and tastes. Into its stream life sweeps those whose poems satisfy the needs of their fellow human beings.

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