Monday, June 21, 2010

Political poems: When writing a poem gets you killed

photo of Mandelstam after his arrest
"Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

Osip Mandelstam
The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) wrote a 16 line poem that cost him his life. In 1933 Mandelstam wrote one of the 20th century's most important political poems- Epigram against Stalin- which resulted in his arrest, imprisonment and ultimate death.

Mandelstam's poem was an indictment of Joseph Stalin and those who surrounded him.

The latest edition of the magnificent New York Review of Books (June 10-June 23 2010) has published an informative piece by Jose Manuel Prieto on the poem and its author.


We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.

Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.

Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.

—Translated by Esther Allen from José Manuel Prieto’s Spanish version

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