Poetry, musical speech, is so associated with symbols that it may be impossible to imagine it without metaphor as a rhetorical device. This both bugs and pleases readers and listeners. Symbols can add richness, a sense of novel connections, or they may vex the reader, taunting them with needs for esoteric knowledge or psychic investigations of the author’s mind.
For me at least, poems can work when they are clear as any condensed speech would be on first reading — and when they are nearly incomprehensible as anything other than collections of energetic words. So, along that continuum, a poem may succeed (or fail) — but it must compel. After all, we have so many other words that waft over us written, spoken, recorded, some enriched with music, video, some from those already near and dear to us. As a young person I was drawn more to the richness of images and cared less for the clarity of expression. Other poets tried to convince me that clarity showed respect for the readers busy lives, that incomprehensibility wasn’t a requirement for good poetry. I eventually listened to them and somewhat changed what I wrote and admired. In my newer but still ambiguous stance toward poetic obscurity, I believed that a poem needs to be no more complex that it has to be, and no fancier in its conceits than it needs to be to draw a reader’s or listener’s attention. I may have a bit more to say on these issues in another post, but let’s move on to a new musical piece today.
I’m largely unfamiliar with the poet whose words I’ll use for today’s audio piece, Anna Akhmatova.* She became known to me several years back when the unique American roots singer-songwriter Iris DeMent recorded an album of heartfelt intuitive settings of Akhmatova’s poems, “The Trackless Woods.” This record was released in 2015, around the time that I was formulating some ideas of how to do what became this Parlando Project. Many of my ideas were already set down, even some of the pieces you’ve heard here had already been recorded, but I felt then that DeMent’s record reinforced my intents to do this Project at a time of decision.
Now this month I saw Akhmatova’s poem “Like a White Stone” featured in poets.org’s Poem A Day — and it did that “compel” thing with me as I read it in the middle of an otherwise occupied day. I eventually set upon creating a musical setting for it, one which you’ll be able to hear below.
Revisiting some interviews DeMent did around the release of her Akhmatova album I found out it was the same Akhmatova poem that compelled her. In a 2015 interview with the Poetry Foundation, she said:
This whole project is so mysterious to me…. It’s just this weird thing that happened instantaneously upon the first reading of the very first poem of hers I ever read which was “Like a White Stone”. In that period of time, within an hour or so I’d set three or four of them to music.”
I also found out, after composing and recording my performance of “Like a White Stone,” that Akhmatova was associated with a movement called Acmeism which reacted against the French Symbolists, a group of French poets that attracted me in my youth. The Symbolists were all about the effusive, exotic and elusive image. The Acmeists, in reaction, all about precision and clarity. The Symbolists were admired by Dada, Surrealism, and the hermetic strains of modern poetry in English. Acmeism could easily be related to other modern poets who want clarity and the power of easily discerned emotional messages.
“Someone looking closely into my eyes would see it” Anna Akhmatova
Knowing that, how does “Like a White Stone” stack up on the continuum from clear and direct to wild and elusive? Here’s a link to the poem’s text. I’m working from this translation (by Babette Deutsch and Avaham Yarmolinsky) and I know, as one who’s translated poems myself, that there are risks that I may be grabbing onto details that are the translator’s solution not the author’s own design in the original language. My judgement overall is that this poem is in the middle somewhere, even if closer to the clear and direct pole. The opening image, the one that first grabs the reader, is both clear and elusive for me, a combination that often works to compel. A “white stone**” deep in a well, yet it’s also “hard and clear.” It somehow doesn’t put us off that this is contradictory. How much might we be able to see anything clearly, even a light-colored stone, deep in a well? Yet the poem says we know it’s there, we know its hardness sensuously — it’s not only some indistinct imagination. Is it likely we know the stone, its color, its feel in the hand, because we’ve tossed it there? And the poem then launches into an extended consideration of memory, its dichotomy, how it’s both present and by definition, absent. It’s easy to explicate this poem as something addressed to a false, absent, exiled, or discarded lover, yet it refuses to choose details or say that directly. In the poem’s conclusion, the white stone deep in the well is an image like unto a human turned into a rock or statue, unable to move from or toward exile, as permanent as ended — a memory.
Would this poem be more powerful if it just straightforwardly told us the details? Would it be more artful if it was more elaborate and fanciful in its images? Well, some poem otherwise might be — but this poem compelled both Iris DeMent and me, and maybe it’ll compel you to listen too.
My performance isn’t like DeMent’s at all. I hadn’t even recalled that this poem was one that she had performed when I worked on it this month. Although DeMent uses the same translation as I used, she phrases it differently, and while I’m no stranger to some American roots style musical flavors my choice today was more toward electronic synth sounds. Hers has a Protestant hymn flavor, mine aims at the surging dance of the floating memory mind. You can hear my performance of Anna Akhmatova’s “Like a White Stone” with the player gadget below, or if you don’t see that player, with this alternative highlighted link.
*My ignorance isn’t Akhmatova’s fault. Although her work was suppressed by the Soviet Union’s cultural czars, and some of her associates killed, exiled, or imprisoned, she’s now generally recognized as an important 20th century Russian language poet.
**The white stone image, the specificity of which depends on translators’ choice, might possibly connect with another translator’s choice, in the Bible’s Revelations verse about a white stone. But remember, these are two translators, one going from Russian and the other from Greek to our English, each deciding exact words that we put in with our own connotations. Did this white stone have some connotation of translucency, perhaps even a diamond? Intuitively to me it’s a lover’s token, but I could be wrong.