The indomitable power of Anna Akhmatova
Early last year, I was on a quest to find poets I thought were like Bob Dylan. I didn’t want replicas of him, but I was inspired by the instantaneous ways he could access symbolism, and the way in which he could pack so much meaning into the span of only a few lyrics. I knew these were literary qualities, and I wanted to find a style of poetry that excited me as much as the style of his songwriting.
Naturally, I went first to Dylan’s own admitted influences: Dylan Thomas, Arthur Rimbaud, even Paul Verlaine to a certain extent. I definitely saw where Dylan had gotten a lot of what he used: the innovative amalgamations of language, the empathic attention to specific moments. But Thomas’s work didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, and for some reason, Rimbaud’s didn’t really do it for me, either.
I soon drifted out of the phase, and over the course of the past year, I’ve coincidentally run into a few poets who have done the trick for me — W.H. Auden would probably be the strongest example.
But recently, I found someone who completely hits the nail on the head: Anna Akhmatova.
By “hits the nail on the head,” let me clarify that I don’t mean she sounds like Bob Dylan. No poet should be lauded for convincingly sounding like another one. (Anyway, she came first, so it might be more accurate to say he sounds like her.) Instead, I mean that she captures moments with an uncanny completion; she pays enormous attention to detail, yet is careful not to let that detail overpower her own voice. In short, she is one of those poets whose work makes you know that you’ve felt it.
Akhmatova was born in 1889 and spent her life in Russia. Much of her life was affected by the turbulence of Russian politics at the time; her expansive poem “Requiem” deals with the subject of the Stalinist terror, which saw the arrest of her son and the arrest and execution of her husband, Nikolay Gumilyov. Many of her friends were also killed, and at one point her poetry was barred from publication.
As someone who lived through two world wars and a great deal of domestic conflict within Russia, her work is contoured with politics: She describes the torment of wishing for her son’s freedom and the conflict of not knowing whether or not to leave the country, but she was also patriotic. She regularly read her work to soldiers in hospitals and on the front lines, even while the forces of the political climate closed in on her from all sides. During a period of time in which Stalin was constantly monitoring her, she, along with other Russian writers of the time period, would pass along poems orally, or by writing them down, reading them aloud and then immediately burning them.
One story that struck me in particular happened in the early 1930s. Akhmatova’s son was imprisoned at the time, and she would go regularly to deliver food for him. One day, a woman recognized her outside a stone prison and asked in a whisper, “Can you describe this?” When Akhmatova replied, “I can,” she would later describe “something like a smile (passing) fleetingly over what had once been (the woman’s) face.”
These stories about Akhmatova’s life and approach to writing represent what is often the most powerful about literature as a whole. Akhmatova’s profession was that of a writer, and yet even that was power enough to change the lives of those around her — the woman, whose lips Akhmatova described as “blue from cold,” knew Akhmatova may not have been able to help her in a tangible sense. But by describing what she saw at the prison, she altered that story, and she gave that woman a voice. She was committed enough to her writing to memorize and burn her own work to prevent her ideas from being compromised, and committed enough to her country to stay and try to help her fellow citizens even while she herself was on the verge of being arrested.
This tension and patriotic conflict can be seen in Akhmatova’s work, along with her personal stubbornness and authoritative will. In both her personal relationships and her poetry, Akhmatova was constantly asserting her own agency. However, her poems also highlight beauty, intimacy and nature in ways that are touchingly genuine. Her poem “Snow,” for instance, is no less vivid or gentle than Robert Frost’s famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” “Lot’s Wife” recounts a familiar legend with a voice of pure empathy; “Willow” is honest and mournful.
A good poem, in many ways, has the same goal as a good song. It will come at you honestly. It will be vivid and well-spoken. Maybe it will tell you the story of a specific person or a place, in the hope that you will come to understand that person or place better than you had before. It will show you something emotional, and you will be glad to have seen it — what’s more, maybe now you will have something to show to somebody else.
Every writer does this differently. Anna Akhmatova did it with a power and determination that would be amazing to find anywhere, but are especially amazing given the context of her life. No change ever really stops happening, and many of the works that Akhmatova was known for throughout her life are still useful to us today if we wish to understand not only her and her surroundings, but also the importance of literary work to humanity in general.