Sometimes I feel that if a poem really moves me and means something, I can’t say anything about it and I don’t want to say anything about it. Everything that needs to be said has been said by the poem itself.
There is a gorgeous reading (more like singing) by Anna Akhmatova herself, and another translation with the Russian original here. The reading is what really got me: the rhythm, the sadness, the soft Ls. The original rhyme scheme abab cdcd… supports the beautiful flow. Both translations have attempted to preserve this with more or less success.
This is a poem about a poem, and about another poet listening to the reading of that poem by the poet who wrote it. It is also about a revolution and an authoritarian regime’s fear of words. There is chaos brewing in the well-ordered structure, for both poets and for the country. There is power in words, there is power in poetry and literature. Words are “a terrible scaffold”; “thunderous lines” can condemn ideas (and people) to death. They are dangerous even to their writers, but nonetheless can endure through the rumble and outrage that they create. This poetry reading shakes the town and is met with resistance, but the art wins, “reverberates still”.
In 1913 Vladimir Mayakovsky entered the artistic circles and, among other activities, published a play called ’Vladimir Mayakovsky’. The futurist, avant-garde verse drama was not well-received, but in 1917 Soviet critics warmed up to it. Thirteen years later, the Soviet machine turned on him and, whether because of a love affair or through the machinations of state agents, he killed himself in 1930.
Akhmatova wrote this poem in 1940, so the foreboding is actually aftersight. Both Mayakovsky and Akhmatova, like so many artists, struggled trying to maintain the balance of staying true to their art and being able to continue to produce it under the strict and volatile Soviet regime. Layer upon layer of meaning was necessary to keep censors (and Siberia) at bay, while trying to communicate through art in a purposeful, worthwhile way.