top of page

Better than Fiction (non fiction)

Our featured translator, Prof. Donald Mager's Comments on the original poet  Nicolai Klyuev's life and work, also about this translation 'To the Slangerers of Art', how it came to be:

This marvelous poem is of tremendous interest both for Klyuev’s and Anna Akhmatova’s careers. Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), born first among twentieth century Russia‟s four greatest poets (Marina Tsvetaeva (1890-1941), Osip Mandel’stam (1891-1938), and Boris Pasternak (1892-1960), outlived the others. She is highly revered and an Akhmatova museum in Petersburg has become a major tourist site during the 1990s. Nikolai Klyuev (1887-1937) is a major poet of the early twentieth century in Russia. His name is sometimes transliterated as Nikolay Klyuyev, or other variants. His father was a Samoyed (Christianized northern Eskimo tribespeople) and Klyuev spent part of his childhood in the tents of nomad herdspeople. He was deeply attracted to the religion of the Old Believers and the Khlysty flagellant sect, but also knew the legends of Lapp and Siberian pagan gods. His mother traced her family to the seventeenth century Rus’. She “was a professional weeper, a bearer of laments or‚ wails of ancient Russian poetry” (Zavalishin 92). Landowning peasants were called Kulaks and by the 1920s the Bolsheviks denounced them as an anti-revolutionary class, confiscated lands, imprisoned, executed or sent them to Siberian camps. Klyuev was accused of being a Kulak poet and banned from publishing.

He lived a hand-to-mouth nomadic life until his final arrest. Speculation on how he died was not resolved until release of KGB files in the 1990s documented his execution in the yard of a prison camp in Tomsk in August 1937. He was rehabilitated in 1977 and his poems were republished in Russia. His parents‟ house in the village of Vytega is now a Klyuev museum which hosts an annual seminar to disseminate academic papers about his work.

Klyuev’s poetry represents a deliberate assertion of northern peasant and tribal culture in opposition to Westernized intellectualism. Stravinsky’s ballets The Rite of Spring and Les Noces are musical analogs, although his primitivist styles are a deliberate aesthetic concoction, rather than the expression of a personal cultural orientation as it was for Klyuev. Klyuev initially embraced the Soviet Revolution, especially because the property of great estate owners was seized by the peasants whom the Bolsheviks encouraged, but
later he rejected it. His poetry often fuses a celebration of raw northern landscapes, Old Believer rites and mysticism, the pantheons of indigenous pagan religions, and the earthy details of the yearly cycle of peasant life—farming, herding, hunting. He can be incantatory with the evocative epic sweep of celebratory imagery reminiscent of Neruda or Whitman, or he can be delicate and lyrical.

One of the epigraphs to Akhmatova’s Poem Without A Hero “SECOND PART Intermezzo REVERSE SIDE OF THE COIN” is based on lines 42-43 of Klyuev’s poem. Both Reeder (1994) and Hemshemeyer (1997) in their notes cite Richard McKane’s note to his translation of Poem Without a Hero where he translates two excerpts from Klyuev’s poem (335). The importance of connections between Klyuev’s poem and Akhmatova’s led me initially to make this complete translation.


To my knowledge there is no other full English version. I was also motivated to clarify errors and discrepancies between comments by McKane, Meyer, Cone and Reeder as outlined below. McKane’s excerpts are lines 1-8 and 40-48 based on the Russian edition edited by Aleksandr Mikailov (St. Petersburg, 1999). Reeder states in her note: Akhmatova says in her memoirs of Mandelstam that in 1933, when the Mandelstams were visiting Leningrad, Osip recited parts of Klyuev’s poem to her. (549) This is how she learned of Klyuev’s lines about her and she was very pleased.


Reeder continues to report that in the notes to their translation of these memoirs, Anna Lisa Crone and Ronald Meyer cite the following passage in My Half Century:  " I saw with my own eyes Klyuev’s declaration at Varvara Klychkova’s 14 (sent from the camps, petitioning for amnesty): “I, sentenced for my poem „The Blasphemers of Art,‟ and for some mad lines in my drafts . . .” (I took two lines as an epigraph for my “Tails” [“The Other Side of the Coin”]. (Cone and Meyer 374 as quoted. in Reeder 549)

Either Reeder is mistaken or her citation is from the 1992 Ardis Press edition of My Half Century (which I have not seen), because in the 1997 Northwestern University Press reprint, the note reads rather differently, citing a different Klyuev poem but quoting the same line that came from “The Blasphemer of Art.” Here is this version: Klychkova showed me his “Petition for Amnesty”: “I, sentenced for reading my poem “The Burning Place” and for mad lines in several of my rough drafts . . . .” Osip quoted me two lines from Klyuyev: “A jasmine bush/ Where Dante walked and the air was empty.” (Cone and Meyer (1997) 374)


Cone and Meyer go on to refer to this poem by their translation of the first line rather than by title: “I am angry at you and berate you sadly.”  In Chapter 11, Reeder discusses the genesis and progress of Poem Without A Hero.  Discussing the above-mentioned epigraph, she states: The text is prefaced by an epigraph from a poem of Klyuev to Akhmatova, “The Revilers of Art.” It is a superb tribute to Akhmatova and the horror of her silence, when she writes so little, and what she writes is not allowed to be published. He is angry that for ten years Akhmatova did not give a handful of oats to the horse of poetry, with its diamond-studded bridle, its golden-shod hooves. The poem ends with the comparison of Akhmatova to a jasmine bush . . . . It was for this poem that Klyuev was sentenced to exile in the camps. (420) Reeder is not correct to say the jasmine line (40) comes at the end of the poem; far from it, the Dante reference is in line 45 (not even the mid-point) and the poem is 114 lines altogether. She is also wrong; it is the “revilers” (i.e., the slanders)—the Bolshevik “ravens”—who for ten years have not fed the horse of Russian poetry. 

How much this 1932 poem was a direct cause of Klyuev’s arrest and exile to Siberian camps in 1934 is open to dispute. According to Reeder, he was believed by some to have been shot in 1937, as has since been confirmed. What is beyond dispute is that Akhmatova believed this poem was a direct cause, just as she believed her visit from Isaiah Berlin at the end of the war was a direct cause of the Cold War between England and the USSR.  Also unclear is how much of Klyuev’s poem Akhmatova had heard from Mandel’stam’s recitation in 1933. The poem was not published so his recitation apparently was her sole exposure to it, but it is quite possible that Mandel’stam could have memorized and recited the entire poem. His memory for poetry was phenomenal including entire volumes of his own work and whole cantos of The Divine Comedy—in Italian! And it is quite possible that she remembered all or parts of it, for her memory for poetry was also very good, or perhaps, she jotted down some parts of Klyuev‟s poem.


The Klyuev poem became part of her burden of responsibility to the past and to bear witness—a piece in her private mythology. Actually, even though his enthusiastic poems for Lenin (1918-19) were republished in a major collection in 1924 (Zavalishin 96), he had become disenchanted with the Revolution due to the forced collectivization of the recently seized peasant lands. Poems siding with land-owning peasants were officially denounced as “Kulak literature.” In the late 1920s, he wrote several long anti-Bolshevik poems of great power: “The Village,” “Lament for Esinin,” and “Aftermath of Fire.”


Contrary to Reeder, Zavalishin states: In 1933, branded as a spokesman for the kulaks, Klyuev was exiled to Siberia. He died in 1937, on his way back to Moscow for a verdict concerning his future, and the “suitcase full of manuscripts” which he carried with him vanished without trace. (100) Besides the epigraph from his poem, Klyuev has a further connection to Poem Without A Hero. In the four extant versions, he does not figure directly in the cast of allegorical characters who erupt in a 1913 harlequinade to haunt the poet in her 1941 Leningrad room on New Year’s Eve at midnight, even though he was a member of the circle of her friends who regularly attended performances and readings at The Stray Dog cabaret in St. Petersburg and who collectively provide the cast of characters for her poem‟s phantasmagoria. However, in December 1959 and thereafter, she outlined several variants of a possible ballet libretto based on materials and themes from the poema. In two of the ballet libretto variants she describes Klyuev and Esenin in peasant garb dancing a wild peasant dance together. 

Work Sited see this link 

bottom of page