He got it right when he said, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” In fact, Osip Mandelstam was killed for his poetry, mostly for having written some highly uncomplimentary things about Stalin, things like:
His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.
Although Stalin wanted to send him to the Gulags considerably earlier, Mandelstam spent much of the 1930s in a Siberian labor camp, finally dying in 1938 of a heart condition.
He is without a doubt one of the three or four leading Russian poets of his generation, as this short poem proves:
Yet to Die. Unalone Still.
Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.
Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.
Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.
The translation is by John High and Matvei Yankelevich. I got it from the Poetry Foundation’s website.
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