POETS Day! Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov Photo by Henry Kellner, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

It’s POETS Day! Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday… yay…

Look. I’m trying to be enthused about sneaking out of work and starting the weekend early, but the college football season is done. Party’s Over, Endure The Sabbatical feels a better fit. August 26 is a long way off and I’m full of existential questions. “Are you really a Saturday if no one misses a holding call?” “How are you not just a secular Sunday?” Justify yourself, Saturday.

I guess all the non-football related fun stuff is still out there and once the pain of loss ebbs I’ll pick up and remember that weekends are still worth living for and shift hours are still damned tools of the oppressor but right now my heart just isn’t in it. Sure, you could dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization as per usual, but why? There’s no college football methadone out there. The rules are still the same though let’s face it. We’re just going through the motions here. All means are a-okay in service of the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint a few hours before even happy hour begins, lay comfortably in the grass at a local park, go for a swim, or God forbid, go for a light jog. It’s your weekend, I guess. I’ll need a bit to mourn and acclimate. Thankfully, there’s still verse to pass the time.


This POET’S Day poet is Vladimir Nabokov, but before I get to him I’d like to take a moment and mention Thomas Karshan, currently listed by the University of East Anglia website as Associate Professor of Literature. Karshan is the editor of Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Poems and has earned a hat tip and a vigorous pat on the back for writing an engaging introduction, ordering the poems to segregate those originally written in English from those originally written in Russian, including a short but detailed chronology of Nabokov’s life, not just an index of titles but a separate index of first lines, and most wonderfully, twenty-seven pages of individual poem specific notes. I picked up the collection at the library and as the return date neared, I knew I’d be buying it. I’m now a data point included in both his regular sales numbers and the Byzantine machinations that I’m told but don’t really believe count library check-outs as some fraction that might eventually move the needle on those sales numbers.

Like most people, I learned about Nabokov from The Police in 1980 and eventually read Lolita in high school because I thought I wasn’t supposed to. As I got older, I learned that there was more to the man than his role as provider of teen samizdat or as expressed by Sting’s aspirated G minor but it was fun to be one of those who had read his stuff. We were like a secret association of free thinkers unbound by the rigid bourgeois pieties we projected on other people to validate our aplomb.

I’m not going to attempt a dive into his body of work here. The man is mentioned in the same breaths as Joyce and Conrad. I’m just a fan. Read Karshan and others who have dedicated their lives to understanding the breadth of his ability. To enjoy this week’s poem all you have to know are a few basic things. Nabokov wrote brilliantly in Russian, English, and French. He was born in St. Petersburg to a wealthy family with whom he escaped the October Revolution and lived as an emigre in Crimea, Berlin, and Paris and as a student in England. In 1940 he moved with his wife, Vera, and his son, Dmitri who later translated some of his works, to America. Eventually he moved to Switzerland in 1961 where he lived until his death in 1977.

In 1969 he was asked if he would like to return to his homeland, at that point the Soviet Union:

“There’s nothing to look at. New tenement houses and old churches do not interest me. The hotels there are terrible. I detest the Soviet theater. Any palace in Italy is superior to the repainted abodes of the Tsars. The village huts in the forbidden hinterland are as dismally poor as ever, and the wretched peasant flogs his wretched cart horse with the same wretched zest. As to my special northern landscape and the haunts of my childhood – well, I would not wish to contaminate their images preserved in my mind.”

In 1939 while in Paris, he wrote “The Poets.” It was published under the pseudonym Vasili Shishkov*. The last two stanzas, translated below by Dmitri Nabokov, speak to his gradual acceptance of his homeland as something other than home.

In a moment we’ll pass across the world’s threshold
into a region – name it as you please:
wilderness, death, disavowal of language,
or maybe simpler: the silence of love;

the silence of a distant cartway, its furrow,
beneath the foam of flowers concealed;
my silent country (the love that is hopeless);
the silent sheet lightning, the silent seed.

In the same year as he wrote “The Poets” Nabokov would write The Enchanter, a fifty-five page novella that he referred to as his “pre-Lolita,” though he chose not to publish it (it was published posthumously in 1986.) It would be the last work of fiction he is known to have written in his native language.

This week’s featured poem is “Softest of Tongues,” dated October 21, 1941 and published in Atlantic Monthly in December of the same year. Per Karshan, “In the typescript it is entitled ‘Farewell Party’.” Nabokov most likely would have been living in Boston at the time where he lectured at Wellesely College and worked with the butterfly collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. From a style of light verse, Karshan notes, he “plays with the possibilities for sentimentality afforded by the incongruous lists that light verse delights in.”

“Softest of Tongues” is included among those about which the poet writes:

“There is not much to say about the section of fourteen English poems, all written in America and all published in The New Yorker. Somehow, they are of a lighter texture than the Russian stuff, owing, no doubt, to their lacking that inner verbal association with old perplexities and constant worry of thought which marks poems written in one’s mother tongue, with exile keeping up its parallel murmur and a never-resolved childhood plucking at one’s rustiest chords.”

There’s a little slight of hand going on.

In this poem Nabokov is telling the reader that he’s sadly moving on from old ways of doing things to new ones in which he claims he lacks the same facility. The light verse form demonstrates an aspect of this transition, but as Kashan wrote, “he plays with possibilities for sentimentality” and imbues it with weight. He is saying that though the language is English written in a popular American style, the heart is Russian and will inhabit his work no matter the form.


Softest of Tongues

Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977)

To many things I’ve said the word that cheats
the lips and leaves them parted (thus: prash-chai
which means “good-bye”) – to furnished flats, to streets,
to milk-white letters melting in the sky;
to drab designs that habit seldom sees,
to novels interrupted by the din
of tunnels, annotated by quick trees,
abandoned with a squashed banana skin;
to a dim waiter in a dimmer town,
to cuts that healed and to a thumbless glove;
also to things of lyrical renown
perhaps more universal, such as love.
Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly… And so that’s that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.
To all these things I’ve said the fatal word,
using a tongue I had so tuned and tamed
that – like some ancient sonneteer – I heard
its echoes by posterity acclaimed.
But now thou too must go; just here we part,
softest of tongues, my true one, all my own…
And I am left to grope for heart and art
and start anew with clumsy tools of stone.

*Nabokov writes of “The Poets”: “The poem was published in a magazine under the pseudonym of ‘Vasily Shishkov’ in order to catch a distinguished critic (G. Adamovich, of the Poslednie novosti) who automatically objected to everything I wrote. The trick worked: in his weekly review he welcomed the appearance of a mysterious new poet with such eloquent enthusiasm that I could not resist keeping up the joke by describing my meetings with the fictitious Shishkov in a story which contained, among other plums, a criticism of the poem and of Adamovich’s praise.

I need to use the word “plums” more often.

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