The Picture of Pasternak in a Prospect of Flowers

Boris beside the Baltic at Merekule, Leonid Pasternak, 1910

Boris beside the Baltic at Merekule, Leonid Pasternak, 1910

Boris Pasternak, whom no one yet knew . . . had this to say about poetry: “It will always be in the grass, it will always be necessary to bend over to see it, it will always be too simple to be discussed in assemblies.”

Gisèle Freund

I’ve been following a trail of pebbles and crumbs. As I’ve arrived at no particular destination, and arrival anywhere certain is unlikely, I’m making a record of the journey so far.

Hansel & Gretel, Carl Offterdinger

Hansel & Gretel, Carl Offterdinger

My journey began with a book by the British poet David Herd, John Ashbery and American Poetry. Herd’s way of approaching Ashbery is intriguing, quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Among other things, he spends a good bit of the book tracing Ashbery’s influences and inspirations. I didn’t agree with—or understand—everything Herd wrote, but his observations forged stimulating associations and connections that seemed very much in the spirit of Ashbery’s poems.

Boris Pasternak comes up quite a bit in Herd’s commentary. While Ashbery’s sources of influence and inspiration are eclectic and wide-ranging, there are moments when Pasternak does stand out. Pasternak was the only major poet Ashbery cited in his Norton lectures as both an influence and one to whom he looked as a “poetic jump-start for times when the batteries have run down.” [John Ashbery, Other Traditions 5] Pasternak was also “the only writer Ashbery acknowledged by epigraph in Some Trees” (Ashbery’s first published book of poems). [Herd 11] The epigraph is taken from Pasternak’s autobiography Safe Conduct and accompanies Ashbery’s poem The Picture of Little J. A. in a Prospect of Flowers. [Boris Pasternak, Safe Conduct 132]

I’d noticed these traces of Pasternak-Ashbery connections previously, but I’d never followed through. Even worse I realized, to my chagrin, that what I knew of Boris Pasternak was almost entirely confined to David Lean’s 1965 movie, Dr. Zhivago, and, among other things, I hadn’t read the book. That now had to be corrected, and Safe Conduct, of which I’d never heard, became required reading, too. I discovered that, once you start looking for the “Pasternakian” in Ashbery, it’s everywhere to be found.

Ashbery once spoke of “not planning the poem in advance but letting it take its own way: of living in a state of alert and being ready to change your mind if the occasion seems to require it.” [Herd 7] Observations like this are strewn not only throughout Ashbery, but Pasternak, too. Here’s one oft-quoted observation from Pasternak: “People nowadays imagine that art is like a fountain, whereas it is a sponge. They think art has to flow forth, whereas what it has to do is absorb and become saturated.” [Herd 36] Pasternak offers a quintessential formulation of “sponginess” in Dr. Zhivago’s words to his mother-in-law-to-be Anna Ivanovna, who believes she is dying:

And so, what will become of your consciousness? Yours. Yours. But what are you? There’s the whole hitch. Let’s sort it out. What do you remember about yourself, what part of your constitution have you been aware of? Your kidneys, liver, blood vessels? No, as far as you can remember, you’ve always found yourself in an external, active manifestation, in the work of your hands, in your family, in others. . . . You have been in others and you will remain in others. And what difference does it make to you that later it will be called memory? It will be you, having entered into the composition of the future. [Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago 79]

Hansel & Gretel; H. J. Ford

Hansel & Gretel; H. J. Ford

Ashbery once wrote of Frank O’Hara’s poetry:

. . . “poetry is in the grass,” as Pasternak magnificently put it[.] Here, everything “belongs”: unrefined autobiographical fragments, names of movie stars and operas, obscene interjections, quotations from letters—the élan of the poem is such that for the poet merely to mention something creates a place for it, ennobles it, makes us realize how important it has always been for us. [John Ashbery, Selected Prose 82]

The same can surely be said—and probably has been said by someone, somewhere—about Ashbery’s poems, and it’s everywhere within the poems:

So much has passed through my mind this morning
That I can give you but a dim account of it:
It is already after lunch, the men are returning to their positions around the cement mixer
And I try to sort out what has happened to me. The bundle of Gerard’s letters,
And that awful bit of news buried on the back page of yesterday’s paper.
Then the news of you this morning, in the snow. . . .

[John Ashbery, The Skaters]

All this is similar to something Pasternak wrote of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s play, Vladimir Mayakovsky: Tragedy: “I had never heard anything like this before. It contained everything. The boulevard, the dogs, the limes and the butterflies. The hairdressers, bakers, tailors and engines.” [Safe Conduct 104-5]

Hansel and Gretel, By Arthur Rackham

Hansel and Gretel, By Arthur Rackham

Pasternak at first revered Mayakovsky, but ultimately rejected his creative stance. Mayakovsky assumed the mantle of “The Poet,” while Pasternak’s poems arose out of the occasion of creating them. As he put it, “The clearest, most memorable and important fact about art is it conception, and the world’s best creations, those which tell of the most diverse things, in reality describe their own birth.” [Safe Conduct 63]

In Herd’s view, a turning away like that of Pasternak from Mayakovsky prompted Ashbery’s search for a new aesthetic, too: away from, for example, the monumental poetry of Robert Lowell, who had himself become a monument of sorts. It’s intriguing to think of this when reading Pasternak’s statement about Mayakovksy that forms the epigraph to Ashbery’s Little J. A.: “He was spoilt from childhood by the future, which he mastered rather early and apparently without great difficulty.” [Safe Conduct 132]

When I first read the epigraph (even though, at the time, I didn’t know Pasternak was describing Mayakovsky), I thought perhaps Ashbery was drawing a connection between Little J. A. and someone else who was precocious to his detriment. It’s easy—even more so when reading the references Herd excavated from the poem—to make such associations, though perhaps not wise. (Herd notes allusions to Andrew Marvell in the poem’s title, Thomas Nashe as misquoted by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the first line, and Wordsworth’s To H.C. Six Years Old in Little J. A.’s last section.)

If there’s one thing I know about Ashbery, it’s that, if you dig too hard for the meaning of a specific line, the sense (and nonsense) of the poem will invariably slip away. Herd, for example (though I’m sure he’d have an interesting point of view), doesn’t offer any clues about the zany lines following the first one:

And Dick gives Genevieve a swift punch
In the pajamas. “Aroint thee, witch.”
Her tongue from previous ecstasy
Releases thoughts like little hats.

In one sense, the epigraph is a false lead: that is, following the trail of references to parse the poem is bound to fail. Rather, as Herd has argued, the epigraph is more likely a signal that Pasternakian sensibility informs Ashbery’s own poetic approach. As Ashbery once wrote of his own poems:

For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought. Thought is certainly involved in the process; indeed, there are times when my work seems to me to be merely a recording of my thought processes without regard to what they are thinking about.

[Other Traditions 2]

Hansel & Gretel, Theodor Hosemann

Hansel & Gretel, Theodor Hosemann

. . . which reminds me of lines Ashbery once quoted from John Clare, one of a handful of poets, along with Pasternak, to whom Ashbery has turned “when I really needed to be reminded yet again of what poetry is.” [Other Traditions 5]

I found the poems in the fields,
And only wrote them down. . .

[Other Traditions 17]

See what I mean about following a trail of pebbles and crumbs? Just walking around  . . .

John Ashbery, 2010, photograph by David Shankbone (

John Ashbery, 2010, photograph by David Shankbone

Listening List

Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) weren’t close. It doesn’t appear Shostakovich had an interest in Pasternak’s poetry [Elizabeth Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered 49], and it’s unlikely that Pasternak cared for Shostakovich’s music. [Wilson 362](Though Pasternak’s first love was music, and his first aspiration was to be a composer, Scriabin was his ideal.) There were nonetheless points of connection between the two. In 1948, after the Zhdanov Decree, Pasternak sent Shostakovich a book of his verse, inscribed with a message of support. “Take courage . . . . may you be helped in these days from a distance, by your great future.” [Laurel Fay, Shostakovich: A Life Loc 2378]

And, in Six Romances on Verses by English Poets op. 62a & 140 (1942, orch. 1943 & 1971), Shostakovich set two poems in translations by Boris Pasternak: “Sir Walter Raleigh To His Sonne,” and Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 66,” the latter of which Shostakovich dedicated to his brilliant and cherished friend, Ivan Sollertinsky. The sonnet, which contains the line “And art made tongue-tied by authority,” “gained enormous popularity [in Russia] in Pasternak’s translation.” [Wilson 179] As a curious side-note, Pasternak’s translation, when translated literally back into English, is “And remember that thoughts [ideas] will close up the mouth.” [Wilson 179, n. 14] (For side-by-side English and Pasternak’s Russian translations of “Sonnet 66,” click here.)

On Spotify: Two versions of the Six Romances on Verses by English Poets, op. 62a & 140, the first in Russian (Ildar Abdrazakov/Gianandrea Noseda/BBC Philharmonic, in the 1971 orchestration), the second in English, based on the recent discovery of Shostakovich’s 1943 orchestration (Gerald Finley/Thomas Sanderling/Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra).

On YouTube: (Sergei Leiferkus/Neeme Järvi/Göteborgs Symfoniker, in Russian, in the 1971 orchestration)

Here’s a nice video about the discovery of Shostakovich’s 1943 orchestration of the Six Romances and creation of the Finley/Sanderling/Helsinki CD:

The liner notes from the Finley/Sanderling/Helsinki CD may be found here. The liner notes from the Abdrazakov/Noseda/BBC Philharmonic CD may be found here.

For David Nice’s review of the 2014 Finley/Sanderling/Helsinki CD, click here. From the review:

Amazingly, it transpires there are two orchestrations, one made for chamber forces at the end of Shostakovich’s life, and another with larger instrumentation from around the time of composing the romances in 1943. That great if under-recorded conductor Thomas Sanderling discovered that the manuscript had only recently come to light, and the result is this superlative document.

Other Resources

For a useful brief biography of Boris Pasternak, click here.

Frank O’Hara, About Zhivago and His Poems. O’Hara’s nuanced understanding of Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago is excellent, and particularly remarkable for the time (1959). The essay may be found here and (in part) here.


Credits: The image at the head of the post (Boris beside the Baltic at Merekule, Leonid Pasternak, 1910) may be found here, and that at the foot of the post (John Ashbery, 2010, photograph by David Shankbone) here. The images from Hansel and Gretel may be found here, here, here, and here, respectively. The quotations may be found at the links in the text, and where available, at the page or, for Laurel Fay’s Shostakovich: A Life, at the Kindle location number noted.

14 thoughts on “The Picture of Pasternak in a Prospect of Flowers

  1. David N

    A thousand thanks, Sue, you’ve turned me back to Pasternak – or rather, back when I’ve worked my way through Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, so I may be some time. What poetry even in the describing of it: the grass, the sponge. He seems to have a clarity which might even make the Russian possible (I can only manage the simple and the clear, like Chekhov and some Pushkin).

    Am I right in remembering that Pasternak also translated Hamlet?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You are right about Hamlet, and his “Hamlet” poem is one of the Zhivago poems (I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think it is the first):


      Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
      Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
      Я ловлю в далеком отголоске,
      Что случится на моем веку.

      На меня наставлен сумрак ночи
      Тысячью биноклей на оси.
      Если только можно, Aвва Oтче,
      Чашу эту мимо пронеси.

      Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
      И играть согласен эту роль.
      Но сейчас идет другая драма,
      И на этот раз меня уволь.

      Но продуман распорядок действий,
      И неотвратим конец пути.
      Я один, все тонет в фарисействе.
      Жизнь прожить — не поле перейти.

      (Russian text taken from here: )

      Pevear/Volokhonsky translation:

      The hum dies down. I step out on the stage.
      Leaning against a doorpost,
      I try to catch the echoes in the distance
      Of what my age is bringing.

      The night’s darkness focuses on me
      Thousands of opera glasses.
      Abba Father, if only it can be,
      Let this cup pass me by.

      I love the stubbornness of your intent
      And agree to play this role.
      But now a different drama’s going on –
      Spare me, then, this once.

      But the order of the acts has been thought out,
      The end is inevitable.
      I’m alone, all drowns in Pharisaism.
      Life is no stroll through a field.

      (From )

      If and when you turn to Pasternak in Russian, I’d love to know your reaction. I’m also very curious about his translation of the rest of Shakespeare Sonnet 66, in which he rendered “And art made tongue-tied by authority,” as “And remember that thoughts [ideas] will close up the mouth.” I love Shostakovich’s setting of that sonnet, and also how beautifully the setting sung in English works. I would assume that’s a tricky business, to take a setting written with the Russian text and cadences in mind and render it in English.

      1. David N

        Many, many thanks for that, Sue, and yes, the Russian is beautifully clear, which in a way makes it easier to translate. Like Akhmatova, who is also very readable in the original for one not so fluent in Russian like myself.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    Oh, thank you for this. I’ve never even noticed Pasternak in Ashbery, but then I’ve never even read Pasternak. And I’ve found some useful statements in the review of Herd’s book (which sounds good).

    Just a couple of weeks ago I came across another (yet another) article that uses Ashbery as the poster boy for meaningless drivel in contemporary poetry. Sometimes it just pisses me off, and I immediately wrote a response, which I’m not sure what to do with. Ashbery’s approach to poetry seems to me sagacious, respectful (of the reader) and I would even say is the result of a loving approach to life itself–so much so that I’m always at the least startled when I read these extremely negative reactions. I don’t think his concepts are difficult to understand, but his detractors seem to have a giant blind spot to recognizing them. And the thing is, the concepts aren’t unique to Ashbery; he’s rooted in a tradition and he has forebears–here’s Pasternak, another one I wasn’t even aware of. Not only that, but his work is partially about its relationship to this tradition (I love his question, “”Is there nothing then . . . between an avant-garde that has become a tradition and a tradition which is no longer one?” The answer, of course, is his poetry). His detractors are people who have difficulty perceiving different types of reading and who have restricted views of rationality and its place in literature. A statement like, “For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought” makes no sense to them; they can’t understand how a poem can use “thought” (or call it “sense” or “meaning”) as one of its features, but not the whole on which the poetic enterprise is founded. And this despite a rich tradition in modernism that has shown it has been done over and over.

    Sorry to write an essay. As you know I can hardly stop once I get going on this subject! it’s just nice to read this when I’m still steaming over another in a long succession of Ashbery-haters.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Any time you want to write an essay on Ashbery here, there, or anywhere, you have a reader in me, no question! While the Herd book will doubtless be irritating at points (as it was for me), he definitely “gets it,” and the Pasternak I found an astoundingly rich vein to mine. I have to think that the sort of anti-Ashbery article you note says a lot more about the reader than the poet. I become more and more aware, as I spend time with his work, how very much “he’s rooted in a tradition and he has forebears,” as you state. William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden, the list goes on. I do understand that one must make the leap to engage with his work–certainly that was true for me. Now that I have, though, I can’t imagine why it took so long. He speaks directly to life as I experience it, and I find it enormously freeing.

  3. Anonymous

    Thanks, Susan. This is wonderful. I haven’t read Pasternak in years, but you’ve sent me back to him.

  4. Brigitta “Britta” Huegel

    Dear Sue, thank you for this wonderful post! (I’m deep in work, that’s why it took me so long to comment). In my spare time I just dive into Russian poets again (as I did as a teenager – so interesting to see how the same text changes its meaning with the “other eyes” I have now, veiled by experiences, yet open to nuances one could not see when being very young).
    I especially love the Pasternak quote about death – consoling and very well observed, I think. I will copy it instantly – and will read the book which I have never read (I only have an optical remembrance from the film – especially that field of sunflowers…)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: That is a beautiful quotation, isn’t it? There are many such passages in the book, and, if you read it in English, the English translation I note in the post reads beautifully, I thought. I got the David Lean movie out of the library to remind myself of it, too. Of course the movie doesn’t begin to capture the nuance of the book. It is more than a bit labored at points in that old-fashioned “we have an epic on our hands here” kind of way, but it certainly had a starry cast (I hadn’t recalled Rod Steiger or Alec Guinness), and was visually beautiful. As a wry friend of ours said, “What David Lean did for sand (Lawrence of Arabia), he’s now done for snow.”

  5. shoreacres

    I got only as far as Pasternak’s remark that poetry “will always be too simple to be discussed in assemblies” before I remembered Faulkner’s remark that he wasn’t a literary man, he was only a writer. That’s a little disingenuous, of course. Faulkner kept a sharp eye on the literary community, and his literary brawls were famous. Still, there’s some truth to what he says.

    No matter how I try, I keep experiencing Ashbery as “a literary man,” in the sense of being too oblique, too opaque, too clever by half. This isn’t at all a criticism of his poetry, as much as it is an acknowledgement that we all respond differently to different poets: inevitable, no doubt, and perhaps as it should be.

    On the other hand, I found just today some of his poems I’d never read, and before I finished my third go through I was convinced that he was quite capable of tweaking noses, and honestly wondered if he was taking a swipe at Carl Sandburg with his farm implements and “Rutabaga Stories.” That’s the wonder of someone as prodigious as Ashbery — there’s always something interesting to ponder.

      1. Susan Scheid Post author

        shoreacres: I’m keeping this comment of yours up–I love that you got caught up in your own thoughts so much you forgot the mechanics. (I didn’t have to hand the way to close a tag, so I put in a link of the poem I found.)

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I had such a good laugh being reminded of this poem, which I’m not so sure I’d fully read before, that I posted it on the dreaded FB under “Sunday Morning Funnies.” I think your association over to Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga Stories is very likely on target–though could be a swipe, or an affectionate poking fun, who knows? Whether you warm to him or not, I happen to think you are a great reader of Ashbery, and this association is evidence of why!

      Your comment also brings to mind a wonderful exhibit I saw, John Ashbery: Poet Among Things. When you walked in, a cartoon was playing on a small TV screen, and on another wall was a drawing by Larry Rivers of Popeye and Olive Oyl (on p. 21 here: It doesn’t seem you may have gone further in the post, as (very Ashbery-like) you went off on your own trail, but what I discovered is that Pasternak’s poetic approach is a clear precedent for Ashbery’s. Ashbery said of O’Hara (this is in the post), but it’s equally true of his own work,”. . “poetry is in the grass,” as Pasternak magnificently put it[.] Here, everything “belongs”: unrefined autobiographical fragments, names of movie stars and operas, obscene interjections, quotations from letters—the élan of the poem is such that for the poet merely to mention something creates a place for it, ennobles it, makes us realize how important it has always been for us.” Everything in Ashbery’s surroundings, experience, reading, listening, and memory serves as material for his poems, from Happy Hooligan to the Comte de Lautreamont to medieval songs (as we’re discovering in a really fun online Ashbery discussion group within ModPo).

      Meanwhile, I just ran across a poem and poet completely new to me this morning, Peter Cole. From the last lines:

      . . . thinking we know where we’re going and then
      getting somewhere, despite our intention.

      You’ll see the whole poem in the middle of a review here (and don’t worry, I’m not that smart, a professor of poetry, nicest fellow and right now teaching an online course on Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, pointed out the article that contains the poem):

      So, see what you’ve done, for which I thank you (though with all these words, you may not thank me!)–sent me off on another trail of my own!

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