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.”
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.
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]
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]
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]
. . . 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 . . .
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:
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.
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.