January 01, 2006

Never Anyone's Contemporary

It is a technical impossibility to write about any great Russian poet without quoting poetry. It is another technical impossibility (overcome so rarely, it is the exception that proves the rule) to feel a poet’s greatness through the haze of translation. This should be kept in mind when reading snippets of Mandelstam in our restrained prose translations, or anyone else in almost any translation. To finish the preamble, let only this be said: Mandelstam’s poems rank among the best, the most improbable, the most magical texts written in a human language. Trust me.


Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam was born on the night of January 14/15, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland. Soon after his birth, the family moved to Pavlovsk, in the environs of St. Petersburg, and then later to Petersburg, which became “my city” of Mandelstam’s later poetry. His father, Emil Mandelstam, was a leather worker – affluent at some point in his career, later doing worse and, still later, by the turn of the century, totally broke. A memoirist recalled his “hands of a laborer, black from tanning.” Osip’s mother, Flora née Werblowska, was a piano teacher (Osip learned to play piano and was sensitive to music throughout his life). They had three children, all boys; Osip was the first-born.

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