September 01, 2007

The Poet of Passions

Few Russians knew the name Marina Tsvetaeva in 1961, when a small, grayish-blue book of her poems first appeared in Soviet bookshops. This is understandable: it had been over 40 years since Tsvetaeva’s early collection of poems – Mileposts – was published, just before her emigration from Russia. Yet the success of the 1961 collection paled in comparison with what occurred four years later. In 1965, when a weighty volume appeared in the Poet’s Library series, it sold out instantly. Inveterate bibliophiles were the only ones who could find the book, and then only on the black market. From that day forward, every edition of Tsvetaeva’s work, be it prose or poetry, initiated a ravenous hunt among readers. Still, Tsvetaeva’s works did not become readily available until the era of perestroika. 

Despite staunch opposition from the Powers That Be, public readings of her work began as early as the 1970s, yet  it was quite difficult to get into these events. I heard incredible tales from performers of Tsvetaeva’s poetry, how, among other things, they received thank you notes and touching, oftentimes expensive gifts. I experienced a similar phenomenon when I began lecturing on Tsvetaeva. The Tsvetaeva “boom” lasted a long time, and only began to wane during the perestroika period. Yet the steadfast army of enthusiasts – those who have taken this poetry into their hearts – remains to this day, both in Russia and abroad. 

Nonetheless, good translations of Tsvetaeva’s poetry are difficult to come by. Why is that? And these enthusiasts – their eyes burning – who attend my lectures, where do they come from? As a Danish Prince once asked: “What’s Hecuba to them or they to Hecuba?” I lack a thorough answer. 

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