Most of my intellectual life has been spent reading, and writing about, the work of Boris Pasternak as well as, nearly as much, the work of Rainer Maria Rilke and of Marina Tsvetaeva.
All three poets - three (for a time) friends or quasi-friends, with enormous loves between them - were capable of ecstasy. Almost any line of Pasternak's lyric verse stirred the ecstatic in me, often into immediate rapture. He changed the world for me. Ever since I read his line “Byl mak, kak obmorok, glubok” (The poppy was deep as a swoon), every poppy has seemed to swoon, every swoon has been punctuated with “ak” and “ok”. I have felt an immense and lasting comfort from his lines “Na svete net toski takoi, / Kotoroi sneg by ne vylechival” (In the world there is no yearning that snow cannot cure).
Tsvetaeva had a different influence. She did not change my world; her voice seemed so much her own, an inner private shout; she pressed something upon the world, did not have the stance of receiving from it. What is so compelling in Pasternak is the rhetoric of reception. But in Tsvetaeva - such a grip upon language! Her alliterations, etymologies, rhythms (never mind if they're insistent), her bending and lathing of words into the shapes she wanted, her fierce neglect of cliché - through all this she took hold of me.
And Rilke possessed intuitions about precisely the metaphysical secrets I needed to know - or was it that he possessed words for intuitions I already, speechlessly, had? “Angels wouldn't hear me if I shouted out to them, or if they did they'd destroy me (they would hear so fiercely) - therefore I go back to this human reality where we are not at home.”
Pasternak was mainly celebration, Rilke mainly lamentation, both of them so strong that the riches of their yes and no lasted me for decades. Tsvetaeva's grappling and wrestling with the world and with words, her joys and griefs - less shareable (because they were hers) – at first put me off, though I came back repeatedly to wrestle with her very words: she is the poet I most translate. I didn’t fight her fights, but the fight with her speech made the sinew grow with which I conducted my own combats.
Crazily perhaps, I often felt that I should like to run, fast and far, many miles, over wide fields, up and down hills, wading through rivers, never ceasing and never looking back - solely as an act of thanksgiving to poetry and to these three extraordinarily gifted writers of it.
And not only for their poetry but for the amazing poetic prose, poets' prose, which each of them also wrote: the courteous and tragic tone of Rilke's measured words about levels of feeling and knowing which we had never guessed at; Tsvetaeva's arguings, the way, in her prose, word shoulders word, pushing each other like people on pavements; and then the excited words streaming together in Pasternak's dreaming chase after “life” and music, the way all his early prose moves endlessly towards imagined dance and a thundering heartbeat.
First postscript to café letter
I switched away from all that to reading, writing about and translating the work of Andrei Platonov, whose prose is no less heart-pounding but is engaged with a different and more sorrowful experience of life. Some six years later I came back to Pasternak. I have been speaking here of his writings up to 1931. Most of his later poems and prose I have read in a somewhat withdrawn and sober spirit. It is the early Pasternak who has vastly enriched my life.
Second postscript to café letter
I have been asked to say more about how Pasternak changed the world for me. I could answer in his own words about how the world changes when penetrated by feeling: “...art is interested in life at the moment when the ray of power is passing through it”. That power he also calls “feeling”. Passing through reality, it displaces it (he says); and art is a record of the displacement. Perhaps that is too abstract an answer to the question that was put to me? Well, Pasternak convinced me that the strong aesthetic feeling which displaces everything is absolutely worth living for, even if only by living the life of its translator and commentator. I could add that all this gave me a shield against many sorts of scepticism and pessimism.
If I were also asked why I said I translate more Tsvetaeva than anyone else (although I have in fact translated far more Pasternak), I might say this seems to me to be so because of Tsvetaeva’s way of gathering the fiercest, most implacable words, so that a reader has to plunge through them, headfirst and elbowfirst, like someone impatiently getting through a mature hedgerow, panting and scratched, and that, paradoxically, this plunging lasts far longer than the time spent sitting at desk and page: the hours before and after that sitting are heavy with the adventure. Reading and translating Tsvetaeva made me realise that translating is a form of reading, a more strenuous, intimate, often more exhilarated form.
I have attempted to translate only a few of her shorter, lyric, poems. But I have translated a good deal of her prose, and several of her longer works in verse (poemy). Of the latter the main ones I have done are: The Ratcatcher; Poem of the Air; New Year’s Letter; Attempt at a Room; and I am now trying to translate her verse-drama Phaedra. Except for The Ratcatcher (1925), all these works were composed in 1927, the intensest year of her correspondence with Pasternak and of the deep relation of both of them to Rilke, who died at the very end of 1926.