This guest contribution comes from Kathleen O’Neil.
Kate attended McGill University in Montreal and has had her art history, literary criticism, and poetry published. She travels extensively, especially to see Etruscan cave tombs and to try regional cuisines. She is an editor at LitNav, which highlights mostly new (and sometimes classic) poets and poetry.
People often struggle to connect to poetry from the time period in which Anna Akhmatova wrote. The majority of the poetry of her time was written in a formal style and overwhelmingly authored by men. Much of it consists of men lusting after women—something I did not find too deep or appealing when I was a child. What I didn’t realize is that a poem could flout these conventions, and that there is even classical poetry by women that does this—you just have to dig to find it.
A famous exception to this is Sylvia Plath‘s intense, emotion-filled work. Her work is open and honest, not hidden behind society’s demand for female humility and modesty. Many non-poetry lovers read Plath’s poetry despite not having a special interest in verse. If you like Plath, you will find another accessible writer in the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who lived from 1889 to 1966.
Akhmatova’s first famous poem was strikingly feminist, especially given the time period and region she wrote it in. This poem, called “I don’t need legs anymore,” makes you immediately think that she might be saying, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Read on and consider what she’s implying.
I don’t need legs anymore,
Let them turn into a fish’s tail!
I’m swimming and the coolness is delightful,
The far-off bridge grows dimly white.
I don’t need a submissive soul,
Let it turn into smoke, a wisp of smoke
Of tender, light blue
Flying over the blackened quay.
See how deeply I dive,
Clutching seaweed in my hands,
No one’s words will I repeat
And on one’s longing will capture me…
But you, my distant one, is it true
That you’ve become sadly mute and pale?
What’s this I hear? That for three whole weeks
You’ve been whispering: “Why, unhappy girl?”
This piece can make you suddenly look at your life through a different lens; were there times that a man’s “longing [did] capture you” in a negative way? Perhaps in a relationship you felt compromised in, but didn’t feel you could escape from? I know I have.
On another level, it echoes with the reality of modern mental health. So many are suffering alone in silence from problems like OCD or depression. The lines “Why, unhappy girl?” could be a reiteration of a contemporary woman’s frustration towards being told (by a man) to smile.
Of course, there is no easy answer, even if the question is directed towards the self.
Akhmatova wrote many pieces that could be mistaken for Auden’s poetry on tragedies, like “In Memoriam, July 19, 1914.” Written to react to Germany declaring war on Russia (by their older, different calendar), this poem suggests unknowable tragedy:
We aged a hundred years and this descended
In just one hour, as at a stroke.
The summer had been brief and now was ended;
The body of the ploughed plains lay in smoke.
The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
A book of portents terrible to read.
Just like Plath, Akhmatova’s work goes beyond merely witnessing and recording reality: Akhmatova puts uniquely female moments into concrete words.
There is more information about Akhmatova in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Poetry Foundation has a page for her and several translated poems.
The poem “I don’t need legs anymore” is on the web in its entirety, it is translated from the Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer (from Vecher, 1912) here.
There are many of her poems translated by A.S. Kline (2005) here.
There are more poems here as well.