No. 6


Véronique Lossky  


“Avant-garde” features in Tsvetaeva’s poetry, with special 
reference to the Pied Piper and the Poem of the Air. 


It is almost a common place to range Tsvetaeva in the category of “avant-garde poets”. Although Tsvetaeva herself always stressed the fact that she did not belong to any poetic school of her time, _ and they were  numerous at the beginning of the twentieth century _ later, when discussing the distinctive features of her poetry, scholars always talk of modernism and note analogies with Majakovsky’s or Khlebnikov’s works. Tsvetaeva herself didn’t ever speak of avant-garde  aspects of her creation, but her poetry obviously bears futuristic and modernistic aspects in many variations, her verbal inventiveness being obviously only one of them.
     Therefore it seems interesting to study more closely Tsvetaeva as an “avant-garde” poet, even if innovations do not always coincide with “avant-garde” poetry or modern art in general.(1) One must also admit that in Russian culture, avant-garde trends find themselves on a verging point where literature, philosophy and picturesque forms of art meet. For example Kandinsky, in his move towards abstract painting or Malevitch with his cult of intuition are close to Tsvetaeva’s verbal research in the realm of a domination of the spirit over the material world and her desire to flee from life, as expressed in particular in the poems I propose to examine.(2)
     It is interesting to note that just as she does it in her short lyrics; Tsvetaeva has a tendency to compose her longer works in a cyclic manner, as if her inspiration drove her to work around one particular idea, almost repetitively, even if for each of her poems, she uses various different and personal or historical events. Her main idea, as in the systematic thought of a philosopher, is always metaphysical: she questions the purpose of human life in the face of death, the place of man in the world, the role for a human being of literary or artistic creation (3). Tsvetaeva started writing long lyrical and epic poetic texts in Russia, some years before she came to the West; these compositions go by groups. Among them I have chosen The Pied Piper and The Poem of the Air (4) because they seem to be good examples of her modernism; also because these two works belong to different cycles, The Pied Piper can go into the category of folk tales, whereas The Poem of the Air is a philosophical composition in verse. And finally, because, in the history of her creative life, these poems were composed, one at the beginning of her period of life outside Russia, the other before she left France.
The subject

Every cultured western reader knows the subject of “The Rat Catcher” (5), based on a German folktale. A provincial town is invaded with rats which may personify a revolutionary element brutally disruptive in a conformist society; the musician is understood as personifying the Poet. He plays the flute and offers to deliver the town from the rats, but ends by taking the children away from the town and they all disappear behind the neighboring mountain. It is his revenge because the town hall Maire failed his promise to give away his daughter as a bride to the musician. 
     The subject of the Poem of the Air is much more difficult to summarize. It is very well expressed in the title. But further, one is at a loss: is it the story of a journey across the air, as a memory of Lindbergh’s exploit when he flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927? Or that of a cosmic journey? Or rather the tale of a human travel across time and space, presumably across life towards death? The number of question marks shows the difficulty of the answer. 
     For The Pied Piper, Tsvetaeva had German sources: the actual medieval legend as retold in the Brothers Grimm’s transcription, Goethe’s poem and last but not least, the poem by H. Heine, whose poetry Tsvetaeva knew well and appreciated. For The Poem of the Air, Tsvetaeva took her own admiration for Lindbergh as a starting point for this dream of flight across the air.   
     I will try to show that in her usage of a folk tale as of a historical event, Tsvetaeva takes a way of creation which is absolutely in keeping with the different trends of thought, of verbal expression or of pictorial art of her time. The beginning of the last century was a period of turmoil in Russia with the ripening of a strong political uprising, while in Western Europe it was the age of research, great technical discoveries and achievements. 
Verbal innovations 

Verbal creation is the first trend which strikes the contemporary reader and makes the two poems so modern.
     In The Pied Piper, Tsvetaeva uses Russian folk means of expression such as folk songs, rhythms and vocabulary endowed with modern semantics, as well as Revolutionary slogans of the Russian urban landscape and street cries, to which she adds a personal usage of the German language, which she knew perfectly well and which she translates for her Russian speaking reader (6). An example of her verbal “playing” on double meanings is the spelling of the name of the place. Originally the German town is called  Hamelin, she spells it ”Hammeln” adding to the name the idea of a cow (in German “Hammel” is “a cow”, and the “Hammelbratenof” in the 4th Canto is a piece of nice  roast beef), meaning: Hammeln is the town of the cow; for the usage of revolutionary slogans it is interesting to remember the author’s saying that this poem was for her as an order coming not from Revolution,  but  from the rats themselves; to describe this, she uses a very expressive Russian neologism : ”krysoprikaz” meaning  “Ratorder” (in her Essay Natalia Goncharova). Besides, there are elements of satire which creep into the expression of ridicule, for example the “ode to the button” in the 1st Canto, which figures the particular orderly way of life in the town of Hammeln. In the description of a paradise of which the inhabitants of the town could dream, the very short word in Russian:  “Rai”, is used as a prefix to show that the paradise suitable for the people who live there is entirely conventional. Or she uses the word “town” as a soviet suffix, added to adverbs to express a specific manner of behavior. Elsewhere she takes the preverbal prefix with the meaning of “over” or “too much” (“pere” in  Russian) added to nouns, verbs or adverbs, the neologisms then  mock the habits of the notabilities of the town, like“ too much-eat”, “too much-sleep”, “too much -dinner”, “too much-sheep”, “too much-cure” etc. The music played by the musician is expressed in particularly primitive words such as “Ti-ri-ram” or “Ti-ri-li”: the poet thus shows that he can use nothing else but the sound of his flute to seduce the rats. Later the flutist will put his music into words, but this refrain “ti-ri-li” will remain until the end with the dreadful final rime added: “puzyri” meaning the bubbles which rise from the water over the drowned children. This device is only a particular example of Tsvetaeva’s usual manner which consists in destroying sayings, clichés or stamped expressions (pogovorki), by changing one of the terms of the comparison, as she does  for her  description of the dreams people have during their  night sleep in the 1st Canto; also the verse taking up one of Gorki’s saying(in his play Na dne), which has become a cliché: “A man _ it sounds as  proud ” changed in to“ A citizen of the town of Hammeln _ it sound as proud”; or the nice Neapolitan saying“ to see Naples and die” which in her transformation becomes: “to see Hammeln and die”(1st Canto). 
     In The Poem of the Air (7) verbal intensiveness is very different. Tsvetaeva depicts a very fast journey across the air and her use of adjectives or prefixes is perhaps what is most striking. As the author numbers the air across which her hero is flying, she donates to each of the six types or layers of air different qualities. Therefore she uses more adjectives than verbs and mostly in a comparative forms, as if saying that the air is always “more something” than one thought. And the number of neologism and irregular or invented comparative forms for these adjectives gives all these words new meanings. There is in the description of the first air a dominant sound “o” and the whole movement is difficult, dark and lonely, but fast. The third air is dominated by the sound “e”, the general feeling is triumphant and  even if the flying man is inside “a bag of gas” or  “the stone  bag of his lung”, meaning the airplane and the difficulty of this  journey across the air,  there is a playing with  words around this notion of lung , because in Russian, this word also means “light”,  and the difficulty for the hero comes from his  parting with weight or heaviness .  
     Another aspect of modernity in Tsvetaeva’s dealing with her subject in these two texts is a constant dialogue with the reader. In Hammeln the reader is brought into the fore in order to ridicule the habits of the bourgeois inhabitants of the town. In the ode to the button mentioned above, the reader is called to act as a judge of the situation. The dialogue is more subtle in The Poem of the Air but the first four verses create an intonation which spreads to the whole poem:

          “There. This is the distich 
          Of the beginning. The first nail.
          The door has stilled. As if a door 
          With a guest behind it.” 

     And the breathless reader is frequently asked to feel that the comparison is as just as it can be and the feeling just as precise (8). 

Myth Creation

In her own works, Tsvetaeva was from the start a great creator of myths,   the myth of her own poetic persona being the first of them. By the time she left Russia in 1922, her own mythology was completely achieved. After being the author of youth lyrics, she had become a poet with her own particular system of values, a person of very marked ethics, with a strong protestant tendency to spartiate tastes and ways of life, in a world which she mostly rejected because of its political or material spirit of compromise. She was also, from the start, a great formal innovator.
     To use mythology or history in a work of art is a general modern tendency of her time; The Pied Piper and The Poem of the Air both make use of historical events: one has become the history of a particular society in a very bourgeois German town, the other a contemporary event already becoming history because of the technical achievement described. But Tsvetaeva introduced in the themes of these two works very personal interpretations which give the events a new lyrical sense of a particularly dramatic fate. The moral at the end of a folk tale is usually quite clear and the historical event taken as subject of creation brings no surprise. But Tsvetaeva interprets them in accordance with her own idea of the life of an artist being inseparable from a great sacrifice: the children are drowned in the neighboring lake for the love of music; the flying man’s exploit is a flight out of life.
     The semantic strings of notions or objects, built in contrasting categories by the poet, such as: wet/dry;  thick/empty; sound/silence ; fire/darkness; familiar /strange; life /death, or a whole page of oppositions, for example in Krysolov, 2d Canto, lead to a general impression of uneasiness and  physical oppression. This brings to the fore an accent put on the physical aspect of human life, which is also a modern trend. 


The structure of the two Poems is seemingly very logical. In The Pied Piper the moral interpretation of what is good and what is evil, which should be very clear as it is suitable for a folk tale, in fact shifts, from the 4th Canto, when the music enters the story as a full persona. The sounds are luring at first to the rats when the musician describes “Hindustan”, the wonderful and remote country where all the rats will finally go. Then the music shifts to a description of paradise for children. It seems as if the whole system of material goods so valuable for the inhabitants in the first Canto had completely disappeared; children dream of something  entirely different, but to them very familiar, described by the luring name of “paradise for children”, which is also the name of this final chapter. In it the children are seduced by various  pleasant perspectives, such as no school, or evening soup, or orders from the grown ups, or measles and chicken-pox, or ringing of the clock in the morning, or quick washing in tubs, or letters of the alphabet ; the paradise at times takes the form of beloved objects : toys, sweets, riding in boats or going fishing; the topography follows the pace which gets quicker; the children cling to the song and  just follow each other, without really understanding what they are doing. And the end gives no answer, except the word “puzyri ” ” rhyming with the “Ti-ri-li” of the flute. 
     The system of images is usually built along the principle of a dualistic world: the song of the flute is the luring vision of India, described by Tsvetaeva in very sarcastic terms, opposed to the down to earth system established in the town of Hammel. One should add that the seduction of this remote place, being one of the usual devices of modern Russian and European poets, may also come from a desire to ridicule Trotsky’s conception of the world revolution, which was to start by the conquest of India (9). A vision of urban peace and order described in the first Cantos is disrupted by the invasion of rats. Later in the poem the rats in their turn become a bourgeois peaceful and orderly society: then it is the musician who brings chaos and disruption. Thus the usual world of objects and every day life is disorganized by a new way of seeing it, a usual device in modern art, which gives a simultaneous vision of numerous perspectives.
     In The Poem of the Air the whole system of images is also built on a dualistic vision of the world with a first very strong stress on the idea of going up and of breathing: “voz-dukh”: in Russian “voz”gives the direction upwards and “dukh” the spirituality of it (10). Each layer of air has a quality which carries along the abandoning of particular elements; the abandoned goods are richness, or crops, or beauty, or other objects, but specifically material. The flight  gives  no pleasure through its lightness, because it is performed in complete darkness and  it is achieved in terrible loneliness; besides  in the last but one part the breathing becomes as interrupted and hectic as in  real agony. The journey across different layers of space give a very precise description of the elements of every day life which are abandoned during the crossing at very high and troublesome speed, at first with a companion, then in absolute loneliness. One finds again a duality of images corresponding to the abandonment of human feelings and objects, if one accepts the interpretation that the poem describes a journey out of space and time, meaning out of life. There is in the different stages of the journey, the same unpleasant feeling as there was in the material world of Hammeln: in Hammeln it is oppressive order in the Air it is chaos; but here the great succession of countries and of cultural references drives in the idea of considerable and growing distance although without progression, except that each layer of space is numbered. It is a kind of sliding along the usual world which distorts the perspective and gives unexpected shapes to familiar objects. One is reminded of the device of “estrangement” put forward by formalist critics when analyzing ninetieth century Russian prose. But here the images are meant to bring forth a physical sensation or an image of an unconscious and fantastic world; one recognizes in that effort the impact of discoveries in the fields of medicine or psychology, which at the beginning of the twentieth century were very new. Thus the story of the town of Hammeln describes different kinds of order coming into disorder, ending by death; the journey in the “stone bag of the lung” takes the reader across seven spaces, the air ends in sounds and a shock and the final picture is that of an indescribable victory of the spirit above time and space, materialized by the peak of a gothic church! 


The four elements are present in different forms in the two stories: fire (the comet of Krysolov), earth and air, water, and of course mainly a philosophical treatment of time and space: it is either still and suggestive, as it is in the description of smells in the town Hammeln, or in the numerous colors of remote countries felt and crossed during the flight. Or on the contrary, it is dynamic as offered in the chaotic vision of space, or in the frightening possible future of political history with the rats, or the musician as a symbol of power. At the same time, no doubt, the musician expresses Tsvetaeva’s understanding of the Poet: he is the one who  brings disorder in an orderly life, revolution in a society with well established rules, be it the rules of Hammeln laws or of Rat rules; art tolerates no compromise and  may lead to death . The idea of a sacrifice to art is present throughout the whole poem. During the flight across time and space as materialized by Lindbergh, the notion of creation is constantly present through the efforts the lonely hero makes, going from one step of “airlessness” to the next. 
All aspects of life along space lines and logical divisions of time are ruled out. One has a constant impression of going further. The difference between the two poems is that in the folktale the rules are set, the reader knows them. In the journey out of air, the destination is unknown and frightening. The general conclusion the reader makes of these stories is a vision of a dislocated world, like in the portrait of a person by an abstract painter. It is as if the romantic ideal of Tsvetaeva’s youth and her belief in a better life than that of her down to earth existence was now, in her maturity, replaced by a modern vision of chaos, discovered by contemporary science and figured in contemporary art.
     Pasternak in his letter to Tsvetaeva about Krysolov underlined its great quality of “potentialities” (11), meaning the physical quality of the language, the numerous voices of the poem, in fact the polyphonic quality of the discourse. This polyphony is a very modern kind of judgment. In contemporary criticism, there is a constant search for different points of view of the same fact as in the cinema, where one picture glides into another and the numerous changes create meaning.  It would be an understatement to say that these two works are concerned with life beyond death (12). Tsvetaeva herself gave that interpretation to The Poem of the Air, when a young friend asked her how it is when one dies (13). In these two poems written at the beginning and at the end of her life out of Russia, Tsvetaeva explains as explicitly as she ever did her vision of the main values of human life. She does it in terms of art, which is as she often made it clear, is her only purpose in life; and in verse as her poetic work was her main object. This vision may be interpreted as pessimistic, since it gives a picture of life after death. It is certainly not Christian, although there is an allusion to the Resurrection in the middle and a Gothic spire at the end of The Poem of the Air. It is a vision of a kind of being beyond words, beyond figures and beyond the human soul. The water which covers the heads of children at the end of Krysolov means precisely that desire not to give more details about this kind of life. The Poem of the Air explicitly names cohorts of figures, strings of ideas, but the triumphant life of the spirit is one where the hero, rid of a physical body, has only one part of his body left: his head, with the addition of wings, both symbolic and physical, and he flies very fast upwards, beyond air, space and time towards the victory of spirit.


     To these various observations on Tsvetaeva’s art in poetic  language, on the original composition of the two poems, on her  dualistic system of images resting on a particular vision of life, one should   add the story of her “non-meeting ” with Akhmatova in 1940, in Moscow (14). Then their conversation, which lasted for several hours, didn’t bring any mutual comprehension: Akhmatova quoted her Poem without a hero, which Tsvetaeva interpreted, wrongly, as a nostalgic vision of Petersburg at the beginning of the century; Tsvetaeva read her Poem of the Air and Akhmatova interpreted this new style as “zaoum’” or the “transmental language” invented and used by Khlebnikov in his futuristic compositions. It is tempting to range Tsvetaeva among the futurist poets. But her position, although borrowing many trends of “avant-garde” poetry, remains different. Even if her verbal innovations are very modern, her neologisms are never obscure. They take some effort to be understood, but never go beyond meaning. Certainly her vision of the world is prophetic: death and chaotic deconstruction in the age of the scission of atom are familiar to her. It is also worth mentioning that her strong belief in the existence of the world beyond is close to intuitivism as a means of knowledge. She may not have been familiar with H. Bergson’s and N. Lossky‘s philosophical treatises, but these trends of thoughts inevitably influenced her own conceptions. The final lines of The Poem of the Air give an answer to some problems of interpretation, when one remembers that intuition is a way of understanding the unknown, described by  Malevitch as the “seven circles of perfection” and close to  Kandinsky’s “total spirituality” (15).  It is interesting to note, now,  almost a century later, that  Tsvetaeva is taking her place in  Russian culture between two classics, both of whom she  revered: Pushkin as the first Russian poet and Majakovsky as the closest to her. Indeed Pushkin’s dialogue with his reader in Eugene Onegin drives one to a comparison with Tsvetaeva’s sarcastic narrator’s remarks in Krysolov; on the other hand Majakovskij’s creation of his myth of his own self is very reminiscent of Tsvetaeva’s. So definitely belonging  to the general“ avant-garde ” flow or Russian culture  in the first half of  the twentieth century, Tsvetaeva at the same time keeps her own original identity, with her belief in an  otherworldly triumphant life, for the description of which she goes on and on in her works, creating always new and different forms of expression.
     Her central theme is always that of non-being and her works a constant effort to flee from it towards a victorious type of real and genuine being, which she sometimes describes only in negative or “apophatic” terms.

Paris, April 2006

1   This study is much indebted to A. Smith’s book: The Song of the Mocking bird. Pushkin in the Work of Marina Tsvetaeva, Peter Lang Wien 1994 and  her yet unpublished work Mountageing Pushkin, Canterbury, New Zealand 2006 , also  Viktor Vlasov and Natalia Lukina Avangardizm, modernizm postmodernizm, Azbuka —Klassika, Sankt-Peterburg 2005, in particular the articles on avangardism: p. 17-23 on futurism, p. 274-279 and “ interaktivnost’ ” p. 102-104.
2   See in this connection the very interesting articles by N. Osipova:”’ Poema Vozdukha’ Tsvetaevoi kak sjuprematicheskaja kompozitsija”and “Tvorchestvo Tsvetaevoi v kontekste esteticheskikh iskanii russkoi khudoghestvennoi emigratsii. (Kandinski)” in Marina Tsvetaeva, Desjataja konferentsija, and Odinnadtsataja konferentsija,  sborniki dokladov, Dom—muzei Tsvetaevoi, Moskva 2003 and 2004; and also her book: Tvorchestvo Mariny Tsvetaevoj v kontekste kul’turnoi mifologii Serebrjanogo veka, Kirov, 2000, the second part of which is almost entirely devoted to a study of Tsvetaeva’s poem Krysolov.
3   The cyclic structure of Tsvetaeva’s Poemy is brilliantly analyzed in various articles by E.Korkina: “ Liricheskaja Trilogija Tsvetaevoj ” in Marina Tsvetaeva, 1892-1992, Norvichskii simpozium, Vermont 1992, the introduction to M.Tsvetaeva Poemy , St Petersburg 1994, and “ Liritcheskii sjujet v “ fol’klornykh ” poemakh Mariny Tsvetaevoi, in Russkaja Literatura 1987 N°4 ;
4   Both Poema’s are published in the 7 volumes édition: Marina Tsvetaeva, Sobranie Sochinenij v semi tomakh, T.3 Poemy, Dramaticheskie proizvedenija, “ Krysolov ”pp. 51-108. and “Poema vozdukha”pp. 137-144
5   The history of this legend and different sources of inspiration for Tsvetaeva are told in the book by  Inessa malinkovich, Sud’ba starinnoj Legendy, Moskva 1994.
6   The Pied piper has been translated into English by Angela Livingstone: the Rat-catcher: a lyrical satire. London, Angel books 1999; to my knowledge, Angela Livingstone has also presently finished a translation of The Poem of the Air.
7   One finds a very inspiring analysis of Tsvetaeva’s Poem of the Air by M.Gasparov, as early as 1994, reprinted in his book On Russian Poetry, published in St.  Petersburgh, Azbuka 2001, pp. 150-175. In it, the author gives a division of the poem into eight parts corresponding to different layers of speca, crossed by the hero, each of them proposing an explanation of the feelings and thoughts the hero experiences entering into a new kind of space. A French translation of the poem is proposed by Jacques Darras and myself, Marina Tsvetaeva, Le Poème de l’Air, Le cri, Bruxelles 1994.
8   The second conference on Tsvetaeva in the Moscow Museum was devoted to The Poem of the Air published in Sbornik dokladov, Moskva 1994.
9   see N. Ossipova, 2000, op. cit.p. 192.
10   a cunning remark by N. Ossipova, 2003, op cit, p. 57. 
11   Marina Tsvetaeva Boris Pasternak, Pis’ma 1922-1936, Vagrius, Moskva 2004,p. 232.
12   The actual word “death” is present only twice in the two poems. See in that respect Slovar’ poeticheskogo Jazyka Mariny Tsvetaevoj, Tom IV, kniga 1, p. 498.
13   This interpretation is quoted in most books relating Tsvetaeva’s last weeks of life in Moscow in 1940. See for example, M.Belkina, Propavshaja tetrad’, Moskva-Bolshevo, Eksprint, 2002, p. 94  
14   This meeting is described by all biographers of the two poets, for example,  in my book Chant de Femmes Le Cri, Bruxelles 1994, p. 45-53. One of the interpretations is a possible influence of Tsvetaeva’s poem on Akhmatova’s numerous rewriting of hers. See in Véronique Lossky, op.cit.p.218-220; in the Russian version of the book Pesni Jenschin,1999 (p. 265-267).
15   These expression borrowed from the two painters are discussed in the article by N.Ossipova, quoted above (2003, p. 57-58).




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