Russian Acmeist Poetry: The Lyrical Warriors of Reality
In 1912, a group of Russian poets decided to change poetry as a reaction against Symbolism; they formed one that would be closer to reality.
Beauty is not the whim of a semigod,
It is the relentless eye of a simple carpenter.
Fall, 1912. As if it were borrowed from one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels, in the utmost secrecy, a group of people gathers to plot about the future of poetry. They are six young and passionate poets: Gumilev, Gorodetsky, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Narbur and Zenkevich, their skin worn thin by the glacial weather of Saint Petersburg.
Tired of Symbolist rhetoric and mysticism, these six young fellows decide to inaugurate a new poetry. It will be one of clarity, of chiseled verse, underpinned with sobriety and the carpenter’s precision. They would take their name from the Greek word akmé, which means the maximum degree of something or it blossoming–– they will derive the name Acmeism to baptize their new creature.
Artisans of the verb, the Acmeists would devote their inspiration to poetry of objects and facts, returning to Pushkin’s purity of language and realism. Their goal would be to make poetry an evident object of knowledge. Where the symbolist poet becomes lost, disoriented by the fog of his metaphorical excesses and his intricate verbal devices, the Acmeist stops to talk about that which surrounds him, and sets his creative impulses clearly and with simplicity.
A plain swing of wood;
the dark, of the high fir-tree,
in the far-off garden, swinging;
remembered by feverish blood.
Mandelstam’s verses reflect what Acmeism meant to its creators. They called their gatherings the Poets’ Workshop, thus reasserting themselves as an essentially artisanal poetry.
The Acmeists had to develop their poetry during a bleak era. The Soviet regime would not tolerate poetry that did not fit perfectly within the purposes of its political campaign. In turn, Acmeism was an independent genre which dared to raise its voice against a brutal regime such as Stalin’s. Those young men, who with the fire of a new hope forged one of the most important poetic currents of the 20th century, would have their lives crushed by the infernal machinery of the regime.
Akhmatova’s poems were banned. She was accused of treason and was immediately deported, while her first husband, Gumiliov, poet and founder of the movement, was shot. Her second husband would die of exhaustion in a Gulag and Mandelstam would experience a similar fate. He was denounced and arrested in 1934, because of a poem he wrote which opposed Stalin; he was initially sentenced to three years in exile in the Urals, and later deported to Kolyma, where he died in a field on December 27, 1938.
The Acmeists’ refusal to be blind poets who use a metaphysical zealousness to step away from the immediacy of the world, and thus the terrible things that too often happen there, led them to ostracism and execution.
Their poetry used hope to melt the moral frost of an infamous dictatorship. They brandished their verses as if they were polished mirrors to try to make way for themselves in a reality that was governed by the narrow minds of fanatical rulers. Despite everything, they never gave up on their impulse to criticize reality through poetry. Their verses, as if they had just left a woodworker’s workshop, still have their evocative power and an indisputable relevance.
To love the existence of the object more than the object itself, and existence more than oneself: that is Acmeism’s supreme commandment.
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