Saturday, April 10, 2010

Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891 and died in a Soviet labor camp in the year 1938. The picture at left is of public record, taken after Mandelstam's first arrest. He once said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" In Mandelstam's case, this concept could not have been more accurate. His poetry, as well as his political views, made him a political enemy of the state. He was arrested, exiled, and sent to a work camp where he ultimately died of illness. The poem I liked best out of the ones I read is as follows:

"What shall I do with this body they gave me"

What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me?

For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,
tell me, who should I bless?

I am the flower, and the gardener as well,
and am not solitary, in earth’s cell.

My living warmth, exhaled, you can see,
on the clear glass of eternity.

A pattern set down,
until now, unknown.

Breath evaporates without trace,
but form no one can deface.

Mandelstam's speaker is questioning the meaning of his life. The last three stanzas get to the very heart of the poem's meaning. Like fog on a glass, the trace of this man will disappear shortly after his breath stops unless he does something that will cement him permenatly into the minds of humanity. In this case, the very poem is that cement. If "form no one can deface," but "breath evaporates without trace," then the only way to make words permanent is to write them down. If Mandelstam is indeed the speaker, then he is questioning the direction his life has taken. As mentioned above, Osip feels that poetry, especially in Russia, is a force to be reckoned with. If he can immortalize himself in his poetry, then his life will have meaning.

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