On the base of the monument to Walt Whitman in Moscow, one can read the following words, from a letter by the American poet “You Russians and we Americans!… So far apart from each other, so seemingly different, and yet in ways that are most important, our countries are so alike.”
This conference aims to illuminate these essential similarities indicated by Whitman, beyond geographical and cultural distances. And while the gap, which had become political and ideological, hindered the movements of men and texts for most of the 20th century, Russian (or Soviet) and American poetries remained connected. We wish to examine how their links have been distorted by political context and censorship, but also how they have been constantly reinvented.
- The Russian American Canon
What Russian poetry do Americans read, what American poetry do Russians read? Which texts are considered classics? It is customary to distinguish the institutional canon from the writers’ canon. In the Soviet context, this distinction becomes even more relevant: what is translated, distributed and taught, is part of a highly organized cultural State policy (the Gorki Institute, the World Literature Editions, official events, such as tours organized for African American writers), while some works, precisely because they do not meet official requirements, are prestigious and inspiring (e.g. the Beat poets for Evtushenko and Voznesensky). What is this underground canon? Is the canon of Russian poetry in the United States as highly polarized? Some poets, banned in the USSR, were published in the United States, where they were acclaimed as dissenters, while some canonical Soviet references (Mayakovsky) took on a strong subversive value in the context of McCarthyism and a widespread fear of communism. Do these Soviet references still belong to a common Russian culture in the eyes of American readers?
The question is also about the historical poetic canon and we will take a special interest in poetic anthologies and literary histories. It should be noted, for example, that histories of Russian literature have often been written in English by Russian émigrés (such as D. S. Mirsky), whose biases should be examined and whose influence should be traced.
Reflecting on the elaboration of these canons also raises the question of the tension between a national conception and a global conception: both American and Russian literatures have questioned very consciously their own roles in the development of a national awareness and a collective identity, which they have tried to define. The “national poet” plays a particularly strong role in these two cultures. However, in the young Soviet Union, a new idea of World literature was defined, which determined an international canon accordingly. How do national and international perspectives interfere, if they interfere at all?
- Ways and means
How did texts circulate? How were they distributed, either officially or clandestinely? How is the dissemination of poetry related to the fates and movements of men themselves (official journeys, such as Mayakovsky’s tour in America in 1925, migrations, exiles)? Without excluding the well-known cases of Vladimir Nabokov or Joseph Brodsky, it would be interesting to focus on less studied figures, for example Yiddish-speaking poets who emigrated to the United States and brought with them another part of Russia. One can wonder who acted as intermediaries to facilitate crossings between Russia and the United States. Many American poets are from Russian descent (Marya Zaturenska, Allen Ginsberg, Howard Nemerov, Louis Simpson): do their works bear the trace of Russian poetry or the memory of a language that they did not necessarily speak? If Nabokov and Brodsky have (partly) switched to English, most emigrant poets in the United States chose (and still choose) to write in Russian: how are they published and distributed?
Communist organizations, publishers, magazines and other media played a very important role in Russian and American poetic exchanges (New Masses for example). One can therefore wonder how these highly politicized institutions exerted control over the poetic production. Conversely, texts circulated in an unofficial or even clandestine way. By what channels did Russian poets banned in their own country manage to be published in the United States? Did samizdat contribute to the dissemination of censored American works in the USSR?
- Translations and homages
How should American poetry be translated into Russian, how should Russian poetry be translated into English? Modern American poets largely write in free verse, while Russian poets have continued to practice almost exclusively metrical forms. The difficulties of any poetic translation are therefore exacerbated. What choices are made in terms of meters and rhymes? In addition, poets themselves acted as translators – in the case of Soviet poets, often because they were commissioned to do so. Some American poets, well known to the general public, and not necessarily fluent in Russian (Robert Lowell, W. S. Merwin), participated in landmark anthologies, or wrote translations whose status and authorship are complex (such as the “Imitations” of Pasternak by Lowell). Can poetic voices, as different as they can sometimes be, merge in translation, is there such a thing as “textual metabolism”?
It is also remarkable that many American poets have written tributes to Russian poets (Lowell to Akhmatova or Gjertud Schnackenberg to Mandelstam): these poems are very much based on quotation or rewriting, and their creative process is therefore not that different from poetic translation. How does poetic creation itself ensure the transmission, in space and in time, of texts from another culture?
Accommodation and meals will be provided for by the conference organization, but travel expenses will remain at the cost of the participants, as well as registration fees (yet to be determined).