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This article is taken from PN Review 21, Volume 8 Number 1, September - October 1981.

Life and the Poet: Marina Tsvetaeva John Pilling

'THERE are countries,' wrote Roman Jakobson in 1930, 'where the madness of the brave, the stake of the martyr and the Golgotha of the poet are not merely figurative expressions.' Though forced (like many émigrés) to publish in Berlin, it was of his native Russia that Jakobson was thinking and, though he was mindful of the destinies of Blok, Gumilyov, Khlebnikov and Esenin, his primary concern was with the suicide of Mayakovsky. All Russians, whether émigrés, supporters of the Soviet system, or exponents of 'inner emigration', seem to have been provoked by Mayakovsky's death into determining its meaning. Yet the Western reader of today is likely to think of other Russian poets to whom Jakobson's words may be applied: of Mandelstam, certainly, and-increasingly-of Marina Tsvetaeva. In 1930 Jakobson was writing about 'a generation that squandered its poets'; we now know that the squandering continued into the next generation and beyond. The fate of Mandelstam has become imprinted on our minds; it offers itself as the plainest and most potent example of the mindless harrassment of a poet by a totalitarian regime. The meaning of Tsvetaeva's fate is less easily expressed; it is not the stuff of which serviceable myths may be made. One is best advised, no doubt, to approach it without having recourse to figurative expressions, however literally they may be read. Yet, as Pasternak said, 'to write about her, you must bring all your powers of expression to bear'. The following is an attempt to plot certain ...


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