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This article is taken from PN Review 15, Volume 7 Number 1, September - October 1980.

Marginal Notes on the Prose of the Poet Mandelstam John Pilling

In a famous essay of 1935, Roman Jakobson compares the poet who has strayed into the fields of prose with a mountaineer who can find no foothold in the plain and stumbles over level ground; 'he moves either with touching awkwardness or with over-emphatic artistry. In either case it is not his natural gait, but involves obvious effort and looks too much like the steps of a dancer'. The immediate context for these remarks is the case of Pasternak, whom Jakobson elevates to the level of Pushkin, Heine, Mallarmé and others as an instance of almost achieved, but ultimately incomplete, 'bilingualism'. Eager as he is to dissociate himself from textbook definitions that drive a wedge between prose and poetry, Jakobson cannot rid himself of the tendency, which he describes as Futurist in origin, to identify art with poetry and to make the revival of Russian prose dependent on poets who have made 'brilliant sallies from the mountains of poetry into the plains of prose'. The five modern poets whom he sees as models for the future are Bryusov, Bely, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky and Pasternak.

The list now looks strangely selective, as in some quarters it must have seemed forty-five years ago. Bryusov in particular appears to be in rather elevated company, and it is unclear what the role of Mayakovsky in the stimulus of prose could conceivably have been. Khlebnikov's influence appears to have been small and perhaps confined, among the major writers, to Olesha, the author of ...


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