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The Unknown Nabokov, part 1: Poetic Prose or Prosaic Poetry?

By Bryan Karetnyk.

Contemporary criticism of Nabokov’s poetry often makes for amusing reading. As infrequent as it is—the criticism, that is, not the poetry—one cannot help but feel that most critics are never entirely sure what to make of the stuff; there seems to be an elephant in the room, which none of them wants to admit, and so circumlocution often flits about the quality of the work. A reader will encounter such terms as ‘notable’, ‘mixed’, ‘secondary’—what wonderful euphemism!—but could the genius who penned Lolita and Ada really have been a writer of second-rate verse? Some aver, although seldom in so many words, that his poetry just doesn’t measure up to his prose, but the reasoning behind this often remains obscure or contestable at best. It’s one of the instances where critical intuition appears to fall flat at every turn, and, what’s more, the spectre of self-doubt attending these critics as they write is ever palpable, with none quite sure whether or not he’s missed some (perhaps Nabokovian) trick. Has he? Well, not quite . . .

It’s easy to overlook the extent to which verse pervades Nabokov’s entire œuvre. When we cast together the words Nabokov and poetry, Pale Fire, the author’s so-called literary ‘Jack-in-the-box’, is surely the first (and, for some, perhaps, only) thing that springs to mind. But there is in fact a substantial corpus of the verse-writing to the author’s credit. Whether overshadowed by the dazzling brilliance of his prose work or neglected on a premise of lesser quality or import, there’s no denying that poetry was integral to Nabokov’s output; indeed, it was almost omnipresent, a constant apparition throughout his art as it was his life. So, in beginning, it’s important to clarify one point: Nabokov’s poetic endeavours are to be found across the full spectrum of his writing. In addition to a considerable body of stand-alone verse, we mustn’t forget the subtler appearances made by his poesy. Indeed, much of his prose, for example, is peppered with snatches, lone stanzas, even entire works: think of Fyodor’s first attempts at versification in The Gift, think of Humbert Humbert’s ‘Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze’, think of the ballad ‘My sister, do you still recall’ from Ada, which intermixes couplets in all three of Nabokov’s languages—English, French and Russian—in a single work, flaunting a certain linguistic virtuosity. Not only that, Nabokov was a prolific translator of poetry, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s, rendering many Russian works into English, from the classics to his contemporaries, from Russia’s Golden Age to its Silver Age (see Verses and Versions). Under the lyric pen, Carroll’s Alice even became Nabokov’s Anya, although perhaps not quite the nymphet that she might have been.

We may never know how much stand-alone verse Nabokov wrote. In his preface to Poems and Problems (1969), a short collection of poetry and chess compositions, Nabokov writes of the 39 poems included therein: ‘[they] represent only a small fraction—hardly more than one percent—of the steady mass of verse which I began to exude in my early youth, more than half a century ago, and continued to do so, with monstrous regularity, especially during the twenties and thirties.’ Even taken with a pinch of salt, the figure implied by this statement—well over 3,000—may seem exorbitant, but in less than two years, between 1916 and 1918, Nabokov had in fact penned over 300 poems; over the years he would continue to write poetry, regularly publishing in magazines and journals (albeit less frequently in later years) and having published by the time of his death in 1977 a whole eight books of the stuff. And so it’s with yet another, somewhat heftier, pinch of salt that we ought to take his wife Vera’s assertion in her preface to the posthumous 1979 volume, Poems, that the 247 works comprising it represented an ‘almost complete collection’ of her husband’s verse-writing. Read into that what you will.

So what can we say about Nabokov the poet? Certainly, he was the heritor of Ivan Bunin’s refined, silvery poetic legacy; in spite of the more ‘modern’ tastes of some contemporaries (even those like Blok and Gumilev, whom he admired), Nabokov remained true to the likes of Bunin’s and Khodasevich’s passion for classical prosody throughout. His juvenilia, while brandishing a prodigious mastery of poetic technique, nevertheless bears the hallmarks of most young poetasters’ early work: booklets of banal poems on love (yet to be experienced) and pastoral meditations on the natural world (flowers, birds, trees, spring, autumn, autumn, autumn . . .), the vast majority of which he would later disown, leaving their ink to fade and their paper to yellow, perhaps that same yellow of those golden autumns—metatextual synaesthesia, an all too Nabokovian irony.

Happily, however, this neophytic preoccupation with nature and adolescent love all but vanished by the 1920s. The years immediately following the Revolution witnessed an uncharacteristically guileless (certainly by later standards) period of verse-writing for Nabokov as he came to terms with the cruel realities of his new-found exilic status (see, for example, ‘On a Train’ and ‘Hotel Room’) and the murder of his father (see ‘Easter’). A transitional period of aesthetic experimentations in Byzantine and religious imagery also developed—note, however, that, by contrast, religion is conspicuously absent in most of his prose-writing—and is represented in the likes of ‘Peacocks’, ‘The Glasses of St Joseph’ and, most notably, ‘The Angels’, a cycle of nine poems with an introductory verse, each poem corresponding to one of the nine angelic orders. Nabokov, however, seems to have quickly exhausted his propensity for the purely aesthetic pleasures afforded to him by the religious world, and a more mature poetic output began contemporaneously with his prose composition—which was no coincidence.

From the early 1920s onwards, a strong narrative bent emerges, and it’s this ability for his poems, however short, to ‘tell a story’ that gives Nabokov’s mature work its distinctive voice. In 1927, just after the publication of Mary the previous year, ‘The University Poem’, Nabokov’s first sustained effort at narrative verse, appeared in Paris in the émigré journal Sovremenniya Zapiski. Based in part around his experiences studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, it bears tribute to Pushkin’s ‘novel in verse’ Eugene Onegin, with a playful inversion of its romantic subject matter and mimicry of form (sixty-three ‘Onegin’ stanzas). Thence onwards, his prose and his poetry developed side by side, each, in many cases, echoing the other. We see, for example, Nabokov’s critical eye cast over the lives of Russian émigrés in The Gift and Pnin and find resonances of this in ‘The Paris Poem’, ‘A Literary Dinner’ and ‘An Evening of Russian Poetry’; similarly, we see the precursor to little Lolita and her poor, russet-haired friend in The Enchanter—she never was endowed with a name—in the uncomfortably explicit poem ‘Lilith’ (‘. . . And with a wild / lunge of my loins I penetrated / into an unforgotten child’); political parallels with Bend Sinister and passionate invective against the tyranny of the (now explicit) Soviet State appear in other works such as ‘No matter how’ and ‘On Rulers’. But while they do expand on, provide (arguably) backgrounds to and alternative perspectives on many of their counterparts in prose, these works are undoubtedly, in and of themselves, exceptional examples of narrative precision. So it’s hardly surprising when we learn in Strong Opinions that Nabokov saw no ‘generic difference between poetry and artistic prose’, and, given the evidence, this seems about right. Just as his prose is often poetic, so too his poetry is, in turn, a concentrate of that same prose.

The pinnacle of Nabokov’s English poetry comes unsurprisingly during his American period, where we see not only the characteristic preoccupation with kitsch and Americana (‘The Refrigerator Awakens’, ‘Ode to a Model’), but also the development and culmination of the same philosophical themes that occupied his later prose: life, death and artistic creation. Typically, we find light, comic elements—in both content and form—betoken far darker undertones and complex philosophical subtleties: take, for example, ‘The Room’ (‘The room a dying poet took / at nightfall in a dead hotel / had both directories – the Book / of Heaven and the Book of Bell’) and ‘The Ballad of Longwood Green’, in which the protagonist Art Longwood climbs a tree, vanishing for ever more (‘None saw the delirious celestial crowds / Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds. / Mrs Longwood was getting a little concerned. / He never came down. He never returned’).

I alluded earlier to the fact that critics have a troubled relationship with Nabokov’s poetry. Traditionally, it’s been much less popular than his prose work, and, indeed, there’s certainly something elusive and fundamentally different dividing Nabokov’s poetry from that of most others; perhaps it’s the reason for this that critics have found most difficult to identify. Variously, they have latched onto some vague notion of poetic ‘conservatism’ to account for its lack of popularity and success—a sham idea, though probably more the result of misunderstanding and a lack of thoroughgoing thinking than anything else. The apparently outmoded rules of prosody—rhyme and metre, presumably—were undeniably put through their paces under Nabokov’s aegis, but any pretence to ‘conservatism’ is belied by the poems’ very content and tenor; viewing the poetry in Nabokov’s own terms as, effectively, a distillation of prose—his prose, which, as is evident, was ultimately at the forefront of literary modernism—ought surely to nullify any ideas of fetid ‘conservatism’. The reason, then, to this writer’s mind, is far more inherent, built into the very fabric of Nabokov’s creative vision.

Early on, the émigré critic Yuli Aikhenvald wrote of Nabokov’s poetry: ‘too often the poems are over-cluttered with words, in particular difficult and superfluous words’. To an extent this may be true, if one permits the possibility of having an over-rich vocabulary, and, indeed, many do words crop up in Nabokov’s poetry that don’t readily suggest themselves as the most poetic of terms (English or Russian, for that matter); a quick scan through a copy of Collected Poems gleefully throws up ‘proboscis’, ‘microscope’, ‘proofreaders’, ‘smaragd’. But why should these words be considered unpoetic? Likely because poetry’s roots find themselves in oral tradition; during recitation (be that aloud or internalised), words lacking in euphony break the poetic spell . . . Allow me to quote a short but rather telling excerpt from Nabokov’s ‘The Poem’, a twenty-one-line excursus on the process of versification:

. . . in the tangle of sounds, the leopards of words

the leaflike insects, the eye-spotted birds

fuse and form a silent, intense,

mimetic pattern of perfect sense.

Although devoid of any so-called ‘half-dollar words’, still there is a curious, rather unassuming butterfly interloping in this menagerie, which may have evaded the eye of even the most careful of readers: ‘silent’. Nabokov’s ‘leopards of words’ create a silent poesy. And in a way, this should come as little surprise to us: Nabokov was certainly no lover of music. Indeed, in Speak, Memory, he wrote: ‘Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds’, and while listing in an interview the things he detested, he cited, among ‘concise dictionaries’ and ‘humility’, ‘background music, canned music, piped-in music, portable music, next-room music, inflicted music . . .’ This isn’t, of course, to say that Nabokov’s verse is devoid of musicality (it isn’t), but it does suggest that our focus may best be laid elsewhere.

Resting at the summit, if not the peak, of literary endeavour, poetry tends to be appraised in terms of its sensuality, the sense we immediately and instinctively reserve for this being the ear. But what if we set aside this faculty in our evaluation of Nabokov’s poetry? There’s a whole universe of visual and cerebral sensuality, identical to that which we find in his prose. His words, while not necessarily always arousing our ear, certainly never fail to arouse the eye of our mind. Perhaps this is why criticism to date has struggled in its appraisal: we cannot approach Nabokov’s poetic work through the usual means. Counter-intuitive as it may be, why not reconsider Nabokov’s verse on his own terms, as prose in its purest form. Perhaps it’s time for a second reading.

How thus are we to regard Nabokov’s poetry? Stylistically brilliant? Yes. Linguistically rich and profound in content? Undoubtedly. Sweet on the ear? Not always. But perhaps that needn’t be our main concern. The eye and the mind are the heart of Nabokov’s poetry; if only we were given to see the aquarelle of words that he saw himself . . .

The only English edition of Nabokov’s poetry currently in print is Collected Poems, published by Penguin. It contains ninety poems with an introduction and critical notes.

Bryan Karetnyk is an editor and translator. He read Russian and Japanese at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 2008, and now lives and works in London. His recent translation of Gaito Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf is published by Pushkin Press.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 8th, 2013.