Poets as players 2

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May 24, 2017 by AK

More from Khodasevich’s 1924 memoir on Bryusov quoted in the previous post. Card players inadvertently reveal their deeper selves to discerning eyes:

I have played cards a lot in my day; I have seen many players, both occasional and professional. I believe that at the card table, one can learn a great deal about people – at any rate, no less than through handwriting. This is not at all a matter of money. The very manner of playing, even of dealing, of taking cards from the table, the whole style of playing – from this, an experienced observer can discern a great amount about his partner. I should only point out that the notions of the “good partner” and “good person” are not completely one and the same: on the contrary, they contradict each other in some respects, and certain traits of a good person are intolerable at cards. On the hand, watching a most excellent partner, one sometimes thinks that it’s worth keeping away from him in real life.

If one is looking for a reason to be skeptical of these observations, the reference to handwriting as a source of reliable information about the writer’s character should provide one. One can probably tell whether the person is left-handed, or is missing a finger, or has studied calligraphy – but it takes a charlatan to pass judgement on the author’s emotional instability or capacity for a crime of passion.

Bryusov gets rebuked for not taking enough risk in poem-making, for interpreting the “right words in the right order” maxim too literally:

In poetry, he was fond of the same “permutations and combinations.” With a remarkable perseverance and industry he worked for years on a book that was not – and probably could not be – finished: he wanted to produce a number of literary imitations, stylizations containing samples of “poetry of all times and all peoples”! The book was to supposed to include several thousand poems. Bryusov was willing to suffocate himself on the altar of his beloved Literature – for the sake of “exhausting the possibilities,” out of reference for the permutations and combinations.

Having written – for “All the Songs,” a book based on the same principle – a poem cycle on various means of suicide, he diligently inquired if his acquiantances were aware of methods “neglected” in his catalogue.

Following the same system of “exhausting possibilities,” he wrote a terrible book: “Essays” [or “Experiments”] – a collection of soulless examples of every meter and strophe. Not noticing his rhythmic pauperism, he took pride in an exterior, metric richness.

Formal sophistication is typical of Silver-Age Russian poetry. Bryusov was also an accomplished translator so his interest in “poetry of all times and all people” was understandable. Khodasevich’s attack on Bryusov as a risk-averse versifier is an indirect expression of his own view of chance and luck in poetry.

In Dactyls, an unpublished 1928 poem, Khodasevich – indistinguishable from the narrator – bluntly admits to staking his soul and fate on “a word” and “(a) sound,” “like a player on an unfaithful card.” However, most of his mature poems seem rather well thought out, sometimes even schematic. As the critic Georgy Adamovich remarked – unfairly – Khodasevich is “the favorite poet of those who don’t love poetry.” I think the risk Khodasevich wrote about is the chance that, no matter how well conceived, thought through and executed, a poem could still fail. It could be irreproachable yet dead. Khodasevich must have opposed the notion of risk-free creativity.


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