Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944) and the Paris Note


The Russian émigré poet Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944), who died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, wrote what is, to my mind, the quintessential poem of the so-called “Paris Note.” Not quite a movement, the Paris Note was the dominant mode of Russian émigré poetry from the 1930s to the 1950s. The poet most closely associated with the mode is Georgy Adamovich (1892-1972), an erstwhile Acmeist, who set out his aesthetic ideals in the journal Chisla (Numbers) in 1930:

A poem should, like an aeroplane, drift, drift, drift along the ground and then, all of a sudden, take flight… if not very high in the sky, then with all the weight of its cargo. Everything should be plain and clear, and only through the cracks of meaning should one sense a piercing transcendental breeze. Each word should mean what it means, but taken together, the sense should double slightly. A poem should sink in like a needle, leaving no sign of a wound. There should be nothing to add, nowhere to go — there should be an ‘Ah,’ a ‘Why did you leave me?’ — it is as if one were drinking a bitter, black, icy drink, the ‘final key’ from which one can no longer tear oneself away. The world’s melancholy is entrusted to poetry. *

The poets of the Paris Note mined the experience of exile for insight into the human condition. Their work was, at its heart, existentialist, and like the prose of Sartre and Camus, it was stripped of all stylistic excess. Fragmentary and elliptic, their poems read like entries in a diary. The forms are unobtrusive, the music iambic, the words simple and often repeated. In 1933, Steiger distilled both the themes and the style of the Paris Note into an instantly memorable five lines:

We put our trust in books, music, and verse;
we put our trust in all the dreams we dream;
we put our trust in words… (Even in words
whose only role in life is to console us —
words spoken from the window of a train…)

Marseille, 1933

Мы верим книгам, музыке, стихам,
Мы верим снам, которые нам снятся,
Мы верим слову… (Даже тем словам,
Что говорятся в утешенье нам,
Что из окна вагона говорятся…)

Марсель, 1933

* In Russian, Adamovich’s statement reads:

Какие должны быть стихи? Чтобы, как аэроплан, тянулись, тянулись по земле и вдруг взлетали… если и не высоко, то со всей тяжестью груза. Чтобы всё было понятно, и только в щели смысла врывался пронизывающий трансцендентальный ветерок. Чтобы каждое слово значило то, что значит, а всё вместе слегка двоилось. Чтобы входило, как игла, и не видно было раны. Чтобы нечего было добавить, некуда было уйти, чтобы «ах!», чтобы «зачем ты меня оставил?», и вообще, чтобы человек как будто пил горький, чёрный, ледяной напиток, «последний ключ», от которого он уже не оторвётся. Грусть мира поручена стихам.


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