Consider the Lilies: John Cournos, Anna Akhmatova, and H.D.

On my visit to Northampton I had coffee with my friend Marilyn Smith, scholar extraordinaire, who has spent years researching the career of John Cournos (né Ivan Korshun, 1881-1966). The abstract of Marilyn’s excellent essay “The London Making of a Modernist: John Cournos in Babel” summarizes the scope of the man’s achievement as a critic, journalist, editor, novelist, poet, and playwright. But as Marilyn rightly notes, Cournos “is remembered today, most frequently, as a translator from the Russian.” Unfair though this may be, his translations are indeed very artful; they are certainly worthy of closer — and more generous — attention than they have received. (I discuss one of his translations, briefly, in my essay “The Land of Columbus: Echoes of LA’s Russian Past.”) Of course, it stands to reason that I have special affection for him: we were both born to Jewish parents in Ukraine, and both emigrated to the United States at roughly the same age.

John Cournos.jpg

Today I’d like to present one of Cournos’s original poems, which was born of his work as a translator. Cournos visited Revolutionary Petrograd in 1917 and 1918, where he met with a number of poets and writers, including Anna Akhmatova. He presented Akhmatova with a poem, titled “To A.A.,” which was long thought to be lost. In fact, the typescript is safely stored in Akhmatova’s archive, and was reproduced in an article by Roman Timenchik in 1994. In the 1910s, Cournos was quite close to the Imagists, especially to his fellow Philadelphian H.D., and his poem to Akhmatova reads like a subtle synthesis of the Russian and American poets’ styles:
Akhmatova - 1917.jpg
To A.A.
O lily,
Frail white flower,
A joy to behold!
The hurricane blows,
Felling huge trees,
The beech and the oak,
And the tall sycamore.
O lily sweet,
Dear and frail,
Will you still stand
When the winds cease to blow?
Will you still hold high
Your fair proud head?
Will you look with pity
On the beech and the oak
And the tall sycamore
That lie stretched on the ground
When the winds cease to blow?
Compare this to H.D.’s “Sea Lily.” In subsequent years, a number of scholars would remark on Akhmatova’s similarity to H.D., and on the general affinity between the Anglo-American Imagists and the Russian Acmeists. Here, a poet-translator who knew both H.D. and Akhmatova brings them together in his own lyric. And think of how prescient the poem is: Akhmatova, the delicate lyricist, would outlast so many of her seemingly hardier contemporaries. What are Requiem and Poem Without a Hero but the proud, pained songs of the lily, looking down on the felled beech, oak, and tall sycamore?

8 thoughts on “Consider the Lilies: John Cournos, Anna Akhmatova, and H.D.

    1. So glad you enjoyed this, LH! No, he wasn’t kurnosyi (snub-nosed). In fact, his nose was more like that of a korshun (kite). But I suspect his actual surname may have been closer to Korsun than Korshun. You rearrange a few letters/sounds, and before you know it, your nose turns up.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks for championing yet another wonderful Russian name to the fore. Perhaps his nose is snubbed because he has been wrongfully overlooked as a translator. Wonderful.


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