Igor Severyanin, Early and Late

Igor Severyanin.jpg

Few names in the annals of Russian poetry are as apt to trigger a smile as that of Igor Severyanin (the pseudonym of Igor Vasilyevich Lotarev, 1887-1941). Severyanin was the marvelously mannered founder of Ego-Futurism, one of the many futurisms that competed for the public’s attention in the early 1910s. Briefly, Severyanin’s movement was victorious; his rhythmic paeans (he called them poezas) to bohemian-aristocratic decadence intoxicated readers. These days, the smiles his name triggers are sometimes those of nostalgic delight but, more frequently, those of derision. D. S. Mirsky, the great historian of Russian literature, explains — and expresses — this derisive attitude memorably:

The moment came when vulgarity claimed a place on Parnassus and issued its declaration of rights in the verse of Igor Severyanin… His poetry is an idealization of the aspirations of the average townsman, who dreams of cars, champagne, elegant restaurants, smart women, and fine perfumes. His originality was that he had the boldness to present all this in its naked naïveté and to give the philosophy of a hairdresser’s assistant the gait of an almost Nietzschean individualism.

Yet even Mirsky admits that Severyanin “had a genuine gift of song and a considerable rhythmical inventiveness.” And in his indispensable book on Russian futurism, Vladimir Markov, who is generally dismissive of Severyanin, concedes that the poet “can make a line of Russian verse burst with barbarisms and still be poetically convincing.” These barbarous lines — with their awkward neologisms, misused foreign words, and impossible images — are undeniably memorable. Around New Year’s Eve, I always think of Severyanin’s somewhat silly (and likely tongue-in-cheek) “Overture” form 1915, better known as “Pineapples in Champagne.” Allegedly, the poeza was inspired by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who dipped a piece of pineapple in champagne while in Severyanin’s presence and then insisted that Severyanin do the same.

Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Surprisingly tasty, sparkling, and keen!
I’m in something Norwegian! Something from Spain!
Madly inspired! I take up my pen!

The rattling of airplanes! The roaring of cars!
Wind-whistling trains! Wing-soaring yachts!
This one gets kisses! That one gets scars!
Champagne and pineapples — pulse of the night!

Among skittish maidens and stylish grandes dames
I’ll turn tragic life into fantasy-farce…
Pineapples, pineapples — dipped in champagne!
Nagasaki to Moscow! New York to Mars!

What poem, however silly, better captures the spirit of the belle époque — which, for Russia, arrived so late and ended so catastrophically? It’s not surprising that Severyanin’s popularity was also short-lived. There was no room for this brand of futurism after 1917. As Mayakovsky, who had first tasted pineapples in champagne, warned in his infamous couplet: “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse / Your end is near, you bourgeois louse.”

Severyanin emigrated in 1918 and settled in Estonia, where he continued to write, more or less forgotten by readers, until his death of a heart attack in 1941. The poems of his final years are very different from those that had won him such fervent adoration in the 1910s. Here is a gentle lyric from 1937, dedicated to the Estonian poet Alexis Rannit (born Alexey Konstantinovich Dolgoshev, 1914-1985).

Some feelings are so intimate that one —
one even fears them in a line of verse:
when such things happen, a ripe lyric can
rot as a swollen seed that can’t quite burst…

Some feelings are so delicate and so
piercingly subtle that, should you try
to put them in a song… You mustn’t, no:
whoever hears that song may simply die…

And this is how a poem that begins
within the heart remains there, locked forever.
This punishment — this penance for our sins —
may be among the cruelest we can suffer.


Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Удивительно вкусно, искристо́ и остро́!
Весь я в чём-то норвежском! Весь я в чём-то испанском!
Вдохновляюсь порывно! И берусь за перо!

Стрёкот аэропланов! Бе́ги автомобилей!
Ветропро́свист экспрессов! Крылолёт буеров!
Кто-то здесь зацелован! Там кого-то побили!
Ананасы в шампанском — это пульс вечеров!

В группе девушек нервных, в остром обществе дамском
Я трагедию жизни претворю в грёзофарс…
Ананасы в шампанском! Ананасы в шампанском!
Из Москвы — в Нагасаки! Из Нью-Йорка — на Марс!


Есть чувства

Алексису Ранниту

Есть чувства столь интимные, что их,
боишься их и в строках стихотворных:
так, дать ростков не смея, зрелый стих
гниет в набухших до отказа зернах…

Есть чувства столь тончайшие и столь
проникновенно-сложные, что, если
их в песнь вложить, они не столько боль,
сколь смерть вливают в слушателя песни!..

И вот — в душе очерченным стихам
без письменных остаться начертаний.
И эта кара, — кара по грехам, —
одно из самых жутких наказаний…

17 ноября 1937


6 thoughts on “Igor Severyanin, Early and Late

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